Unlike last year, when Draymond Green dominated discussion of Michigan State basketball, no one player has clearly emerged as the Spartans' singular star this year. A case can be made for several candidates. Keith Appling continues to be a rock, leading the team by far in minutes played while being asked to run the offense, score, lead the team and be the defensive stopper as well. Gary Harris leads the team in offensive rating while showing a steadiness and maturity that is beyong his years, evidenced by his team low 13% offensive turnover rate. Plausible cases could even be made for Branden Dawson and Derrick Nix, both of whom have shown, at times, that they can dominate games.
Actually watching all the games, as I have, doesn't clear things up a whole lot. Everyone in the rotation has shown the ability to be the star of the game or go completely cold. When the eye test is inconclusive it always helps to look at the numbers, and in this case the numbers suggest an interesting candidate: Adreian Payne.
I wrote all of the foregoing before the Penn State game, where Payne opened a lot of eyes. He exploded for 20 points on 9 shots, including a three-pointer in his second straight game, in only 17 minutes. Not to mention he got to the line for 10 foul shots, grabbed 7 rebounds and avoided committing a turnover. So, although I may have lost any element of surprise I might have had when I started this, it's definitely worth taking a look at what is becoming a breakout year for Payne.
On offense Payne may not be the most efficient overall on the team, but he's close. The best measurement of overall offensive value is offensive rating, which uses a number of offensive statistics to create an estimate of points created per 100 possessions. Gary Harris just beats Payne here 116.1 to 115.4 (stats from kenpom.com), likely because his lower turnover rate saves more possessions than Payne's offensive rebounds extend. But, surprisingly, Payne is solidly the team leader in true shooting percentage (65.5%), which accounts for free throws as well as the greater value of three-point shots, and, in fact, he leads Harris in two of three shooting components and just dropped behind him in free-throw percentage: .606/.667/.776 for Payne and .512/.389/.784 for Harris (2P%/3P%/FT%). Obviously Payne's edge in threes is a statistical fluke (2-3 on the season), but not his edge in twos. In fact, Payne, unlike Nix or Dawson, gets fewer than 50% of his shots from point blank range (42%). And he's been shooting 54% on his two-point jumpers, also tops on the team (H/T hoop-math.com). If turnovers are the difference then Harris better watch out: he has three turnovers in the last four games while Payne has only one. And Payne's advantage on the offensive glass is clear (10.4% to 4.0% OR%).
All of this suggests that, on a per-possession basis, Payne is one of the top two offensive players on the team. A skeptic might want to reply that offense is only half the game and, besides, Payne doesn't play enough to add significant value. I'll take a look at both of these concerns, starting with defense.
Individual defense is, of course, the most difficult contribution to measure with numbers. More than any phase of the game, defense is a collaborative effort, with one player's actions profoundly affecting outcomes for the whole team. Even supposedly individual statistics, like defensive rebounds, are problematic, as a rebound by one player might simply be taken away from one of his teammates. But the things we can easily measure, without access to game charts or advanced statistical services like Synergy Sports, are blocks, steals and defensive rebounds.
Considering defense, in fact, may strengthen Payne's case for midseason MVP. He leads the conference by a considerable margin in defensive rebounding percentage, ranking 5th in the entire country at 29%. At the moment he is even half a point ahead of Draymond Green's pace from last year, when he was first in the conference and 7th in the country. For those who prefer their stats raw, Payne has ten more defensive rebounds than his closest teammate, Derrick Nix, despite playing 100 fewer minutes. Payne also leads the team in blocks (22) and block percentage (6.4%).
Steals have not been a major part of Payne's defensive arsenal this year, but further evidence of Payne's effectiveness on defense can be found in the hoop-math.com database. As a team, Michigan State has allowed opponents to shoot 42.5% on their 2-point shots, a solid but not spectacular figure. But on shots at the rim the Spartans are allowing only a 53% conversion rate. That (unadjusted) figure is tied with Wisconsin for best in the conference and is tied for 25-35 among the D1 schools tracked by hoop-math. There's no way of knowing how much credit Payne alone can take for that but, as a player playing just over 50% of the available game minutes almost exclusively in the post, he is a major contributor here.
The knock against Payne is that he's just not on the court enough to be as valuable as players like Appling or Harris. Currently Payne is 7th in the 7-man rotation in minutes per game at just over 20. He may be highly efficient, but that only adds value when he's in the game and consuming possessions. Several years ago KJ introduced a concept on his old blog that he called PORPAG that helps illustrates this point. PORPAG (Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game) combines offensive rating with usage rate and minutes to produce a single number that expresses how much marginal value a player produces beyond what a "replacement-level" player could provide. The precise formula and caveats for its use can be found here and the PORPAG figures for MSU's 9 primary players are in the table below.
Sure enough, Payne's limited court time hurts him, but not as much as I might have guessed. He still ranks third on the team, well ahead of players with far more minutes. In fact, if Payne had played as many minutes as Harris, they would basically be in a dead heat.
For Payne to have a true breakout year, then, he's going to have to increase his role in the offense. It's unlikely to be by adding a lot of minutes, as Tom Izzo seems committed to keeping him at around 20 minutes a game, perhaps because of his well-known lung condition. The key might be for him to increase his usage rate - the number of possessions he consumes during the minutes he is on the court. The Penn State game gave a good indication of his willingness to do this. In his 17 minutes in the second half he dominated the game, finishing with a 43% usage rate. Of course no one can maintain quite that level for an entire season, but if Payne steps up to an even slightly larger role than he's playing now, there's no telling where it will take him - and the Spartans.