November 23, 2012
Inside the numbers
Welcome to my second installment of Inside the Numbers.
As a general rule, this column is going to focus on trends over the course of the season. So you won't see too much reaction to a single game, unless it saw a lot of statistical anomalies. On course, we still have a relatively small pool of data - Iowa's play only six games - so we're going to do what we can.
But there are already plenty of interesting trends and numbers to delve into. This week, I'm going to look at two Hawkeyes who impressed as freshmen, then lost their way a bit before rebounding for solid starts this season: Eric May and Melsahn Basabe.
May arrived at Iowa in 2009 from Dubuque with a justifiably measured amount of fanfare. Rivals listed him as a three-star recruit but it's safe to say no one had huge expectations for May as he joined what was then Todd Lickliter's scuffling basketball program.
Then he had a pretty darn good freshman season, earning All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors as he averaged 9.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, and led the team with 0.8 blocks per game despite standing 6-foot-5.
But he often struggled as a sophomore, seeing most of his numbers drop and turning the ball over 2.0 times per game. His junior year was only worse as he battled injury all season.
Now as a senior, May looks a lot more like the promising youngster we saw three years ago.
May isn't playing through injury like he did last season. He's looking more confident and decisive, much more like his freshman year self (in this context it's a compliment) - possibly as a byproduct of being more healthy. But He's also being more aggressive.
May's usage rate - an estimate of the percentage of a team's plays used by a player while he's on the floor - is actually at a career low this season. Here's the year-by-year
The 15.8 figure isn't a lot lower than May's previous usage rates, but it is significant considering this is a guy playing 20.3 minutes a game. Yet he's still averaging 6.8 points per game, close to his 7.8 and 9.0 averages as a sophomore and freshman, respectively, despite playing many fewer minutes than he did in those seasons.
These numbers tell me May is being aggressive and efficient. We know May is not a particularly skilled offensive player and most of the time he is relying on his athleticism and instincts on that end of the floor. So a lower usage rating is actually probably a good thing for May, and it's even better now that he's maximizing his opportunities.
Free throws are one measure of May's aggressiveness and decisiveness this season. He's attempting a career-high 3.5 free throws a game, which isn't a ton, but again, is a good amount for a guy playing 20 minutes a game. his previous career high was 1.8, which he averaged during his freshman year while playing more than 30 minutes a game.
The real coup for Iowa is just how effective May has been from the free-throw line. It's one thing to get to the stripe, but it's another thing to cash in (Dwight Howard anyone?). May is making his count - and much more frequently than he ever has in his career. He's also already attempted almost as many free throws this year in six games as he did last season in 33 games.
Here's his free throw percentages, with totals in parentheses:
2009-10: 66.7% (38 for 57)
2010-11: 60.4% (32 for 53)
2011-12: 62.5% (15 for 24)
2012-13: 81.0% (17 for 21)
We'll obviously have to keep an eye on this trend and watch if May can keep this improvement up over the course of the season.
Changing his impact
The big takeaway is that May this season is having a much bigger impact offensively than he is defensively, at least in statistical measure. This is a shift for him, as his defensive rating - an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions - has always been significantly higher than his offensive rating - estimate of points produced per 100 possessions.
One of the most surprising statistics in the early season is that May's 62.2 true-shooting percentage - a measure of shooting that considers 2-point field goals, 3-point fields, and free throws - is the best on the team. It's early, and it's not likely that will hold up over 30 games or so. But May has clearly carved out a nice role for him on this deeper squad and is playing his best basketball in at least two seasons.
I've been a huge fan of the junior forward's play so far this season - just a year after he was probably Iowa's most criticized player. Basabe looked lost and out of rhythm last season after a promising freshman year earned him a spot on the Big Ten's All-Freshman team, much like Eric May in 2009-10. He never seemed to find or understand his role last season.
That's not the case this year. Basabe, to me, looks like he understands that his play almost entirely depends on his energy level. This is something he talked about often last year but it only actually materialized for him from time-to-time in games. He's starting to do it much more consistently now.
Win shares at the moment might be overstating Basabe's value at the moment (I talked about what win shares are in last week's column). But his 0.8 win shares thus far are the second most on the team, and that number is a lot more significant if you compare it to his total from last year: 2.3. He's already contributed to one-third as many wins (or in this case, fractions of wins) as he did all of last season. Basabe posted 4.3 win shares as a freshman in case you're wondering.
Some of the biggest measures of energy are rebounds and blocks. These are the two biggest ways in which Basabe should be able to make an impact for Iowa so far, and he's doing both. A lot of Basabe's points have come on the offensive glass, and he's getting more opportunities with an improved emphasis on getting offensive rebounds. Here's an estimate of the percentage of available offensive rebounds Basabe hauled in while he was on the floor:
(For contextual purposes, Minnesota's Kendal Shell currently leads the Big Ten in this statistic at 31.0 percent. Adam Woodbury is 10th at 14.8 percent and Indiana's Cody Zeller is 11th at 14.3 percent.)
Basabe has also been making his presence known with his ability to block shots. He's currently averaging 2.0 blocked shots per game, and if he finishes the year that way, he would be the first Iowa player to average at least two since Erek Hansen blocked 2.6 per game in 2005-2006. Hansen won the Big Ten's award for Defensive Player of the Year that season.
Basabe has 12 blocks in six games this year - already a third of the blocked shots he registered last year (36) in 29 more games. But the more startling stat is his block percentage, which estimates the number of opposing field-goal attempts a player blocks while he's on the floor:
The 6-foot-7 Basabe's 11.0 block percentage currently ranks him seventh in the Big Ten and even ahead of 7-foot-1 teammate Woodbury, who is currently sitting at 7.6 percent.
Both May and Basabe seem to be settling into more appropriate roles this season, and it only means good things for Iowa.
You can follow Jordan Garretson on Twitter here and visit his Iowa basketball blog, "No Beer in Heaven."
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