Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE
Over the last few years, Spurs fans have come to accept and cherish the French point guard in a way they may not have in the past. Part of that comes from the fact that we all appreciated his decision to stay in San Antonio, even when he could have tested the waters of free agency and landed in a bigger market. But equally significant has been both his emergence as a leader and the diversification and evolution of his offensive game this late in his career.
When he first came into the league, Tony Parker relied on his speed and ball handling to get into the paint and score, since his shot was not consistent. That flaw, combined with his inability to make creative passes in traffic, made him an effective, but not versatile, player. He gradually got better in most aspects of the game as his career advanced, but, somewhat surprisingly for a player his age, in the last couple of years Parker seems to have taken a big step forward in both his decision making and jump shooting.
Last season, Parker started exhibiting much better floor awareness, and as a result, both his assist totals, assists percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio reached career highs. Sure, his career best 2.4 assists resulting in three-pointers can be attributed to the same drive and kicks he's always been able to execute and to the accuracy of the Spurs marksmen, but that stat also reflects his evolution as a playmaker with a career high in a category he never excelled at in the past: shots assisted at the rim. For anyone paying attention, this is anything but shocking. His improvement as a passer off pick and rolls and his new found ability to hit cutters at the right time were apparent throughout last season.
For the first time in his career, Parker was able to make difficult interior passes consistently and get the Spurs looks at the most efficient spots on the floor. This trend in the shot distribution resulting from Parker's assists seems to have carried through to this season, despite Tony's slow start, and it is playing a huge part on why the Spurs' offense has been one of the best in the league.
Perhaps even more impressive has been Parker's evolution as a jump shooter. Looking at his numbers from last season, it is clear that Parker has gotten to a point where he is a threat to score from pretty much anywhere on the floor. He has always been a deadly finisher at the rim using his speed and footwork to score on much bigger players, and his long jumper has been solid for a while, but now Parker is finding a way to get buckets in between. Tony is pulling up off screens and off the dribble as before, but he's now also doing a better job of taking shots a little closer to the basket, as shown by his increase in both amount and efficiency on shots from 10-15 feet. Those short jumpers, combined with the rest of his offensive repertoire, make Parker a nightmare cover for anyone.
The fact that his corner three has also improved should give the rest of the league goosebumps. In a very, very limited sample size, Parker is shooting 36% from the corner on 11 shots, after going only 8-24 all last season. From elsewhere behind the arc, Tony has reduced his attempts, which is good, and hit 2-6 after going 6-37 last year. If Parker gets a semi-reliable three-point shot, he would likely add a couple elite years to his career while becoming one of the most versatile offensive players in the league. It will also allow Pop to have Manu running pick and roll sets with Parker spacing the floor as a legitimate threat from the corner in the clutch. It's still very early in the season but it looks like teams simply can't ignore Parker when he is off the ball with the game on the line anymore. Last season, Parker shot 40% from three in the clutch with 2-5 shooting; this season, he's already hitting 2-4.
Speaking of clutch scoring, Duncan called TP "our closer" after the Raptors game and it's easy to see why. The Spurs used to go to Ginobili almost exclusively for endgame situations, as teams would easily anticipate a Parker drive to the rim in the past. Yet Tony's improved shooting ability is changing that. On clutch mid-range jumpers this season, he is 6-10, with three consecutive shots coming in the double overtime win in Toronto. Parker is making teams pay for giving him space in the perimeter.
After seemingly remaining the same player or evolving very slowly throughout his career, Tony Parker made a huge jump last season and it seems to be carrying over to this year. I can not say this enough: it is still very early and there could be a regression coming. But if this evolution is in fact legitimate, it would not only increase the Spurs' title chances this season, but would also help keep the championship window open little longer.