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March 9, 2010, 10:30 AM ET
Bumping into furniture

by John Gasaway

In his customarily perceptive recap of this past weekend’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, colleague Kevin Pelton reports that he’s returned from Boston convinced that the work you find here every day at Prospectus is now a part of the proverbial mainstream.

‘Bout bloody time. I’m all about the mainstream, as long as one of its inputs is reality. And so I’m happy to report that we have evidence in our own little college basketball world that Kevin’s impression is indeed correct. John Wall apparently will not win national POY. What seemed inevitable just a couple weeks ago has become a piece of discursive furniture that simply isn’t being bumped into.

In recounting conversion experiences from the conference, Kevin notes that onetime apostates like former Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson and former player Brent Barry once were lost but now are found. That’s cool, but I can add from my own experience that I’ve spied a third choice on this ballot in addition to “This Prospectus stuff is great” and its antipode, “Uh-oh, 4th-and-inches on my opponent’s 32, time to punt.” I call this third category “I know this stuff is out there.”

People in this category, or IKTSIOTs as I call them, certainly don’t spout adjusted offensive efficiencies or fret about rebound percentages. But if you’ve watched IKTSIOTs over the past couple years you’ve noticed something unspoken yet quite remarkable. They’ve simply stopped bumping into things. The number of misbegotten Wall-for-POY pieces that remain stubbornly unwritten constitute Exhibit A here. My friend Kevin is exactly right. Mainstream, I salute you!

With the main prize likely unavailable, some Wall for Freshman POY pieces have started popping up this week. Only here too there’s a problem. If it’s understood that Evan Turner has outperformed Wall this year, it’s not too great a leap to acknowledge additionally that Wall’s own teammate and fellow freshman DeMarcus Cousins has also outperformed him. How, then, do I write the Wall-for-Freshman-POY piece that my editor is demanding? (That’s rhetorical, by the way. My editor is way cool.)

This is just me, but I would outflank the small matter of actual on-court performance with two additional actualities. First I would adopt a Slate-esque stance of breezy cynicism and declare college performance wholly beside the point. College? Who’s talking about college? Kentucky’s just a farm club for the NBA, one that’s grooming the player we can all agree is the next level’s Next Big Thing. So performance, schmerformance. Who do you think is going to put more butts in the seats for David Stern next year, Wall or Cousins?

Then I would endeavor to make myself David Foster Wallace to Wall’s Roger Federer. I would discern things in Wall’s (true) in-game artistry that everyone perceives and is moved by but that no one has, as yet, successfully captured in words. If I can make this less about extraneous matters like “making baskets” and ($) “playing defense” and more about hoops-as-figure-skating, Wall wins hands down.

But to plunge forward and try to tout Wall as the Freshman POY along traditional performance-based criteria is merely to bump into furniture in a loud and declarative fashion. In this sense Wall has become a handy test case, much like the Belichick 4th-and-short kerfuffle was last fall. You don’t, of course, have to agree with Belichick’s decision. But in order to critique it productively, you do have to understand why he made that decision.

BONUS bruised-shin note! In terms of bumping into the furniture, I specifically exempt this Wall-for-POY piece at SI.com by Andy Staples, which apparently was a made-to-order bookend for an adjoining Turner-for-POY piece by Stewart Mandel. It can therefore be reasonably inferred that Staples was coerced into his advocacy by mean editors (redundant), and indeed the substance of the piece gives all kinds of evidence to this effect.

For example Staples notes that Wall’s teammates are way more talented than Turner’s. Indeed they are, and I thought I knew what was coming next. Man, was I wrong: Staples actually cites this as evidence in support of Wall. I’ve been reading POY/MVP advocacy for many a moon, but this was a first: Vote for the guy whose teammates make his job easier. I literally had to read Staples’ remarkable passage three times to make sure I was understanding him correctly. This could only have occurred under severe editorial distress. Bold ratiocinative innovator Andy Staples, I absolve you!   

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