Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Four Freshmen

I have been looking at the possession-based stats (Min%, Poss%, Shot%, eFG% and ORtg) I collected from Ken Pomeroy's Villanova Scouting Report during the course of the season. Pomeroy updated the possession-based stats for the players at roughly (very roughly mind you...) one week intervals from early December through the end of the season. I had looked at the player usage-efficiency on Villanova teams from 2004 through 2007 in a post from last October and wanted to follow that with another that looked at this year's team. Since I collected the data (more or less weekly) for all the Big East teams, I thought it would be another resource to draw on when considering the state of the conference going into next season. I was curious to see how the much discussed four Villanova freshmen ("true" freshmen Corey Fisher, Malcolm Grant and Corey Stokes, along with redshirt freshman Antonio Pena) who, as it turned out played for most of this season, would track as the team moved from the out of conference schedule, through the Big East regular season, and (though not always a given...) into the post season (the Big East Tournament and it turned out, the NCAAs).

During the Labor Day Canadian Tour reports had Malcolm Grant, an under recognized recruit who had prepped a year before joining the squad, as probably the most "big East ready" of the cohort. Corey Stokes, a sharpshooting wing, had a rough start in the first game (versus tournament host Carleton University), but had, by the end of the tour, righted the ship with several impressive outings. Stokes emerged, behind sophomore Scottie Reynolds and junior Dante Cunningham as the team's third scoring option, according to per game average for points scored. Both Corey Fisher and Antonio Pena had proven to be sufficiently productive to stake legitimate claims to turns in the rotation. I plotted their possession-based offensive ratings, as Pomeroy updated them on his Villanova Scouting Report during the season. A chart of their Offensive Ratings (ORtg) over the course of the season...

For Malcolm Grant the Canadian Tour was a good predictor. Alternately dubbed "Malky" and "Microwave" the freshman had a number of scintellating outings and established himself as a Nova Nation favorite. But (like Canada) his time on the court was limited by circumstances. With Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher ahead of him on the depth chart, Grant's playing time (and ORtg, as suggested by the chart above) peaked in mid December, in the midst of the out of conference part of the season. While speculation over "the proper mix" of guards on the floor mushroomed into an unexpected firestorm (about the time the team was hitting bottom in late January/early February) within the Nova Nation, Grant's PT dwindled. After appearing in 21 consecutive games, Grant saw the court in only 8 of the last 14 games, averaging about 4.5 minutes per game (or 8 in those 8 games in which he actually logged time...). Grant maintained "regular" status within the offense (even in the face of diminishing PT), taking about 21.5% of the available possessions and 22% of the shots when he was on the floor. His ORtg's gentle decline parallells the decline in his eFG%, from a high of 73.9% to start the season down to 53.4 at season's end. Grant did not appear in the Kansas game, and logged only 2 minutes in Villanova's win over Siena in the second round. Grant applied and received a release from his scholarship and transferred to Miami (Fla) in the off season.

The Canadian Tour also suggested Corey Stokes' path this past season. Similar to his performance over the Labor Day weekend, Stokes started out very slow, posting an underwhelming ORtg of 68.9 in the first of December. 100.0 is something of a dividing line, as it suggests that a player "scores" about one point per possession taken (rating is expressed as "per 100 possessions"). Since most (but not all...) teams post composite ORtgs of 100 or greater, an individual ORtg <100 suggests an inefficient offensive player. While many well regarded freshman post first year ORtgs in the 90s, at 68.9 Stokes was a very inefficient player. Stokes' Poss% and Shot% through 12/3 were 15.3% and 19.2% respectively, suggesting he was taking role player-level possessions, but regular player-level quantities of shots when he was playing. Though he was getting < 40% of the available minutes at his position, his inefficiency (when he was playing) was a drag on team performance. His offensive rating never returned to that level, throughout December and most of January it fluxuated from the mid 80s to the low 90s. While not obvious at the time, Stokes' week-over-week ORtgs began a steady improvement (no declines) from January 21 onward. He was finally getting it. His playing time through this period gradually increased from 38.2% to 48.5%, with a single week-over-week decline in early February. With the momentum of increased playing time and improving efficiency, Stokes crossed over the 100.0 barrier in early March (see chart above) and did not fall back below through season end. A most promising development was Stokes' ability to also build his poss% and shot% even as his ORtg increased. By season end Corey's Poss% and Shot% were 17.6% (between role player and regular) and 21.9% (regular) respectively. For an individual player to build his ORtg even has his role with the team is expanding suggests there even more room for growth, ie the player has not reached his optimum level of offensive efficiency. Kyle Lowry went from a 97.8/20.7/19.1 (ORtg/Poss%/Shot%) his freshman year to 113.4/22.1/17.8 (ORtg/Poss%/Shot%) his sophomore year. A similar jump (about 15%) in efficiency for Stokes next season would place him among the top 200 or so players in D1.

Antonio Pena's season was a bit more typical of a high major D1 freshman. After a very strong start, a 115.8 ORtg, based largely on an eFG% of 50.0% through 12/3, rising to 122.4 and 66.7 (ORtg & eFG% respectively), his numbers began a season-long decline, settling down to 95.4 and 47.5 (ORtg & eFG% respectively) by 4/3. Pangs of disappointment ought to be mitigated by knowing that Pena's Poss% and Shot% rose (along with his PT) even as his efficiencies declined. And that is the more frequent trend for D1 and NBA players, as their role in the offense increases, their efficiencies decline. Pena's percentage of the available minutes rose from 27.5 (12/16) to 48.4 (4/3), even as his Poss% also rose, from 18.7 to 21.5 and his Shot% rose from 13.9 to 18.8. Other teams discovered that Antonio Pena could put the ball in the bucket and began to give him more attention on defense.

As the NJ HS Player of the Year while point guard for the State Champion St. Patrick's Celts Corey Fisher might have been the most anticipated recruit of the young Wildcat cohort. His start indeed suggested the ink was true, posting an eFG% in the low 50s for much of December and January. His Poss% and Shot% stats suggested Fisher was assuming a starter/star level role in Villanova's offense. His 12/3 Poss% and Shot% numbers were 24.2 and 28.5 respectively, suggesting he would assume an offensive role second only to Reynolds as the season progressed. Unfortunately his scoring did not keep up with his possessions. While his minutes (percentage of minutes avilable) climbed from the high 40s in early December to the high 50s in early January, he maintained his Poss% (24%-26%) and Shot% (27%), even as his ORtg declined from 115 to 108. By mid-February his ORtg and eFG% had declined to 96 and 45 respectively, despite the fact that he maintained Poss% and Shot% at early January levels. He maintained a high level of involvement in the offense, even as he was becoming considerably less efficient. Fisher's slump mirrored the team's through that part of the season and given his major role in the offense, he had therefore, a role in the Wildcat's loss of momentum during that period. The staff began to cut his minutes, distributing them to other members of the rotation. The loss of time was approximately 7 minutes (24 to 17), but point production declined considerably, as Fisher's average for points scored per game dropped from 10.9 to 5.7. Fisher maintained his playing level for assists (2.0 per game for both periods) and defense (as measured by steals and rebounding), but cut back considerably on his shooting. As Corey F works to bring his contribution more in line with the team, I expect fans will see his Poss% and Shot% numbers decrease to regular/starter levels, which should (assuming he better recognizes his scoring opportunities and becomes more selective in his choice of shots...) improve his efficiencies (eFG and ORtg) considerably.

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