On True Pointguardiness

Andy Lyons

(Bump -- Chris)

There’s been some debate in these parts about whether Keith Appling is a "true point guard" or a shooting guard playing the point guard position. I’m not sure if this skepticism regarding Appling’s point guard bona fides are a product of him playing off guard his freshman year, or in high school, but the perception is out there that he lacks something required for the position. Also, some here have contended that we have a more "natural" point guard on the roster, who might be better suited to play the point guard position in the future. My armchair view is that Appling has been more than adequate as a point guard, but since this blog was founded on tempo-free statistical analysis, I decided to marshal some statistics to investigate the topic.

But first, what do we mean by a "true" point guard, especially as that term applies to past Michigan State’s basketball heritage? My a priori assumptions, based on the two most idealized point guards in the program’s history (Cleaves and Magic) is that our point guards have been, for the most part, indifferent 3 point shooters but skilled at driving to the basket and either finishing at the rim, or getting to the line, or both. Also, we expect the players who play point guard here to create scoring opportunities for others meaning a high assist rate comes with the territory. Also, since the point guard runs the offense, the player should use a high percentage of possessions with (hopefully) a low turnover rate.

There’s also an ineffable leadership quality we tend to expect from the position – which I like to call the Mateen Cleaves legacy. However, as that quality can neither be measured statistically, nor known with any degree of certainty by those who are not on the team or coaching staff, I’ll ignore all discussion of that topic in this fan post, except to note one thing: Izzo seemed very pleased with the chemistry of this team all season long, from the pre-season up to and including towel-Gate – the Nix-Appling towel throwing incident during the NCAA tournament. Since good leadership is a factor in good team chemistry, especially as Izzo defines team chemistry, I think it’s safe to say that Appling has sufficient leadership qualities.

This table shows Jr. Year stats for the best point guards of the Izzo era. Statsheet has back-filled tempo free stats to the Mateen Cleaves years, so he is here, along with Appling, Neitzel, and Lucas. I’ve also included Denzel Valentine’s stats, since he’s the candidate others are touting as the point guard of the future. I used Jr. year stats for all players because Appling just finished his Jr. year, and because Cleaves and Lucas both were either injured, or overcoming injuries, during their senior years, and this way I avoid comparing them to others at less-than-full-strength. I used true shooting percentage rather than effective field goal percentage because true shooting percentage incorporates free throws, and since we expect our point guards to get to the rim rather than snipe from outside, true shooting percentage seemed to better incorporate the skill set we expect from the position.

True shot % possess % minute % assist % turnover % Offrating
Cleaves 50.1 26.6 77.9 43 27.7 103.6
Neitzel 59.5 25.3 89.1 29 16.8 119.3
Lucas 55.5 25 75.2 25 18.6 111.6
Appling 52.5 23 83.9 20.5 18.6 104.7
Valentine 51.8 18.5 52 22.3 31.5 93.9

I have to admit, looking at these stats, I have to eat my words a little. Appling’s assist rate is atypically low by MSU point guard standards. His usage rate is also a little lower than the others to play the position. Lucas was considered too shoot-first by many and his assist rate was nearly 3 points higher than Appling’s. And, those championing Valentine do have a point – he has a higher assist rate than Appling. But, that turnover rate – yeeesh. You can’t have a point guard turning it over at that rate, unless he’s also generating prime scoring chances for other guys on the team at an even higher rate.

Which is a perfect segue into a discussion of Mateen Cleaves. He had a fantastic assist rate. He also had a really high turnover rate, but to generate an assist, you have to get the ball to a guy who then scores it. And he was really good at getting the ball to guys in positions where they would score it. Valentine has a ways to go to get even close to Neitzel, much less Cleaves, in terms of assist rate. That could partially be due to the fact that he wasn't really playing the point guard position for us and hence has less opportunity to dish assists while on the court. I’m optimistic that his turnover rate will improve – he seemed to do better as the season progressed, and with a full off-season to work with his teammates, I think he’ll come back next year with a much-reduced turnover rate I’m still not convinced he’ll be a better option than Appling next year, because assist rate isn’t the end-all and be-all of point guard play.

One other criticism of Appling is that true shooting percentage, which is lower than any of his peers except Cleaves. Actually, the tempo free stats don’t like Cleaves all that much – his offensive rating is the lowest on this list, probably due to the low shooting percentage and high turnover rate. The guy who really shines here is Neitzel, who has a strong claim to being the most underrated point guard in program history. He’s not thought of as being one of the greats, because, with the exception of his freshman year, his teams didn’t quite live up to the high standards expected for the program. Maybe he didn’t have that ineffable leadership quality that’s craved by the Spartan faithful. More likely, he didn’t have the complimentary parts around him necessary for the team to reach the lofty heights necessary to be listed among the best in program history. But, the stats speak for themselves : he was a heck of a scorer, but also had the highest assist rate of anyone on this list other than Cleaves. He had a higher usage rate than Lucas, and the lowest turnover rate of anyone on this list. Add it up and you get a sterling 119.3 offensive rating, the highest of any player on this list, and an impressive rating for anyone with that high a usage rate. Not bad for a guy who was considered by many to be a reach for a power-conference program.

As the Neitzel years prove, it’s not all about the point guard - it’s also about the other guys. And one can argue that Cleaves had the best "other guys" of any point guard of the Izzo era. In Cleave's Jr. year, Antonio Smith had an offensive rating of 98.3, roughly equivalent to Dawson's. The other prominent players from that year had much higher offensive ratings than almost anyone on this team: 114.6 for Bell, which is very similar to Harris. After than, you've got Petersen at 124.1, Granger at 116.9, and Hutson at 122.6. This year's team didn't have anyone at 115 or above. Granger shot better than 50 percent from 3 point range that year and he took 45 3's, which is about the same number as Payne. Talk about the ultimate stretch 4. They also had Jason Klein shooting 41 percent from 3, and Peterson coming off the bench. Who would you rather be dishing to - Peterson, who could score inside and out, or Dawson, who can score at the rim, but doesn't have to be defended on the perimeter? That team had more and better shooters, which makes getting assists easier. I can buy the argument that Cleaves made those guys better, but part of it is that they just were better. The only team that has an argument to being at the same level offensively is that 2004-05 Final Four team. Even the 09 team didn't have as many high quality scorers.

Neitzel had next to nothing around him - the other guys getting major minutes that year were Drew Naymik, a sophomore Goran Suton, a freshman Raymar Morgan, Maquise Grey and Travis Walton, who was never known as a scorer. I really don't know how he got to a 29 percent assist rate with that supporting cast. The fact that he was such an efficient scorer, when he was the guy the other team really had to stop, is really impressive.

What I take from this is that Appling still has room for improvement, at least on the offensive end. I don’t think he’ll ever have as good an instinct for finding scoring opportunities for others as some of the other guys on this list. I still think he’s our best option at point guard next year, but if Valentine can bring his turnover rate down below 20 percent and keep the assist rate high, he has an argument. Appling is almost certainly the best, or at worst second-best, defensive point guard we have on this list. That side of his game isn’t as amenable to statistical analysis, but shouldn’t be discounted when considering our options. And, despite his deficiencies in the assist department, he was pretty good at hanging onto the ball by program standards, and our offense was pretty efficient this year. We were also excellent defensively. Appling is clearly not quite on par with the other guys on this list - but he's pretty good, and he's not the entire problem. The other guys matter too, and we'll need everyone to get better if we want to get back to the Final Four.

This is a FanPost, written by a member of the TOC community. It does not represent the official positions of The Only Colors, Inc.--largely because we have no official positions.

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