Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Win One for the Jimmer?

This week, we will identify the college basketball player who, to this point in the season, could reasonably be considered the Player of the Year.  To make such an analysis more accessible, I will start with a glossary of statistical terms, which can be referred to by the reader.
SPR = [2PFGM + 1.5(3PFGM) + (FTM/2) + AST]/[FGA + (FTA/2) + AST + TOV]
TOT = TOV/[TOV + FGA + (FTA/2) + TRB + STL + AST]
SAR = [FGA + (FTA/2)]/AST

If the college basketball season were to end today, the John Wooden Award for national Player of the Year would almost certainly go to Brigham Young University’s Jimmer Fredette.  After all, he really is a great player, stringing together one terrific individual performance after another for a very good team that would, nevertheless, be quite ordinary without him, all the while leading the nation in scoring.

And then there’s the name.

Jimmer.  He sounds All-American, as if he walked directly off the screen of “Hoosiers” and right onto a Mountain West basketball court:  “Let’s run ‘em out there, Coach – Merle.  Ollie.  Strap.  And Jimmer.”

But with all due respect to the Jimmer – and I believe he is due his fair share – I wanted to compare him to other players whose names, as ordinary as they may be, enter fairly into the debate on college basketball’s best player.  Since recently ran a piece in which Fredette was considered for the award in a field that included Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Connecticut’s Kemba Walker, I have decided to narrow my mid-season finalists to those three players.  And though I don’t consider him to be a serious candidate for national Player of the Year, I have decided to include Duke’s Kyle Singler as a basis for comparison, since he played so admirably in leading his team to a national championship last season, and once again leads a juggernaut this year.

Let’s start by comparing the four players’ traditional statistics:

                        PPG      RPG     AST      FG%     FT%

Fredette          27.6     3.5       4.2       .474     .885
Walker            23.4     5.3       4.3       .427     .820
Sullinger          18.0     10.1     1.4       .582     .710
Singler             18.1     6.1       1.5       .449     .800

By these measures, I believe the Jimmer would earn the nod over Sullinger and the others, on the strength of his scoring, phenomenal free throw shooting, and very good field goal shooting (made even more impressive when considered that more than 40% of his field goal attempts are three-pointers).  Sullinger has a wide margin over the other players in terms of rebounds and his field goal shooting, but the Jimmer is equal or superior to his competitors in the other traditional categories.  Give Round One to the Jimmer.

Now, a reasonable knock on a player like the Jimmer, of course, is going to be the level of competition that he has faced.  A Mountain West Conference player, the argument might go, does not have to face teams like those found by players in the ACC, Big Ten, or Big East.

And in 2010-11, that statement is true – though not in the manner that most might expect.  With the exception of a player in the Big East, a Mountain West player has to face much stiffer competition than a player from the ACC or Big Ten.  The Big East is the toughest conference in the country this season, but the Mountain West – with BYU and San Diego State emerging as possible Final Four candidates; with UNLV as an established national program; and with New Mexico looming – is right up there.

Look at the numbers.  By the Rating Percentage Index (RPI), Jimmer’s BYU squad has faced the ninth most difficult schedule in the country this season, which is the toughest schedule faced of any of the four players examined here.  Compare that to Walker’s UConn, who has faced the thirteenth-toughest schedule; Sullinger’s Buckeyes, who have faced the thirty-sixth toughest schedule; or to Singler’s Duke, who, in a down year for the ACC, has faced the fifty-ninth toughest road!  On strength of schedule, give Round Two to the Jimmer.

A second possible detraction from the Jimmer’s candidacy might be the definition of what a “Player of the Year” or “Most Valuable Player” is.  Some might argue, as it is often done in professional baseball, that an MVP-type award should be given to the most valuable player on one of the most competitive teams.

By this definition, you could reasonably give the Player of the Year to any of the four mentioned here:  Each is the centerpiece of a highly competitive team.  But by RPI rankings, BYU is the best team in the country; Ohio State is the third-best; Duke is the eighth; and UConn is the ninth.  Once again, Round Three goes to the Jimmer.

But now let’s look at the same players again, using the less traditional, Basketball I.Q. statistics:

                        SAR      SSI        TAPPS    SPR    TOT

Fredette          5.41     .356     1.08       .605   .089
Walker            5.10     .391     0.98       .568   .058
Sullinger          10.2     .673     1.12       .598   .050
Singler             10.7     .272     1.02       .548   .063

By these numbers, Ohio State’s Sullinger appears to have the edge.  His shot selection (SSI) is fantastic, and by far the best amongst the four.  Players of his Shot-to-Assist Ratio (SAR) quintile (fifth quintile, or Finisher), however, generally have higher SSIs because they shoot so close to the basket; Fredette and Walker, who are third quintile Balanced Scorers, have SSIs that, though nowhere near as good as Sullinger’s, are pretty good for players with a strong perimeter game.  Singler has a below-average SSI – almost certainly because 43.9% of his shot attempts are three-pointers, and in this way Singler is the collegiate version of Charlie Villanueva.

Sullinger also has the highest Turnover-Adjusted Points per Shot (TAPPS) of all four players – in part because of his excellent shot selection and field goal shooting, and in part because he takes extremely good care of the ball:  his Turnovers per Touch (TOT) is a very low .050, the best among the group (although low-post players should have lower TOTs than players who handle and pass the ball more, like Walker and Fredette).  That said, Fredette probably turns the ball over a little too much for a player who shoots as readily as he does, and Walker’s TOT of .058 is downright impressive in light of how much he passes, and the competition he faces.

Sullinger’s Successful Possession Rate (SPR) of .598 is extremely high for a Finisher (whose numbers do not benefit from the skew provided by assist totals), and perhaps more impressive than Fredette’s SPR of .605, which is aided significantly by his assists.  In the context of player quintile, Sullinger’s SPR is the most impressive of the lot.

And so, by the non-traditional statistics, Round Four goes to Sullinger.

So, with the traditional basketball numbers favoring the Jimmer, and the non-traditional statistics tipping toward Sullinger, I’ll have to go with team achievement as the tie-breaker.  Fredette’s BYU team is, currently, the best in the country (by RPI), and Fredette has led his team against a much more difficult schedule than Sullinger has (also by RPI).  As such, I’ll give the mid-season Player of the Year award to the Jimmer.

But I’d like to examine one more question before concluding:  Of the four players, who would I predict to make the better NBA player?

A few statistics stick out in my mind here, not the least of which is the players’ varying three-point basket rates.  If you look at the players’ 3-Point Rates (3PR, or 3PFGA/FGA) – I was tempted to name this stat the “D’Antoni Index” – Fredette and Singler take 41.7% and 43.9%, respectively, of their shots from behind the arc.  And if you look at what I refer to as their 3-Point Skew (3PS, or 3PFGM/FGM), 36.8% of Fredette’s buckets, and 36.4% of Singler’s, are of the three-point variety.  This does not bode well for either player in the NBA, where the arc will be pushed back another three feet behind the key, and another 15 inches at the corners.  Since so much of each of these players’ production is generated from three-point shots – particularly their TAPPS and SPR – I would expect a serious decline at the professional level.

Compare this to Walker, whose 3PR is only .325, and whose 3PS is only .250; or to Sullinger, whose 3PR is a negligible .040, and whose 3PS is only .014 (clearly, Sullinger only heaves the three as the shot clock winds down, or the half concludes).  The increased difficulty of scoring a three will have less of an impact on Walker at the professional level, and no impact at all on Sullinger.

The other statistic to consider is the SSI:  Expect each player’s shot selection to get worse at the professional level.  This bodes extremely poorly for Singler, and the decreased trips to the foul line will de-emphasize free throw shooting for Singler, Walker and Fredette – all of whom currently feature excellent free throw shooting as one of the most valuable parts of their game.  I would expect Sullinger to also take fewer trips to the line – but if his free-throw shooting is only 71%, and his field goal shooting is above 50%, this hurts him less.

Third, I lend a tremendous amount of weight to turnovers, particularly when you consider the extraordinary level of athletic defense these players would face in the NBA.  Sullinger and Walker both have impressive TOTs – and Walker has done this as a ballhandler in a very difficult and aggressive conference.  I would predict that both of these players will figure out how to care for the ball at the next level (though expect their turnovers to nevertheless increase).

And lastly, players’ respective ages suggest who as more room to grow – and Sullinger is the youngest among the four, with Walker right behind him.

And so, as a prediction of who will step it up as a pro, I might stand by the Jimmer as the college player to envy – but my professional money is on Sullinger first, and Walker second.

Next post: Monetizing players with a Price-to-Earnings Ratio

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