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October 28, 2011
State of the Game
Efficiency Now and Then

by John Gasaway

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There's a lot we can do with college basketball statistics in 2011. We can tell you which teams look like they're overrated going into a season, which teams may be underrated going into the NCAA tournament, and which players are more valuable than you may realize. But there's a catch. In order to tell you those things we have to have the raw stats: the actual record of what took place during the game.

And if you go back far enough in college basketball history, the raw stats simply aren't there. Take John Wooden. Pretty fair player for Purdue in the early 1930s. We know how many games he played, how many points he averaged (12 his senior year), how many shots he made, and how many fouls he committed. And that's it. We don't even know how many shots Wooden attempted, and that's kind of an important stat for us nowadays. About all we can say about Wooden that's somewhat analogous to things we say about players today is that he was a career 70 percent shooter at the line. (Seem kind of low? Keep in mind feee throw accuracy was actually worse in the old days. Relative to his peers Wooden was probably considered automatic from 15 feet.)

In other words our knowledge of how well past players performed is limited, and it always will be. But there's good news in the more recent past. In the 1970s and 1980s more and more programs started keeping good records for basketball stats that we find essential today: things like turnovers, and rebounds broken out into offensive and defensive boards. And once the three-point line was introduced to the college game in 1986, there was a sport being played that was more or less similar to what happens today. Stars from that point on are fair game for straight-up comparisons with the likes of Jimmer Fredette and Kemba Walker.

One stat I'll use to help me make those comparisons is my trusty old friend points per weighted shot, created by John Hollinger and renamed by yours truly. PPWS is a measure of scoring efficiency, one that takes in two-point attempts, three-point attempts, and shots from the line. For example last year Fredette recorded a PPWS of 1.19, while Walker's was 1.09. Another number that'll come in handy is a player's shot percentage, simply the share of a team's offense that a given player carried in terms of field goal attempts. Fredette personally accounted for 38 percent of BYU's shots during his minutes last year, while Walker recorded 33 percent of Connecticut's FGAs while he was on the floor.

I'm going to start the comparisons with someone you may not necessarily think of as a star player. But once upon a time he was indeed a star, and I find his playing career fascinating. Much more so than his current career as a coach, in fact....

Steve Alford, Indiana: 1986-87
PPWS: 1.26

Imagine you're a star quarterback in college and you have been for three seasons. Then right before your senior year the NCAA comes in and changes the rules. From now on touchdown passes of longer than 20 yards will be worth nine points instead of just six. That's more or less what happened to Alford. For his first three years any shot he made from the field was going to be worth two points and only two points. But then the three-point line was introduced in time for Alford's senior season. And despite Bob Knight's subsequent reputation as a coach who disdained the three-point shot, he at least allowed Alford to embrace the new weapon enthusiastically.

Though he was listed at just 6-2, Alford was a career 56 percent two-point shooter (!) entering his senior season. Then the three-point shot arrived, and Alford devoted 40 percent of his attempts to tries from beyond the fancy new arc. His two-point accuracy plunged (down to 44 percent) but his overall scoring efficiency went up because he made 53 percent of his threes as a senior (including seven made threes in the Hoosiers' win over Syracuse in the national championship game). That is the power of the three-point shot, and Alford was one of the first players in Division I to demonstrate its full potential.

Danny Manning, Kansas: 1987-88
PPWS: 1.23

If not for a certain game that UCLA big man Bill Walton had in the 1973 Final Four, people in 2011 would probably think "Danny Manning" when they think "domination in a national championship game." In the Jayhawks' win over Oklahoma in the 1988 title game, Manning recorded the following line: 31 points, 18 rebounds, five steals, two blocks. Once in a blue moon Manning would step out and try a three (he was 9-of-26 from beyond the arc that year), but mostly he was a force in the paint. In leading KU to the national title the big guy made 59 percent of his twos and was decent (73 percent) during his frequent trips to the line. Manning wasn't simply a high-volume scorer, he was also an efficient one.

Bo Kimble, Loyola Marymount: 1989-90
PPWS: 1.27

I suppose it's possible there are people reading this who've never heard of Bo Kimble, but I'm here to tell you the season the 6-4 guard put together two decades ago ranks as one of the wonders of college basketball. Start with the fact that Loyola Marymount that year set a Division I record that stands to this day, averaging 122 points a game. If you're thinking then-coach Paul Westhead favored a tempo that was rather fast, you're correct. In the abstract maybe it's not so amazing for a player to average 35 points a game, as Kimble did that year, when your team puts up 122 every night.

But what was amazing about Kimble was that it was an incredibly efficient 35 points a game, as indicated by his outstanding 1.27 PPWS. Keep in mind Kimble achieved that efficiency while carrying more or less the exact same load on offense that Kemba Walker shouldered for Connecticut last year: both players accounted for 33 percent of their teams' shots while they were on the floor. Yet even as his team's featured scorer Kimble was lethally accurate from everywhere: inside the arc (55 percent), outside it (46 percent) and particularly at the line (86 percent). That LMU team is quite rightly remembered for the tragic late-season death of Hank Gathers and the Lions' subsequent and emotional run all the way to that year's Elite Eight. We should carve out additional space in our memory, however, for one of the most amazing seasons any college player's ever had.

Christian Laettner, Duke: 1991-92
PPWS: 1.36

Speaking of incredible seasons being obscured by indelible memories, it's almost too bad Christian Laettner made "The Shot" against Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight. (Certainly Wildcat fans think so.) That single play defines Laettner in our memories the way single plays define Jerome Lane, Bryce Drew, or Bill Buckner. But it just so happens that Laettner's play occurred in the midst of an exceptional season of basketball by an individual player. If you're looking for a single season where a player not named "Derrick Williams" brought together volume and efficiency, you could do worse than pointing to what Laettner did in 1991-92. While taking 28 percent of the Blue Devils' shots during his minutes, Laettner hit 58 percent of his twos and 56 percent of his threes. That lines up pretty well with what the aforementioned Williams did for Arizona last year, recording a 1.38 PPWS while taking 25 percent of the Wildcats' shots in his time on the floor.

Glenn Robinson, Purdue: 1993-94
PPWS: 1.16

To this day there are Big Ten fans who will tell you the best player they ever saw in the conference was Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, and that it's not even close. Wearing John Wooden's old number (13) the big guy averaged 30 points a game and carried the Boilermakers all the way to the Elite Eight, where they fell to Grant Hill and Duke. In that game Robinson was suffering from back pain and was held to a season-low 13 points. But on the whole the season he had as a pure volume scorer was very much in the spirit of what we saw Fredette do at BYU last year. Robinson was a solid (38 percent) three-point shooter who was perhaps most effective at the line, where he drained 80 percent of his shots.

Tony Delk, Kentucky: 1995-96
PPWS: 1.24

Rick Pitino's best teams have often featured deep rotations and a fairly even distribution of scoring, so it's hard to pick a single player from his great Kentucky teams of the 1990s to compare to the high-volume likes of Jimmer and Kemba. That being said, you have to be impressed with what Delk did leading up to UK's 1996 national title. Carrying an even larger share of his offense than either Laettner in 1991-92 or Derrick Williams in 2010-11, Delk attempted 29 percent of the Wildcats' shots during his minutes yet still achieved highly efficient results. Pitino's star relied more heavily on the three than any other player listed here -- even more than Fredette -- and making 44 percent of his shots from beyond the arc certainly reinforced that decision. But Delk was tremendous inside as well, hitting 54 percent of his twos.

Richard Hamilton, Connecticut: 1998-99
PPWS: 1.12

OK, I realize 1999 might be a little recent to qualify as "yesteryear," but I think Hamilton brings this discussion full circle. The numbers say the season that Jim Calhoun's star had in 1998-99, while very good, wasn't quite special enough to stand out amidst the legendary company I've assembled here. That year Hamilton made a hair under half his twos and 35 percent of his threes while functioning as the sun, moon, and stars of the UConn offense (shot percentage: 35). But if you still remember the 1999 national championship game, you remember the way the Huskies tore into a favored Duke outfit that is still the last team to have gone undefeated in ACC regular-season play. A UConn star who wasn't all that efficient during the regular season and who was probably doubted on occasion by stat geeks cried all the way to a national championship. Now where have I heard that before?

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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