Arron Afflalo was going to be traded. That much seemed inevitable, even before the 2013-2014 season began. He was the Magic’s biggest trade piece, and he was in the way of Victor Oladipo becoming the full-time shooting guard. The question was, what were the Magic going to get for him? Ideally, draft picks might come their way, or perhaps a nice young prospect.
Instead, the actual trade was something of a letdown upon learning the news for many Magic fans. A second-rounder, which was used on Devyn Marble, plus Denver Nuggets guard Evan Fournier seemed like a low return for a player who nearly netted an All-Star selection despite being on a bad team. Was a second round pick really the difference between the value of Evan Fournier and Arron Afflalo? Really, though, there was another component, and that was the flexibility Hennigan maintained by not taking on any onerous contracts. One reported option for the Magic would have netted them Gerald Henderson and a first rounder for Afflalo, but Henderson’s contract — and the playing time he’d take away from the young guys — obviously wasn’t worth it to Hennigan.
That flexibility, though, has yet to be totally utilized. Some of that space went to Channing Frye, and some of it to the other veterans used to fill out the end of the roster, but the Magic still have plenty of room. Until then, the only tangible return we should expect to see right away comes from Evan Fournier.
So what can Fournier do, exactly? What’s his ceiling? It’s hard to tell in some ways because he’s had limited playing time behind the other capable guards in Denver like Ty Lawson and Randy Foye. If we’re comparing him to Arron Afflalo, it’s probably worth noting that Afflalo played more minutes last season than Fournier has in each of his first two seasons put together, including a mere 11.3 MPG in only 38 games played his rookie year. On the Nuggets, he was unquestionably a backup guard.
That doesn’t mean he has no useful skills, however. Let’s start things off with the basic stat lines from last season.
Shooting: 42 FG%, 38 3-pt%, 76 FT%
Per game: 19.8 mins, 8.4 pts, 1.5 ast, 2.7 reb
Per 36 minutes: 15.3 pts, 2.7 ast, 4.8 reb
So far, nothing special. His per-minute stats compared to his rookie year are actually kind of disappointing, with lesser stats across the board, including shooting. Then again, there’s a lot of noise there with such a small sample size, and he had the benefit of playing for a much better Nuggets team in 2012-2013 where he probably had an easier role and more garbage time against other end-of-the-bench players.
He’s a decent long-range shooter, but not a great one, though to his credit he was the second-best three-point shooter on the team behind Foye (among players with at least 50 games played). He’s clearly not a distributor, though. According to player tracking data on NBA.com, Fournier made fewer passes per minute than his teammates Timofey Mozgov, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, and even J.J. Hickson. That’s not a totally fair way to characterize him—he generated more points through assists than those players on a per-minute basis—but his other guard teammates clearly outshone him in this area.
Breaking his stats down in a lot of other ways reveals more of the same thing: he’s just kind of average. He shoots basically the same on catch-and-shoot jumpers as he does overall, and he shoots about 48% on drives to the basket (on only about three drives per game). He’s not an outstanding rebounder among guards either, finishing 37th of 55 shooting guards in rebounds per game last season. The Nuggets improved defensively when he got on the court, but lost almost as much offensively, which is about what you’d expect from any bench player or unit. He was among the fastest players on the team, in terms of average speed, but that doesn’t really correlate with overall effectiveness when you look at other players with similar speeds throughout the league.
Let’s see if some visualization can’t help clarify his strengths. Here’s his shot chart from nyloncalculus.com:
Hey! Now we can see actual areas of weakness and strength. His strongest area is clearly the right wing three-pointer, where he shot a ridiculous 66% in that particular circle shown above. Unfortunately, as good as he was there, he was equally bad on the opposite wing, and he took more shots from that side. He was mediocre around the hoop compared to league average, but he was decent from the left corner, an area that the Magic and Afflalo thrived in last season.
What does it mean? Is Fournier a transcendent shooter from the right wing? Unfortunately, the small-sample-size monster rears its ugly head. Perhaps its pure coincidence, but his 2012-2013 shot chart was basically a mirror image. He shot great from the right wing, good from the left corner, and awful from the left wing. You’d put more confidence in his production from last season, given the higher volume, but it’s not enough to say for sure that this is how he’s going to always shoot. As Daryl Blackport writes on Nylon Calculus, you need about 700 three-point attempts before you can feel somewhat confident that level of shooting is an accurate measure of the player’s true ability.
I even tried to find his best individual performance and rewatch his shots and assists, to see if I could see what his ceiling looked like. On February 22nd, Fournier scored 27 points to go with five assists, four rebounds, a steal, and a block. He was an efficient 8-11 from the field, including 4-5 from beyond the arc. It was also his highest number of free throw attempts throughout the season, as he went 7-8 from the line. Unfortunately, he didn’t really do anything that spectacular. He had one nice three-pointer off the dribble, and one nifty layup in traffic. One step-back jumper swished in, but he had another clank badly off the front rim. The rest of his makes were in transition or spot-up threes. His assists were uninteresting and mostly incidental as well. He generated one nice bucket for Timofey Mozgov on a drive, but the rest were trivial passes to teammates who happened to make their shots.
That’s not to say these skills are meaningless. Making an easy pass is better than not making it at all, and spotting up in the right place or running out in transition are very important qualities for a good offensive basketball team. It’s just that even in his best effort, he didn’t really exhibit anything that makes him more than a quality backup guard. Oh, by the way, the Sacramento Kings won that game handily.
In summary, after reviewing his stats and some of his plays, I’m fairly sure that Evan Fournier isn’t going to come close to matching the production the Magic lost when Afflalo and Jameer Nelson moved on to other teams. Going into this review, I actually thought Fournier might be the starter alongside Oladipo, after all, the Magic did go out and get him in exchange for Afflalo. However, I’m now convinced that he’s probably the first backup shooting guard off the bench, unless Ben Gordon outplays him in camp. The Magic would probably be better served letting Elfrid Payton and Oladipo start together so they can begin to build some synergy.
Then again, maybe I’m wrong. If Fournier surprised everybody with his potential, he wouldn’t be the first young backup to make a splash on this team. Rob Hennigan has a knack for unearthing forgotten gems from other teams, even teams that are in rebuilds themselves. Maybe Fournier will be a much better shooter in his third season. Maybe he’ll show off some finishing ability around the rim, making use of a euro step you can see developing in him. Maybe, in the end, we’ll have to tip our hats to the Magic’s front office for yet another clever trade.