When Sports Illustrated put together the cover of its edition looking ahead to the NCAA tournament, Goran Suton looked out of place. SI picked players from eight of the top teams in the country and PhotoShopped them together fighting for a single basketball. There, amongst college stars and future NBA players like Blake Griffin, Ty Lawson and Hasheem Thabeet, Suton seemed like an odd choice. After all, it was his Michigan State teammate Kalin Lucas who was the Big Ten's Player of the Year, and Suton did not even average double-figure scoring this season.
Call the editors at SI soothsayers. While five of the seven other cover boys are left to sit and watch the Final Four at home (Villanova was not featured), Suton plays on, and his performance in the NCAA Tournament so far has been a huge reason why the Spartans will get to play for a national championship on their home turf in Detroit.
Suton first crossed my radar screen last June, when I was running my NBA projection system on rising college players. As with the SI cover, Suton was notable for the company he kept, ranking eighth amongst returning players, just behind Lawson and ahead of Thabeet and Stephen Curry, amongst others. Unfamiliar with the name, I checked out Suton's statistical profile, seeing a guy who put up strong rebounding numbers and shot a good percentage from the field.
Despite that discovery, like most of the rest of the country I paid Suton little more attention before the start of this year's tournament. Suton's performance the last four games has been impossible to ignore, however. In an NCAA tournament that has been short on breakout stars, Suton has been the unlikeliest hero, averaging 14.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game and leading Michigan State in scoring in both of the team's wins this weekend.
During yesterday's win over favored Louisville, Suton showed off his entire skill set. In the first half, he was hot from the perimeter, knocking down a trio of three-pointers along with a pair of midrange jumpers. Suton had 17 of the Spartan's 30 first-half points. With his shot no longer falling as consistently after halftime, Sut on contributed on the glass, pulling down seven of his ten rebounds. As Gus Johnson and Len Elmore highlighted on the CBS broadcast, Suton's ability to tap the ball back to his teammates while in traffic extended multiple Michigan State possessions. Meanwhile, all game long Suton was an effective release against Louisville's full-court pressure, offering teammates a big target at 6'10" combined with the ability to advance the ball downcourt himself and even set up teammates, as his four assists show.
Suton's combination of skills defies the obvious stereotypes. As a European big man with touch from the perimeter, it's easy to imagine him as a soft player. However, his willingness to battle for rebounds and a solid post game suggest a much more rugged player. Even Suton's head coach, Tom Izzo, admitted to the Detroit Free Press before the tournament that at the conclusion of a four-year career he still considers Suton an enigma--albeit a positive one.
In a case of fortuitous timing, last week I got an e-mail from an alert reader pointing out a similar statistical anomaly in the NBA--Indiana's Troy Murphy. Murphy ranks fourth in the NBA in rebound percentage amongst qualified players but is also sixth in the league in three-point percentage and 10th in makes. "Has there ever been a more productive three-point shooting and rebounding player?" asked reader RF.
In fact, no. I looked for the group of players with a high number of made three-pointers (at least 80) and a strong rebound percentage (15.0 percent or better). 73 players have made at least 80 threes and 64 have grabbed at least 15.0 percent of rebounds this season, but if we were to represent the two skills with a Venn diagram, the overlap would be almost entirely nonexistent: Murphy is one of just two players in the league who meets both qualifications (Milwaukee's Charlie Villanueva, who just sneaks over both bars, is the other). In league history, it's been done just nine times by eight different players--Antawn Jamison, Shawn Marion (the lone player to do it twice), Donyell Marshall, Murphy, Dirk Nowitzki, Mehmet Okur, Villanueva and Antoine Walker. No one in the group had either as many threes or as high a rebound percentage as Murphy does this season.
In truth, Suton is not in the class of those NBA sharpshooters from long distance. Sunday's three-point barrage gave him 18 threes for the season in 31 games, albeit at a strong 41.9 percent clip. Suton does do many of them one better with his rebounding versatility. Like Murphy, most rebound/three specialists naturally do most of their boardwork on the defensive end because they spend so much time beyond the arc on offense. Suton is unique in the fact that defenses have to account for him both in the paint and on the perimeter in very different ways. He ranked 57th in the NCAA in offensive rebounding, just slightly worse than his rank on the defensive glass (32nd).
Suton's versatility will surely come in handy as Michigan State prepares to face Connecticut Saturday in the semifinals. Jim Calhoun will not likely want to have Thabeet match up with Suton for fear of having his 7'3" big man stuck defending on the perimeter. Yet Suton's height could cause problems for squatty 6'7" power forward Jeff Adrien.
It's been a tournament to remember for Suton, who has picked the right time to play some of the best basketball of his career. Don't overestimate how unexpected this was, however. The skills, and the performance save the gaudy scoring totals, had been there all along. Seeing it simply required looking past the per-game stats and the stereotypes for big men. Either that or checking out the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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