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Is Tyus Jones a major upgrade at guard?

Let’s compare the Wizards point guard against his peers in the NBA.

2023-24 Washington Wizards Media Day
New Washington Wizards guard Tyus Jones might be a major upgrade from Monte Morris.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Judging by the conversation on social media and my inbox, a swath of Washington Wizards fans believe Tyus Jones is a significant upgrade from Monte Morris at PG. One Twxtter (typo is intentional) user asserted that Jones is “vastly better than Morris.” Leaving aside the statistical doppelgänger article I wrote while killing time in July, is there a case to be made that Morris is an upgrade?

Last season (and throughout their careers), Morris shot better from everywhere (twos, threes, and free throws). Jones tends to take more threes (last season it was 8.0 per 100 team possessions to Morris’ 5.9), but could hardly be described as “high volume.” Neither guy generates free throws.

Both guys have been low usage (Jones had a career high 17.7% usage rate last season; Morris’ high-water mark was 17.5%) and highly efficient. Basically, they make shots and produce assists while avoiding turnovers.

Perusing the box score — Morris gets more rebounds and blocks (though neither player is on the floor for their rebounding or shot blocking), and Jones produces more steals. Neither fouls much.

Jones has likely held a slender edge in playmaking. Last season, Jones averaged 10.2 per 100 possessions to Morris’ 9.4. Again, neither guy commits turnovers, so their assist-to-turnover ratios are excellent.

Last season, Jones had an assist-to-bad-pass-turnover ratio of 7.3. For Morris: 7.7. For comparison, so-called Point God Chris Paul notched a 6.5 last season.

Ben Taylor, basketball analyst, author of Thinking Basketball and host of an excellent podcast of the same name, invented a Box Creation metric based on extensive hand tracking of NBA games. Taylor’s idea is to separate system assists (where a player stands in one spot while teammates run an action and then passes to the open guy who hits a shot) from playmaking (which might involve driving, drawing defenders, or in some other way distorting the defense and then passing to a teammate who makes a shot).

Box Creation is a good stat, but alas it sheds little additional light. Jones scored a 6.2 last season (scale is similar to assists) while Morris got a 5.1. In other words, while both guys were steady ball handlers and decent playmakers, neither ranked among the game’s elite. Jones was just outside the top 50 in box creation. Morris was about 10 spots below him.

For comparison, here’s the top 10:

  1. Nikola Jokic, DEN — 15.3
  2. Luka Doncic, DAL — 15.1
  3. Tyrese Haliburton, IND — 14.8
  4. Trae Young, ATL — 14.6
  5. James Harden, PHI — 14.1
  6. Damian Lillard, POR — 13.7
  7. Ja Morant, MEM — 13.2
  8. Stephen Curry, GSW — 12.0
  9. Darius Garland, CLE — 11.7
  10. LaMelo Ball, CHO — 11.5

Next guys on the list include Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, Jalen Brunson, Jrue Holiday, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul. Washington’s leader in box creation last season was Bradley Beal at 9.1.

The similarities don’t stop with the box score. Last season, NBA tracking data said both Morris and Jones average 5.3 drives per game. Jones did it in about three fewer minutes per game, so it works out that he drove 10.5 times per 48 minutes vs. 9.3 per 48 for Morris.

Jones got a bit more work as a pick and roll ball handler — four possessions per game to 3.5 for Morris. Jones was around 50th percentile in pnr efficiency. Morris ranked in the 83rd percentile, according to NBA tracking data.

The on/off numbers are fairly comparable, though Morris tends to have better differentials on offense while Jones was a bit better on defense.

Looking at the larger samples of both players’ work, the data indicates suggest it’s dubious that Jones will be a major upgrade from Morris. Except...

...there are those starter splits from last season. While Jones has spent most of his career as a backup, he started 22 games for the Memphis Grizzlies while star teammate Ja Morant dealt with injuries and personal issues. And while it’s only 731 minutes, those minutes were impressive.

As a starter last season, Jones had an efg of 57.8% (compared to 52.3% for the full season). He shot 55.1% on twos (excellent) and 41.5% on 6.9 three-point attempts per 100 team possessions. His pace-adjusted assists and turnovers increased, though his assist-to-turnover ratio remained better than 5-to-1.

His usage climbed to 20.6% and his offensive efficiency improved to 127 points produced per 100 individual possessions. His box creation leapt to 9.1.

Looking only at his minutes as a starter last season, Jones’ PPA was 194 — a quantum leap from his 126 for the full season (in PPA, average is 100 and higher is better). That’s All-NBA level production if he could do it over a full season.

That’s the question, of course. Can he do it — or something like it — over a full season? The answer: it’s possible. Jalen Brunson, another small guard, climbed from “pretty good backup” to “very good starter” the past couple seasons. Brunson was a little younger when he started that climb, but while most players have made their leap by age 26-27 (Jones is 27), the NBA has had its share of relative late bloomers.

For example, Chauncey Billups went from a disastrous first three seasons to starting to get it in his fourth season and continuing to improve from their. He made his jump from scrub to starter at age 25 and nudged at “elite” status beginning around age 26. His best seasons were at ages 29 and 31, in my estimation.

Is Jones a significant upgrade from Morris? Is he “vastly better”? The full body of work says probably not, and that’s likely the right answer. But that small sample of Jones as a starter at least holds out some hope. It’s possible.