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Film Session: Kevin Martin

October 23, 2012 11:00 am EDT

An inside look at Martin's red-hot start and the 'secret' skills that could help lift him to a career year

HOUSTON - The book on Kevin Martin has already been written.

Spot-up shooter. Slasher. Foul-drawer supreme.

Uber-efficient scorer. Below average defender.

Someone who can light up the scoreboard in a short amount of time, but after totaling nearly 9,000 career points has just a single, solitary playoff appearance on his resume.

But what if the book doesn’t tell the complete story? Or rather, what if the book is still in the process of being written, with several more chapters yet to be crafted?

Such is the curious case of Kevin Martin, a player who has, fairly or unfairly, been pigeonholed into one particular paradigm while perpetually fighting to affix himself to another. Sure, he can score, say the critics – but just how much does he do to help his team win?

On the one hand Martin has spent the better part of the past decade ranking among the top scorers at his position while putting together a five-year stretch that saw him average more than 20 points per game; a streak that came to an end a season ago when he suffered through an injury-plagued campaign. On the other, well, about that dearth of defense and postseason play …

But here’s the thing: With Kevin Martin, as with pretty much every other person on the planet, uncovering the truth is never quite that simple. Context matters. What’s more, he’s not a slave to his past. At 29-years-old, there’s no reason to suggest Martin is merely a finished product past the point of evolving and expanding his game. And from the moment Martin arrived in Houston this summer, two weeks before training camp began, there have been signs he’s intent on doing precisely that.

It’s no secret that the 2011-12 season was one of the toughest of Martin’s eight-year career. His shooting percentages and free throw attempts plummeted from where they were the season prior, and though he led the Rockets in scoring and remained a very effective offensive player, a shoulder injury coupled with an adjustment to a new coaching staff seemed to curtail his progression as a player.

But instead of allowing any sort of negativity to linger or carry over into the next campaign, Martin made a point to refocus during the offseason, wipe the slate clean and come back better than ever. To be sure, such summer storylines come straight off the cliché assembly line, but the results thus far speak volumes. Martin has been a man on fire this preseason, shooting 61 percent from the field while scoring at a ridiculous rate of nearly 31 points per 40 minutes (for context, last season’s scoring champ Kevin Durant scored at a 29.1 per 40 minutes clip). In short, he’s once again donning his Captain Efficiency getup, riddling opposing defenses with his usual assortment of and-1 isolations, transition threes, knifing cuts and spot-up jumpers that seem to barely rustle the twine while splashing through the net.

Yet perhaps even more telling than the gaudy numbers and impressive highlights is the effusive, nonstop acclamation Martin has received from the Rockets’ coaching staff this month. From day one of training camp, head coach Kevin McHale has heaped praise upon K-Mart for his attitude, leadership, defense and playmaking ability as it pertains to setting up not just himself but his teammates as well.

Hold up – Kevin Martin playing defense? And for that matter: Kevin Martin, he of the 2.1 assists per game average, making plays for his teammates? What in Pete Sampras is going on here?

Let’s tackle that defense first. McHale isn’t just blowing smoke, nor is he the only one who’s noticed Martin’s improved play on that end. David Thorpe, Executive Director of Pro Training Center, NBA analyst for ESPN.com and also the man who perhaps knows Martin’s game as well as anyone given that he’s served as Martin’s offseason trainer for a decade, says he’s heard the same sentiment echoed elsewhere around the league – and he thinks he knows why.

“I get text messages from scouts all the time saying they’ve never seen Kevin play defense like this before,” Thorpe says. “I just laugh and say to myself, ‘Well, he’s never had Omer Asik on his team before.’”

Ah yes, Omer Asik. Amazing what having an elite defensive big man patrolling the paint can do for the defensive reputations of his fellow teammates (see: Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic teams, Kevin Garnett’s Celtics and, yes, Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets clubs of the mid-90s). That is not to suggest Martin’s early efforts should be trivialized, but rather to understand one of the basic tenets of basketball: Possessing a dominant defensive big man simplifies everything on that end of the floor. Mistakes are masked or otherwise erased. Perimeter defenders can play with more confidence and added aggression knowing a world-class rim defender has their backs. These things matter.

Noteworthy, too, is the somewhat symbiotic relationship Martin and Asik share. In a way, they are the inverse of each other. Asik is the elite defender who merely needs to be passable on the offensive end thanks in part to the fact he shares the floor with a scorer like Martin. The same essentially holds true for K-Mart, just in reverse. Because of his exceptional scoring skills, Martin can be a big plus for Houston so long as he is simply an average defender – and Asik’s presence should go a long way in helping him accomplish that goal.

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Now back to that playmaking skill to which McHale was referring. Talk to most hardcore NBA fans who know the league inside and out and they’ll undoubtedly have no problem rattling off the ways in which Martin gets the majority of his points. He’s great in isolation situations thanks to his quick first step and innate ability to draw fouls, lethal as a spot-up shooter in transition and very strong making clean, hard cuts off the ball – characteristics that his new backcourt mate Jeremy Lin has quickly learned on the job.

“I know his spots and where he’s going to be,” says Lin. “In transition he loves the wing; he loves flowing to his left as he shoots that shot. I know how he cuts and even things like, when he cuts, I know which pass to give him whether it’s a bounce pass, a quick one or lob. He’s so versatile and he scores in so many different ways a lot of time all you have to do is just give him the ball.”

What most people, even the diehards who devour the game, might not know, however, is just how effective Martin has become as a playmaker via the game’s bread and butter play, the pick-and-roll. Last year K-Mart ranked in the 94th percentile when operating out of the pick-and-roll, averaging .988 points per possession according to Synergy Sports. And though all the standard sample size caveats apply, it’s at least worth noting that Martin currently ranks No. 1 in the league when operating out of the pick-and-roll, producing a ridiculously gaudy 1.385 points per possession so far this preseason.

These are some of the things he’s capable of doing …

… which ultimately opens up the floor for him to make plays like these for his teammates.

Like any scorer, Martin is going to command plenty of attention from opposing defenses loading up to stop him; something that will only increase should he continue to light up the scoreboard the way he has done early on. Teammates are going to be left open and it will be Martin’s responsibility to find them just as he did in the above video and just as he’s done this preseason; hence, the praise McHale has lavished upon Martin’s playmaking ability this month.

And those passes need not be flashy, either. Nor must they directly lead to a made basket. Martin is plenty heady enough to become a master of the hockey assist; in other words, the pass that leads to the pass prior to a score. Given his unselfish nature, understanding of the game, and career-high assist rate a season ago, doing so should be right in his wheelhouse.

“Kevin is a ball mover,” says Thorpe. “He’s not LeBron James, he’s not Manu Ginboli as a passer, but he’s not sticky with the ball either. If you give him a chance to be a playmaker with those high pick-and-rolls, he’s much better than you’d think.

“You don’t last in the league nine years without learning how to play basketball. Kevin is not just a shooter; he’s a scorer. And scorers know how to play. From Kobe Bryant on down, they might not be the gifted passers that Steve Nash and Chris Paul are … but they know how to make the right play, they know how to read defenses, and they know when to pass when the defense is loading up on them. Kevin has always been able to do that.”

Martin has wasted no time making that point this preseason which is one of the reasons Thorpe believes the best is yet to come from his protégé.

“He had a shooting workout regimen this summer that was the best he’s ever done. Watching him shoot the ball this preseason, I’ve never seen him more locked in consistently in terms of mechanics. He’s still very athletic; he’s super quick and he knows the game better than he ever has before. And that combination suggests he should have a career year and that’s exactly what he’s trying to shoot for.”

And in so doing, Kevin Martin may well prove there are still several chapters left to be written in his book after all.