"Who You Got?" is a new Hoops Karma series that compares two players’ futures and aims to answer the question: if you had to select one of these players for the remainder of their career, independent of salary implications and their hypothetical future teammates, who would you take?
First up: Minnesota Timberwolves PF Kevin Love vs. Memphis Grizzlies SG O.J. Mayo
Love and Mayo were consistently ranked as two of the top players in the class of 2007 throughout high school, including on USA Today’s All-USA team where they were actually named the top two seniors in the nation. Both went to college for one year in California (Love at UCLA, Mayo at USC), and the two were selected only two picks apart in the 2008 Draft (Mayo 3rd overall, Love 5th).
The real connection between them comes from that draft night since the two were traded for each other (with some other role players in the deal) just hours after hearing their names called. From there, they each were named to the All-Rookie team in 2008-09 (Mayo 1st team, Love 2nd), and each has put up decent numbers in their first two seasons of NBA basketball. Although neither looks like a soon-to-be All-Star, each has enough skill to have made it pretty far in the Team USA selection process this summer; Mayo made it to the final 19 before being cut, and Love is still on the squad that’s headed to Turkey this weekend.
The Case for Kevin Love
Love has already shown that he can excel at a specific part of the game: rebounding. Whereas Mayo is considered by some to be an above-average shooter, passer, dribbler, or defender, Love is already without debate a great rebounder. After averaging 9.1 rpg as a rookie, good enough for 9th best in the league, he bumped his production up to 11.0 rpg this past year, 6th best. Considering his fairly limited amount of minutes played compared to many of the NBA’s other top rebounders (25 minutes per as a rookie, 29 last year), his Rebound Percentages have been lights out: 21.0 as a rookie (2nd behind Dwight Howard’s 21.8) and 21.5 this past year (4th behind Marcus Camby, Howard, and Samuel Dalembert).
Another aspect to like about Love is his willingness to work hard and improve. If you watch a Timberwolves game, you’ll always see Love busting his butt under the hoop, trying to obliterate someone. With just a few more minutes per game from his rookie to sophomore season, his scoring went from 11 ppg to 14, his assists jumped from 1.0 to 2.3, his rebounds improved by 2 per game, and he brought more 3-point shooting into the mix (11% on 0.2 attempts per game as a rookie, 33% on 1.8 per game last year). It’s clear he spent time working on his game between his first two seasons, and this summer he’s turned his life over to Team USA coach and task master Mike Krzyzewski, so expect more improvements this upcoming year. Mayo’s stats have remained stagnant over his two seasons, and in some cases even got worse (88% FT% as a rookie, 81% last year).
Last but not least, strong and/or smart big men usually hold up better over time than athletic, scoring wings. Shaquille O’Neal, Brad Miller, and Kurt Thomas all just signed multi-year contracts this summer despite being 38, 34, and 37, respectively. Love brings both strength and intelligence to the court, so his ability to be a contributor for a long time is much more likely than a SG like Mayo who relies on his athleticism to do most of his damage. Most players’ speed and burst start to slow around age 29 and disappear rapidly by the time they’re 32.
O.J. Mayo would be scoring 30 ppg if the Grizzlies let him. The Case for O.J. Mayo
Between the two of them, there is less reason to believe that Mayo’s career will end because of injuries. Over the past two seasons, Mayo is one of only 11 NBA players to suit up in all 164 games, and his 6233 minutes during that stretch are second in the league to Andre Iguodala’s 6461. And even though he’s an athletic scorer, Mayo usually uses his quicks to get an open jumper, not a drive to the rim. His low 3.3 free throw attempts per game are a testament to his tendency to avoid contact inside. On the flip side, Love missed 20 games last year due to a broken hand, which happened on a routine rebound of a missed free throw at the 1:19 mark of this video. Considering how much he bangs his body around underneath the hoop, it wouldn’t shock anyone to see Love miss more time in the future due to injuries.
Mayo clearly has a higher ceiling than Love. Although he hasn’t pushed himself much at this early point in his career, Mayo’s athleticism is absolutely top-notch, and his scoring has only stayed at a relatively low 18 ppg because he’s sharing so many touches with Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, and Marc Gasol. His career Usage Percentage of 22.6% is really low for the type of player he is (if everyone on a team “used” the ball evenly, everyone would be at 20%, or one fifth – Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant, who all have similar offensive styles to Mayo, were each between 32.3 and 34.9% last year). Only 4 players in the last 30 years have scored as much as Mayo with as low of a Usage%: Magic Johnson, Brad Daugherty, Reggie Miller, and Chris Mullin.
If Mayo was a more featured member of the Grizzlies’ offense, his scoring would be closer to 30 ppg and his assists per game would probably top 5 (with an A-TO rate that improved from 3.2-2.8 as a rookie to 3.0-2.1, it’s quite possible he could become one of the best score-first passers in the league). For comparison’s sake, Mayo’s career 51% eFG% is higher than Bryant’s single-season high, so you can imagine Mayo being a top-3 scorer if Memphis ever lets him be the primary shooter.
Mayo has more potential and is definitely who you’d pick if you were dying for a #1 scorer on your club for the next 5 years. That being said, Love has his head on much straighter, works harder to improve (or at least has the stats and clips that lead you to believe it), already has a top-end skill, and will probably still be a worthwhile player into his 30’s. Mayo has shown little improvement in his skills over the years, falling back on his athleticism like a lot of lazy players have before him. Throw in Mayo's past full of events that lead one to question his character, and I'm going to have to go with Kevin Love.