Startling Starters

Part of the fun about following college basketball is the unexpected. Whether it’s a pleasant surprise or a shocking disappointment, I’m always captivated by watching familiar players add something to their games (or not). Early this season, several players on nationally relevant teams have certainly not met expectations, be it in a good or a bad way. These performances have slightly changed my outlook on these teams – making fringe contenders real title challengers, or taking another potentially-elite team down a notch. Several guys have stood out to me early on in 2015-16. 

Abdel Nader, Iowa St.

As much as I (and all of us here at 3MW) love Iowa State hoops, my biggest concern coming into this year was giving major minutes to Abdel Nader. In the past, he’s been a bit of an inefficient shot hog (and that’s being polite). As a sophomore at Illinois State, he led the country in % of shots taken while on the floor (42.1%!!!) while posting a hideous 80.4 O-rating, and as a junior for the Clones, he used the third-most possessions on the team (21.1%) despite being the only rotation player with an O-rating below 102 (his was 92.4). I feared that as he became more of a key player in the rotation, his shameless gunning would ruin the beautiful symphony of the Iowa State offense. While he has continued to use a large chunk of possessions (leading the team at 24%), his O-rating has jumped to an impressive 110.2, buoyed by much improved shooting. 

For his career, Nader’s splits are 42%/28% from 2- and 3-land, but through the early portion of the 2015-16 season, he’s at a sparkling 63% from 2 and a respectable 35% from deep. Digging into the stats, a big part of Nader’s increased efficiency has been his commitment to getting out in transition. He’s at a sterling 1.4 points/possession in those types of plays, putting him in the 88th percentile nationally. He looks smoother running the floor this year, and with an elite point guard delivering the ball, Nader is getting easy buckets like this:

If Nader continues to work hard in transition, Monte Morris will continue to find him for lay-ups and dunks. Despite a gross 0.54 ppp on spot-up shots, Nader is dynamic enough in the open floor to maintain solid efficiency going forward. With his improved play on the wing and Deonte Burton eligible soon, Iowa State has some imposing wing athletes to help support their dynamic and versatile offense, and that could give new coach Steve Prohm the keys he needs to take the Cyclones further in March than even Fred Hoiberg could.  

Wayne Selden, Kansas

A popular term in fantasy sports is the “post-hype breakout” – meaning a player that was consistently hyped around draft time that never delivered on that promise, only to finally play to his potential once everyone stopped paying attention to him. To me, Selden fits into that. As a highly regarded freshman, he ended up having a fairly nondescript season as a supporting player to Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, and Perry Ellis. With the first two being gone to the NBA lottery, many analysts again billed Selden as a major breakout player as a sophomore, only to be outplayed in his own backcourt by Frank Mason (and even Kelly Oubre, to an extent). 

This year, he seemed locked in as a complementary piece to Ellis and Mason once again, and while those two have definitely delivered as the team’s studs, Selden has been one of the best third bananas in the country. He’s avoiding turnovers, using his overwhelming physique to get to the basket and to the free throw line, and perhaps most surprisingly, he’s been lights out from downtown. He was an absolute stud in the Maui final against Vanderbilt, playing all 40 minutes and delivering 25 points on 8/11 shooting. When Selden is on like that, Kansas is nearly unstoppable and squarely in the highest tier of title contenders. 

I don’t expect his shooting to stay this scorching (he’s at freaking 56% from 3 right now), but if he can hit 40-45 percent of his treys, he gives Kansas an elite third option. With the recent addition of Cheick Diallo and the continued emergence of Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas has the talent and depth to be knocking on the door in March once again. 

Edmond Sumner, Xavier/Joel Berry, North Carolina

I’m combining these guys into one because I view their contributions to their squads as very similar. I wasn’t terribly high on either guy coming into this year, but they’ve been valuable starters for two teams off to impressive starts to the year. 

I previewed Xavier, and I conceded that point guard would likely be their biggest issue – Myles Davis is a good guard, but is probably better off the ball. Without another solid option at PG, though, he seemed destined to play out of position for most of the year. Sumner, though, has been a revelation. As a lanky redshirt freshman, he is leading the team in assist rate, shooting 41% from deep, and getting to the free throw line at an absolutely insane rate. He’s taken 54 free throw in 8 games and is currently 6th in the country with a 103.8 free throw rate (meaning he shoots 1.038 free throws for every field goal he attempts). He’s been an absolute nightmare to keep out of the lane, and has been especially good as the ball-handler in pick and roll situations, scoring 1.07 points/possession – putting him in the 90th percentile in the country. He gets to the rim at will, and his exceptional length makes him a challenge for big men to block his shot without fouling. He’s also surprisingly patient for a redshirt freshman, showing a nice hesitation dribble to let the roll man cut and to observe the play as it develops. 

Berry, like Sumner, has given his team a primary ball-handler that I did not expect them to have. Marcus Paige is obviously a stud, and having the ball in his hands late in games will often be the best choice for the Tar Heels, but Berry was great in Paige’s absence as the primary facilitator. With that ability to run the offense, coach Roy Williams has the option to use Paige as a wing scorer. While not as good in the PnR as Sumner, he has been sufficient (53rd percentile), and he’s also providing shooting, hitting a solid 38% from deep. With borderline elite wing scorers in Paige and Justin Jackson alongside him and a deep and experienced frontcourt, that’s really all Carolina needs. 

On the flip side, several key pieces of potential title contenders haven’t quite played to their potential so far, and their teams have suffered because of it. If they aren’t able to right the ship, their respective teams’ ceilings lower a bit. In the world of parity this year, that little bit could be the difference between a Final Four appearance and a heartbreaking early round loss. 

Josh Perkins, Gonzaga

When Przemek Karnowski is healthy, Gonzaga probably has the best frontcourt in the country. Kyle Wiltjer is an offensive machine, Domantas Sabonis is a two-way monster, and Karnowski is simply too big for teams to guard him one-on-one (and he’s a willing and able passer). The problem for the Zags in their closer games has been getting them the ball – or punishing defenses when opponents double-team them (or even triple-team). 

We knew there might be some hiccups with all of the turnover in Mark Few’s backcourt, but despite some flashes of potential, Perkins has underwhelmed thus far in his role as the primary ball-handler. He’s clearly talented and a strong athlete, but he has stunted the Zags offense in a few ways. He has turned the ball over on 31% of the possessions he’s used, an incredibly disappointing rate for an elite team’s point guard. He had 5 turnovers against Arizona – three of them simply in initiating the offense. For instance, in the following gif, Perkins is simply supposed to be initiating the offense – instead, he throws a lazy bounce pass to Wiltjer, and Arizona gets an easy steal. 

Perkins turnover 1.gif

Later, with the game tied 58-58 and 10 minutes left, he was simply pickpocketed at halfcourt by Kadeem Allen in an instance of pure laziness with the ball. Careless turnovers like these can’t happen against talented opponents, and the Zags suffered the consequences – a loss. 

Caleb Swanigan, Purdue 

It almost seems nonsensical to have a Purdue player on this list, as they’ve been maybe the country’s most impressive team through the early portion of the season. Their defense is a nearly impenetrable fortress, led by incredibly stout interior defense and rebounding, and Swanigan is a part of that – he pulls down an impressive 23.6% of available defensive rebounds when on the court. But he hasn’t provided any shot-blocking whatsoever (0.8% block rate, good for 8th on his own team), and he’s been an outright liability on the offensive end. 

His 80.1 offensive rating is abysmal, and it’s hard to tell what’s been worse about his game on that end – his shooting or his propensity for turnovers. His shooting splits currently are 39%/29%/63% (2/3/FT), some real hide-your-eyes numbers. I had no idea he was a three point shooter coming into college, and his 6/21 success rate so far doesn’t exactly scream anything different. It’s possible Painter is encouraging this attempt at developing some deep range, as doing so would make guarding the gargantuan Hammons/Haas platoon even more impossible, but as the competition stiffens up (Butler, Vanderbilt, and the Big Ten schedule approaching after a few more cupcakes), these inefficient shots are going to become seriously damaging. Indeed, Swanigan is at a paltry 0.643 points per possession on spot-up chances, putting him in the bottom 18% in the country. The more difficult opponents will punish Purdue if this trend continues.

He hasn’t been much better in the post. Again, per Synergy, he has turned the ball over 27% of the time on 37 post-up possessions, and he struggles mightily with guards digging down and swiping the ball, especially when moving towards the middle:

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Swanigan also is not a willing passer out of the post quite yet, which gives opposing guards more freedom to dig down and cause problems. 

When he’s actually able to find space to make a move, he can be a force. Due to the presence of Haas and Hammons, he’ll almost always have the opponent’s 2nd-best post defender on him (and second-largest), and he has the size and strength to bully even Power 5-level secondary big men: 

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With the matchup advantages he’ll have, Swanigan should be able to score fairly frequently this way (catch and finish), rather than taking multiple dribbles and risk getting stripped. He’s clearly a talented player, but his shooting and taking care of the ball need to improve as the Boilermakers hit the tougher parts of their schedule.  

Eron Harris, Michigan State

**Harris isn't actually a starter - but he's good enough to be, and the fact that he's just kind of existed in the background for Sparty made me look into him as well, in spite of the article's title. 

Unlike Perkins and Swanigan, Harris actually has a solid O-rating thus far (110.3) due to his better-than-advertised passing (24.8% assist rate) and taking care of the ball (a relatively low 16.9% turnover rate). The problem for Harris has been what was supposed to be his biggest strength – shooting the rock. He was lights out as a sophomore at West Virginia (89/211, 42% per; however, he is just 6/21 so far this year, good for a pristine 29%. He hasn’t been getting bad shots: 

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Notice how Harris launches a decent (but slightly contested) three, despite Forbes asking for the ball in the corner AND Nairn pointing to him. It's a good shot, but he passed up a great one, and that doesn't usually sit well with Coach Izzo. And unfortunately, Harris just hasn’t found the confidence and the rhythm in East Lansing quite yet. At this point, Bryn Forbes and Matt McQuaid are simply out-shooting him; I still think Michigan State’s best version involves the more dynamic Harris as a significant contributor ahead of those guys in the pecking order. He obviously has the potential to get there, and if he does, he adds yet another perimeter weapon to whom Denzel Valentine and his sparkling 48.6% assist rate can distribute.

Perhaps more importantly for a Tom Izzo player, he has struggled defensively. He has a tendency to lean toward coming ball screens, getting beat when an opponent decides to “refuse” the screen – aka not use it and drive the other way. Here, he gives up a straight line drive to the hoop to Louisville’s Trey Lewis:

Harris allows straight line drive.gif

Izzo can deal with some cold shooting – just look at the hideous line Tum-Tum Nairn put up last year – but if you don’t work on the defensive end, you’ll be on the bench. If Harris wants to get more than the 16 minutes per game he’s earning now, he’ll have to show it on the defensive end first.