Raise your hand if you were one of those people who thought the Phoenix Suns screwed up by giving Channing Frye a five-year, $30 million deal this summer. Don't worry, you're not alone. There were plenty of people skeptical of signing a 27-year-old former 1st round pick (2005, 8th overall) who was coming off his one and only decent year as a pro.
Fortunately, and in my mind not surprisingly, Frye has lived up to and even exceeded expectations.
"Given more time, I have little doubt that Frye will continue to improve other aspects of his game. He's not the kind of player who is going to take a big contract and stop working to improve," is what I wrote at the time.
But this isn't a story about me (shockingly) being right. This is a story about patience and seeing the potential in players if they are put in the right system and situation. It's about what happens when the right guy is given the opportunity to build confidence and the trust of his team. It's also a story about players using free agency to do what the "system" failed to do, efficiently get the maximum potential and value out of each roster spot.
Channing Frye is coming off the best month of his career in February where he shot 43.9 percent from three and averaged 8.4 rebounds per game. And while I am not quite ready to anoint Channing with the title, "Mr. Clutch", his two game winning shots in overtime against the Pacers and Nets this past week can't be ignored either.
Most impressive, however, is Frye's development as a defensive player and solid rebounder for his position.
The key word in that last sentence, "position".
Now that Channing is playing his more natural position of power forward instead of being used as an undersized center, he's been able to learn how to use his size advantage and basketball IQ to defend guys who aren't just going to beat him up in the post. Like Jared Dudley, Frye isn't the quickest guy on the floor but he's always had the ability to be a solid team defensive player and with more time and experience has improved his individual defense as well.
Frye isn't going to put up good offensive rebounding numbers due to his role on the Suns as an outside shooter who spaces the floor and creates pick and roll and drive and kick opportunities for Steve Nash. When it's your job to stay out of the paint, you aren't going to get offensive rebounds.
Defensively however, his rebound rate has increased from 17.6 as a center last year to 20.1 as a power forward this season. That puts him in the same category as Pau Gasol, Paul Millsap, Serge Ibaka, and Chris Bosh. Ironically enough, he's ahead of Amare Stoudemire who's rebounding at an 18.3 rate, which according to Hoopdata.com, is consistent with Amare's last three seasons.
Offensively, as long as he's playing with Steve Nash on the Phoenix Suns, Fyre's primary job is to space the floor and knock down open shots created by someone else. 97.6 percent of his three-pointers are assisted and we know that he's knocking them down.
The area that's shown the most improvement this season is Frye's post game. Part of that is his own development but a large part is opportunity and trust. The Suns have grown more and more willing to throw Channing the ball in the post when teams try to negate the pick and roll by switching.
According to Synergy Sports Tech, Frye is 33-67 (.492) on post-up opportunities this season. They rank that as "Very Good" and put him in the top 24% of all NBA players in that category. That's an improvement from last season's "Average" rating which came along with being 16-44 (.363) in the post.
Channing has his offensive limitations, but unlike a lot of role players he understands what they are and doesn't force shots that are outside his skill set. You aren't going to see Frye put the ball on the floor and create for himself very often and you aren't going to see him take bad shots or commit turnovers trying to do too much.
Staying within yourself and knowing your role is an underrated characteristic.
I don't have nearly as much faith in the way defensive numbers are tracked, but for comparison's sake Frye was rated as an "Average" defender last season who gave up .915 points per possession. This season the same system ranks him as "Very Good" and says he allows .849 points per possession. Again, defense is very hard to quantify but the same system using the same methodology shows improvement and that matches what I've seen this year as well.
Channing left Portland with a reputation for being soft and has a guy who didn't like contact. Maybe that was the case there, but it's certainly not been true in Phoenix. He is what he is, which is a tall, thin guy who's primary role on the floor is too hit open shots. But he's also a guy that wants to win and has an intense desire to improve his game. Now that he knows he's going to play and understands exactly what's being asked of him, we are seeing the results.
The lesson here applies to other players. All too often guys in the wrong system or simply a bad situation are mis-labeled and eventually written off. When we look at players who are not performing, the question shouldn't be, "Do they suck or not?" The question is, "Have we seen them play in situation that fits their abilities and be given enough of an opportunity succeed or fail?"
Fortunately for Channing, he had the good sense to understand that when he choose to come to Phoenix as a free agent in 2009. He knew he could play in this league and do more than he was able to show in Portland behind LaMarcus Aldridge in a system that didn't showcase his best traits.
We often assume that the system is designed to maximize value and that if a team has a player who, for whatever reason, isn't a good fit they will be traded for an asset that better meets the organization's needs. That's not always the case and is why free agency and the players' ability to pick their own team is important and shouldn't be lost in the new collective bargaining agreement.