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).

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