While baseball will always be my first love, basketball has recently been giving it a run for its money as my favorite sport to analyze. I still enjoy baseball season more than basketball season, particularly because of the former’s forgiving duration and, let’s be honest, the Yankees’ traditional success. What has made basketball’s push possible, however, are the new and fascinating ways people have begun to analyze the game. Thanks to the work of pioneers such as Ken Pomeroy, John Gasaway, and Kevin Pelton, the way fans understand basketball is very slowly beginning to change. More specifically, basketball analysis is shifting its focus from simple box score numbers to the efficiency with which players perform.
As was also the case with baseball, my brain has been completely reprogrammed in the way it processes basketball statistics. The focus is now solely on efficiency, not gaudiness. For example, I would have lauded Stephen Jackson‘s 2009 season in years past. His line of 21 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds per game would have seduced me into making false proclamations about his skill. Now, I see his ghastly shooting percentages and his team’s league-leading pace, both of which reveal something about his actual ability. Context and efficiency are the newest and most important factors in intelligent basketball analysis.
I say all this because the topic of this post may initially come off as a little cruel. This is, after all, essentially a declaration that these players do not deserve the amount praise they receive. I would choose, however, to look at this piece as an effort to educate rather than chastise. The players on this list are here largely because they are inefficient, which burdens their respective teams. Most analysts either ignore or are unaware of these players’ shortcomings, instead choosing to focus on their traditional statistics instead of their inefficiency. Here they are:
Abrams has spent much of his four years in Austin dealing with questions about his natural position. This year, he has conclusively answered that he is neither a point guard nor a shooting guard. I don’t mean that in the Dwyane Wade-Brandon Roy-OJ Mayo good way, either. He does not take exceptionally good care of the ball, with an assist-to-turnover ratio (A/TO) that has bottomed out at 1/1 this year. He shoots 39% from the field and doesn’t get to the free-throw line all that often either, resulting in a ghastly 1.17 points per shot (PPS). This number has been in decline for four years. The final nail in the coffin is that Abrams plays 93.2% of available minutes (9th in the country), so this sort of inefficiency lasts for virtually the entire game. Abrams’ line of 17 points, 2 rebounds and 1 assist per game – along with his senior standing – often earn him great praise. A closer look at the numbers reveals his performance isn’t all that worthy of it.
This may or may not break the heart of my father, a faithful Terrapin, but Vazquez is often the recipient of the wrong kind of praise. He is praised for being a great player, when in fact he should be touted for his ability to lead Maryland for three years running without much help. There is a difference. Vazquez’s A/TO of 1.7/1 is acceptable in a vacuum, but it falls a little short relative to the hype surrounding his playmaking ability. He is certainly capable of making the spectacular play, but equally capable of mind-boggling turnovers. Then, of course, there is his shooting. He hits a fine percentage of his twos (46%), but only 33% of his threes. This would be fine if he didn’t take the latter at such a high rate. The result is a 1.18 PPS, and an eFG% good for 35th in the ACC. Vazquez is not a bad player. But much like his larger counterpart at Notre Dame, he should be praised for his ability to keep teams of questionable talent competitive rather than for his purportedly great basketball skills.
Moore entered the national spotlight last year by leading the Boilermakers to an unexpected NCAA Tournament berth as a freshman. His balanced line of nearly 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists in the plodding Big Ten (remember pace?) was cause for justified optimism. Moore, however, has taken a step back this year. Even though his averages are up to 14/5/3, he has become a less efficient player. First, he is averaging two more minutes per game this year, which is more than enough time to tack on an extra point and rebound. His FG% slipped only slightly from 44.3% to 43.1%, but his 3P% has fallen off a cliff. Last year, he shot 43.4% from distance. This year he’s shooting 33.3% in 126 attempts. His FT% has improved significantly, but he doesn’t get to the line nearly enough for that to make up for other regressions. Moore’s shooting problems are exacerbated by the fact that he is 9th in the conference in percentage of shots taken and 12th in percentage of minutes played. The result, much like Abrams, is an inefficient scorer taking a large percentage of his team’s shots.
Like Moore and Vazquez, Clark’s traditional statistics are appealing. He’s averaging 13 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal and a block per game. Put these numbers into an awfully athletic 6’9″ body, and it’s easy to understand the hype around his performance this year. Also like Moore, however, Clark has generally declined since last year. His FG% has dropped from 47.6% to 42%. His 3P% increased from a putrid 22.7% to a still-stinky 28.6%, which would be okay if he hadn’t already passed his three-point attempts from last year. Clark remains a bad free-throw shooter as well. The culmination of this fairly horrid shooting is a 45.2 eFG%, good for 62nd in the Big East. He’s also 29th in the conference in percentage of shots taken, which does not reflect well on Clark when he’s shooting such a bad percentage. His rebounding prowess keeps him somewhat worthy of the praise thrown his way, but until his shooting dramatically improves, he’s only the third-best player on the Cardinals.
I am not without sympathy for Harangody. He’s a legitimately good basketball player who means more to his team’s success than any major-conference player outside of Blake Griffin. Unfortunately, he shares the same tragedy as Vazquez, albeit on a slightly higher level. He is routinely included in discussions about the elite players in college basketball, doubtless a result of his gaudy 24 points and 12 rebounds per game. Certainly, Harangody is burdened and integrally important to his team. He is not elite. To begin, Notre Dame is 88th out of 344 nationally in pace. More possessions lead to more points and rebounds, so we must adjust for this inflation by looking at efficiency. Harangody is shooting 46.6% from the field this year, which really is not an acceptable number from a big man. He makes up for this somewhat by shooting 79% from the line and 35% from distance, but even these come with caveats. He’s 39th in the Big East in free-throw rate, while varying wildly in the number of times he gets to the line per game. He’s also only taken 23 three-pointers this year, rendering his respectable percentage from that distance almost useless. Such inefficiency has produced a 47.4 eFG%, placing him 49th in the conference. This is particularly problematic because he’s 18th in the nation in percentage of shots taken.
There is a scene in “The Dark Knight” in which Alfred advises Bruce Wayne to endure, even though he will be hated for it, because the whole point of Batman is to make the difficult choices and take the heat that no one else can take. Luke Harangody is Batman. He is the only player on the team capable of creating his own shot. So he heaves up shot after shot, every game, because the choice is really between a horrific attempt by an unskilled teammate, or 25 valiant attempts by his own moderately-skilled self. He is mocked for this, but ultimately, his team has no chance to win unless he takes a high volume of shots, efficiency be damned. There is honor in his game. But honor does not equal absolute effectiveness, which is why – somewhat heavy-heartedly – Harangody is on this team.
Tomorrow, I will bring you five underrated players. In the meantime, I’d like to know your thoughts on this list. Are Vazquez’s and Harangody’s inclusions unfair? Are they in special circumstances that allow them some leeway? Who are some other overrated players, and why? Please, share if you’d like.