Monday, November 1, 2010

Oakland's Playmaker Quandary

During his team's media day, Oakland Coach Greg Kampe was asked who he saw as the squad's lock-down defender heading into the 2010-11 season. Kampe, always honest, noted that he wasn't quite sure who would emerge to fill that roll this season, saying it was the biggest question mark in his mind about this team. During last year's run to the NCAA Tournament, that roll was filled by two expert seniors in Derick Nelson at the forward position and Johnathon Jones as the primary defender of opposing point guards. Though it will be interesting to see who can step up to lock down the stars on the other side of the ball, I also feel like there is another lingering question with this year's team: who will fill the playmaker void left by Nelson and Jones? In an attempt to justify the question and perhaps answer it, I put together an analysis based on data available from last year.

My interest in playmaking ability was sparked by a post on the Sacramento Kings' blog Sactown Royalty, where the author used some unconventional data to figure out which Sacramento players needed the most help in getting off shots. Essentially, the site came up with a measure for shot creation based on the amount of times a player's "field goal made" was the result of an assist. Additionally, they broke this up into shots taken as jumpers and those in the paint. Fortunately for those writing about the NBA, this information is out there. In the realm of small-time college basketball, accessing such numbers is rather difficult. So in an attempt to duplicate this process, I went through all of the game logs from 2009-10, which clearly indicate how every point was scored during a game, to come up with the necessary numbers (the two games against non-Division I opponents were not included). Field goals are split up into those hit as "jumpers" and those completed as layups, dunks, tip-ins, or "jumpers in the paint." Additionally, each field goal notes if there was an assist tied to it. After the painstaking process of charting these factors, I came up with the following distribution.

To aid in understanding these numbers, let's look at a few specific examples. Perhaps the easiest role to understand is that of the center, Keith Benson. Benson is most often stationed in the post while the guards and forwards work the ball around hoping to get it to the big man to complete a play. As a result of this offensive set, a substantial amount of Benson's inside field goals, 56%, come as the result of a pass that directly sets him up to score, or an assist. The rest of the field goals he made in the paint were due to his own creation, whether through "posting up" an individual and working his way toward a bucket or through grabbing an offensive rebound and subsequently scoring. Now a key question here is whether putting the ball in the basket off of an offensive rebound can truly count as playmaking ability. This is truly debatable, and perhaps an indication that this measure is not perfect. I would argue, however, that the act of fighting for positioning and landing an offensive board as a result would count as creating the circumstances from which a field goal could be made. This methodology helps out Will Hudson quite a bit, who is known for put-backs via offensive rebounding. Because more plays are designed for Benson, Hudson then gets most of his scoring by creating for himself from such offensive rebounds. This is surely a reason why his inside assisted basket percentage is 13% lower than Benson's.

Hopefully the idea behind these numbers is a bit more clear now. Using this framework, let's dig into the potential problem heading into 2010-11. Specifically, we must look at the numbers of the two players who have since graduated, Nelson and Jones. Among all of the high-volume players, Nelson and Jones have the lowest total assisted basket percentage. While their numbers for jumpers are fairly standard across the team, their numbers in the paint are alarming. On the season, just 12% of Jones' plays in the paint came as a result of an assist, meaning he single-handedly created 88% of the field goals he made in the paint. As a guard, this means Jones had playmaking ability. When the ball was in his hands, Jones could either distribute (as he often did with perfection) or he could make a play toward the basket. While the volume of his inside field goals isn't as large as some of the other players, the percentage surely shows us that Jones could create his own shot if necessary (something we witnessed plenty of times, most notably on the road against Oregon in 2008 and at home against Oral Roberts in 2010). He mostly did it by cutting to the basket from the perimeter, but a large portion also came as the result of his ability to make defensive plays that led to quick transition lay-ups or his signature stop-and-shoot buckets from 15-feet out.

The worry grows even more when looking at Derick Nelson's figures. One of the reasons Oakland wasn't able to get over the hump in 2008-09 was because the team lacked a tough slasher with playmaking ability (due to Nelson's season-ending injury). Well in 2009-10, the Grizzlies were a force because Nelson was back again. In total, Nelson created just shy of 70% of his inside buckets. While several of those no doubt resulted from his aggressive offensive rebounding ability, most of them came from his effort to beat his opponent while gunning for the inside basket. Without Nelson, Oakland loses its primary playmaker of the past season.

The season has yet to start, meaning that these concerns are merely question marks and not legitimate problems at this point. There will be several players who can step up to provide playmaking for the Golden Grizzlies this year, especially without Jones and Nelson taking most of the minutes at those positions. To figure out where such production might come from, let's look at the various positions more closely, this time including the raw figures. We'll start with the guards.

What strikes me first about these numbers is the relative similarities between Jones and Larry Wright. Their numbers for outside jumpers are nearly identical. Jones has slightly less field goals as a result of an assist, most likely due to the fact the ball was already in his hands for most plays. I don't have the raw data to differentiate between three-pointers and two-point baskets, but from going through the logs, I can say that a large portion of Wright's 45 assisted jumpers were in fact from downtown. This figure will likely drop a bit in 2010-11 since he'll be the primary ball-handler and a lot of those shots will instead be reserved for Reggie Hamilton. But where Wright could improve is in his ability to make plays in the paint. JJ obviously had a huge advantage in this regard, making over two times as many inside baskets, mostly due to his own doing. Wright has the skills to replicate this process, but it will take an aggressive attitude and more confidence in order for him to finish such shots.

Ledrick Eackles didn't play as many minutes as the other guards, so his raw figures are considerably leaner. However, his percentages show that he likes to and can create on his own. His 31% assist percentage is the lowest on the team, no doubt influenced by his tendency to take risky three-pointers as well as his ability to beat out opponents in the open court on the way to an easy transition lay-up. Eackles' playmaking skills give me the impression that he will be able to make up for some of the production of Johnathon Jones. Reggie Hamilton obviously throws a wrench in this analysis since his impact is unknown at this point. For what it's worth, I'm hopeful that Hamilton can be a playmaker, distributor, and defensive stopper all in one!

The forwards on this team have a lot more work to do in order to replace the offensive production of Nelson. This is what worries me most. We've already talked about how Nelson was a playmaking monster, most of which came from high-percentage shots in the paint. None of the potential replacements have ever come close to the kind of numbers Nelson put up last season. In fact, most of these guys rely heavily on others in order to get an open look. The most reliant of the bunch is Drew Maynard. A whopping 72% of his field goals came as the result of an assist. In the paint, a large portion of his 26 assist field goals were from tremendous alley-oop passes which he forcefully threw down. There is clearly a purpose for such field goals, but without JJ tossing the ball up, there is some reason to be concerned. Additionally, most of Maynard's jumpers were three-pointers which came directly from an assist. There is little evidence to suggest that Maynard had the ability to create his own shot from outside or inside. It is possible that he just wasn't afforded the opportunity to do so with Nelson getting so many minutes ahead of him, but with his suspension, it remains to be seen if we'll find out any differently this year.

For his part, Blake Cushingberry's raw numbers prove he has been the biggest benefactor of a great passing game. Just three of his 31 jumpers were as a result of his own playmaking; this probably stems from the fact that most of his jumpers were from beyond the three-point line where he was able to set up and wait for the pass. His inside numbers offer a glimmer of hope for the forward position. For most of the season, his inside figures were skewed toward field goals made from an assist, though his inspiring performance in the conference tournament showed he could get into the lane to make a play on his own (or from an offensive board). There isn't enough volume to be able to say for sure that he could become a Nelson-like player, but percentage-wise one can hope that Cushingberry could approach that level.

For Drew Valentine, we simply lack enough data to be able to draw any firm conclusions. His inside figures are nice but mostly came against the 10th and 11th guys on the bench of the opponent. His role will expand greatly this season, and I can only hope that he's able to showcase some shot creation ability, particularly in the paint.

There is nothing too revelatory with the figures for Oakland's bigs, as everyone comes back this season. In terms of raw data, Benson clearly benefited as the focal point of the offense with 90 field goals assisted. However, his size and athletic skill also allowed him to make 70 field goals in the paint from his own doing (once again, whether from offensive boards or "posting up"). His percentage stays rather consistent when he goes outside of the paint as well, where he is more effective draining jumpers when a solid pass is made his way. Hudson, on the other hand, almost exclusively gets his baskets in the post. He proves effective both when a play is made his way and when he must make one on his own (as he does with his offensive boarding). Finally, Ilija is a bit of a non-factor in this discussion. Hopefully he has more than seven field goals to his name this time next year.

Even though Nelson and Jones are gone, there are certainly opportunities for current players to step up and make plays for Oakland this season. College basketball, after all, is all about new players getting the chance to come in and pick up where those with no more eligibility left off. A consistently good program knows and embraces this. Now it will be up to players like Wright, Eackles, Hamilton, Cushingberry, and Valentine to come in and show that Oakland is one of those good programs.

*A quick note about the numbers. Since they were tabulated by eye-and-hand, there was a small error of about 3 field goals that I believe were missed after comparing my totals with the official end-of-season total on the statistics page of This error is likely insignificant but should be noted.

**A second note: These numbers can also be utilized to talk a bit about Oakland's passing game and not simply an individual's ability to get a shot on his own. For example, 61% of the team's made jumpers (including from beyond the three-point line) came as the result of an assist. Such a figure would indicate that the team's ball movement was fairly strong or that certain offensive sets designed to hit the open man on the perimeter were indeed effective. A more cynical approach might also use these statistics to indicate whether or not a player was a "ball-hog." However, such an argument doesn't really hold up well. For example, Johnathon Jones was a national leader in assists, yet when push came to shove, he knew how to make a play for himself as well. Obviously, the statistics don't lie, but the resulting analysis largely depends on the eye of the beholder.

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