Going from roster filler to rotation fixture is hard to do on a good team, no matter how talented someone is, even for young players in which a franchise is invested. We've seen Ian Mahinmi, James Anderson and a bunch of second round picks never gaining a foothold with the Spurs, simply because they couldn't improve enough to claim it. For older guys like Nando De Colo, Austin Daye and potentially Jeff Ayres the challenge is even greater; the opportunities often come only once.
It takes genuine improvement to change Pop's perception of a player and consistent production to sustain a role with the Spurs. That's why what Aron Baynes has done this year is so impressive.
Baynes was a bit player last season, averaging 9.3 minutes in 53 games in the regular season and 7.2 in 14 playoffs appearances. There were some flashes of potential as a decent two-way player and his rebounding was very good from the start, but Baynes didn't really deserve more time on the court. He wasn't unplayable but he was, by all metrics, a below-average player.
This season Baynes is getting 15.1 minutes per game, and while that number was inflated by Tiago Splitter's absence, Baynes has still averaged 13.2 minutes since his return and has played in every game in which he was healthy. Despite a rocky start to the season that saw Pop bench him after botched double teams and repeated offensive three seconds calls, Baynes is now a part of the rotation, the fourth big unless match ups indicate otherwise. Baynes is getting minutes this year simply because he is good enough to earn them.
All of Bangers per minute numbers are up except for assists and free throw percentage. His improved shot selection and finishing ability has resulted in a huge spike in field goal percentage, a worrying part of his game in the past. There have been improvements across the board but the biggest change has been in his ability to score on the pick and roll.
According to Synergy Sports, Baynes averaged 54.2 percent from the field as the roll man in 2013/14, drawing free throws in 7.1 percent of his opportunities. Those numbers are 62.9 percent and 15.6 percent, respectively, this season. As his chemistry with Boris Diaw and the guards has improved, Baynes has scored more at the basket off assists. He's seen a 9.1 percent surge in his field goal percentage within five feet, up from last season's dreadful 52 percent to an above-average 61.1.
His improvement on the pick and roll is simply related to a better understanding of how to move without the ball and he's shown a similar growth as a cutter. Baynes went from scoring one of the lowest marks in the league in terms of points per possession on cuts -- as defined by Synergy Sports -- to a decidedly above average mark. He's simply moving much better without the ball, especially on extended pick and roll sequences involving staggered screens, instead of standing around after setting a pick.
Defensively, the change has been more subtle. He's still not a rim protector, allowing a mediocre 52.8 percent on shots he contests at the rim. His individual numbers were largely better last season but that's likely a result of playing against worse competition. What's improved is his impact on the team. In 2013/2014 with Baynes on the court the Spurs allowed five more points per-100-possessions. This season that number is down to less than a point. There's no huge drop-off when Baynes checks in.
There are many reasons why that's happening. Playing more with Cory Joseph, who has become a great defender, surely plays a part. So does being more comfortable within the schemes. But there has been one significant change in how Baynes defends that is worth noting: he's much more active when defending the pick and roll this season. As an example, watch where he stands after Lillard uses the screen this season:
And compare it with last season:
He used to have a more upright stance and drop as far as he could while now he gets lower and steps out further. Instead of always sitting back and relying on the screened player recovering like he did last season, he's stepping outside. He's not Tiago Splitter, so the results are not always ideal but he's doing a better job of being a more disruptive presence instead of just trying to deter penetration. If he ever masters the timing, he could become an above-average defender in space, which could make him a viable starter.
Any statistical comparison between seasons for a player like Baynes has to be taken with a grain of salt. He's about to play as many minutes this season as in his first two years in the league combined. The most ardent of Baynes' fans -- a group I've admittedly never been a part of -- would argue that all Baynes needed was a chance, that it was Pop's stubbornness that was holding him back. Pop has traditionally had a shorter leash than most with players that are new in the system, so that surely played a part in Baynes getting pulled after mistakes. But that view ignores the subtle yet significant evolution Baynes has made to finally earn his coach's trust.
There are no big changes, no extended range or gaudy shot-blocking numbers. That was never going to happen with a relatively old player who never projected to be anything other than a bench guy. That doesn't mean there hasn't been an evolution. The improvements are not as flashy but they are there. Baynes is a replacement-level player now and while that might sound like a slight, it's actually a compliment. Hie emergence means the Spurs are set at center and that's good news amid an, at times, troubled season.