Welcome to the second in an ongoing series for the 2018/19 season. In ‘An Evaluation of Eight’ I’ll be breaking the season into octagonal chunks, tracking the performance of a single player across eight-game stretches. We’ll be digging into the numbers and employing the eye test, with an emphasis on figuring out how what we’re seeing matches up with what we know. Eight games is only a small sample size, to be sure, but it should still be a useful exercise in identifying trends and evaluating progress. Let’s dive in.
We opened this series by looking at the play of Aaron Gordon, who was clearly struggling across the season’s first eight games. Since then he’s gone on to make some real gains, indicating that he could yet develop into the type of consistent play-making threat that the Magic so desperately need.
Another player who has opened their campaign in a bit of a funk is the team’s resident Frenchman, Evan Fournier. Much was expected of him coming into game one, but it’s probably fair to say that to this point his production hasn’t aligned with the forecast. Could it be that this column will serve as the reverse-jinx needed to jumpstart his play? Let’s dive in and see what the latest batch of eight games says about the (sometimes) sweet-shooting wing’s season to date.
At San Antonio - 16 points and 7 assists on 7-15 shooting
Vs Cleveland - 15 points and 5 assists on 5-15 shooting
Vs Detroit - 27 points and 5 rebounds on 12-19 shooting
Vs Washington - 15 points and 6 assists on 6-17 shooting
At New York - 12 points and 4 assists on 5-13 shooting
At Washington - 20 points and 5 assists on 7-14 shooting
Vs Philadelphia - 9 points and 4 rebounds on 4-12 shooting
Vs LA Lakers - 15 points and 5 rebounds on 6-15 shooting
The Eye Test
They say that what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts, and for Fournier that’s a sentiment that has so far held true this year. His individual numbers have been up and down from game to game. He’s been a part of effective units in losing efforts. He’s seen the team comfortably outscored in his time on the court in games they went on to win. There’s even the fact that his shooting stroke, which has seemingly abandoned him, makes it difficult to recognize some of the other parts of his game that have shown steady improvement. In short: it’s been hard to accurately take his measure these last eight games.
Fournier really has two roles on this Magic team. The first of these is to stretch the floor by posing a significant shooting threat from the perimeter. If we’re using this as the standard by which we’re evaluating this most recent stretch, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than a failing grade. Across his last eight games Fournier is converting at a shade over 43% from the field, including an arctic 29% from deep. This obviously isn’t ideal for a guy that the team is counting on to get buckets, particularly when that team is one with a recent history best described as ‘offense-starved’. Outside of the 27 points that he dropped against Detroit, there just haven’t been too many occasions that Orlando have been able to rely on Fournier to be a go-to scorer. He’s putting up points, but it’s largely coming as a result of volume and without what would be considered an acceptable level of efficiency.
The second function that the team is relying on him to fill is that of a secondary playmaker from the wing. Whether this involves putting the ball on the floor and generating his own shot or making something happen for a teammate, it’s essential that Fournier provide the Magic with some direction when the game slows down in the halfcourt. Pleasingly, his willingness as a passer has been evident in recent contests, particularly when it comes to working the two-man game with his preferred partner-in-crime, Nikola Vucevic. Orlando’s offense looks to be at its healthiest when the ball is moving, and the fact that recently it has been sticking less when in Fournier’s hands is a development.
Interestingly, there seems to have been a slight shift across the last few games to more frequently move Fournier off the ball, instead spotting him up as a shooter on the deep wing or in the corner. This might be a design intended to create cleaner looks for his sputtering shot. It may also simply be a reflection of the increased playmaking being asked of Gordon with the starters and Jonathon Simmons with the bench unit. Either way, it’s something to keep in mind when considering the Magic’s recently improved offense.
There are frequent moments of frustration when watching Fournier’s game. He regularly seems to uncork ill-advised shots, particularly in crunch time moments. In recent tilts against both the 76ers and the Lakers he attempted low-quality three pointers deep in the fourth quarter, without even so much as looking to make the next pass. He can become afflicted with tunnel vision on some plays, losing sight of his teammates and forcing the course of action to which he has committed. And he still just doesn’t really get to the line. For a player whose outside shot currently isn’t falling this is a real kicker, as he doesn’t have a way to generate easy points.
Despite all of this, there remains some cause for cautious optimism. Although his last eight games haven’t shown it he remains an above-average shooter, and some development is evident in both his playmaking and individual defensive efforts. Most recently the Lakers routinely isolated him defensively in what they believed were mismatches, but Fournier acquitted himself well in these moments of individual coverage. ‘Never Google’ is undoubtedly a very useful NBA player, and should he bust out of the three-point slump he’s currently mired in there’s a good chance his 2019 campaign will receive the jump-start it requires.
Full disclosure: it ain’t going to make for pretty reading. We’ve previously established his poor shooting figures over the last eight from both the field and deep (43% and 29%, respectively), but a slightly closer look paints an even more worrying picture. On the season to date Fournier is currently sporting career lows in a number of different scoring metrics, including true shooting percentage (.504), effective field goal percentage (.482), free throw rate (a staggeringly low .134), and offensive win shares (which sits in the negative after 16 games). He’s also more frequently launching from range than at any other point in his career, despite the frigid connection rate. It’s obvious to even a casual viewer, but at the moment the root of Fournier’s problems is his inability to score the ball.
The gut instinct in this regard is to assume that there will be some regression to the mean, and for Fournier this would primarily involve three point shooting figures closer to his career average of 37%. Still, it’s not a given - the deep ball can be notoriously variable year to year. Even if he tosses up 450 attempts over the course of the season it’s still only a small sample size, and one that we might look back on as a career outlier. The pessimists among us might point to his free throw stroke, which currently sits a full 10 percentage points lower than his mark from last season, as evidence of the fact that this just ain’t his year.
Elsewhere, however, there are some healthier observations that can be made. Fournier is currently using a career-high 26.2% of Orlando’s possessions while he’s on the court, but despite the extra workload his turnover rate has remained pretty constant. This trend was even better earlier in the season, as a handful of games recently with four turnovers has blown the figure out a little. He’s on pace to obliterate his previous best assist percentage, dropping dimes on almost 23% of all possessions. This new found zeal for passing the ball has been evident since the season opener, outside of his recent zero-assist outing against the 76ers. Even the defensive side of the ball has some nice revelations, with Fournier currently snagging steals more frequently than at any point since his rookie season.
It’s fair for the Magic to expect a greater contribution from Fournier going forward. It’s also fair to think that such improvement is a likely outcome. Most of the negative evaluation of his game is inextricably linked to his poor shooting, and there’s not really any reason to believe that he’s suddenly lost that skill over the summer. Still, scorers will tell you the importance of confidence and momentum, and a season long slump is not something entirely unheard of.
Still, I’d be betting that Fournier gets back on track, and sooner rather than later. With a tough schedule looming, consistent and reliable production from their wing is something the team will be banking on. Let’s hope he rises up to meet these expectations.