Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tristan Thompson and Josh Smith’s Biggest Weakness, (Not Free Throw Percentage)

We are getting far enough in the season that I thought it was worth reviewing the stats for the RSCI top 20 freshmen.

Despite Harrison Barnes dramatic game-tying three, North Carolina still lost on Saturday. And despite a 16 point performance from the super-hyped freshman, we know that Barnes full-season numbers are still disappointing. (That’s right folks, we are a month and a half into the season and Harrison Barnes still has the worst eFG% among the top 20 recruits. Yikes.)

But what else have we learned about the marquee freshman class this year? See the next table. You will have to scroll to the right to see all the categories.

Josh Selby just came back so it is too early to say anything about him. And Enes Kanter is still ineligible. But everyone in the RSCI top 10 is getting playing time. The same cannot be said for players ranked 11-20. Fab Melo, Reggie Bullock, DeShaun Thomas, and Patric Young are barely breaking the lineup for their teams.

Terrence Jones is scoring at an incredible rate thanks to his very high usage rate, and he is still posting a respectable 108.5 ORtg. But Kyrie Irving and Jared Sullinger have been simply unbelievable. Not only have both players been scoring machines -- they have been ridiculously efficient. Too bad Irving is injured, because I would love to see what kind of numbers he could have put up over the full season.

Also, Irving was clearly posting amazing numbers, but very few freshman guards can put up great assist to turnover ratios. Brandon Knight and Joe Jackson have had decent starts, but neither has a winning assist to turnover ratio at this point.

Also, no one has noticed Joe Jackson’s poor shooting this season because Memphis has played pretty well, but like many freshman point guards he needs a lot of possessions to get his points. Jackson’s free throw touch suggests his shot might come around, but right now only Harrison Barnes has a worse eFG%.

You might assume because Texas point guard Cory Joseph has been so quiet offensively that he is doing a great job feeding his teammates. But Joseph’s assist numbers are not that great, and his turnover rate is still too high for him to be considered an elite point guard at this stage. Still, you cannot question his heart, hitting that huge game-winning jumper against North Carolina. In fact, Joseph’s rare three point shots have been his biggest asset so far.

You’ll notice in the table that I post the raw Block and Steal numbers instead of Block or Steal rates. I just don’t know what to make of a block rate for a player who barely plays, so I prefer to see the total numbers on the season. Not only has Terrence Jones been fabulous at swatting the ball, he has been great at grabbing steals too.

OK, but now what did I mean by the title of this post? What is that big weakness for Texas’ Tristan Thompson and UCLA’s Josh Smith. You might have thought it was Thompson’s free throw percentage, and that is abysmal. But I think Thompson's 93 free throw rate and his ability to foul out the interior players for the other team is still pretty valuable even if he is not making his free throws. (Texas might want to take him out when they get to the one-and-one though.)

No, the thing that jumps out to me on this page is how Tristan Thompson and Josh Smith have been horrible defensive rebounders. Despite both players crashing the offensive boards, both players have been ridiculously passive on the defensive end. Thompson has been one of my favorite players because of his offensive tenacity, and his basket in the final minute of the North Carolina game was huge. But those are the kind of numbers you put up when auditioning for the NBA, not when you are trying to win a Big 12 championship. Thompson’s defensive rebounding rate has to improve or Texas is going to get crushed in Big 12 play.

There is a reason Jared Sullinger and Terrance Jones will be contenders for national freshman-of-the-year. They work hard on both ends of the court. Thad Matta and John Calipari would not accept anything less. I wish I could say the same thing for Rick Barnes, but recent Texas' collapses suggest otherwise.


I think it is a cliché when the game announcers say, “These guys are playing like this is an NCAA tournament game.” I would say that 85% of college basketball games between high major teams are played at an NCAA tournament level. That is why I love college basketball. But finals week brings out the worst in a lot of teams. This is one of the few weeks in the season when seemingly only a handful of teams are playing at their peak performance.

The other cliche I love is when the game announcers decry the death of the mid-range jumper. There are two goals in basketball, to get lay-ups and to get wide open three pointers. The mid-range jumper is dead because it is a terrible shot. And yet so many announcers seem to miss this obvious fact.

Georgetown coach JT III is the master at getting his team to get lay-ups. And while I did not think Georgetown looked sharp when returning from finals, their offensive philosphy was the difference in Saturday's game. Anytime an opponent lacks a little bit of focus, a little bit of attentiveness, Georgetown's offense becomes a lay-up line. On Saturday, Georgetown overcame their “finals hangover” by simply taking the ball to the basket.

Illinois on the other hand did not. Illinois has been a great offensive team this year. They have so many offensive options, I wondered how Demetri McCamey would keep them all happy. But not one player looked confident on Saturday. How could every single rotation player look passive at the same time?

But even Illinois seemed to recognize this, and instead of settling for the normal slew of jump shots, Illinois did try to get the ball inside. But Illinois-Chicago did a fabulous job denying the paint. Even on live-ball turnovers, Illinois-Chicago always seemed to have two guys back defensively. Dare I say it? UIC looked quite similar to Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin team (and their head coach is a former Bo Ryan assistant.) Forget the jump shots, it was these lack of transition baskets, on a day when Illinois forced 19 turnovers, that was the difference in the game. The net result was Illinois putting up an 83.4 ORtg against a bad defensive team. Illinois had yet to post an ORtg under 100 over the whole season, but despite numerous steals, they could not put the ball in the basket. There are few words to describe the feeling of losing when your team is favored to win 98% of the time. You can blame the “finals hangover” all you want, but this is an extremely difficult loss to get over.

And it also proves the old axiom. My blog posts are proportional to how my team’s fare. If Illinois wins, I probably provide 50 words on Alabama’s continued struggles, Gonzaga finally winning a big game, and LSU’s solid performance (in a home loss.) Instead, I commiserate with my wife, the Washington Capital’s fan. The Capitals once had the best record in the NHL, but they have lost eight in a row. Bah humbug.