Denton: Afflalo Has Earned All-Star Consideration

By John Denton
Jan. 23, 2014

ORLANDO – In the history of the NBA, only one player – Derek Harper – has increased his scoring average eight straight years to start a career. Considering the insatiable drive and career trajectory of Orlando Magic guard Arron Afflalo, Harper could have company in the near future.

Considered by many to be a self-made player who has greatly exceeded the low expectations put on him early in his career, Afflalo is in the midst now of improving his scoring average a seventh straight year. It just so happens that it is occurring during what has been the best season of Afflalo’s basketball life.

Striving for improvement, really, is what Afflalo is all about – from game to game, week to week and season to season. It should come as no surprise to the strides that Afflalo has made considering that he also boosted his scoring average all three seasons while in college at UCLA.

Even after some recent struggles, Afflalo is averaging a team-best 20.2 points a game – an impressive feat for a player who surprisingly plummeted on draft night in 2007 and only got on the floor early in his career because of his gritty defense. Back in those days, Afflalo was mostly bossed around by the veteran-laden Detroit Pistons and he later had to prove himself to head coach George Karl in Denver on a nightly basis.

Now, after years of hard work, thousands of hours of film study and incorporating parts of Kobe Bryant’s game into his own, Afflalo has morphed into a dominant offensive force in Orlando. The 6-foot-5 guard, who once averaged just 3.7 points as an overlooked rookie, pumped in a career-best 43 points in December and has 20 20-point games and four 30-point performances to his credit. In his sights next? Harper’s little-known record.

``Oh, I’ll go for number eight, too,’’ Afflalo said with a big, bright smile. ``That’s what fuels me – growth and being consistent. Bad nights hurt, but you want to look at the years that you put into the game and be proud that you continue to get better every night and every year.’’

Afflalo’s improvement has been so impressive this season that he is very much in the conversation to be named to the NBA All-Star Game for the first time in his career. The fact that Afflalo is even in the All-Star conversation speaks volumes about his steady production considering that the Magic have an unsightly 11-32 record.

But everywhere Orlando has gone this season, NBA coaches have gushed about the way that Afflalo has carved up foes with his ability to score efficiently. To wit:

``Afflalo’s had a great year and he’s a guy who just gets better and better,’’ said Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau, a longtime admirer of the Magic guard. ``You could certainly make a case for him (to make the All-Star Game). The way he scores the ball so many different ways. And the fact that he plays both sides of the ball – he’s a terrific defender as well. But each year he’s gotten better and better.’’

``Arron Afflalo is playing at an all-star level,’’ Golden State coach Mark Jackson said as Afflalo was in his best stretch of games of his career in late December.

``He presents challenges for teams certainly with the way that he’s playing. You don’t stop him with one guy. We’ll have to pay attention to him like he’s a No. 1 guy, which is what he’s playing like.’’

``We’ve done everything that we can to slow Afflalo down and we haven’t had much success,’’ sighed Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer. ``He’s been one of the best two-guards in the East and he’s deserving of being in that all-star discussion. His numbers alone speak for themselves and he’s had a heck of a year.’’

Afflalo prides himself on being a player who cares more about wins than individual accolades, but he admitted late Wednesday night that it’s nice to be recognized throughout the NBA for the hard work that he’s put in. If he is picked as an All-Star reserve, he said it will be validation for the time he’s spent trying to better himself at his craft.

``I would definitely appreciate it. I’ve tried to not glorify it so much because I’m about the highest of heights of this game, which is playing in the Finals for a championship. That’s come to me through maturity,’’ said Afflalo, 28. ``When you’ve never experienced the All-Star feeling and you never had the All-Star tag, in the back of your mind that’s something that you still want. So from that angle, I want to grow my game to that All-Star level while realizing it’s still a team sport about winning.’’

`Trying to do the right thing every single night’

Oklahoma City superstar Kevin Durant has proven himself to be the best scorer on the planet with nights of 54, 48, 46, 46 and 42 points this season. And LeBron James is playing with his usual off-the-charts efficiency what with him averaging 26.2 points while shooting 58 percent from the floor.

Still, Afflalo just might have had the best individual streak of any NBA player – Durant and James, included – earlier this season. From Dec. 16-29, Afflalo had five straight games of scoring at least 20 points while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor and the 3-point line. During that stretch, he averaged 23.8 points, shot 60.9 percent from the floor and 76.5 percent from 3-point range.

To put that statistic into perspective only NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird (1986) and Detlef Schrempf (1995) have had longer streaks of 20-plus points and 50 percent from the field and the 3-point line, and both did it six times.

Maybe the most remarkable factor about Afflalo raising his scoring average for seven straight years is that he’s done so while being so efficient. He doesn’t have to force shots or even dominate the ball to be the Magic’s go-to player, and he’s led his team in scoring 23 times.

Compared to the other top-scoring shooting guards in the NBA this season – James Harden at 24.3 ppg., DerMar DeRozan at 21.8 ppg., Monta Ellis at 20 ppg. and Klay Thompson at 19.1 ppg. – Afflalo shoots a better percentage both from the floor (46.5 percent) and the 3-point line (42.3 percent). And of that group, only Harden (84.6 percent) is more accurate from the free throw line than Afflalo (83.9 percent).

According to NBA.com’s stats database, Afflalo only has the 47th most touches (2,515) in the league this season, but his 0.31 points per touch is in the best among shooting guards. At 64.5 touches a game, he gets far fewer opportunities than even Jameer Nelson (76.1 touches per game) and Victor Oladipo (65.3 touches per game) on his own team.

Afflalo was excited about the 2012 trade that brought him from Denver to Orlando because of the opportunities it offered him to grow his game. He was in a go-to role for the first time last season in Orlando, and admittedly he struggled by forcing shots and trying to do too much.

Afflalo and Magic coach Jacque Vaughn talked in their exit interview last spring about Afflalo learning to become a more efficient player this season. He’s done just that in almost every category while averaging career-highs in points (20.2), rebounds (4.5) and assists (3.8).

``I don’t know how many times I said `efficiency’ in that interview, and that’s where Arron took his game,’’ Vaughn said. ``The great thing about Arron is he will watch film, watch his own game and he will dissect other players. He’ll do what is necessary to reach a certain level. He worked on his game in the offseason and it shows.’’

`You can see some Kobe in him’

One of the players that Afflalo has always admired is Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, who won’t play on Friday night when the Lakers face the Magic at the Amway Center because of a broken kneecap. Afflalo went right at Bryant last season when the Magic and Lakers played in Afflalo’s hometown of Los Angeles, and the Orlando shooting guard got the best of the matchup with 30 points and a victory.

Afflalo has studied game tapes of Bryant through the years because he admired the five-time champion’s ability to do everything on the floor. Like Bryant, Afflalo wanted to be the kind of shooting guard who could score from post-ups, isolation plays and after running off screens.

Steady growth in all of those areas is what has made Afflalo so hard to guard this season. He’s scored 268 points and shot 46.2 percent this season on catch-and-shoot jumpers outside of 10 feet. He’s poured in 204 points and shot 43.4 percent on pull-up jumpers. His 117 drives to the hoop have resulted in 95 points and 42.9 percent shooting. And his eFG percentage – a relatively new statistic that factors in the number of 3-point makes – is a robust 53 percent.

``When you come in the NBA as a young player you have options to determine what kind of player that you want to be. Kobe Bryant is not a player that I wanted to be, but I wanted to be a complete player on both sides of the court like him,’’ Afflalo said. ``There are other players in the past that did that, such as Joe Dumars. But Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan were the two that were glorified for doing that. Me being from LA, I just watched a lot of Kobe and studied him.

``It’s just about having a complete game, being able to post-up, come off screens, thrive in isolation, make plays for teammates and have the stamina and competitive spirit to want to defend,’’ said Afflalo, who pointed out that drastically improved conditioning this season has helped me play harder on both ends of the floor. ``For me, Kobe was just always that example of a complete player.’’

Veteran Magic power forward Jason Maxiell can offer the most perspective on Afflalo since he played with him in Detroit from his rookie season and now again in Orlando. He’s seen the amount of time that Afflalo has put in stroking jump shots and studying film, and he said the standout shooting guard is deserving of his climb to an all-star level.

``Arron is a hard worker and he always has been. I’ve never seen a change in that and he’s still the same humble guy coming to work every day. He’s been the same guy for seven years,’’ Maxiell said. ``He’s put in the work, so he deserves to get better. And he deserves to be in the all-star game. He’s put up the numbers to be an all-star. If I could vote, I would vote for him to be on that team.’’

Maxiell also jokingly refers to Afflalo as ``Baby Kobe’’ from time to time because of the similarities in their games. Afflalo picked up his jab-step move from Bryant, and he saw how Bryant perfected the ability to get to the free throw line to pick up easy points. And like Kobe, Afflalo has a white-hot intensity on the floor and he isn’t afraid to glare at a foe who dares to try and stop him.

``His swag and the way he jogs back when he scores, you can see some Kobe in Arron,’’ Maxiell said. ``And some of the moves that he has, they look like Kobe moves. It might not always be as smooth as Kobe, but it’s definitely Kobe-ish.’’ All of the dedication and gradual improvement could finally land Afflalo in his first NBA All-Star Game, which will be played on Feb. 16 in New Orleans. The starters will be announced later Thursday, while the coaches’ picks for the reserves will be unveiled on Jan. 30.

Vaughn has said he will try and get other Eastern Conference coaches to overlook the Magic’s record and vote for his shooting guard for the All-Star nod. Said Vaughn: ``Our record, maybe, doesn’t reflect how well he’s played. But overall his efficiency shows that he’s trying to do the right thing every single night.’’

For Afflalo, the chance to play in the All-Star Game would be validation for a player who has devoted his career to improving himself. He already takes great satisfaction in going from the 27th pick in the 2007 NBA Draft to one who now leads a team. And the fact that other coaches and players around the league are acknowledging him as a consistent threat, that’s almost reward enough for Afflalo whether he makes the NBA All-Star Game or not.

``I appreciate it because coming into this league some players are drafted in higher slots and given opportunities to excel in the beginning of their careers. Obviously that wasn’t the case for me,’’ he said. ``I came into a veteran team, listened for two years and earned a defensive reputation just to get on the floor.

``Coming here to Orlando, it was my first opportunity to flourish offensively,’’ he continued. ``I wanted to take the next step. It’s been a long seven years and I’ve been through a lot on and off the floor emotionally and mentally dealing with this game, but I’m happy about the progress that I’ve made.’’