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The Clippers’ Biggest Unanswered Question

If the LA Clippers are to have sustained success going forward, quite a bit of it will rest on Terance Mann’s broad shoulders.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Untapped potential.

It’s a nasty phrase that has doomed NBA teams and prospects for decades, and a rather large question looms over the LA Clippers, both this season and in the seasons to come: just how good could Terance Mann actually become?

“He’s just a guy you got to get on the floor,” coach Tyronn Lue said last Tuesday. “He’ll figure it out.”

It seems like the Clippers are in the camp of believing that he will indeed figure it out. After all, Mann, 25, signed a two-year, $22 million contract extension that runs through the 2024-25 season, making him, if you account for player and team options, one of the five Clippers currently under contract that far in advance. He joins Paul George ($48.8 million player option), Kawhi Leonard ($48.8 million player option), Norman Powell ($19.2 million) and Luke Kennard ($15.4 million team option).

Counting cap holds and such, the Clippers are already slated to be roughly $20 million over the salary cap in the 2024-25 season, and that’s just with those five players under contract, the cap holds on rookies Jason Preston and Brandon Boston Jr., and several other roster holds that are required by the league. In essence, barring something cataclysmic, the Clippers are not going to have salary cap space by the time the Intuit Dome opens for its inaugural season.

This, inevitably, brings us to Mann, who remains probably the Clippers’ best long-term trade asset. But talking about players as “assets” isn’t the purpose of this piece, especially as it pertains to a player who, due to the nature of him signing a rookie extension prior to this season, makes him ineligible to be dealt until this upcoming offseason. Instead, we must assess Mann as a player and what his overall game says about both him and the team’s fortunes.

In his third season, Mann is averaging career-highs in minutes (28.9), points (10.5), rebounds (5.2), assists (2.4), and steals (0.7). Mann also is shooting 48.4% from the field and 36.0% on 3-pointers, which is a respectable mark for him. One thing that’s made Mann valuable to the Clippers is his durability. Mann has played in 60 of the team’s 61 games thus far this season, which puts him in a tie with Orlando’s Franz Wagner as the NBA’s leader in games played.

Another aspect of Mann’s game that has gone overlooked at times is his efficiency inside the arc. Mann has made 54.2% of his 2-pointers, a mark that nudges up against his 2020-21 efficiency (54.1%) in that department. Mann isn’t shooting well in the mid-range—32.9% for the season, as a matter of fact—but it’s his work in the shorter areas that’s leading the way for him.

Blessed with a wiry frame and tenacious hustle, Mann is able to get into the teeth of the defense and contort his body in various ways to get a shot off against eager defenders. Mann has taken 85 shots inside the paint that did not come in the restricted area. Of the 113 players who have taken at least that many this season, Mann ranks 24th in field goal percentage, knocking home 49.4% of them. If you refine that search to players who have also attempted at least 50 corner 3s this season, only Dallas’ Jalen Brunson, Boston’s Al Horford and Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges are shooting better than Mann in both locations.

Mann’s game, at least when it comes to 3-pointers, has been almost entirely predicated on his ability to make catch-and-shoot 3s. This season, Mann is connecting on 39.6% of his chances in that realm, as of Feb. 22. Last season, Mann made 40.6% of his catch-and-shoot 3s, albeit on far lower volume than he’s done this season. For instance, Mann took just 90 long-range attempts last season, of which 69 were catch-and-shoot. He’s already taken 160 3s this season with 101 coming in that regard. In that vein, it could be argued that Mann has been a better option on catch-and-shoots this season just because of the increased volume and steady percentage despite the bump in attempts.

When perusing the advanced numbers, there’s a lot to like. Considering he’s being asked to do more than he did last season, Mann has kept a very respectable 56.7 True Shooting Percentage (TS%) and 54.1 Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%). This is where it should be mentioned that 1317 of Mann’s 1734 minutes this season, a figure that stands at 76% of his total time on the floor, have come with neither Kawhi Leonard nor Paul George alongside him. Leonard, as we all know, has so far missed the entirety of this season dealing with his rehabilitation from ACL surgery, and George has been out since Christmas due to a UCL injury in his right elbow. That’s a hefty portion of time for a third-year player to log without the team’s two best players.

Mann has done well in that time, though. In those 1317 minutes, he’s put up a 56.2 TS%, which comes in right around league average. If you remove Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris Sr., two veteran forwards who have also missed sizable chunks of games this season, Mann has clocked 596 minutes without the team’s three leading scorers from last season—Leonard, George and Morris—and the team’s leader in minutes played last year—Batum.

What has Mann done in those 596 minutes? Posted a 57.2 TS% and 54.3 eFG%, numbers that are both above the league average for this current season. The Clippers, hilariously, are plus-2.3 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, as well. Some things, no matter how much you try to look at them, seem to make zero sense. Mann has made only 31.3% of his 3s in that time, but he has shot 49% from the field overall due to sinking 58.1% of his 2-pointers.

The biggest workload for Mann has come in recent weeks as the team traded backup point guard Eric Bledsoe, as well as do-everything-ball-handler Justise Winslow. Norman Powell, who the team acquired in the deal alongside Robert Covington, only played three games before succumbing to injury. Since that deal, Mann is averaging 14.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.6 steals with a 58.1 TS% across seven games. He’s been tasked with 30.9 minutes per contest in that time.

In particular, the last four contests have really stood out for Mann. After not posting a single 20-point game all season, and none since his 39-point Game 6 performance to help send the Clippers to the franchise’s first-ever Conference Finals, Mann has hit that 20-point benchmark in three of the four games. All three of those games resulted in wins, including a big win on the road against Dallas and a dominating victory at home against Golden State.

Mann’s been tasked with backup ball-handler duties since the trade, seeing his Usage Rate, which had hovered at 15.2% prior to the deal, jump up to 19.4% over the last seven games, and it’s even gone up to 20.9% over the last four contests. A very interesting thing to notice has been how Mann has warped his shot chart in that time. For instance, prior to the trade, 34% of Mann’s field goal attempts came from 3-pointers. In the seven games since the trade, that’s actually decreased to just 19%. And, over the last four games, it’s been 17.6%.

“To go from playing the three and the four to now playing the point guard was a huge step, you know?” Lue opined during the team’s recent trip to Phoenix.

Before the trade, Mann was averaging 5.2 drives per 36 minutes (drives divided by minutes multiplied by 36). Since then, that number is at 8.0, a very healthy increase. Mann is shooting 64% on those drives, drastically up from the 45.8% he was at prior to the team trading Bledsoe and opening up the backup ball-handler spot. If there’s been a “huge step” taken by Mann, it’s been in this area.

Those minutes as the team’s backup point guard are quite interesting since it’s what Doc Rivers tried to thrust on Mann’s plate when the former second-round pick was merely a rookie. Last season, Mann’s first under Lue, the coaching staff opted to let Mann operate more off the ball since the team was working on a new system that allowed Leonard and George to work more as facilitators.

Now, with Leonard out for who-knows-how-long and George still nursing that UCL injury that could see him back sometime in March if his upcoming MRI goes favorably, Mann has had to adjust to a more on-ball role. Such is life in the ever-evolving NBA where your entire season can be thrown into disrepair at a moment’s notice thanks to injuries, COVID or any other string of factors.

Mann is still young by NBA standards as he’s in only his third year in the league, and his age doesn’t preclude him from making marked improvements across the board as a player. The contract he got also holds a lot of value since the team has him locked into one more year at a near minimum-level amount—which could also present some problems for the team should they, and this is just hypothesizing here, look to move him this upcoming offseason since you will, in all likelihood, not get a player back who is as good as Mann that is locked into a deal that’s so incredibly affordable—before his extension truly kicks in.

Mann, who checks in at nearly 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, plays a style of basketball that endears himself to fans since he’s constantly moving, constantly running the floor and constantly making havoc happen. Anytime you inject a little chaos onto a basketball court, the fans of the team benefiting from said chaos are going to fall in love with the agent who provided it. As such, Mann has been the Clippers’ chaos merchant for a lot of this season.

Mann gets out in transition, flies around the court on defense and has started to develop a Dirk Nowitzki-esque fadeaway in the mid-range. OK, that’s a little disrespectful to Nowtizki, one of the league’s 75 greatest players of all-time, but, hey, the vision is there from Mann to at least try to emulate Nowitzki’s penchant for looking as if his body certainly couldn’t lean any further back without getting his shot blocked.

But all of this brings us back to the question at hand.

How good could Terance Mann actually become?

The answer is pretty complex, and there might not actually even be an answer. It’s a mystery. There’s ebbs and flows to Mann’s game that have driven the coaching staff crazy this season, with one of them being Mann’s insistence on passing up good looks from deep in order to drive the ball against a dwindling shot clock only to have it end up in a turnover because no shot was ever attempted. But those are also the learning curves, even for a player who spent four years in college.

Lue, though, has maintained that the game has seemed to “slow down” for Mann this season, partially because of the time he got last season alongside both Leonard and George.

“Now he’s played the five, the four, the three, the two, the one, so he’s basically all-purpose,” Lue said after the team beat Golden State in what was probably the Clippers’ biggest win in at least a month. “That’s what the game’s kinda going to now, the way the game is played. You’re not really going to positions, it’s more so guys who can do multiple things on the floor and he’s one of those guys.”

Maybe that’s the enigma of what makes Mann so unique. There isn’t a perfect little box that you can pigeonhole him into. You could list him at any position and it’d make some sense. According to Cleaning The Glass, 5% of Mann’s minutes last season came as a power forward. This season, 11% of his minutes have been as a point guard. He’s played everywhere else in between. And, even during last postseason, he saw time as the short-roll center option in the Clippers’ vaunted pick-and-roll action. There just might not be an exact archetype for his type of player.

This isn’t to say that Mann is some level of player that’s vastly underrated by advanced metrics or eyeball tests. In a lot of ways, Mann’s value lies in the eye of the beholder regardless of what anything else may or may not say. For instance, Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM), Robust Algorithm using Player Tracking and On/Off Ratings (RAPTOR), and Luck-adjusted player Estimate using a Box prior Regularized On-Off (LEBRON) all have Mann either right around average or well below. So, then, where is his upside?

Well, to put it simply: you’re seeing it.

The Clippers have been 1.7 points per 100 possessions better with Mann on the floor as opposed to off this season. That’s the fourth-best mark on the team among players to log at least 500 minutes. And the Clippers have relied upon Mann to play the second-most minutes on the team, trailing only Reggie Jackson. The gap from Mann in second (1734) to Luke Kennard in third (1388) is essentially the same gap as from third to Amir Coffey in seventh (1066).

Mann’s ability to play in any lineup configuration, whether that be small-ball or in a jumbo group, also cannot be overstated. The third-year player has spent time in lineups without a true center on the floor, including one that consisted of Mann alongside Jackson, George, Kennard and Batum. He’s spent time as a shooting guard alongside Jackson, Batum, Morris and Ivica Zubac. In fact, that latter lineup has played the third-most minutes together of any lineup the Clippers have trotted out there this season.

That flexibility highlights his value. As does him being someone the team depends on in transition. The Clippers average just 11.1 fast break points per 100 possessions without Terance Mann, which is the lowest mark on the team now that Eric Bledsoe is no longer with the Clippers. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Clippers are plus-1.8 points added per 100 transition possessions with Mann on the floor, which is the third-highest mark on the team behind Kennard and Isaiah Hartenstein.

And perhaps nothing showcases it more than Mann averaging 30.0 minutes per game since Dec. 8, a number that only Marcus Morris Sr. (30.3) can best in that time amongst players on the team, and even Morris’ numbers are slightly skewed because he’s missed games over that stretch. Mann has played in all 36 in that time, starting 24. Availability, hustle, versatility, etc. Those things matter, even if they don’t jump off the page in a counting stat construct.

Fact of the matter is that we don’t know with any level of certainty how good Mann can actually be. Very few even saw this level of play coming. And no one at all saw the level to which Lue has opted to ride Mann down the stretches of games, becoming one of Lue’s most valuable and trusted players due to everything we’ve already touched on.

There have been multiple instances this season of Lue letting Mann play 16 consecutive minutes, and sometimes even more, to close out games. Among active and healthy Clippers, no one is averaging more second half minutes per game than the 14.8 that Mann is logging. At one point in early November, Mann was actually leading the NBA in fourth quarter minutes per game. That’s obviously died down a little bit, but he’s still averaging 8.3 which is second amongst players that started the season with the Clippers.

The utility that Mann provides thanks to his contract, positional versatility, flexibility to play with seemingly any combination of players, and the improvements he’s made across the board as a bigger burden has been heaped upon his shoulders should make the Clippers’ front office very optimistic about the long-term growth and potential that Mann possesses.

Maybe, just maybe, playing four years at college doesn’t rob you of most of your ceiling in the NBA. Perhaps being a good player who does the right things at the right times by being in the right spots is much more important than age or untapped potential might seem.

If he continues to play like this, maybe Mann will find himself alongside Leonard and George when Intuit Dome opens in just over two years. And maybe a championship banner that he helped achieve will find its way into the rafters. Only time will tell. For now, though, time has been on Mann’s side as both Mann and the team are reaping rewards in a season that has been unlike anything they’ve seen.

So, how good can Mann become? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what he’s doing now. And what he’s done is help keep the Clippers afloat. That seems to be good enough.

You can find Justin Russo’s daily content on the LA Clippers by subscribing to his Patreon feed, and you can also follow him on Twitter at @FlyByKnite.

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