Friday, January 23, 2009

Experience Part 2, The Most Improved Offenses, and Is Dominic James Really a Better Distributor?

Allow me to clarify something from my last post on experience. First, returning minutes may be a better indicator than the “class” of returning players, and if someone else wants to do that analysis, I highly encourage that. There’s a lot more to be done here if I had more time.

Second, my statement is not that experience does not matter. There are tons of players who put in the time and clearly improve over the course of four years. My point was simply that this process is a lot less steady and a lot less predictable than most people think.

Here is a very rare stat line in college basketball:

Wesley Matthews, Marquette
PPG (ORtg) Year
19.1 (124.5) Sr
11.3 (111.2) Jr
12.6 (106.1) So
9.0 (99.1) Fr

Wesley Matthews has not only improved his scoring over 4 years, he’s also improved his offensive efficiency every year he has been at Marquette. But for most players, the process is a lot less uniform than we might expect:

Geoff McDermott, Providence
PPG (ORtg) Year
8.8 (91.3) Sr
10.3 (99.4) Jr
9.5 (99.3) So
8.9 (93.5) Fr

No one can question the effort level of Geoff McDermott on the court. In his four years at Providence he’s filled in at Point Guard, hustled for every rebound, and quite frankly been a box-score stuffer. But he’s also never really developed into a steady offensive force.

Even for players who do ultimately improve, the process is often not uniform:

Jeff Adrien, Connecticut
PPG (ORtg) Year
14.4 (118.9) Sr
14.8 (101.2) Jr
13.1 (100.4) So
6.5 (122.3) Fr

Jeff Adrien played on one of the most dominant teams in the country as a freshman and was incredibly efficient. He really only needed to shoot when he had a wide open dunk. As a sophomore he was asked to carry the load on a much weaker team and his efficiency took a big hit as his scoring went up. (This is a fairly common occurrence.) As this year’s UConn team has rounded into form, (Dyson making better decisions, Thabeet efficient if not consistent, and the addition of Kemba Walker), Adrien has seen his efficiency creep back up.

Want a really interesting example? How about Dominic James of Marquette? His scoring has steadily fallen over his four years at Marquette.

Dominic James, Marquette
PPG (ORtg) Year
11.6 (108.6) Sr
12.9 (104.7) Jr
14.9 (102.3) So
15.3 (104.9) Fr

The big “story” if you listen to Marquette games is how James has dedicated himself to becoming a much better distributor of the ball this season. The key evidence of this is the increase in his assist to turnover ratio.

Assist / Turnover Ratio (Assist Rate, Turnover Rate)
2.76 (31.7, 15.9)
2.05 (28.6, 16.5)
1.88 (31.5, 17.4)
1.92 (33.8, 18.0)

But if you look at the data, his assist rate hasn’t really increased. What has improved is his turnover rate. One interpretation might be that as other players on the team have become consistent scoring options, James has not had to force the ball inside as much as was needed when he was a younger player.

But if all James has done is stop driving into the lane when he’s triple teamed, does that really make him a “better player”? Experience can and often does matter, but it is not a uniform process by any stretch of the imagination.

Biggest Improvements

So if experience is overrated, why do teams improve from year to year? Because of the difficulty in assigning defense to individual players, I’m going to focus on 9 teams that have seen dramatic improvements in offensive efficiency this year (4+ point increase in offensive efficiency.) These include Iowa, Oklahoma, Michigan, Oklahoma St., BYU, Arizona, LSU, Northern Iowa, and Missouri. How did these teams get better this year?

[For those of you expecting discussion on Illinois, while the shooting (particularly free throw shooting) is remarkably better this year, the drop-off in rebounding has negated that, and Illinois is only marginally better in adjusted offensive efficiency this year. The key difference is that Illinois has not caved in all close game situations this season.]

Ingredient 1: Add Players

Adjusted Off. Eff. now 118.0, was 109.4
The addition of all-everything freshman Willie Warren has clearly made the offense more explosive.

Northern Iowa
Adjusted Off. Eff. now 110.0, was 105.3
You were probably under the impression that mid-majors only win with experienced players. It turns out they can play young players and have success too. The addition of Kwadzo Ahelegbe (the distributor), and Johnny Moran and Ali Farokhmanesh (the sharpshooters) has given Ben Jacobson’s team new life.

Ingredient 2: Subtract Players

Adjusted Off. Eff. now 114.2, was 107.5
Graduated senior PG Ben Murdoch learned not to shoot (eFG% of 42% last year), but he still turned it over too much to be an effective starter. Jimmer Fredette has replaced him in the starting lineup and has done nothing but shine. I have to believe his ability to distribute has made Jonathon Tavernari a more effective player.

Ingredient 3: ???

Adjusted Off. Eff. now 118.1, was 113.8
I find it very hard to evaluate full court pressure teams like Missouri. Is it the improvement of DeMarre Carroll that makes everything click? Is it the efficiency of freshman like Marcus Denmon and Kim English? Is it the fact that senior Matt Lawrence now plays so sparingly that he should be able to make his wide open threes? I really have no idea why Missouri is better, but they are better across the board.

Ingredient 4: Add a Coach

Louisiana St.
Adjusted Off. Eff. now 110.6, was 105.4

LSU has improved in all four factors and virtually every player on the team is now more efficient. I think you have to give coach Trent Johnson a lot of credit for the turnaround.

Oklahoma St.
Adjusted Off. Eff. now 117.1, was 109.4

Travis Ford can coach guards, and it is a good thing since that’s all he has on this year’s team. Suddenly he has four perimeter players with over 25 made threes, each shooting over 40% from long range.

Adjusted Off. Eff. now 108.6, was 99.1
In some cases, it takes until the second year for players to master the new system. Clearly the addition of freshman Matt Gatens who is shooting 55% on three pointers has helped, but the key is much simpler. Last year despite playing a slow, perimeter style offense, the Hawkeyes turned it over on a full 25% of possessions. Perhaps you can blame it on the fact that the team was playing a freshman PG. Freshman Jeff Peterson had a turnover rate of 36.7% last year. But this year Peterson’s turnover rate is still unacceptably high at 30.1%. The key seems to be that the players are more comfortable in Todd Lickliter’s system and turnovers are down across the board.

Adjusted Off. Eff. now 111.3, was 103.3
Michigan has also improved on turnovers in year 2, from 19.7% to 16.3%. But the big change is that the team can actually make some threes this year. Last year, the team was 314th in 3 point percentage which was horrible news for a POT (Perimeter Oriented Team). This year’s team is still not a dominant three point shooting team, but when they get hot they can beat anyone, even Duke.

Arizona St.
Adjusted Off. Eff. now 117.8, was 111.5
In Arizona St’s case, the jump may have taken until year three because Herb Sendek essentially started over in 2007-08 with only one upperclassman in the lineup. The team clearly wasn’t ready to win from the get-go and Arizona St. started the 2007-08 season down 20-0 to Illinois in the opening game. ASU then played a weak NCSOS to try to gain confidence, but by the time the team figured out how to win against quality competition, it was too late to avoid the NIT in a brutal Pac-10. This year Arizona St. has mastered Sendek’s system and virtually every player is significantly more efficient offensively. Also helping the cause, Rihards Kuksiks has replaced Jerren Shipp in the lineup and made 51 made three pointers, (52% on the season). His ability to draw opposing big men out of the lane for James Harden to drive has done wonders for ASU.

Does Experience Matter After All?

When I hear people talk about the value of experience, they always seem to be talking about a Junior or Senior laden team like North Carolina. But perhaps the biggest jump occurs when a very young team moves to year #2 like ASU. Perhaps the value of experience is not what you gain the 3rd or 4th time through the circuit, but what you gain the 1st time. Well, that’s a post for another day.