Summer Shootaround: Keith Appling

Gregory Shamus

The summer shootaround continues with a look at Spartan point guard Keith Appling.

This is the second in a series from KJ and me on MSU basketball’s returning players, looking back at their performance last season and ahead toward their likely contributions in the 2012-13 campaign. Stats courtesy of kenpom.com and statsheet.com

After a freshman year spent largely in the shadow of Kalin Lucas and others, Keith Appling entered his second year with the spotlight directly on him and some big expectations. The departure of Lucas and earlier dismissal of Korie Lucious left Appling as the heir apparent at point guard, with only untested freshman Travis Trice to back him up.

In my preview last year I noted that Appling would need to increase his role to an unusually large extent, after accounting for just 15.2% of the available possessions while he was on the court, giving him a status below "role player" in Ken Pomeroy's benchmarks. Appling answered the call, raising his usage rate to 22.2% while playing every game and logging more minutes on the court than anyone other than all-everything Draymond Green.

In keeping with his new role, Appling also raised his assist rate to 23.8%, second on the team, again, to Green. After recording a grand total of 45 assists as a freshman, he averaged just under 4 per game last year. And he got better as the season went on with 4.1 APG in conference play, good for 5th in the B1G.

Despite these numbers, many did not consider 2011-12 an unqualified success for Appling, perhaps because of his well-documented shooting woes from 3-point range. Staying largely on the perimeter as a freshman, Appling shot 41% on 95 3-point attempts, 11th best in the conference and tops among freshmen. Last year Appling ended up taking only one more three while making 15 fewer of them, for a dismal 25%. Similarly, after shooting almost 90% from the free-throw line (2nd in the B1G) in 2010-11, Appling slid to 79%. It definitely seemed like Appling was having problems with his shooting touch and had perhaps let it get into his head as well.

An interesting thing becomes clear, however, when you look at Appling's overall shooting numbers from the last two years (for an explanation of these categories see this):

Keith Appling Career Scoring Statistics
ORtg %Poss eFG% TS% FTM-FTA FT% 2PM-2PA 2P% 3PA-3PM 3P%
2011-12 106.5 22.2 46.6 54.2 134-170 78.8 107-211 50.7 24-96 25.0
2010-11 101.2 15.2 55.5 59.3 34-38 89.5 33-70 47.1 39-95 41.1

To a large extent, Appling's outside shooting woes obscured what was a very strong season for him. He managed to increase his efficiency while taking on a larger share of the offense by following every coach’s advice for dealing with a shooting slump: take it to the rim. Appling shot 141 more 2-pointers than he did as a freshman, yet he actually increased his 2-pt% from 47% to 51%. And when he wasn’t hitting shots, he was deadly effective at getting to the line, leading the team with 55.4 free-throw attempts for every 100 shots he took, 3rd in the entire conference to Cody Zeller and Aaron Craft. Combined with his diminished-but-still-excellent FT%, no one in the conference got a larger share of his points at the line than Appling (32% overall, 34.5% in conference). His quickness, as well as his skill at working the pick-and-roll, made him one of the most feared drivers in the B1G last year. A look ahead to this year after the jump.

Heading into this year, Appling has been a fashionable pick as a breakout performer. In reality, last year was already a breakout year for him, though it was obscured somewhat by the statistically anomalous drop in 3-point shooting and the extremely high level of scrutiny of his performance. This year, given even modest improvements in the following areas, an all-B1G type season is not out of the question for Appling:

  • Increased 3P% and FT%. Simple regression to the mean (say 35% from 3 and 80-85% from the line) would be more than enough here.
  • Continued increase in offensive role without a significant drop in efficiency.
  • Continued improvement in decision-making. Appling cut his turnover percentage from 26.7 to 20.6 but that's still a bit on the high side. This should be helped if Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine can carry more of the load.

All of this assumes, of course that he continues to play his rugged on-ball defense and avoids any injury problems, which he has managed to do so far in his career. The departure of Draymond Green means no letup in the intensity of the spotlight on Appling, who will be expected to absorb many of the now-available possessions. As I said last year in a Q & A with UMHoops.com, I think that Appling's season is likely to be a reflection of the season for the team as a whole.

Expect Appling's minutes to be comparable to last year's 31 MPG but with less of them coming at the point. We'll probably see more of Appling at the 2 with Trice, assisted by Kearney and Valentine, shouldering some of the burden of running the offense. If that works as planned, Appling should be freed up to produce the extra scoring that will be needed of him in the post-Green era.

Of course I have to close this article with my favorite Appling moment from last year, his filthy "inside-out" crossover move at the Kohl Center.

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