USA TODAY Sports
A lot of the action in MSU basketball games this season is happening around the rim, which is mostly a good thing
I would argue that the most remarkable finding to emerge from the advanced basketball statistics movement is that two-point jumpers are very, very good for the defense and very, very bad for the offense:
College basketball players convert 2-point jumpers at a lower percentage than 3-point jumpers, even though the 2-pointers are, you know, worth fewer points. All things being equal, a good offense will find ways to take more shots near the rim or beyond the arc and avoid shots in middle, with the converse being true for a good defense.
Ironically, though, we've never had data available to us on where specific teams tend to take their two-point field goal attempts from. Thanks to Jeff Haley at hoop-math.com, that situation has been rectified. Mr. Haley's website parses play-by-play data from official box scores, which classify each 2-point field goal attempt as either a "layup" or a "jumper." This allows him to calculate separate field goal percentages for shots taken around the rim and shots taken away from the rim. (There's, of course, a big gray area between "layup" and "jumper," so some of this is reliant on scorers' judgments.)
Here's the current offensive data for the seven teams projected to contend for the top of the Big Ten this season:
Outside of the thing we were already aware of--poor 3-point shooting--the thing that jumps out for MSU is the high percentage of its shots the team is getting at the rim. This presumably results from the combination of (1) pushing the ball in transition with frequency, (2) grabbing a health share of offensive rebounds, some of which result in immediate putbacks, and (3) running a chunk of the halfcourt offense through Derrick Nix.
MSU is converting those shots at the rim at precisely the (unweighted) average rate among the teams shown. That FG percenage of 68% is up slightly from 64% last season, but that's probably just a function of schedule strength. Overall, the numbers are very similar to last year's, as MSU also took 42% of its field goal attempts at the rim last season. Tom Izzo's offense values high-percentage shots, generally forgoing jumpers early in the shot clock unless they're wide open looks. When they haven't turned the ball over, it's worked this year, with the team shooting 54% on 2-pointers overall.
In terms of individual player profiles, Branden Dawson (75%) and Nix (68%) lead the team in shots taken at the rim. This is a particularly good thing for Dawson, as he's making only 32% of his 2-point attempts away from the rim. Hopefully, as Dawson continues to gain full strength following his return from the ACL injury, his FG% at the rim will increase from the current rate of 67% (although it was a similar percentage of 68% last year). For Dawson, and for the team as a whole, the major challenge is reducing turnovers so that the team gets even more chances to score around the rim.
A couple notes on mid-range jumpers:
- Adreian Payne has been unusually good at converting those shots, making 56% of them. But note that even at that rate, which is likely to regress, taking a 2-point jumper is only slightly above average in terms of expected FG%.
- Alex Gauna is viewed as a good offensive option up front because he can hit the occasional jumper to keep defenses honest. While there's some truth to that--as a practical matter, you can't forego 2-point jumpers completely--Gauna is only making 33% (3 for 9) of those shots. (He did shoot 7 for 14 on 2-point jumpers last year.)
This all goes to emphasize that you don't want to be doing things on offense specifically designed to create mid-range shots.
The defensive numbers:
Here, MSU also comes out on top in terms of the percentage of FG attempts taken at the rim. Generally, that's a bad thing for a defense. It appears to be a function of how aggressive the team has been with its perimeter defense--unusually so for a Tom Izzo team--stealing the ball on 13% of opponents' possessions.
MSU also leads these teams, however, in defensive FG% at the rim, by a wide margin. That's largely a function of the shot blocking abilities of Payne and Dawson. As highlighted in the SI article linked above, Dawson's had a few moments where defensive errors have allowed his man to get to the rim, only to have Dawson compensate by blocking the shot. In terms of the overall numbers, this is a bit of a concern going into Big Ten play, as opponents' shots at the rim may not be as easily blocked. Last year, opponents converted 55% of shots at the rim over the full season--still a good number for a defense, but not quite as dominant.
MSU's also been particularly good at defending 2-point jumpers: opponents have made just 25% of those attempts. That number's bound to go up in conference play, but it'll never go up enough that it doesn't make sense to try to force more of them. MSU is currently forcing opponents to shoot 2-point jumpers at the lowest rate among the seven Big Ten contenders. (Note, though, that there appears to be less swing in terms of how frequently or rarely a team shoots, or forces its opponents to shoot, 2-point jumpers. The larger tradeoffs are between shots at the rim and 3-point shots, depending on how aggressively a team plays defense around the perimeter.)
The percentage of shots MSU is forcing/allowing opponents to take from 3-point range is at a very low level by Izzo standards. Historically, his defenses have tried to cut off driving lanes with quick help defense to force more shots from the outside. That's a good thing if the jumper forced is a 2-point shot. The results can vary if it's a 3-point shot.
We'll see how these number shift as the team gets into conference play. This hasn't been a traditional Izzo defense, but it's working so far, as the team continues to rank near the top ten in adjusted defensive efficiency.