I learned who he was in a pre-season game back in October. Then, with seven seconds remaining against the Los Angeles Clippers in Mexico City, Neal made a name for himself as he knocked down the game winning three pointer.
Over the course of the season I coined the nickname “Sniper” for Neal due to his clutch three point shooting and it was that clutch shooting, smart play, and steady contribution to the Spurs allowed Neal to be named a member of the 2011 NBA All-Rookie First Team.
Neal was the fifth leading scorer for the Spurs during the playoffs too. The Memphis Grizzlies also got to know who Neal was in game five of their first round series against the Spurs.
If Neal had this much success in his rookie season, who is to say he can’t improve in his second year with the Spurs?
Let’s first go back and look at Neal’s season stats from this past season to begin.
Regular Season: 80 GP, 21 mpg, 9.8ppg, 2.5rbd, 1.2 ast, 0.34 stl, 1.9 FPG, 45% FG, 42% 3PT, 81% FT, 0.3 STL, +13.2 PER.
During the regular season, Neal went from scoring 8.8 points per game before the All-Star break to 12 points per game post All-Star break. In the regular season, the team’s offense increased to 109.96 points per 100 possessions with Neal on the floor. His usage rating was 23.1%. Neal’s season plus/minus ended at +1.1.
Post Season: 6 GP, 18.5 mpg, 7.7 ppg, 3rbd, 0.8 ast, 0.17 stl, 37% FG, 26% 3PT, 100% FT, 0.2 STL, 1.8 FPG.
As the entire team’s offense declined due to Memphis’ defense, the team decreased to scoring 104.24 points per 100 possessions with Neal on the floor in the playoffs. Neal’s usage rating minimally increased to 23.4%. Neal’s plus/minus went in the opposite direction as he finished at -3.7.
The main area where Neal will need to improve on is at the defensive end.
During the regular season, opposing teams’ scoring increased to 106.14 points per 100 possessions with Neal on the floor. In the playoffs, opposing teams’ scoring rose to a staggering 115.55 points per 100 possessions with Neal on the floor.
Why is Neal a liability on the defensive end? The answer is because of his physical limitations and because of non-regimental practice. Neal is listed as a generous 6’4″ guard. He doesn’t have a long wingspan, or the physical build that can be used out on the perimeter in the NBA. This is evidenced by the amount of steals that he contributed.
Neal only helped with 11% of the teams steals during the regular season and 8% during the playoffs. When Neal was put into the game during the Memphis series, there were several possessions where the Grizzlies would look to Shane Battier to try and attack Neal on the offensive end. Over the summer, Neal won’t get any longer, so he’ll have to be smarter on the defensive end. If he knows bigger guards and forwards are going to use their size against him, he needs to prevent them from posting him in their comfort zones before they can use their physical advantages against him.
Neal has always been an offensive weapon. In college, he posted big numbers and in his career over seas, he was known as a dead-eye shooter. In international play, teams are built more on the offensive end because the majority of their players are built as scoring-shooting-passing-run-and-gun players. Defense isn’t necessarily a strong focus for the international player, so how do we know what Neal’s ceiling is on the defensive end after just one season? There’s still a chance he can work during the off season and learn to improve his defensive game as he now understands that it is a requirement for earning playing time with head coach Gregg Popovich.
The most unknown part of Neal’s game is how he could handle being a point guard. After the team traded guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers, Neal, Manu Ginobili, and rookie Cory Joseph are now the most reliable backup point guards to Tony Parker. If Joseph struggles as a rookie, which could be expected, the team may ask Neal to step in and run the back-up point guard position to prevent wear-and-tear on Ginobili. During this past season, the most assists Neal had in a game were four.
With George Hill now gone, Neal’s role becomes larger as he’s now the third go-to-guard behind Parker and Ginobili. He’ll continue to be relied upon to knock down his shots from the perimeter, but more production from Neal on the offensive, passing specifically, and defensive end will be two of the biggest improvement’s he can make. Not to mention steering clear of getting posterized.
The “Sniper” will continue to shoot the shots but the question is will he be able to defend against the enemy? The 11-12’ season will show what strides he will make.