Training camp is such a strange time. It's the third stop in the Triple Crown of off-season optimism after the draft and free agency. Everything seems suddenly possible. Bigs who have never shown a deft touch from outside have all been working on their 3-point shooting. Wings who couldn't dribble have spent countless hours developing that handle. Everyone has added or lost 25 pounds. So every flawed player out there has the potential to be the best version of himself, according to the information we get from camp.
That's incredibly uplifting for fans. The Kings have been looking for a good partner for DeMarcus Cousins and now Jason Thompson might have a 3-point shot? Awesome. Tyler Hansbrough apparently has also worked on his range and - wow - so has Greg Monroe! That changes everything for the Kings and Raptors and Pistons! Except those three guys have gone a combined 1 for 45 from the 3-point line for their careers and are not even knockdown mid-range shooters. The chances of them becoming even league-average shooters from the corner are slim.
Yet the "what if" game is so exciting that it's almost impossible to stop playing. What if Ricky Rubio finally learns to shoot? What if that added muscle on Brandon Jennings' frame allows him to finish at the rim at a higher rate? What if LeBron lets Kyrie run the offense and Dion Waiters accepts a role as a sixth man and thrives and Anderson Varejao stays healthy and Kevin Love accepts a smaller role that might hurt his numbers? (The Cavs sure have a lot of "what ifs" for a contender, don't they?).
All those possibilities and the countless others that are out there range from very unlikely to not that far-fetched. And it's not wrong to factor in some improvement into our predictions.
I still try to avoid playing the "what if" game because it can quickly turn into a "what if" abyss that sucks in all rationality and replaces it with blind optimism. Danny Green is not going to suddenly develop advanced ball-handling skills and Marco Belinelli won't become a plus defender. I'll have to see them do those things consistently before I change my perception of them as players. But there's one "what if" that I can't seem to shake off no matter how hard I try. It probably has to do with it being so inconsequential, but it's always there as I go up and down the Spurs' roster:
What if Jeff Ayres starts catching all the passes and stops fumbling away rebounds?
Players with bad hands don't suddenly stop making mistakes with the ball. When you look for big men with over 20% turnover percentage in the past ten years, some of the same names keep popping up: Kendrick Perkins, Joel Przybilla, Reggie Evans, Jason Collins, to name a few. Those guys struggled with turnovers for years and years. So expecting Ayres to improve significantly is like expecting Greg Monroe to help space the floor with his 3-point shooting. But I can't stop wondering. "What if?"
Ayres had a ridiculously high 24.1% turnover percentage which means he turned over almost a quarter of the possessions he used. So expecting him to bring that down to Matt Bonner single digit territory is a pipe-dream. But if he can trim it to below 20% we are suddenly in Samuel Dalembert, Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi territory. Those guys don't kill a team with their turnover woes. And if Ayres can get there, he has real value.
Ayres rebounds at a high rate on offense and at a decent rate on defense. He finishes with well-above-average accuracy at the rim (those blown dunks you're thinking about notwithstanding) and before joining the Spurs he showed he could hit 15-footers with some regularity. He runs the floor relentlessly, which wears out his defender. He moves well and has good instincts on defense and even though he can't protect the rim, he's not afraid to foul to prevent a bucket.
The Spurs outscored their opponents by seven full points per 100 possessions with Ayres on the court, and they were better defensively with him on the court than with anyone else from the bench except for Ginobili and Diaw. And he played almost 1,000 minutes, too, which means the sample size is approaching meaningful-ness. The one area in which the team was worse with Jeff than without him? You guessed it: turnover percentage.
So Jeff Ayres could be a decent fourth big if he stops turning the ball over so much. It shouldn't be that startling a realization but because those fumbles look so terrible it seems most of the Spurs' faithful have given up on him. Aron Baynes continues to inexplicably have a large contingent of fans claiming he can be a key rotation big when evidence points to the contrary. Austin Daye has mystery on his side, as we have not seen enough of him to be convinced one way or the other. And even former punching bag Matt Bonner has earned a good deal of reluctant respect. Not Ayres though, who going by the numbers, would be the better choice by far if he could mitigate his turnover problems.
Is that even a possibility? Maybe. In his past stops in Indiana and Portland he never turned the ball over as much as he did with the Spurs last season. Going over how Ayres committed those turnovers, the first thing that pops out is the high amount of offensive fouls he committed. Better communication and more familiarity with his teammates could trim the number of times he gets called for moving screens. He's never going to be the type of guy that can catch and finish with a dribble in traffic from the free-throw line, but if he learns to look for contact when he's close to the rim instead of bringing the ball down or going straight to the hoop, he might be able to increase his already solid free-throw rate while limiting the times he gets the ball stripped.
But perhaps more than anything, Ayres needs to be a bit more calm. It wasn't strange to see him pull down an offensive rebound only to try to get the team to reset by immediately throwing the ball to the back court, where it would be stolen. Sometimes he would get the ball on a roll and never even consider a pass, going to the bucket in traffic instead. If he learns to pick his spots better, or if he can go back to regularly hitting that short mid-range jumper, he can avoid situations in which the chances of a turnover are high. And that could earn back the trust of his teammates.
So maybe there is still hope for Ayres to become that fourth big the Spurs are looking for.
Or maybe I've just fallen into the "what if" abyss hard without even noticing. Maybe reality will sink in as soon as the games start to pile up and Ayres turns the ball over. Maybe the fact that not making mistakes seems easier to do than developing a post-up game has led me to believe that my hopes of Ayres doing better are more rational than those of fans who expect pristine up-and-unders after their center spent the summer working out with Hakeem. Maybe believing Ayres has added 25 pounds of muscle and developed a 3-point shot would be just as rational.
I guess we will find out soon enough. The fantasies that thrive in training camp -- even the ones that are as small as this one -- are soon forgotten once the games start. Ayres' flaw is almost impossible to disguise. He will either be able to hold on to the ball and make good decisions or he won't. The Spurs will be fine either way. But for the prospects of someone who genuinely seems like a good guy, let's hope this training camp "what if" is one of those that becomes reality.