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The evolution of Kyle Lowry: by the numbers

The year is 2020, and Kyle Lowry is almost unanimously the greatest Toronto Raptor of all-time. After six consecutive All-Star appearances, and being at the forefront of the most successful era in Canadian basketball, Lowry might even be one of the greatest Canadian sports icons ever. Don’t let the accolades fool you though – it wasn’t always glitz and glamour for him.

Unlike some of the unheralded stories of players defying all odds to carve out a path for themselves to the NBA, Lowry’s route was more common. He was a heavily recruited star coming out of high school, ranking in the twenties of ESPN’s top 100 list. He committed to play for Villanova University, which was close to his home in Philadelphia, and he was a standout prospect there as well. After Lowry’s first season with the Wildcats, he was named to the Big East All-Rookie team, and following his second season, he earned his place on the All-Big East Second Team.

Upon declaring for the 2006 NBA Draft, Kyle was snatched up by the Memphis Grizzlies with the 24th overall pick. Unfortunately however, he would only appear in ten games before fracturing his wrist, and missing the rest of the season. Due to the uncertainty surrounding when Lowry would return, and how good he might be upon coming back, the Grizzlies solidified their point guard position and opted to scoop up Mike Conley in the 2007 NBA Draft with their fourth overall pick, putting Lowry on the hot seat as an unproven sophomore. Eventually, Lowry lost his starting spot to Conley, and he was shipped to the Houston Rockets during the 2008-2009 season in a three-team deal.

Houston was where Lowry earned more consistent minutes, and cemented his place in the league as a solid role player. After coming off the bench in a sixth man role for one year, Lowry took over the reigns as the Rockets’ starting point guard. At the turn of the decade, Lowry was averaging 13.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game, and everything was looking up until again, he was bitten by the injury bug.

While not as severe as his first time around being sidelined, Lowry being forced out of action made way for Goran Dragic to take over as Houston’s starting point guard. After showing flashes of the future All-Star that Dragic would become, coach Kevin McHale decided that Lowry was headed back to the bench.

Speculation would state that this is when Lowry started to cause some locker room problems, creating open friction between himself and McHale, and not being afraid to let other guys know of his discontent.

That summer, the Rockets traded Lowry to the North in what would become the greatest trade of Toronto Raptors history, and one that Rockets fans can’t help but look back on and wonder “what if”.

When Lowry came to Toronto, everything changed – for him, and for the Raptors organization. Toronto was still recovering from the dooming departure of Chris Bosh, and they were now living in the demeaning shadows of the Miami Heat’s big three. Toronto was one of the worst teams in the NBA for each of the previous two seasons, and they desperately needed some help, but in exchange, they were willing to offer Lowry a home, an opportunity to play, and a place to grow.

Luckily, Lowry accepted Toronto’s love with open arms. In his first season with the Raptors, he started 52 of the 68 games that he played in, and averaged close to thirty minutes per contest. While his contributions were still eclipsed by those of Andre Bargnani, Jose Calderon, and DeMar DeRozan, Lowry seemed content to be making a positive impact with an organization that wanted to win.

Midway through Lowry’s second season in Toronto, the Raptors made a blockbuster trade. Jose Calderon and Ed Davis were headed to Memphis in return for Rudy Gay – one of Lowry’s longtime friends, and the godfather of Lowry’s eldest son, Karter. The move signified that Lowry would be an integral part of the Raptors future, having parted ways with their longtime fan favourite point guard in Calderon.

Disappointingly, Toronto again failed to make The Playoffs that year, but after Masai Ujiri came into the picture as the Raptors General Manager a year later, the puzzle was complete.

With Masai’s first big move, out went Rudy Gay, and in came Chuck Hayes, Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons, and Patrick Patterson – a trade that on paper, made the Raptors look like they were tanking – but in real life, reiterated that every successful NBA team needs to have some depth. That roster would go on to make Toronto’s first playoff appearance in six years.

That was just the start of Kyle Lowry’s greatness as a Raptor, and Toronto’s uprising to becoming one of the most-well respected teams in the NBA. Since that time, Lowry has been named to the All-Star team every year. He’s earned the respect of every knowledgeable member of the professional sports media, and has befriended the most elite of his peers. He’s averaged 18.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 7.2 assists over the past six seasons, which is not bad for a guy whose biggest impact doesn’t even show up in the box score. He’s an NBA Champion, he’s a legendary competitor, and he’s a flat-out winner. A statue of him awaits to be built outside of the Scotiabank Arena, while millions will patiently wait to witness his #7 being raised to the rafters inside. There’s an army of Raptors fans who would lay their life down for Kyle at any given moment, and he deserves all of the praise, plus plenty more.

But what really changed with Kyle Lowry that made him such an incredible on-court performer? Most NBA stars reach their peak during their athletic prime – typically between the ages of 25 and 32. Lowry however, didn’t crack his first All-Star Team until the age of 28, and now at 34, he looks better than ever. Is he a real-life Benjamin Button? No. Could it be that his greatness was bundled up inside the whole time, and he just needed a consistent opportunity to showcase his talents? Possibly. Likely, a bit of an attitude change played a part as well, but there were some on-court changes that Lowry made as his career progressed which catapulted him into the echelon of greats that he sits in today.

The chart below depicts where on the court Kyle Lowry’s shots have come from in each season throughout his career, graphing where his shots have come from on the vertical axis, and his age on the horizontal axis.

As we can see, early on in Lowry’s career, he was taking very few shots from beyond the arc. In his first three seasons, less than 24% of his looks were from deep, while over 54% came from inside the paint. Part of this can be attributed to the widespread popularity of playing inside the three-point line during the 2000’s, although at only six feet tall, his shot selection bred inefficiency. This is a big reason why Lowry struggled to post an effective field-goal percentage of over 50% through his first three years in the NBA.

Contrarily, the graphic shows us that Lowry had a major spike in the number of shots he was taking from three-point range during his fifth season in the league. Not coincidentally, that was the year in which Lowry truly broke out as a player and earned his spot in the NBA. On 4.6 long range attempts per game, Lowry was knocking them down at a 37.6% clip, leading to a career high in points per game, and effective field-goal percentage.

Conclusively, Lowry’s performing ability took one big step forward when he altered his shot selection from mostly barreling his way inside and contorting his body to take tough two-pointers, to stepping outside of the arc and hitting some open jump shots.

But, there was one shortcoming of this graph: it explained the leap in Lowry’s game from being a bench player to becoming a star, but not how Lowry has been able to sustain his on court success as his body has gotten older, the pieces around him have constantly been changing, and the NBA game has evolved rapidly.

The following visual illustrates the frequency of different play types that Lowry has been executing over the past five years. The frequency of various play types are graphed on the vertical axis, while Lowry’s age is graphed on the horizontal axis.

The graph above shows us that Lowry has been taking increasingly more of his shots in transition over the past five years. While part of that can be attributed to the way that the NBA game has changed, or Nick Nurse’s coaching style as compared to Dwane Casey’s, it’s interesting to note that Lowry’s conditioning has seemingly only gotten better as he’s gotten older. By the same token, Lowry’s time spent as the pick-and-roll ball handler has steadily decreased over the past few years, indicating that he’s spending more of his possessions in the halfcourt offense playing away from the ball. Part of that may be due to the emergence of secondary playmakers, such as Fred VanVleet, and Marc Gasol. This is reinforced by the fact that Lowry’s spending more of his possessions in the halfcourt coming off screens, and also in situations that NBA.com defines as “miscellaneous”.

As aforementioned, typically when players get older, they play less in transition, settle for more jump shots, and become facilitators more so than scorers. This holds especially true for point guards, however Kyle Lowry just seems to be unorthodox in every way possible. His transition play frequency has increased; his spot-up shooting play frequency has decreased, and the frequency of his pick-and-roll play as the ball handler has decreased.

Ultimately, maybe the numbers don’t compute because Lowry is simply a myth. Take Kyle Lowry for what he is: a man whose story cannot be encapsulated into one article; who’s immaculate career cannot be defined by numbers and graphs; an all-time basketball legend, and the greatest Raptor of all-time.

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