In Defense of Malik Hairston and the D-League

I had assumed there wasn't any debate over whether Malik Hairston could play in the NBA, but I guess I was wrong.

The TrueHoop Network's Spurs blog 48 Minutes of Hell does a good job covering that team, and they've also devoted space to the Spurs' D-League affiliate the Austin Toros.  Last Friday 48MoH writer Andrew McNeill (their "Toros Correspondent") posted a game summary of their win over the LA D-Fenders, which led to this exchange in the comments:

LasEspuelas: I wonder how the Toros would do against the Nets

McNeill: Not good.  As bad as the Nets are, there is a huge talent gap between the NBA and the D-League. Case in point: Malik Hairston’s numbers.

Now people, this being Ridiculous Upside, one would expect us to come to the D-League's defense.  That's pretty much a given.  But out of all the players to single out as being an example of the "talent gap"...Malik Hairston?

Let's take a look at his performance this year.  Hairston is averaging 29 and a half points per game on 46 percent field goal shooting, including 43.8 percent shooting from outside.  He's also averaging 4.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.45 turnovers per game, terrific numbers from a shooting guard.  Last year he was even better in some regards, shooting over 53 percent from the field and averaging five and a half rebounds.  The biggest improvement Hairston has made this season is in cutting his turnovers almost in half, as he averaged 2.9 per game in the D-League last season.

It's also fair to say that he hasn't performed anywhere near that well for the Spurs this year.  Knickerblogger's Spurs page reveals that Hairston has a 45 percent eFG and a 39 True Shooting percentage along with a PER of 6.0.  However, he's only averaged three and a half minutes per game with the NBA club over 21 games.  If we're to accept those numbers with that sample size, we also must accept that he has averaged more assists per 36 minutes than Roger Mason Jr., Keith Bogans and Michael Finley, all of whom ostensibly are keeping him from getting productive minutes for the Spurs.  Add George Hill and Richard Jefferson to that list as well.  Hairston also is averaging more blocks and fewer turnovers than America's Favorite Second-Rounder DeJuan Blair.  All this is to say that while Hairston's NBA shooting numbers this year haven't been spectacular, he's not a complete disaster either.

Below the jump, I'll go back to his D-League numbers and discuss the "talent gap" between the minor league and the NBA.

There is, by and large, a talent gap between AA and even AAA baseball leagues and MLB, and yet baseball fans have no trouble believing that some prospects who perform well at those lower levels will be able to translate that performance up to the majors.  Kevin Pelton at Basketball Prospectus devoted a few columns to translating D-League stats about a month ago, and found that a D-League player loses about 30 percent of his production when going to the NBA, though he notes that the dropoff may be less for NBA assignees and that an average D-Leaguer were would be a sub-replacement level NBA player.

Those last two are important to note in Hairston's case, because he falls into that NBA assignee category, and while he certainly has played hard whenever I've watched him, he also isn't playing to try and get an NBA deal; he already has one of those.  If that were the case, his numbers might be even higher.  Witness last season, when the Spurs actually cut him towards the end of the year in order to sign Toro Marcus Williams; Hairston responded by dropping a combined 83 points over his next two games and averaging 35 points in the playoffs.  He really looked like he was trying to prove the Spurs wrong, so it's not hard to imagine him doing even more in the D-League without an NBA contract as a safety net.

Furthermore, he's an above-average D-League player; he had a PER of 20 last season, and this year he's leading the entire D-League in scoring, is top-20 in rebounding among guards (ahead of fellow NBA player Bill Walker and even The J.R. Giddens Rebounding Machine), is top-15 in assists among non-point guards and falls around 10th in three-point percentage.  So, then, he presumably would fare better in Pelton's translations than an "average D-Leaguer."

Beyond the numbers, most observers find that Hairston is a smart, solid all-around player.  At last year's D-League Showcase, DraftExpress wrote that,

He does a lot of things well but doesn’t have one particularly great skill that would fill a need for an NBA team at the moment. Saying that however, he is a very good scorer (Almost 20 ppg), a solid athlete, plays with a good spirit and energy, and is a month and a half away from his 22nd birthday. As he continues to polish his all-around game, it would not be surprising to see him develop into a solid rotation player, which is exactly why San Antonio decided to call him up and make sure no one else does that first.

Watching Hairston myself, I've also noticed that he talks on defense and does a decent job of staying in front of his man; he also has a knack for rebounding, and as noted above, has worked to improve his ball-handling and cut down on turnovers.  48 Minutes of Hell themselves (what's with the no byline on that post?) have written this season that "Malik Hairston is precisely the sort of player for whom San Antonio needs to find minutes. He’s a good defensive player, rebounds well, and can bring more offense than Keith Bogans" and that he's coming into his own.

Hairston also has been playing against some solid competition.  His best games of the season have been when he scored 43 points against the Maine Red Claws, who at the time featured two NBA assignees and four other former NBA players; 34 points and zero turnovers against the Springfield Armor, when he was matched up against former NBA player Morris Almond; and 30 points on 16 shots with zero turnovers against the LA D-Fenders (the game after the one that Andrew McNeill wrote about), again matched up against a former NBA player (Joe Crawford).  Every D-League team has at least one player who played either in the NBA regular or preseason, and some in the playoffs. 

Many D-League players can make it in the NBA; maybe not as stars, but as solid bench contributors; Shannon Brown is proving that, as are several of the players called up this year like Sundiata Gaines (currently sporting a PER of 15.1, right at the average), Coby Karl (who has led his team in assists twice in three games so far) and Anthony Tolliver (who worked his way into the starting lineup).

All that said, I believe if Hairston was given minutes in the NBA, he could be productive in the NBA. Scott promises.

To go back to the original question, "could the Toros beat the Nets?"  Probably not, but not because of Malik Hairston.  The Toros have an extremely thin bench, Curtis Jerrells is still finding his way as a point guard and the power forward position has been a puzzle all season long.  It's also not out of the ordinary to think, as Scott did earlier this season, that a team of D-League players could beat an NBA team.  15 guys who have played for the Nets this year have put up below-average PERs, and Devin Harris is just barely hanging on at 15.2.  They're vulnerable (if their record didn't already reveal that), and Malik Hairston is good enough to give them a challenge.

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