Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Small Forward Puzzle

It has occurred to me that perhaps I have been too hard on Will Graves. Early in the season, I was bewildered as to why Will Graves was starting over John Henson. Then, of course, very recently, I mentioned the relatively poor efficiency of Will Graves and unveiled his eponymous theory. While I did briefly try to give a little credit for Graves free-throw shooting (especially in comparison to the rest of the team), I don't think I've given Will the full benefit of the total comparison.

So, using percentage stats because they control for differing minutes and pace (as opposed to raw totals, or per-36 minutes or anything like that), let's have a side-by-side look at the players who have logged the major minutes so far this season at the small forward position. The two main contenders are Will Graves and John Henson, though at least one (and maybe both? I'm actually not sure if they both play the position or if it's just one of them, and if so, which one. More on this later.) of the Wear twins have put in the minutes here. This is also Marcus Ginyards natural position, but since he's been starting at shooting guard and playing back-up point guard as needed, it looks like he won't be playing much at the small forward. Technically I think Justin Watts or Leslie McDonald might've played a few minutes at this position too, but let's constrain the comparisons to Will Graves, John Henson, David Wear, and Travis Wear. It bears mentioning that since both of the Wears spend time some time at the power forward position, comparing their stats to Graves and Henson won't be as exact, but is worth a look anyway. First we'll look at scoring.

True shooting percentage
Will Graves 50.5%
John Henson 43.4%
David Wear 43.0%
Travis Wear 50.8%

Usage percentage
Will Graves 20.5%
John Henson 17.3%
David Wear 13.1%
Travis Wear 18.6%

As inefficient a scoring option as Will Graves is compared to his starting peers, he's actually a fairly good scorer compared with this motley lot. If you wanted to get points on the board from this position, it seems like Will Graves is a good way to go. Travis Wear actually appears to be a slightly better shooter, but his lower usage than Will Graves makes Graves the better option for putting points on the board.

Speaking of boards, let's look at rebounds:

Offensive rebounding percentage
Will Graves 6.2%
John Henson 8.6%
David Wear 1.4%
Travis Wear 12.8%

Defensive rebounding percentage
Will Graves 12.3%
John Henson 16.7%
David Wear 9.2%
Travis Wear 10.9%

The slight edge in rebounding goes to John Henson who dominates rebounding on the defensive end and has a slight edge over offensive rebounding leader Travis Wear in total rebounding (13.0% to 11.8%). It's useful, I think, to reflect on how impressive this is: a full-time small forward is out-rebounding guys who spend a big chunk of their time as power forwards. Those long, spindly arms know how to corral loose balls, even out on the perimeter. That's not all those long arms are good for either.

Block percentage
Will Graves 0.5%
John Henson 9.5%
David Wear 1.1%
Travis Wear 0.0%

Okay, so you probably already knew that Henson was a superior shot blocker to the other three candidates, but it's worth seeing the magnitude of his greatness. Also, here's another useful figure: 8.3%. What's that? That's monster shot-blocker Ed Davis's shot blocking percentage. Henson, so far this season, is an even better shot blocker than the supremely talented Ed Davis. Impressive, huh? Let's look at some of the more "guard-oriented" stats where we might expect Will Graves to have the edge.

Steal percentage
Will Graves 2.9%
John Henson 2.8%
David Wear 1.3%
Travis Wear 1.3%

Turnover percentage
Will Graves 10.5%
John Henson 11.0%
David Wear 20.2%
Travis Wear 14.9%

Assist percentage
Will Graves 6.2%
John Henson 13.7%
David Wear 9.1%
Travis Wear 1.6%

Looking at these numbers, you can see that Graves and Henson are nearly equal in steals and turning the ball over, though it bears mentioning that Will Graves does have the slightest of edges in both categories. It also bears mentioning that the two are both also amongst the best on the team in stealing and minimizing turnovers. When it comes to assists though, Henson is the clear favorite. He is far and away the best passer amongst all of the Carolina big men (Deon, Ed, and Tyler don't get any higher than Ed Davis's 6.5% assist rate).

So what's the verdict? Well, let's go ahead and disqualify the Wears. Despite Travis Wear's skillful shooting and rebounding, it seems pretty obvious that he does most of his work at the power forward position. Travis gets more offensive rebounds, draws more fouls, and shoots more accurately than David who has shot more threes and has a dramatically higher assist rate. Of the two, it seems more likely that David is playing the small forward more that Travis, who's statistical profile pretty much screams power forward. So if we disqualify Travis for mostly being a power forward and David for just not being better than the others at a single thing (exception: by virtue of his two out of three 3-point shooting, David is technically the best 3-point shooter on the team), we have a two man race between Will Graves and John Henson.

John Henson is a superior passer, rebounder, and shot-blocker. Will Graves is a better scorer. Who do you pick? Well, if you are me, and happen to believe that Will Graves very problem is that he is focused too much on scoring despite being an inefficient option, you might find that John Henson contributes more all around. At this point in his still young college career, Henson seems like the ultimate glue guy, facilitating the offense with his court-vision and great passing, terrorizing the perimeter on defense with his length, quick hands, and knack for shot-blockling, and creating a whole world of match-up Hell that most coaches are going to dread figuring out. He's like a bizzaro Kevin Durant, and I mean that in the best possible way: blessed with the same lanky frame, but instead of being a largely one-dimensional scoring machine, he lacks that polished shot but is a shot-blocking, quick-passing, ball-thief and a long-striding night terror on defense.

If the numbers (or at least my take on them) seem to point to Henson, why does Roy insist on Graves. Well, there are a couple clear reasons that don't show up on the stat sheet. As good as I think Henson looks out there most of the time, it's pretty obvious (and logically sound) that Will Graves simply knows the playbook better. He has a veteran's understanding of the offense and knows how to make his rotations properly on defense. He has experience under the bright lights and he knows Roy well-- this is Will's fourth year with the team. Henson is a freshman. There is a very good chance that these things matter.

Short of someone giving me the plus/minus numbers, I can't really prove one way or another who actually makes the more positive impact on the court. I get why Will Graves starts at small forward, and I think that Roy probably does in fact know what he's doing. I simply wanted to highlight an argument for John Henson getting some more playing time. The dude is genuinely gifted, would make good use of extra minutes, and is only going to get better. I also think that there's a real benefit to making Graves the leader of the second-unit and having him and Zeller provide a potent and balanced one-two punch while letting Henson serve as the glue guy facilitating the already ultra-efficient scoring of the starters. Just my opinion.

All that said, still can't figure a good reason to play the Wears extended minutes at small forward. That shit needs to stop. Numbers don't back support it, and somehow it almost always manages to make for the most cringe-worthy moments of the entire game (assuming Marcus hasn't blown a dunk yet).

The Easy Ones

I want to talk to you about free-throws. Specifically, I want to talk to you about how well the 2009-2010 UNC men's basketball team is shooting them. Last year, a large part of the success and efficiency of the UNC offense had to do with drawing fouls and turning those free throws into points. UNC was one of the very teams at getting to the line and was an excellent free throw shooting team. A lot of this had to do with Tyler Hansbrough, who basically made his living at the free throw line, but it was truly a team effort: Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington were also superb at getting to the line and even better at knocking down free throws. Danny Green shot 85%. As a team, UNC shot over 75%. Unfortunately, those who remained are significantly worse at shooting free throws. Deon, Ed Davis, and Larry Drew were all major liabilities on the line. Danny would often play power forward to finish games to prevent opponents from playing hack-a-Deon in close games.

Now that these three are the core of the team, what's the story? Well, it's a mixed one. Let's see the raw numbers:

Free throw shooting percentages
Travis Wear 87.5%
Deon Thomas 79.2%
Will Graves 75.0%
Tyler Zeller 70.8%
Larry Drew II 68.2%
Ed Davis 63.8%
Marcus Ginyard 57.9%
Dexter Strickland 44.4%
John Henson 41.7%
Justin Watts 40.0%
David Wear 25.0%
Leslie McDonald 16.7%

Team 64.2%

So, the bad news first: This is not a great free-throw shooting team. 64.2% overall is really bad. In particular, our guards and the freshmen are just shooting horribly. Aside from Travis Wear, who has only taken nine free throws so far, no one is shooting over 80%. There are five rotation players who are shooting under 50%. We can talk in greater depth about the bad stuff later, but let's touch on some sunshine first.

Here is the good news: Deon is shooting really well, as in nearly 80% well. I don't know what it is, but he's shooting way better than he did in his first three years where he shot 65% for two of those years and an abysmal 60% for his sophomore year. In fact, ignoring Travis Wear (, he's the best free throw shooter on the team. Would Deon shoot the technicals this year? The same clang-clang-groan-when-he-get's-fouled Deon? Yes. Wow. Great job, Deon.

Some more good news: Larry Drew and Ed Davis, while still not great, are both improving. Larry Drew shot an abysmal, Ben Wallace-like 41.2% last season and has now made an amazing improvement to 68.2%. Now, that's incredible, taken at face value, but a word of caution: Last year's number was based on 17 free throws and this year's number is based on 22. Due to the small sample size, Larry Drew's "actual skill level" could be anywhere in between (and really a good bit higher or lower). So, cautious optimism is the rule for Larry's free throw shooting. Ed Davis's progress looks a little less amazing, but is all the more important and is probably more concrete. Ed Davis shot 57.3% last year and is shooting 63.8% this year. This is nothing but good news. Ed Davis draws fouls at the highest rate of anyone on the team this year and his ability to shoot a higher percentage from the free throw line will turn his already insane scoring efficiency totally nuclear. This is good stuff.

Equally good, Tyler Zeller and Will Graves seem to be shooting pretty well, and this seems to be consistent with their past performance. Good job, guys.

Now, let's talk about the bad stuff: Marcus Ginyard is shooting 57.9%. This is bad, but fortunately, it's not typical. In his previous four years at Carolina, Marcus is a 73.6% free throw shooter. Hopefully, we can expect him to shoot closer to that as the season goes on. Justin Watts (admittedly, on only five shots) is shooting 40%. The bad news is that his first year at Carolina, he shot 42.9%, so don't expect the same upswing that we might expect for Marcus.

Now, Dexter Strickland, John Henson, David Wear, and Leslie McDonald: they need to practice some damn free throws. I get that they are freshmen playing on bigger stages that ever before, but jitters or not, they are all shooting worse than Shaq. Hell, some of them are shooting worse than Ben Wallace. Free throws are really easy to practice and not at all difficult to improve. I am willing to bet, however, that all of these guys usually do shoot a lot better than this, and as the season goes on, these numbers should all steadily climb towards reasonable and respectable values in the 60s-70s range. Likewise, sadly, we probably can't expect Travis Wear to shoot nearly 90% all season. But anyway, for now: Great job, Travis! Practice your free-throws, the rest of the freshmen class!

The message, overall, is a simple one: Yes, this is a bad free-throw shooting team, but so far, there has been improvement, and, fortunately, we can probably count on even more gains in the free-throw department.

Monday, December 7, 2009

An Apology and the Will Graves Theory

Once upon a time, I promised to do recaps of every Carolina basketball game for both the men and women. Clearly, and unfortunately, this hasn't happened. I've really dropped the ball on the women, who are playing really great, and I promise to blog about them and the NBA soon. As for the men, there have been six games since then and nary a recap in sight.

Well, my friends, this is my apology and with a full week of no games, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on what's happened and talk about how things can get better. In the six games the men have played, there have been two great wins, two wins that while not meaningless, were expected, and two losses. What's the key to understanding this? Well, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to The Will Graves Theory.

The Will Graves Theory
Will Graves is the current starting small forward for UNC. Though he starts, he splits his minutes with a lot of other people and is currently averaging only about 19 minutes a game. Will Graves is a great player, a tough rebounder, a hustler, and from time to time, a lights out three point shooter. In more than a few of these games, he's made some really savvy, heads-up plays that have really helped the team.

There is a problem. Despite all the good things he does, Will Graves is not shooting terribly well this season and he's taking a lot of shots, shots that should probably be going to other players. Let's take a look at some numbers,

First, let me back up my assertion that he's not shooting well. Let's look at true shooting percentage, a measure that weights and accounts for the value of three pointers and free-throws.

True shooting percentage
Deon Thompson 59.3%
Ed Davis 69.2%
Ginyard, Marcus 61.6%
Tyler Zeller 60.0%
Larry Drew II 63.2%
Will Graves 50.5%

Very clearly, you can see that of the players who get major minutes, Graves is shooting the poorest. He is still shooting pretty well, but is really way below the other guys getting major minutes in terms of how well he's scoring. If you just saw this chart, and you were planning your offense, it becomes clear that Graves should be taking the fewest shots. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Let's look at usage percentage, "an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor."

Usage percentage
Deon Thompson 28.0%
Ed Davis 20.0%
Ginyard, Marcus 15.6%
Tyler Zeller 25.5%
Larry Drew II 17.6%
Will Graves 20.5%

Aside from the number one scoring option, and understanding that Tyler Zeller is the second-unit's main scoring option, Will Graves is getting the most touches. He is getting more touches than Ed Davis, who is shooting the ball at nearly a 70% true shooting rate! Davis has played 237 minutes so far this season while Graves has played 167. In 70 extra minutes of playing time, Davis has attempted a field goal only three more times than Graves. Now obviously, this is a little unfair. Davis is shooting phenomenally and is not getting nearly enough touches for how well he is scoring. However, my point could be made with any of the other players. Will Graves is an inefficient scoring option and is using possessions at a disproportionate rate.

Is it costing UNC games? It seems like it. In the loss to Kentucky, Graves had ten attempted field goals, good for second most attempts on the team (behind Deon) and tied with Kentucky's superstar phenom John Wall. Should the worst shooting starter on UNC be taking the same number of shots as probable number one NBA draft pick John Wall? Probably not. In the game against Syracuse, Graves led UNC in field goal attempts with twelve. He made two.

It's really hard to win games where your least efficient scoring option is taking the most shots. Carolina's offense is at it's best when the ball is moving freely and patiently. We have time in our half-court set, and we should be trying to get Deon the ball on the block or to Ed by the hoop, or turn a Larry Drew drive into a Marcus Ginyard open three. When other teams stop the ball movement and force Will to be a major component of our offense, we lose. I'm not saying that Will should stop shooting-- I still think he should keep trying to create and definitely do his best to knock down those open threes that we know he can get. I just want him to stop trying to put the team on his back. I want him to consider the extra pass, think about all the ways he can contribute without taking bad shots.

In the game against Michigan State, Will led the team in offensive rebounding. He took two shots, and made them both. It's been our best game of the year so far, and that's no accident.

Will Graves is the key to Carolina's offense: when he lets go and embraces his role with that zen-like shooter's detachment and plays within the flow (Wayne Ellington was the master of this), our offense hums smoothly. When he tries to force things and dominates the ball, our offense grinds to a standstill. The Will Graves Theory. Tell your friends.