One of the most universally accepted NBA truisms is that improvement is not necessarily linear. Players all develop at different paces, sometimes gradually and sometimes in fits and starts. But despite knowing that to be true, it’s still disappointing when a young player does not show the kind of improvement that we would reasonably expect him to show.
That’s exactly what happened with Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro last season. The bifurcated nature of Herro’s rookie campaign1 made it seem as though he had made a dramatic leap as a player during the league’s time away from the floor; so when he came back a few months after the NBA’s bubble and put together an up-and-down sophomore campaign, it seemed like a massive letdown.
|Year 1, pre-bubble||27.2||.414||.391||.835||4.0||1.9||1.5||12.9|
|Year 1, bubble||31.4||.452||.376||.907||5.0||3.7||2.0||16.3|
If you could concoct a Sophomore Slump in a lab, it would probably look an awful lot like that. And by his shooting numbers and several other measurements, that’s indeed what Herro had.
Using our historical RAPTOR database of both regular-season and playoff data, we calculated the minutes-weighted average rate of improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 by RAPTOR rating for all players who have debuted since the 1999-2000 season, through the 2020-21 season. We deemed any player who showed less than half the expected improvement2 from their first to second NBA seasons to have experienced a Sophomore Slump. Among our sample of 1,316 sophomore seasons, 623 qualified. By limiting the sample to those with at least 1,000 minutes played during both their rookie and sophomore seasons, that list was trimmed to 149 players. (That’s about 7.1 Sophomore Slumpers per season.) Unsurprisingly, Herro — with an increase from -1.50 RAPTOR to just -1.03 — was one of them.
Of course, a Sophomore Slump doesn’t necessarily tell us what we should expect from a player going forward. We’re seeing that in action this year, as Herro is off to a sparkling start in his third NBA season. In 33.8 minutes per game, Herro is averaging 21.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists a night, with 45-39-88 shooting splits.3 One might even say he’s in the midst of a Junior Jump. And by the same criteria, he is.
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We again calculated the minutes-weighted average rate of improvement by total RAPTOR for all players since 2000, but this time from Year 2 to Year 3. Any player who showed at least twice the expected improvement4 from their second to third NBA seasons was deemed to have experienced a Junior Jump. Among our sample of 1,005 junior seasons, 380 qualified. By limiting the sample to those with at least 1,000 minutes played during their sophomore and junior seasons, the list was trimmed to 135. (That’s about 6.8 Junior Jumpers per season.) And again, unsurprisingly, Herro is on track to join them: His total RAPTOR has jumped 3.0 points so far this season.
If his strong Year 3 play continues, Herro will have the somewhat unique distinction of experiencing both a Sophomore Slump and a Junior Jump. Only 52 first-year players in our database went on to play at least 1,000 minutes in each of their first three seasons and record both a Slump and a Jump. (That’s about 2.6 Slumper/Jumpers per year.) It’s a pretty interesting list — especially in more recent seasons.
|Player▲▼||Years▲▼||1st to 2nd▲▼||2nd to 3rd▲▼|
|Larry Nance Jr.||2016-18||-0.78||+3.37|
At the moment, Herro’s Junior Jump season is looking like not just the best season of his young career, but one of the best bench scorer seasons in league history.5 If his 21.7 points-per-game average and starting rate hold through the rest of the year, he could be just the seventh player in modern NBA history6 to average 20-plus points a night off the pine.7 It would also be the second-highest bench scoring average of all time, behind only Lou Williams’s 22.6 per game during the 2017-18 season.
And it’s not just empty-calorie, volume-based scoring that he’s doing. Yes, Herro is carrying a sky-high usage rate of 28.4 percent, a figure that would rank among the top 25 usage-rate seasons among modern-era bench players. But he’s also carrying a 55.9 true shooting percentage. This would mark just the 11th time since the merger that a bench player had a usage rate above 28 and a true-shooting mark above 55 percent in the same season.
What’s surprising is that Herro’s improved efficiency isn’t even a result of the usual forces. Herro has the lowest 3-point attempt rate and free-throw rate of his career, and yet he has not fallen victim to the typical usage-efficiency trade-off. That’s largely due to him shooting 66.7 percent within 3 feet of the basket and a scorching 56.3 percent on midrangers between 10 and 16 feet away. He’s puncturing the defense more often with the drive, and those drives have been more fruitful than ever before.
He showed off his full arsenal of finishing and playmaking skill during the team’s recent West Coast trip.
Key here has been Herro’s ability and willingness to modulate his speed. He doesn’t have to be going full-bore toward the rim all the time. He’s been slowing down, stopping and starting and keeping defenders off balance as they attempt to corral him in and around the paint. That allows him to create additional space to finish over, around or through defenders near the basket, or to draw helpers an additional step in his direction before firing a pass to an open teammate.
The change-of-pace improvement shows up in the tracking data, courtesy of Second Spectrum. Herro’s average speed on offense is down to a career-low 4.79 miles per hour, his max speed down from 27.4 feet per second last year to 25.63 this year and his time spent moving fast (as opposed to slow or at medium speed) to a career-low 8.27 percent share. He can still hit the jets when he wants and/or needs to, but playing this way allows him to stay more under control and leads to better outcomes.
Herro is being tasked with creating more of his own offense than ever before (his pick and rolls and isolations run per 100 possessions are each at career-high marks, by fairly significant margins), but he is still often at his best as a second-side threat. Working off the ball allows him to leverage both his deadeye outside shooting and his quick decision-making, and to take advantage of the attention drawn by teammates like Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Bam Adebayo. Attacking an on-the-move defender who has to change directions multiple times in quick succession gives Herro a head start, which he can then use to create a further advantage for himself or a teammate.
The Heat have scored a ridiculous 1.526 points per trip on possessions where Herro has faced a closeout from an opposing defender, per Second Spectrum. That’s up from 1.146 last year and 1.314 during his rookie season, the latter of which was already a strong figure.8 His mark this year is surely unsustainable, but it’s indicative of how well he’s doing in the role for which he is likely most suited.
As Miami moves forward, it will need Herro to keep up the pace. The Heat are not especially deep, and they count on their top players to make up for their relative lack of depth. Herro’s disappointing second season made it seem as though he wouldn’t be able to help as much as expected in that regard, but the beginning of his third campaign has provided Heat fans much more reason for optimism.
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