Making Sense of the Kevin Seraphin Enigma

Ever since the Washington Wizards acquired Kevin Seraphin in a draft-day trade with the Chicago Bulls in 2010 (trivia question: who else was in the trade? Scroll to the end for the answer!), the French big man’s career has been a roller coaster ride of fun times and frustrating play. Seraphin still feels very much like a young player, so it’s easy to forget that it’s his fifth year in the NBA – Wizard fans have seen Seraphin get in over 250 games with the team, but he can still be very tough to figure out.

We’re not surprised by Seraphin’s inconsistency, but it is a bit surprise how much he’s played this year. After the Wizards acquired Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair, the era of Seraphin getting big minutes seemed more or less over, but this season has seen Seraphin play over the veteran Blair to the tune of about 15 minutes per game. Seraphin has been a “pet project” of sorts for Randy Wittman for several years now, and it doesn’t seem like he’s going anywhere – the Wizards have big plans for this season, and it appears if they’re going to achieve them, it’ll be with Kevin Seraphin on the court. And if you ask a lot of Wizards fans, this might be a problem.

The first things that come to mind when one thinks of Kevin Seraphin are usually images of the big man pounding the ball into the floor before a short-range hook shot. The hook shot has pretty much become Seraphin’s trademark over the years, and you shouldn’t underestimate it – going into Wednesday night’s game with Cleveland, Seraphin had hit 14 of his 18 hook shots according to Basketball Reference, and if anything, he’s not taking it enough.

Seraphin has the second-highest shooting percentage on the hook in the NBA (just behind Roy Hibbert), but he’s 20th in attempts. Meanwhile, Seraphin continues to rely on a jump shot that he’s only hitting about a third of the time, ranking around the bottom of the NBA.

Looking back at Seraphin’s numbers over the past few years bears out this narrative. Last year, Seraphin shot 74.5% on hook shots – 29.1% on jump shots. Two years ago, Seraphin shot 72.9% on hook shots – 30% on jump shots. Seraphin’s hook shot has become an absolutely deadly weapon, especially from the left block, and if anything he’s not shooting it enough. No one disputes Seraphin’s offensive touch, and he’s probably the best post-up scorer on the team, which is something I’d really like the Wizards to utilize more when he’s on the floor.

Yes, I’m advocating for more Seraphin post-ups, especially factoring in Seraphin’s increased willingness to pass – Seraphin’s assist rate has nearly doubled this season, discouraging defenses from collapsing in on him as he sets up in the post, something we’ve seen far too often over the last few years.

But what about defense?

Well, it’s a mixed bag. You might be surprised (I certainly was) to find out that Kevin Seraphin held opponents to a shooting percentage 10% lower than average on shots inside six feet last year, by far the best mark on the team – among last season’s rotation players, Marcin Gortat was the only other Wizard who held opponents below their average around the basket.

So far this season, that number has rebounded the other way, with opponents shooting 9.2% above their averages inside six feet against Seraphin. When extended to all two-point shots, however, opponents are shooting about 2.5% below their averages. That’s not an insignificant number at all, and it’s solidly middle-of-the-pack among Wizards bigs this year – behind Humphries and Gortat, but ahead of Gooden and Nene.

Numbers like that don’t always stack up with the eye test, and Seraphin still shows some of the same old weaknesses that have plagued him on that end for years: late reactions, poor rim protection, and generally playing like he just woke up with a killer hangover. But lately we’ve seen Seraphin step up in a few games, playing with a hard edge that we’ve very rarely seen before.

The most striking example was last week’s home game against the Cavaliers, when Seraphin played what I thought was the greatest game of his NBA career, blocking three shots and showing that he has the ability to make an impact even when he isn’t scoring, which he didn’t at all in the second half.

In both that game and the next night’s road tilt with Milwaukee, we also saw Seraphin grab a number of tough rebounds in traffic, which is an underrated facet of his game. Seraphin’s contested rebound rate of 35.1% is higher than both Gortat and Nene, and is about on par with players like Anderson Varejao and Roy Hibbert. Seraphin has a big body, and while he doesn’t always show it, he’s a physically strong guy who can cause problems when he goes up aggressively.

So what to make of all this?

Well, while Seraphin has admittedly been a net minus overall this year, he’s not quite as bad as you think. Seraphin’s hook shot is the single best weapon possessed by any player on this team, and with his emerging passing ability, I’d like to see the second unit run through him a little bit more and Seraphin given more post opportunities. As we’ve seen, Seraphin can really score with his back to the basket, but he’s a walking brickfest when he steps outside – the fact that Seraphin is taking much more jumpers than shots out of the post is a big problem, and is needlessly limiting what he can do on offense.

Seraphin has underrated athleticism and strength, and he’s a better rebounder than he’s often given credit for. Yes, he still makes some defensive mistakes and yes, his inconsistency can often be striking, but I think it’s time to think of Kevin Seraphin in a more positive light. For all his foibles and #KSLife antics, the man is an offensive weapon who hasn’t been properly unsheathed.

(And the trivia answer: on draft day 2010, the Wizards got the rights to Seraphin, along with Kirk Hinrich, from Chicago in exchange for the draft rights for Vladimir Veremeenko, the 2006 2nd-round pick who never came over to the NBA.)