A trio of defenders will help make Kansas among the best in the country, but they need to find someone willing to score on offense.
Quick backstory for this post: yesterday twitter follower @nrockefeller was nice enough to tell Grantland that I should be one of their college basketball writers (if you'd like to join him in that campaign please feel free) and both because I was filled with gratitude and batting writer's block I told him as a thank you he could pick what I wrote about next. So here we are.
Let's start with the easy (or at least easier) one. There really are only three candidates for who will be the best defender for the Jayhawks this year:
It's true that McLemore is a Freshman, or a redshirt Freshman I guess, but he has a few things going for him. First, he was able to practice with the team all of last season and not only got to defend guys like Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson, but he was able to spend a year practicing for Bill Self and learning exactly what he wants out of a defender and got to adjust to the intensity that playing defense for Bill Self requires.
Secondly, even though McLemore is a Freshman, it's far easier for Freshmen to make an impact defensively than offensively. Intuitively, this makes sense: playing offense often requires an understanding of the offense and it's a lot tougher for Freshmen to adapt to playing in a system and having an actual role in an offense vs. playing all isolation in high school and AAU. Defense, meanwhile, definitely requires basketball IQ to play good help defense, but at its heart it is about being quick and athletic and strong.
There are many examples of heralded Freshmen maybe not living up to the hype offensively but being as good as advertised or perhaps even better on defense. Last year Michael Kidd-Gilchrist struggled offensively (especially when he had to shoot the ball, shooting just 37% on two point jumpers) but was one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. Avery Bradley, now a great defender in the NBA, was the second best guard in his HS class after John Wall, but he had under a 50% eFG and was relegated to being mostly a three point shooter. Defensively however Bradley had already asserted himself as one of the best defenders among guards in the country. So even if McLemore struggles offensively to start with, there's no reason why his defense won't be very good, if he is as advertised.
Which leads to the final point: Bill Self has absolutely raved about McLemore's potential. He's said "he’s as talented as just about anybody we’ve had" and, more to the point, has said "I think he’ll be the best defender we’ve ever had." Read that again. That's not him saying he could be the best defender he's ever had, or he has all the tools to be the best defender he's ever coached. Bill Self, a man who has coached a top 10 defense for the last 7 years, is saying that Ben McLemore will be the best defender he's had at Kansas. Good enough for me.
I admit I was way wrong about Releford's defensive abilities last year. I didn't think he was quick enough to guard smaller threes, but he proved that his foot problems of two years ago were a bit more of a problem than everyone let on and he also proved he was 100% healthy, regularly shutting down the opposing team's best wing scorer.
His best effort came in Kansas's home tilt against Ohio State, when the Jayhawks desperately needed a big non conference win (it wasn't yet apparent just how good Georgetown would be). While that game will mostly be remembered for Jared Sullinger being out, Releford held swing man William Buford to 7-17 shooting from two and 1-6 shooting from three.
In the Elite 8, Releford's defense was overshadowed yet again. Kendal Marshall was out with a broken wrist and Bill Self got much of the plaudits for going to a triangle and two. But Releford deserves huge amounts of credit for Harrison Barnes going 0-5 from three and committing 3 turnovers.
Releford probably won't get much attention from pundits or the casual fan, but he was one of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball last year, and should be again this year.
But while both McLemore and Releford should be great defensively, neither of them is the correct answer. The correct answer is:
When Withey came to KU he was an intriguing prospect. A 7 footer from San Diego who averaged 7 blocks per game in high school and also was a volleyball player growing up, which drew me to him immediately. In his first year at KU he barely played, though he did have an intriguing 12.5 block percentage. But he looked just too awkward for me to ever believe he would be a true impact guy.
Fast forward a year to Withey blossoming into the best interior defender in college basketball. His 15.3% block percentage led the country last year, and all he did was set records for most blocks in an NCAA tournament and a Final Four, as well as shutdown Anthony Davis in the national title game.
How good he will be this year remains to be seen (and we'll take a crack at it at a later date) but he was the best interior defender in college basketball last year, and he comes into this year as perhaps the best one again, as well as the prohibitive favorite to be Kansas's best defender.
As for the offense, that is a much dicier proposition. With the two main figures in last year's offense gone, Kansas will likely have to rely on a point guard who has mostly been a jump shooter over the course of his career or a Freshman, whether it be Ben McLemore, Perry Ellis or someone else. It's just how it is.
Technically the question asked was who would be most efficient on offense, but I don't think there's much question that that's Withey (unless we are talking solely from the floor, then Elijah and Releford come into play). He had a 61.4% true shooting percentage that was the best on the team, and I don't think it will go down much if at all.
But measuring who the best player will be takes a little bit more work. Taking rebounds and assists/turnovers out of it, there are two things that make up a good scorer: first is plain old shooting the ball efficiently. We've talked at length here about eFG being more important than plain old field goal percentage, but no matter what one uses, the ability to make as many shots as possible out of the number of attempts is a big deal. The other big deal is the ability to get off a lot of good shots. Being good at both, of course, is the key to being a superstar.
Jeff Haley, who writes at Burnt Orange Nation as well as runs Hoop Math, came up with a formula to combine the two called Points Above Median:
To measure how much each individual player affects team true shooting percentage on offense, I calculate how many points above a baseline value that each player scores, given the number of shots attempted. For the baseline, I use the median level of points a team in the NCAA scores on shots from the floor, 0.96 points per shot. This was more or less an arbitrary choice. The PAM calculation I do for each player after each game is
PAM = points - 0.96 x (FGA + 0.475 x FTA)
A PAM of two or greater is pretty good, while anything negative is not. Individual games where a player has a PAM as high as 10 are rare, but will occasionally happen. When you are quickly eyeballing the box score of a game, it is perfectly reasonable to estimate PAM as
PAMest = points - (FGA + FTA/2)
I'm not going to go through and estimate every KU player's PAM this year, but I did want to talk about the formula a bit. I think it would be fun (and also very time consuming. We need an intern) to tweak the formula a bit based on which is more valuable, efficiency or number of shots attempted. I love efficiency as much as the next guy, but because of how rare it is to find a guy in college who can effectively create his own shot I think that a guy who takes more shots but doesn't make as many would have a higher value than a guy like Travis Releford, who usually goes something like 4-5 from the field. (and obviously we would rather have Releford than a guy who is going to shoot 20 times at an under 50% eFG, but you do need those guys who shoot a lot).
Tonight's exhibition game should tell us a little more about who will assume a lot of the scoring load, but I think that our best player on offense is going to be Elijah Johnson, and it's going to be by quite a bit. He's the unquestioned team leader this year, so he'll have more freedom to attack the rim and other than a couple (granted, pretty extended) stretches last year Johnson has shot the three well and has never been shy about doing so. Add in the fact that he upped his assists and lowered his turnovers in the NCAA tournament and I think he's primed for a huge Senior season.