Kenyon Martin Jr. is only 59 days older than the person who wrote this story. And yet, the former 52nd overall pick from the 2020 NBA Draft was deemed valuable enough by Lawrence Frank and the Clippers’ front office that LAC sent two second-round picks to Houston in exchange for the son of an NBA All-Star.
“K.J.” Martin started 49 games a year ago for the Rockets, and averaged a career-best 12.7 points per game during the 2022-23 season. Standing at 6-foot-6, Martin is not the world’s most respected shooter from behind the line, but near the rim, he’s an explosive vertical athlete, much like his father. Martin finished the season with a spectacular 63.5 true-shooting percentage, largely bolstered by his shooting 80.3% on shots 0-3 feet from the basket, according to Basketball Reference.
But this Clippers team, as every fan knows, is weird. Simply put, there’s just way too many guys here. Everyone says you can never have too much depth until they go 13-deep and suddenly have to freeze out talented players to make sure their very best players still take most of the minutes load.
Just going through the names, it’s hard to see where K.J. fits in.
The starters are Westbrook, PG, Kawhi, Mann, and Zubac.
Nicolas Batum and Bones Hyland can practically be written in pen as surefire bench pieces that Ty Lue will use during the season. Robert Covington was on the outside looking in last year, but has played well enough as of late that he should be locked into a rotation spot. Norman Powell and Mason Plumlee will get minutes as guys who fill common pick and roll ball handler and screener duties. Add that all up and it’s already a 10-man rotation before you get to Martin.
The skillset of the 22 year-old forward is a double-edged sword. He can be an exciting bench piece because he’s so different from the prototypical wing. He’s not just a worse or diet version of Mann, Batum, or even Marcus Morris Sr. He’s an NBA wing that plays nothing like the standard “3-and-D” wing.
When you put Martin on the floor, you have to change the way you play basketball. Because nobody else on the Clippers plays similar to how he does.
Throughout the preseason, it’s been clear that Lue wants to place Martin in the dunker spot as a constant threat to finish near the rim, or having him slash in on baseline cuts whenever the ball gets into the paint. He pairs well with Plumlee, who is a plus-passer at the center position, and often looking to find the cutting K.J. whenever possible.
Watch in that first clip how Jamal Murray loses track of Martin when he exchanges with Xavier Moon near the baseline. It’s bad defense from Murray, sure. But that’s what Martin can do when stationed on the perimeter in lieu of shooting. Make one mistake, and he’ll finish at the rim with a dunk.
His speed and explosiveness shrinks the defense’s margin for error.
During the 2022-23 season in Houston, K.J. Martin was on the floor for 2,606 non-garbage time possessions with Rockets’ center Alperen Sengun, according to Cleaning the Glass. Sengun and Plumlee are not perfectly interchangeable players, but they’re both good passing bigs who pair well with an unconventional wing like Martin. It wouldn’t be shocking if Martin and Plumlee’s minutes are tied at the hip.
However, there’s another way the NBA has sought out to use unconventional players such as Martin, and it’s something this era of the Clippers are well-used to — small-ball centers.
In theory, it covers so many of Martin’s flaws. The 5 is the one position in modern basketball where it’s still acceptable to not be a three-point shooter, it allows LAC to go switch-heavy on defense, it makes use of Martin’s vertical gravity as a roller, and so on and so on.
But theory is not reality. A big part of being a center is rim protection, something that K.J. might not be well-suited to do. Last season in Houston, he only averaged 0.6 blocks per 100 possessions. James Harden posted a higher block rate than that.
Heck, while we’re on Philadelphia, a good reference point here is Ben Simmons. For years, fans and prognosticators alike asked why he couldn’t be the perfect small-ball 5 for a team with four shooters spread around him. The answer was in his lacking rim protection. Simmons was and still is an awesome perimeter defender, but he didn’t have the requisite size, vertical burst and defensive technique to anchor an NBA defense at the rim.
The vertical burst for Martin is certainly there, but the size most definitely is not. Lue tried him as a small-ball center at times during the preseason, but it feels like a lot to ask of a 6-foot-6 wing who just came over from a team that finished 27th, 30th, and 29th in defensive points allowed per 100 possessions over the past three years.
And lest you think that all this positional maneuvering is overthinking it, and that Martin can just spot up on the perimeter like a normal wing, allow me to show you the following possession:
(Keep your eyes on No. 6 in white the entire time).
Martin beings by setting a screen for Kobe Brown in LAC’s “Motion Strong” action and then … just stands in the corner with his hands on his hips. I get there’s not much for him to do here, but at least pretend like you’re ready to catch and shoot the ball. Brown and Amir Coffey do as much on the opposite side.
Instead K.J. spends 20 seconds like this on the court:
I referenced Ben Simmons in this piece, but Martin is a much more respectable shooter than that. He’s hit 163 triples in his career and his percentage over three years sits at 34.0%, which is far from reprehensible.
But modest accuracy will not get NBA defenses to treat you differently when you’re standing on the perimeter. Shooting volume will, and too often Martin plays like a guy who knows he isn’t going to take a three.
It is worth noting that Martin brings a ton of value in transition. He’ll join Hyland and Mann as the two youngsters (yes, I know Mann really isn’t that young) on the team who can get out and run. The former Houston forward brings a rare combo of strength and speed that is hard for opponents to handle in open space.
That’s all well and good, but almost every basketball player looks like a better scorer in transition than in the half court. Pumping up the Clippers’ fast break can get K.J. a random five-minute spurt on a Tuesday night, but it can’t lock down a full rotation spot on a team that goes 12-deep with proven NBA talent and expects to contend.
So how will Lue and the Clippers use Martin, if at all? I doubt he’s a conventional wing at any point, and more often he’ll be cutting in from that dunker spot whenever possible. The small-ball center lineups will be a thing, but only sparingly and likely when a few or more players are out with injury.
Personally, I believe the Martin-Plumlee duo is what this hinges on. Plumlee averaged just under 20 minutes per game once he arrived in L.A. last season. He should be the Clippers’ backup center who anchors a decent number of lineups.
Martin might start the season on the outside looking in for Lue’s rotation. But say those Plumlee-at-center bench units disappoint? That’s probably where Martin comes in.
Plumlee is a bit of a weird center — from his left-handed free throws to his penchant for trying to make every finish a reverse dunk — why not pair a weird forward like K.J. Martin with him?