On the Dime: The Lucious Effect

I'm currently adopting the position (borrowed from a bumper sticker I saw) of militant agnosticism with regard to MSU basketball: I don't know what's wrong and neither do you. I don't know what's going on in the locker room, whether Izzo has lost the team, who still "cares" and who doesn't and why opponents are draining half their threes. All I can do is look at some numbers and see if they have anything to say. This post is the result of a discussion (via Twitter 1, 2, 3) among several of us TOCers about who was better at feeding whom in MSU's offense. I ended up harvesting data on that question for the current season and this post is a first look at it.

Sunday's loss to Wisconsin featured a season low 9 assists for the Spartans. Their 45% assist percentage was their lowest since recording 44% against Washington in November and was their 3rd lowest mark of the season. In five conference wins they've averaged 73% but in their six losses only 55%. As a team that, for better or worse, relies on three-point shooting and lacks players who can create their own shots, assist ratio is a pretty good barometer of how the offense is doing.

In the midst of the current disastrous slide, Tom Izzo dismissed Korie Lucious from the team. At the time, Lucious was arguably the Spartans' top assist man, trailing Draymond Green by only two (76-74) for the overall lead, despite missing a game to suspension and playing around 5-and-a-half minutes a game fewer than Green.

Lucious' deficiencies as an offensive player have been widely noted (by me among others) and have led Ken Pomeroy to conclude that Michigan State's recent struggles should not really be attributed to the loss of Lucious and that it's possible or even likely that they are temporary.

MSU is 1-3 since losing Lucious. I don't imply any cause-and-effect here. But basketball is a team game and it can be difficult to measure the effect players have on each other, by their presence or their absence. One of the most challenging aspects of basketball analysis is trying to control for this interdependence. MSU obviously has many problems beyond the loss of Korie Lucious. That being said, it's worth taking a look at the ways in which his absence may be contributing to the woes of the offense, directly and indirectly.

The following visualization is stolen adapted from Luke Winn at SI.com. See his version here. He adapted his from the more detailed (and confusing) version at hoopism.com. By the way, you are reading Winn's weekly Power Rankings, aren't you? If not, here's the current set. An absolute must-read for hoops junkies.

The thickness of the lines represents the number of assists. The thicker the line, the more assists from Lucious to that player. These numbers, obviously, only include the games up to Lucious' dismissal.

Lucious Assist Diagram

Durrell Summers

The biggest beneficiary of Lucious' passes was Durrell Summers, which should come as no surprise. At this point in the season 78 of Summers' 96 successful shots had been assisted, a hefty 81.3%. Among Spartan players only Austin Thornton (14 out of 17) had been more dependent on his teammates to get him shots. Lucious, Kalin Lucas and Draymond Green were the primary assist-men for Summers, so the loss of any one of them would be likely to affect Summers' game. But the loss of Lucious could have a special impact on Summers.

For one thing, Summers did get more of his assists from Lucious than anyone else (22 out of 78), once again despite Lucious' lower minutes. This would be a lot of slack that Lucas, Green or Summers himself would have to pick up. But as we've seen, Summers' athleticism around the rim is also largely dependent on teammates, either feeding him lobs or missing shots that he can rebound. For whatever reason he's not a driver with the basketball: this is just his game, not a character flaw. But it does magnify the effect that the disappearance of a third of his assists would have.

To look at the more indirect effects, the guys who would pick up the slack, Lucas and Green, are themselves becoming more stretched with the absence of Lucious. To start the season Izzo would generally sub Lucas and Lucious in and out for each other. With the recognition of the need for more firepower or the improvement in Lucas' injury Izzo began to play them together more. At that point assists from Lucious to Lucas began to rise significantly. At the point of Lucious' suspension, Lucas had become his second favorite target at 14 assists. So we may be seeing something of a domino effect: without Lucious Lucas may need to look for his own shot more, meaning that he also is less available to set up Summers. We could be seeing evidence of this in the relatively low 10 total assists he's tallied in the four games since Lucious left.

Green has 14 assists over that same span, slightly below his season average, but only 4 in the last two games. Small fluctuations like this may be mere noise, but it does seem possible that this further contribution to the drying up of the assist pool after Lucious' departure is having its direct, and indirect, effects on Summers. The graph below shows Summers' offensive efficiency over the course of the conference season. The last four games are without Lucious.

Summers Efficiency Chart

Appling and Payne

One of the deceptive things about the first diagram is that it just represents raw numbers of assists, without qualifying them by playing time or field goals made. That's why it's all the more striking that the line leading to Keith Appling is exactly as thick as the one leading to Draymond Green, when Green had almost twice as many field goals made in the same time frame. And the line leading to Adreian Payne is also surprisingly thick, when you consider how little he's played and how few shots he's hit. In fact, 7 of Payne's entire total of 10 field goals were assisted by Lucious. So relative to their playing time, Appling and Payne have been just as dependent on Lucious as Summers, if not more so.

Appling has been the player after Summers most dependent on his teammates to get him a shot at 76.9% (A/FGM). And of his 30 assisted field goals, 10 assists were dished out by Lucious, more than from any other player. Once again, early returns post-Lucious are not good, as Appling has shot 3-13 from three and 2-6 from inside the arc since Lucious' dismissal.

The reason most commonly cited for Adreian Payne's lack of playing time is defense. But he's had his struggles on offense as well. He's a true freshman big man and his skills are still fairly raw. He hasn't developed a polished back-to-the-basket game yet, and this includes establishing himself in good position to receive a post feed. It is probably more difficult to get Payne the ball down low than, say, Draymond Green, and, in fact, Lucious seems to have been the only one who could do it with any regularity. During Lucious' tenure, Payne only had 3 field goals that were neither unassisted (i.e., put-back dunks) nor assisted by Lucious. At this point he has only one made shot in 32 minutes of post-Lucious court time, a ferocious put-back dunk against Iowa.

Here's the full chart of field goals, assisted field goals and Lucious' impact (% of FG made assisted by Lucious).

Player FGM Asst'd FG AFG% From Lucious
Payne 19 10 52.6% 36.8%
Appling 39 30 76.9% 25.6%
Summers 96 78 81.3% 22.9%
Thornton 17 14 82.4% 17.6%
Lucas 95 48 50.5% 14.7%
Sherman 32 23 71.9% 12.5%
Green 87 46 52.9% 11.5%
Nix 10 6 60.0% 10.0%
Roe 48 33 68.8% 6.3%
Lucious 39 19 48.7% 0.0%
Kebler 4 1 25.0% 0.0%
Ianni 1 1 100.0% 0.0%


It's early days yet to assess the impact of Lucious' absence. It may yet prove to be negligible. But it's not looking good so far and the reasons may extend beyond his individual offensive numbers to his teammates trying to absorb and redistribute his role.

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