Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Just How Good Is SDSU's Nate Wolters?

One of The Summit League's most productive players this season has been Nate Wolters, a sophomore point guard for South Dakota State. The 6-foot-3 Minnesota-native had his coming out party in his team's second game of the year, a televised match against Iowa of the Big Ten, in which he exploded for 25 points and 9 assists in a Jackrabbits win. Wolters has been just as solid ever since, as he currently leads the conference in scoring (19.4 per game) on 45.6% two-point shooting and 54.7% three-point shooting. True to his position, Wolters is also the conference's best distributor, dishing out 6.0 assists to just 2.2 turnovers per game. Just a sophomore, Wolters is the young leader of a young Jackrabbits team that has had its ups and downs this year, particularly on the defensive end. The team is off to a 4-3 start in conference play, no doubt influenced by the overall prowess of Wolters. Already, the emerging floor general has been called the best point guard in the conference. But just how good is Wolters at the point?

To evaluate Wolters' point play, let's take a look at a statistic called the Pure Point Rating, or PPR. The PPR is a tool developed by ESPN.com's John Hollinger to evaluate point guards beyond the assist-to-turnover ratio. As Hollinger points out in his seminal article on the subject, the A:TO "assumes assists and turnovers are equal, when in fact a turnover is more costly than an assist is helpful" and it "equates very different amounts of productivity." To get over the ratio hump, he explains the concept behind PPR as follows:
First, [PPR] adjusts for the fact that assists do less good than turnovers do harm by multiplying assists by two-thirds. There's a factual basis in this. As I noted in a recent column, of the three acts of creating the basket (getting open, making the pass and making the shot), the passer does one. So we give him one-third of the credit of a 2-point basket, or about two-thirds of a point. Since turnovers cost almost exactly one point (teams average about 1.02 points per possession), we needn't make any adjustments to that part of the equation.

The second adjustment is measuring productivity, to avoid the Player A vs. Player B situation above. The way to do this is to sum a player's accomplishments on a per-minute basis, then adjust them for his team's pace. Finally, multiply the end result by 100 to make the numbers more user-friendly.
While PPR was originally intended for the NBA, it can also be applied to college basketball. For its part, DraftExpress.com includes PPR in its statistics database, though anyone can calculate it for any player given one culls the right data. For the purposes of Wolters, I set up a few tables in Excel to compare his PPR to various segments of players. This first table is designed for Summit League enthusiasts who may remember well two of the conference's better point guards in recent years: Oakland's Johnathon Jones and NDSU's Ben Woodside (click to enlarge).
For JJ and Woody, I chose the 2008-09 season because that was each player's best individual year (JJ led the nation in assists and Woody was the conference player of the year). As we can see in the PPR column, Jones came in with a great 5.14 figure that ranked much higher than Woodside's 2.79. However, the former Bison point guard was a premier scorer, in fact one of the best in the country that season. But enough of these two, when we look at what Wolters has done through 18 games, we see that he is about as pure as they come. His 5.35 PPR ranks ahead of JJ's and his 24 points per 40 minutes figure is just shy of Woodside's mark. In essence, Wolters has the best traits of both players. Like Jones, the young Jackrabbit has great court vision and control of the ball, yet he is also an elite scorer like Woodside. Now that we've established a standard for PPR, let's look at Wolters compared to current college point guards. The following table discriminates to feature point guards who are both leading passers (a minimum of 5 assists/game) and featured scorers (at least 20 points per 40 minutes).
On first glance, it is clear Wolters is among some elite company. Illinois guard Demetri McCamey and the Duke tandem of Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith are likely future pros, while Xavier's Tu Holloway has the potential to reach that level. Yet for all of these players save McCamey, Wolters checks in with a higher Pure Point Rating. When looking at the raw stats, Wolters' rating is clearly helped by his lack of turnovers. As his team's primary distributor, that's a trait which is likely welcomed with open arms by SDSU coach Scott Nagy. However, what is also so intriguing about Wolters is that he is his team's leading scorer, too. In essence, the ball is in his hands more than any of his teammates, yet he's still able to significantly limit his turnovers. The same could be said of all of the players on this list, and a mid-major shout-out should also go to Ohio's D.J. Cooper for his incredible pure point guard rating as he is just a sophomore as well.

To give this PPR puzzle a bit more juice, I went back through BBState.com archives to find players who ended a season with the same criteria discussed above. Although there were some random players, the overwhelming majority of guys I came across had one thing in common: they went on the play in the NBA. Below is a table of selected players, including two guys from 2004-05 who do not fit the profile in scoring but nonetheless are included because they are the standard of point guard play in the NBA at present.
This table is useful in many ways. First, I think it shows us that, generally, those scoring talents who also had a great PPR in college have more or less went on to be great point guards in the NBA. The obvious examples are Chris Paul and Deron Williams, and perhaps we need more time to evaluate Ty Lawson, owner of an absolutely unbelievable 7.58 PPR in the season he won the national championship with North Carolina. On the other end of the spectrum are guys like Rodney Stuckey and Stephen Curry. Both players were elite scoring talents in college who happened to play point guard, yet in the NBA we've seen that they are much better playing in a combo spot rather than as lead distributor. Evan Turner, the national player of the year last season, was his team's primary ball-handler but did so as a sort of point-forward, not a point guard. As such, the PPR reveals he's anything but a pure point. Finally, it is interesting to note John Wall's less than stellar figure by this standard. Wall was the first pick in the NBA Draft and has been a sensational passer already in his first season, yet he's never been particularly adept at limiting his turnovers, at least thus far. With that knowledge, we can see how important it is to the PPR to retain the ball on one's possessions.

This data should not lead one to believe that Nate Wolters is going to be an NBA talent one day. However, it should certainly confirm that the sophomore is playing at a high level right now as a natural point guard who can score with the best of them. His performance thus far puts him in an elite class of players. At the very least, it is hoped that making such comparisons will help shine a light on the emerging talent. While he plays on a young team this season, there should be reason to be stoked about the future of the Jackrabbits with Wolters at the helm.

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