Three Players Who Can’t Shoot Straight… And How Analysts Might Not Be Straight Shooters Either

December 11, 2010

In 2009, a tall and lanky freshman named Gordon Hayward played the highest percentage of the Butler Bulldogs’ minutes. This playing time was well-deserved, since he finished the season with the second-highest offensive rating on his team, thanks largely to his 65.7 True Shooting percentage. Even more specifically, Hayward shot a phenomenal 44.8% percent in 154 attempts from beyond the arc. In 2010, however, Hayward’s offensive performance declined from excellent to very good. Although he hit nearly 60% of his 213 two-point attempts, he shot a measly 29.4% from three-point range – in 160 attempts. Nevertheless, the Utah Jazz took Hayward with the ninth overall pick in the NBA Draft. He went 2-for-6 from long distance in the 2010 Summer League, and has gone 2-for-8 in the NBA regular season so far.

Brad Tinsley is Vanderbilt’s starting point guard. He is more of a combo guard by nature, but due to Jermaine Beal’s graduation, John Jenkins’ off-ball ability, and Kyle Fuller’s youth, Tinsley has been charged with the task of running the Commodores’ offense in the 2010-2011 season. Like Hayward, Tinsley had the second-highest offensive rating on his team during his freshman year because of his proficiency from three-point range; he shot 41.1% in 168 attempts. His sophomore year, Tinsley’s three-point accuracy dipped to 29.5% on 105 attempts. He’s shooting 33.3% in 27 attempts this season.

Mike Marra is a sophomore guard on the Louisville Cardinals. He arrived on campus last season with the reputation of being a great shooter, and as a freshman on a team of veterans like Edgar Sosa, Preston Knowles, Jerry Smith, and Reginald Delk, Marra was asked to do little other than fire from beyond the arc whenever he was given a decent look. Unfortunately, he shot 24.4% in 82 attempts, and has continued his poor shooting this season. He sits at 29.8% on 57 attempts after today’s 0-for-5 showing against UNLV.

You might be wondering what these three players have to do with each other, aside from their apparent shooting futility. Ironically, they’re similar because all three have been recipients of the same label – a “knock-down” or great shooter. Yet, as we’ve seen, there is little evidence that they can shoot. Hayward shot 29.4% from three-point range his final year of college and has hit four of his 14 attempts as a professional. Tinsley shot 29.5% last season and isn’t doing much better this time around. Marra has never shot particularly well at any point, and that includes his senior year of high school when he hit just 36% of his threes. Despite their spotty track records, broadcasters and analysts consistently call all three excellent shooters.

Now, if there is one thing that I have learned over the last few years, it is that I am not a scout. I can’t look at a player’s mechanics or movements and predict how he’ll develop or improve in the future. I am the person who thought Marcus Williams would be a star point guard, who thought Matt Ryan would be a bust, who thought Brian Brohm was the best quarterback in his draft class, who killed Donnie Walsh for drafting Landry Fields, who said that Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy would be better than Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz because their minor league ERAs were better, who thought Danilo Gallinari was a brutal pick, and who thought Shan Foster would have a long NBA career as a three-point specialist. Given that ignominious history, it is entirely possible that a professional scout sees Hayward, Tinsley, and Marra’s shooting forms and, observing nothing wrong, concludes that all three have been the victims of prolonged bad luck. It is entirely possible that all three will become consistently excellent shooters in the future, and that I am some combination of too dumb, blind, or untrained to see it. None of this would surprise me, because I simply don’t know this kind of stuff.

But I do know that 30% is not a great or even good accuracy rate from long range. And given that all of these guys have been hovering right around that mark recently, I do know that none of these guys can be considered a great shooter. It is annoying to be repeatedly told otherwise when the numbers simply do not bear that out. Hayward in particular somehow earned widespread and very public benefit of the doubt. NBA.com said Hayward “shoots with range and has excellent mechanics” in its draft profile. ESPN’s Chad Ford excused Hayward’s statistically poor shooting with one of the more remarkable sentences I’ve ever read: “He’s also a terrific shooter — despite the fact that his jump shot hasn’t been falling all season.” ESPN’s draft profile even said Hayward was a “sharp shooter with deep range.” All of this is in addition to the countless broadcasters who told me during games that Hayward was a better shooter than his numbers indicated, and who are currently telling me that Tinsley and Marra are victims of the same improbable streak of bad luck.

It’s possible that everyone is smarter and sharper than I am. It’s possible that these professional analysts and talent evaluators see these guys’ strokes and conclude that it’s only a matter of time before the shots start falling for good. But I fear that nothing like that is happening, and that instead, people are seeing three guys that look like this… :

… and are automatically concluding that shooting is their forte.

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The Arbitrariness of Leadership

November 24, 2010

The euphoria of Vanderbilt beating #8-ranked North Carolina on Sunday night was short-lived. After several hours of reflecting on how far Vanderbilt basketball has come – this victory would have been unthinkable my freshman year – I stumbled upon a column that quickly snapped me back to my default state of crankiness.

ESPN.com’s Andy Katz posted this, a column titled “Disappointing Tar Heels Lack A Leader.” As you might expect, his thesis is that UNC lost because a leader hasn’t emerged yet, because no players have stepped up and assumed control of the young but talented team. Then, following #2-ranked Michigan State’s loss to unranked Connecticut, Katz penned a column that was essentially the mirror image of the UNC version. In this piece, titled “Walker Now UConn’s Unquestioned Leader,” Katz argues that a big factor in the Huskies’ upset is Walker’s maturation and his willingness to accept a leadership role that he rejected last season. Yes, it would appear that Katz has got it bad for leadership in the early going.

There are, of course, huge problems with forming a causal relationship between leadership and winning. Take Vanderbilt and UNC, for example. Did last year’s Tar Heels not have enough leadership to win? Both Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard were seniors, and I can distinctly remember hearing broadcasters tout their leadership. Since the Tar Heels finished with a 20-17 record, why was their leadership so clearly inadequate? As for Vanderbilt, the Commodores lost senior point guard and universally-recognized team leader Jermaine Beal to graduation. And yet Beal was leading the team when they were ousted in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Murray State, the second year in a row the Commodores lost to a 13-seed. So what happened there? Why wasn’t Beal’s leadership enough to get them over the hump?

Connecticut and Michigan State are open to this kind of questioning too. If leadership is so important, then why did last year’s Huskies finish with an 18-16 record, even though they started seniors Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson, and Gavin Edwards? Dyson, in particular, received consistent and effusive praise for keeping the team competitive and assuming the scoring load during such a disappointing season for the powerhouse program. Was his leadership a myth? Furthermore, why did Michigan State lose that game to UConn? After all, the Spartans are led by senior point guard Kalin Lucas, who has consistently been heralded as one of the elite leaders in the country. Aren’t we told that having a senior point guard on the court, an extension of the coach’s will and wishes, is a tremendous advantage? Why didn’t it work this time?

While Katz’s arguments are already absurd, he detracts from them even further by pooh-poohing the narratives he and his peers worked so hard to construct last season. In the UNC column, he writes:

The Tar Heels lost an unthinkable 17 games last season. Williams called the season the most frustrating he has had as a coach. Carolina had leadership — at least some outspoken types like Deon Thompson — but could never mesh.

And in the UConn article:

“It wasn’t my role,” said Walker by phone from Maui late Tuesday. “I was a sophomore. I tried to let Jerome [Dyson], Stanley [Robinson] and Gavin [Edwards] be the ones to make the big plays and lead us to victory. It wasn’t my role.”

Those three seniors clearly weren’t capable. And maybe Walker wasn’t then, either.

This is awfully frustrating to read because it’s so revisionist and arbitrary. Because those teams failed, Katz decides that their leaders “clearly weren’t capable.” So does that mean leadership only exists if the team wins? Is it not possible to have leadership on losing or struggling teams? And if the assignment of leadership is so flimsy and transient – “Thompson and Dyson were leaders last year, now they are not because their teams weren’t so good” – then why are we wasting our breath talking about leadership in the first place?

As usual, my point is that there are so many questions, inconsistencies, and logical pitfalls involved in the idea of leadership that any discussion of the quality is rarely worth the time and energy. It’s an analytical crutch, a way of looking at success or failure when you don’t have much else to say or are too lazy to do some work. North Carolina didn’t lose to Vanderbilt because they lacked a leader. They lost because they had 22 turnovers, shot 27.3% from three, and played bad defense. UConn didn’t beat Michigan State because Kemba Walker is the team’s new leader. They won because Walker scored 30 points on over 50% shooting and because they crashed the offensive glass against a typically dominant rebounding team.

That’s the truth. But if you want arbitrary, revisionist, and lazy mysticism, you can feel free to keep reading Andy Katz.

 


2010’s All-Underrated College Basketball Team

April 1, 2010

I just realized that in my NCAA Tournament-induced euphoria, I totally forgot to post my All-Underrated team for the 2009-2010 college basketball season. You can find the All-Overrated version here. Unfortunately, because it’s a lot less fun to talk about why a player is good than why a player is bad, the players’ individual blurbs will be much shorter than the first go ’round.

THE TEAM

Austin Freeman, G – Georgetown


It might seem ridiculous to put Georgetown’s starting point guard on a list that aims to single out unheralded players, but it also seems like no one truly grasped what a great season he had. Freeman hit 56.8% of his twos, 44.4% of his threes (on 133 attempts), and shot 85.6% from the line. He also defended without fouling (important given the Hoyas’ lack of depth) and took pretty good care of the ball. Sometimes, you hear about players achieving the incredible 50/40/90 split (FG%/3P%/FT%). This has come up with some frequency regarding Kevin Durant. Well, Austin Freeman basically just did that as a point guard in the Big East.

Elliot Williams, G – Memphis


While Freeman made the team specifically because of his shooting, Williams is on it simply because he does most everything very well. The Duke transfer (can you imagine the Blue Devils with him still on the team?) hit 52.7% of his twos, 36.6% of his threes, and 75.8% of his free throws. That last number carries the most importance, because Williams was sixth in Conference USA (72nd nationally) in free throw rate, and third in the conference (66th nationally) in drawing fouls. He also posted the tenth-best assist rate in CUSA (although his turnovers were a little high), rebounded well for a guard, and played the highest percentage of his team’s minutes. If he can cut down on the turnovers a little and make even a slight improvement from long distance, he should be an All-American candidate.

Jimmy Butler, G – Marquette


I feel more strongly about Butler’s inclusion on this team than any other player. No one seems to have any idea what an incredible year he had in 2010. Playing the 13th-most minutes in the Big East, Butler hit 53.4% of his twos and 50% of his threes (on only 32 attempts). Most importantly, he hit 76.6% of his 244 free throws – a rate than ranked 11th nationally. Additionally, Butler defended without fouling, took wonderful care of the ball, and even hit the offensive glass a little for good measure.

Less objectively, I think there’s a pretty striking similarity between 2009’s Jerel McNeal-Wesley Matthews pairing and 2010’s Lazar Hayward-Jimmy Butler tandem. Last year, I made the case that Marquette’s best player wasn’t the hyped McNeal, but the less heralded Matthews. And, if presence in the NBA is any indicator, I was right. There’s a similar thing going on with Hayward and Butler. Hayward gets all of the press for his scoring and rebounding, but he’s not a particularly efficient shooter (47.9% of twos, 34.9% of threes). At least in 2010, Butler was a much more skilled, efficient, and productive player than Hayward. Whether or not Butler’s numbers are adversely affected by Hayward’s departure is something to keep an eye on in the upcoming season.

Tim Abromaitis, F – Notre Dame


There are numerous theories as to why Notre Dame played so well in Luke Harangody’s absence. One is the standard idea that his unavailability forced the team to come together, rely on one another, play unselfish basketball, and all that good stuff. A more substantiated argument is that the Fighting Irish slowed down the offense to a snail’s pace and improved their defense through a combination of better defensive rebounding, fewer fouls committed, and improved three point defense. And while that appears to be the overarching reason for Notre Dame’s success, a more specific factor was the emergence of Abromaitis, who came out of nowhere to become one of the most efficient offensive players in the country. He hit 56.4% of his twos, 42.9% of his threes, and 87.3% of his free throws. Those are staggering, Austin Freeman-like numbers. While his rebounding could stand to improve some, he helped make up for it by taking exceptional care of the basketball for a big man. It will be fascinating to see if Abromaitis can continue his torrid shooting next season.

Larry Sanders, F – Virginia Commonwealth


You might not remember it, but Sanders was briefly on the national radar. Bolstered by teammate Eric Maynor’s skill and the coverage it attracted, Sanders was touted as one of the best rebounders and shot-blockers in the nation. How quickly we forget. Once Maynor graduated, Sanders was more or less forgotten, even though he is still worthy of such high praise. He ranked 88th nationally in offensive rebounding, 36th in defensive rebounding, and 33rd in shot-blocking. While those are his calling cards, he does also hit more than half his twos, which is nice to have in a big man (I’m looking you, A.J. Ogilvy). Sanders will be a senior next season, and if he can foul a little less and improve on that 64.6% free throw shooting, I see no reason why he can’t crack the first round in the draft.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

John Roberson, G – Texas Tech

Roberson makes up for his hideous 43.8% two point shooting by hitting 41.3% of his threes and 80% of his freebies.

Mickey McConnell, G – Saint Mary’s

I can’t tell you how much I’m kicking myself for not posting this before the NCAA Tournament. I put McConnell on the list March 7th, the day before he destroyed Gonzaga in the WCC title game and roughly two weeks before he helped topple Richmond and Villanova in the tournament. That’ll teach me to procrastinate. In any case, McConnell hit 50.6% of his twos, 51% of his 151 threes, and 84.1% of his free throws. He’s a wonderful scorer.

Alec Burks, F – Colorado

Burks and teammate Cory Higgins are both underrated and are strikingly similar players, but the edge goes to Burks because he’s a freshman and Higgins is a junior. Burks hit 57.5% of his twos, shot 77% from the line, drew lots of fouls, and even hit the offensive boards a little. Based on nothing but his age, statistics, and his NBA size, I’d say there’s a decent chance we’re talking about his draft stock over the coming years.

Jeffery Taylor, F – Vanderbilt

This is probably a bit of a homer pick, but Taylor was just as important to the Commodores’ success as senior point guard Jermaine Beal and junior big man A.J. Ogilvy. Taylor hits 51% of his twos, and 74.6% of his frequently-taken free throws. He also rebounds well for a swingman, particularly on the offensive end.

Brian Zoubek, C – Duke

Zoubek might seem like a bit of a nutty pick. He is, after all, a Blue Devil, which automatically precludes him from being underrated in the eyes of many. He also averages 5.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. But he’s a key cog in Duke’s machine. Aside from his obviously good 63.2% shooting, he leads the nation in offensive rebounding. This is particularly important because Duke is a poor two point shooting team, which places higher value on the ability to recover their own misses. Zoubek plays a huge role in getting the Blue Devils extra possessions.







Experience and the NCAA Tournament

March 31, 2010

Sherron Collins' experience allowed him to go 4-15 with 5 turnovers in the biggest game of Kansas' season

Even for a square, pop culture-ignorant guy like me, a neat part of living in Manhattan is the occasional celebrity sighting. I ran into Bill Cosby on the corner years ago. I saw Matt Damon wheeling a stroller – with, presumably, a child in it – down my block this past winter. I’m also beginning to think the entire cast of “The Wire” lives on the Upper West Side, because I’ve seen Seth Gilliam (Carver) taking his kid to school, Wendell Pierce (Bunk) outside Lincoln Center, and John Doman (Rawls) on the 3 train. Does it make me feel cool to write all this? Yes. Yes it does.

The famous person I see more than anyone else, however, is current broadcaster and former NBA player Len Elmore. He must live in the neighborhood, because I see him everywhere. I owe my first interaction with Mr. Elmore to my father. We were walking up Amsterdam Avenue several years ago when a gigantic figure emerged from Caesar’s Palace Pizza on 84th Street. My dad, a University of Maryland fan and graduate, quickly recognized his fellow Terrapin and gushed to me “that’s Len Elmore!” Naturally, my dad introduced himself to Elmore, and the three of us continued uptown together in varying degrees of shock – dad at meeting Len Elmore, Len Elmore at being met by my dad, and me at my dad’s hidden reserves of childlike enthusiasm. It was three blocks of bliss for my dad, who reluctantly parted ways with Elmore at 87th Street.

Obviously, with the NCAA Tournament in full swing, I haven’t seen Elmore around so much in March. But since he’s returned to the broadcasting booth, I’ve noticed a tendency of Elmore’s that I had never noticed before. More than most broadcasters I can think of, and certainly more than any other college basketball analysts, Elmore talks about the importance and significance of experience in the game of basketball. With Elmore, persistent shooting slumps and steady ball handling are attributed less to a simple cold streak or superior dexterity, and more to the absence or presence of a player’s experience. He’s not a radical. He’s not one of these analysts or fans that makes judgments about a player based on their look, their swagger, or any number of other arbitrary criteria on which intellectually complacent folks rely. But he really does seem to like himself some experience in a player.

As you can well imagine, I don’t think experience matters all that much when it comes to in-game activities. I suppose it matters when it comes to mental and physical preparation, but the number of variables affecting an athlete’s play in a game is so high that it strikes me as problematic to pin a player’s success or failure on the slippery and amorphous quality of “experience.” With all other factors being equal, yes, I would prefer an experienced player over an inexperienced one. The chances of “experience” being the deciding factor in any given game, however, seem quite low to me. Read the rest of this entry »


2010’s All-Overrated College Basketball Team

March 7, 2010

Last March, I unveiled a college basketball squad featuring five players that I believed to be the most overrated in the nation. The purpose of the exercise was less to single out and humiliate individual players (although Greivis Vasquez has never been a favorite of mine), and more to educate about the deceptive nature of certain basketball statistics. As I mentioned then, traditional per-game statistics can be awfully misleading about a player’s performance. Points, assists, and rebounds per game do not account for factors such as pace and efficiency. Because of this, I have begun looking at players like Monta Ellis in a whole new light. Ellis’ 25-5-4 line is superficially impressive, but when you realize that he plays in the NBA’s fastest-paced offense, shoots mediocre percentages, and turns the ball over as often as he assists it, his value takes a tumble. Ultimately, that’s why I single out these overrated and underrated players – so that you and anyone else who reads this can learn to evaluate players more intelligently using metrics that shed more light on players’ true ability.

Here are my selections for the 2010 All-Overrated Team and the honorable mentions. As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms, as long as you don’t use terrible statistics, selective memory, and mysticism to back them up. Read the rest of this entry »


Where Are They Now?

March 2, 2010

Last March, I put together two teams of college basketball players: one made up solely of players I thought were overrated, and one made up of underrated players. Recently I’ve begun to narrow down my initial list of candidates for the 2010 editions. But because that’s not quite done yet, I thought it would be interesting to run through the members of the 2009 teams and see what they’re up to today.

OVERRATED

A.J. Abrams, G – Texas

My knock against Abrams’ game was that he contributed little to the Longhorns other than shooting, and even that strength was limited to three pointers. He shot well from the line, but didn’t get there enough to make that skill a huge asset. Lastly, he finished his senior year with more turnovers than assists. So, other than shooting, getting to the basket, and creating opportunities for his teammates, Abrams had all the skills you’d want in a guard.

Currently, Abrams appears to be playing for the Greek club AS Trikala 2000. I say “appears” because that looks like him second from the right, but I can’t find him anywhere here (but I found Tyrell Biggs!). His statistics in Greece actually indicate improvement. He’s averaging 17.3 ppg on 54.7% shooting from two and 37.8% from three. His free throw percentage has dropped to 74.4%, but that’s acceptable given his improved shooting on shots worth twice as much. Abrams still, however, is not much of a creator for his teammates, averaging one assist per game (turnover numbers are unavailable).

Greivis Vasquez, G – Maryland

Last year, I criticized Vasquez’s game because it was recognized as great when it was, in fact, merely good. I thought his playmaking skills were a little overrated – Vazquez was just as likely to make a brilliant pass as a boneheaded one – but my main gripe was with his shooting. He hit 45.2% of his twos last year, which is fine, but 32.7% of his threes, which is not great but even worse if that rate comes on 202 attempts. The result was a True Shooting % of 51.2, which ranked 34th in the ACC.

Vasquez has improved tremendously this season. He currently sports the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career (1.96 : 1) and a significantly higher assist rate than last year. Most importantly, both his shot selection and shot results have gotten much better. Vasquez is now hitting 46.9% of his twos (a slight improvement) and 37.9% of his threes on only 153 attempts (a huge improvement). Factoring in his typically efficient scoring from the free throw line, and he can no longer be called overrated.

E’Twaun Moore, G – Purdue

As I put it last year, Moore “much like Abrams, is an inefficient scorer taking a large percentage of his team’s shots.” Moore’s balanced per-game statistics were a nice shiny object, but distracted the viewer from his 33.7% three-point shooting on 166 attempts.

Like Vasquez, Moore has gotten much better in 2010. Moore is taking a higher percentage of his team’s shots when he’s on the floor (30.2% this year versus 26.3% last year), so it’s a good thing he’s become more efficient. He’s stopped launching so many threes (37.2% on 113 attempts), preferring twos and hitting them at a very good 52% clip. He’s also increased his free throw and assist rates slightly, making him a vastly more efficient player than last season.

Earl Clark, F – Louisville

In hindsight, Clark’s inclusion was unjustified. As usual, the reason for his inclusion was shooting. Clark hit a 49.3% of his twos in 2009, which in itself isn’t so bad, but is a little paltry for a 6’9″ monster like him. Then there was his 32.6% three point shooting on nearly a hundred attempts and his sub-par performance from the line. But really, that was all a little nitpicky. especially considering his blocking and rebounding prowess. This was a bad pick.

Following last season, Clark was drafted 14th overall by the Phoenix Suns. He rarely plays, so it’s probably too early to draw any conclusions about his ability, especially because he’s on a win-now playoff team. For what it’s worth, Clark is shooting 35.4% from the field and 63.6% from the line in the NBA.

Luke Harangody, F – Notre Dame

Last year, I criticized Harangody’s game for the same reason I did Vazquez’s. Both players were discussed reverentially in basketball circles, which in fact their games had notable flaws. Harangody’s stats were inflated both by his team’s fast pace and a shooting rate that ranked 11th in the country. He shot an astounding 615 twos in 2009, but hit only 46.5% of them. His three point shooting was a superficially-good 36.8%, but he only took 38 of them. Harangody’s major redeeming qualities were his ability to draw fouls (68th in the country) and his defensive rebounding (17th). Still, his large volume of wayward shots warranted inclusion on this team.

Harangody’s per-game totals in 2010 are almost exactly the same as 2009’s, but one major factor has changed. Notre Dame is playing at a significantly slower pace this season, down to 226th in the nation. In order for Harangody to maintain such high numbers in games with fewer possessions, it would follow that he’s become a more efficient player. This turns out to be true. Harangody is hitting 52.1% of his twos this season and has improved his free throw percentage very slightly. His three point shooting and fouls drawn have declined somewhat, but he remains a high-percentage free throw shooter. The biggest story here, though, remains his two point shooting. Last year he shot 46.5% on 615 twos, and this year he’s shooting 52.1% on 388 twos – a huge, huge difference. The result is a TS% that has increased to 55.5% and him having absolutely no chance of holding onto his spot on my 2010 team.

UNDERRATED

Jerome Randle, G – California

The best player on the Pac-10’s best team, Randle’s 2009 season was one of the more unheralded great seasons in recent memory. His per-game averages certainly passed the eye test: 18.3 points, 3 rebounds, and 5 assists. But the remarkable thing was his efficiency. Despite being generously listed at 5’10”, Randle hit 53.4% of his twos, 46.3% of his threes, and 86.3% of his free throws. Those are staggering numbers, and good enough for 14th-best TS% in the country last year.

If you finished reading that paragraph thinking “there’s nowhere for him to go but down,” it turns out that you’re right. Randle is still a very good player, but his efficiency has dropped off a little. He’s now hitting exactly 50% of his twos, 41% of his threes, and 92% of his free throws. Furthermore, his assist-to-turnover has declined from a good 1.74 : 1 to a more pedestrian 1.26 : 1. Right now, it’s hard to classify Randle as “underrated.” Unknown, yes. But not underrated.

Darren Collison, G – UCLA

Like Randle, Collison earned his way onto last year’s team on the strength of his shooting. The point guard finished the 2009 season having hit 55.8% of his twos, 39.4% of his threes, and 89.7% of his free throws. He also took good care of the ball (1.91 : 1) and earned some bonus points by finishing fifth in the Pac-10 in Steal %.

Collison was drafted 21st overall by the New Orleans Hornets, where his basketball career has continued with remarkable similarity. He’s hitting 47.2% of his twos, 33.8% of his threes, and 84.9% of his free throws in 23.2 minutes per game. Of course, Collison will play less once Chris Paul returns, but his fifth-ranked PER among rookies (15.75) is quite good in its own right.

Wesley Matthews, G – Marquette

I’m mere moments away from gloating, so please brace yourself. Last year’s Marquette team received a ton of publicity for its triumvirate of explosive guards. The group was led on the court by senior guard Dominic James, a really, really poor shooter who took excellent care of the ball. The typical adjectives given to diminutive senior point guards were assigned to James: fearless, gutsy, smart, etc. Next was Jerel McNeal, who was the flashy one. He had no exceptional skill but many good ones, and his 19.8 points per game earned him the most praise. Then there was Matthews, who was characterized as smart (but not as smart as James) and skilled (but not as skilled as McNeal). Even though Matthews bested McNeal in 2P%, 3P%, ORtg, TS%, OR%, DR%, TO%, FD/40, and FTRate, and James is every significant category but Assist Rate, he remained the least-recognized of Marquette’s senior guards.

Guess which one of the three is playing in the NBA right now. Yes, while James is playing in Turkey and McNeal in Belgium, the undrafted Matthews is playing 22 minutes a game for the 38-21 Utah Jazz. Matthews is hitting 52% of his twos, 35.2% of his threes, and 78.2% of his free throws – numbers that are right in line with his production at Marquette. I’m confident that he’ll never be a star, and probably not a career starter either. But Matthews has all the makings of a quality guard off the bench for the next several years. And I’m proud to call him an alum of the 2009 All-Underrated Team.

DeMarre Carroll, F – Missouri

Carroll made last year’s team on the strength of his excellent two-point shooting (57.9%), his infrequent but useful three-point shooting (36.4%), his ability to draw fouls, and his guard-like proficiency at stealing the ball and not turning it over himself.

Surprisingly, Carroll was drafted 27th overall by the Memphis Grizzlies. He hasn’t performed well in limited duty, shooting 39.2% from the field, making none of his six shots from distance, and continuing to hit free throws at a poor rate (61.7%). I like Carroll as much as anyone, but given the relatively high value of the 27th pick, I think he’ll be a disappointment.

Patrick Patterson, F – Kentucky

Patterson might have been the most underrated player in the nation last year. While his teammate Jodie Meeks was garnering well-deserved accolades, Patterson kept on doing what he’s always done – scoring with great skill. In 2009, he hit 60.5% of his twos and shot 76.8% from the line (where he got frequently). His TS% of 63.7% ranked 39th in the country and first in the SEC.

While his free throw shooting has inexplicably fallen off a cliff, Patterson has become an even better player this season. He’s continued to nail his twos (62.2%) and, shockingly, has revealed a real ability to hit threes (40.8% on 49 attempts). This new skill has offset his decline in FT% to keep his TS% at 62.8%, just slightly worse than last year’s. Lastly, Patterson is 35th in the country and second in the SEC in TORate, which is impressive for a big man that plays so many minutes. Teammates DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall get much of the publicity – and deservedly so – but Patterson is equally important to the team’s success.



Reports of Free Throw Shooting’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

February 28, 2010

It must be fun to talk about the “lost arts” in the three major American sports. It must be an ego-boost to wistfully lament the disappearance of good, old-fashioned, fundamental athletic skills. I suspect these things because broadcasters have been doing it for as long as I can remember. In football, we often hear about how contemporary running backs prefer to avoid contact, or how wide receivers just don’t go over the middle with the same fearlessness as their historical counterparts. Baseball is a gold mine for these sorts of things too. The bunt is a lost art. A properly-executed hit-and-run is rare. Players are too focused on hitting home runs instead of just putting the ball in play, pitchers nibble at the strike zone too much, and so on.

Basketball is what I want to briefly discuss today, and it, too, has in-game components that many believe are dead. The mid-range jump shot is a popular choice of analysts. Ambidexterity around the basket is believed to be gone too. Criticizing current players’ willingness to play defense seemingly never goes out of style. But I would argue that the most popular lament in basketball is about the death of free throw shooting. Especially in college basketball, where it is easy to latch on to youth and laziness as reasons for the skill’s theoretical demise, broadcasters love to complain about how kids just can’t hit their free throws like they used to.

I was reminded of this perpetual fad during Saturday’s Vanderbilt-Arkansas game. You know you were watching it. An Arkansas player was at the free throw line – Michael Washington, if we’re playing the odds – and bricking his shots. The SEC Network broadcasters, who might well have been beer vendors pulled from the crowd if the telecast’s production value was any indicator, instinctively sunk their teeth into the matter:

Broadcaster #1: “It seems like free throw shooting is at an all-time low. No one seems to want to practice shooting free throws anymore.”

Broadcaster #2: “It’s a basketball-wide epidemic, is what it is. And there’s a simple cure for it: hard work, getting into the gym early, and practicing your free throws. But nowadays, kids just want to run up and down the court in the summertime and play pickup games.”

Broadcaster #1: “And dunk and shoot three pointers.”

Broadcaster #2: “You’re exactly right.”

Even for a condemnation of modern free throw shooting, this seemed pretty strong. What’s more, there’s not just a statistical argument going on here. Most obviously, there’s glaring ageism in this exchange. This is essentially the basketball equivalent of “when I was your age, we had to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow,” a defense mechanism for former players and coaches against the superior athletes in today’s game. That’s one non-statistical aspect of their exchange that makes it difficult to take seriously. The other part of this exchange is more troubling. Whether they meant to or not, their comments played on common stereotypes of black athletes specifically (lazy, favoring style over substance), and black males in general. And to say this while covering a sport that is overwhelmingly black is problematic. Like I said, I have no idea if these broadcasters knew how their comments would come across. But if their complaint was truly and only with the modern state of free throw shooting, I’m sure there was a better way to word it.

The major problem, as you might have guessed, is that these guys are simply wrong. I hopped on to Kenpom.com and looked at college basketball’s free throw shooting since 2004 (I would have looked further back, but for some reason it’s impossible to find season-by-season free throw shooting percentages for the entire NCAA). Here’s what I found:

  • 2010: 68.8%
  • 2009: 68.9%
  • 2008: 69.1%
  • 2007: 69.1%
  • 2006: 69.2%
  • 2005: 68.7%
  • 2004: 68.8%

These numbers are shockingly consistent, but as a fan of sample size, I was somewhat wary of relying on such a small set of data to disprove the broadcasters’ assessment. Luckily, however, I discovered this story from The New York Times (almost exactly a year ago, coincidentally). It’s worth a full read, but the pertinent facts are the following:

  • since the mid-1960s, the free throw percentage for each season has been roughly 69%
  • the lowest free throw percentage for a season was 67.1%
  • the free throw percentage for a season has never been higher than 70%
  • the free throw percentage for an NBA season has been roughly 75% for 50 years

For whatever reason, it’s been impossible to break the 69% plateau in college basketball. It’s also been impossible to sink below the 67% mark. So, you see that the exact opposite of what our broadcasters said is true. Free throw shooting isn’t worse than it’s ever been. It’s exactly the same as it’s always been. And as is too often the case, perhaps the people who are being paid to analyze the game should spare us their clueless declarations of the sport’s deterioration and focus more on truly educating their audience.