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In the case of Lucas v. Harris

So the other day our favorite Wolverine blogger interviewed our favorite college basketball analyst.  All in all, it was a great read, with the sort of incisive wonkery we've all come to expect/love from Mr. Gasaway.  ("The problem isn’t tempo, the problem is 11 teams playing the same tempo.")

But I was puzzled a bit by this:

In fact, I want to pipe up on behalf of one of your players. I read the interview you did with KJ of The Only Colors and I have to take issue with your statement that Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas "is easily the best point guard in the conference." Really? What about a certain Manny Harris? Oh, I know last year there were always other Wolverines on the floor alongside Harris who proudly wore the "point guard" label (Kelvin Grady, C.J. Lee, Stu Douglass, etc.). I for one don’t buy it. Harris had by far the highest assist rate on the team and, more importantly, he ran this offense in the literal Beilein-ian sense. Plus Lucas is hapless inside the arc, making an anemic 40 percent of his twos last year. I’ll grant you that Lucas made Sherron Collins look really bad at a propitious moment (less than a minute left in a tie game) in the Sweet 16 and is clearly superior to Harris when it comes to nailing threes. I’m just sayin’. Not open and shut from my chair.

Before we delve into the paragraph above, let's take a look at the statistical evidence.  Lucas-v.-Harris statistical comparison, based on 2009 regular season Big Ten games, after the jump (data HT: statsheet):

K Lucas M Harris
Points/G 16.5 15.3
Off Rating 110.2 97.3
Poss% 27.1 32.0
2pt FG% 42.4 43.4
3pt FG% 38.9 30.1
Eff FG% 46.1 44.0
FT% 84.8 84.7
FT Rate 42.8 44.7
PPWS 1.07 1.04
Reb/G 2.4 6.7
Off Reb% 3.4 5.4
Def Reb% 5.5 22.4
Assist/G 3.7 3.7
Assist% 25.5 28.9
TO/G 2.7 3.5
TO% 18.9 21.6
Assistt/TO 1.3 1.1
Steall/G 0.8 1.3
Steall% 1.5 2.5

First off, let me quickly concede, and applaud, Mr. Gasaway's first point: Manny Harris is effectively Michigan's point guard.   He averaged the same number of assists per game as Lucas did in conference play.  For the season, his assist rate was 11 percentage points higher than any other Wolverine player.

Harris is a great player who can do just about everything his coach could (and does) ask of him.  He's asked to bear an enormous share of the team's offensive workload (as evidenced by 32.0% usage rate) and he rebounds like a power forward (on the defensive end, at least) to boot.

But comparing the two players' ball-handling and scoring metrics, the scales tip in Lucas' favor:

  • Their assist numbers were comparable, with Harris' assist percentage a little higher presumably due to MSU's slightly higher team scoring production.
  • Harris turned the ball over more than Lucas did, even accounting for the higher frequency with which he initiated offensive plays.
  • Lucas lagged behind Harris by just one percentage points from 2-point range, while beating him by nearly 9 points from beyond the arc.
  • Lucas nearly matched Harris' ability to get to the free throw line--despite giving up 5 inches to Harris--and was just as proficient in turning those trips to the line into points.

Mr. Gasaway's knock on Lucas is his 2-point shooting percentage.  Really, though, both Lucas and Harris have 2-point shooting percentages below an ideal elite-scorer level.  But they both make up for it by getting to the free throw line with regularity, resulting in their respective respectable (considering how much they both shoot) points-per-weighted-shot figures of 1.07 and 1.04.

Now, you can argue that by adopting the conference-only, even-playing-field approach to the statistical comparison, I'm ignoring Lucas' shooting struggles during the nonconference season.  And, indeed, Lucas shot just 34.5% from 2-point range during the nonconference season, dragging his full-season 2-point percentage just south of 40% (39.6%, to be exact).  Given that Lucas shot 44.5% from 2-point range as a freshman, though, I think you can chalk that up to a short-term slump.

(On the other side of the ledger, Harris shot 46.6% from 2-point range for the full season--but a perusal of his game log indicates that number is padded by some big scoring games against early nonconference opponents of the distinctly patsyish variety.)

And it should be noted that, while Lucas was struggling to hit mid-range jumpers during the nonconference season, he was also sporting a gaudy 6.5-1.0 assist-turnover ratio.  This leads to my own wonkish conclusion: Kalin Lucas is a mutating point guard.  Here are Lucas' major per-game point guard indicators for this last season, categorized by type of opponent:

Pts/G Ast/G TO/G Games 15+ Pts 5+ Asts
NonB10 Opponents (All) 16.3 3.5 2.7 18 7 13
NonB10 Opponets (BCS only) 13.0 5.5 2.1 10 3 7
B10 Opponents 12.9 5.9 1.7 20 13 3

Against non-Big Ten foes, Lucas fits the mold of the traditional pass-first point guard.  He distributes the ball to his teammates, minimizes turnovers, and scores at a relatively modest rate.  And it isn't just a case of padding the ball-handling stats against weaker opposition; the numbers don't change much if you restrict the sample to nonconference opponents from BCS conferences.

Against Big Ten adversaries, meanwhile, Lucas morphs into a shoot-first point guard.  The assist number drops substantially, with an uptick in turnovers, and the scoring average shows an offsetting increase. 

Lucas was twice as likely to post 5 or more assists as he was to score 15 or more points against nonleague opponents.  Against Big Ten teams, that ratio dramatically reversed itself to 4-1 in favor of scoring 15+ points.

I've previously hypothesized on this phenomenon, as it applied to the transition from the pre-conference nonconference schedule to conference play:

My intuitive explanation for this is that transition scoring opportunities dried up in conference play.  Generally, the MSU offense looks something like this on any given possession:

  • Lucas pushes the ball in transition.  If the opportunity to score is there, he either drives to the basket or passes to an open teammate.
  • If the opportunity isn't there in transition, Lucas pulls the ball out and MSU runs its offense--generally looking for scoring options other than Lucas.
  • If the half-court offense hasn't created a good shot with 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Lucas gets the ball up top and tries to create a shot going toward the basket.
That's obviously an oversimplification, but I think it helps explain why Lucas' assists fell and his 2-point attempts increased in conference play.

It just now occurs to me, though, that the contrast is just as striking when you include the 6 nonconference games that followed the conference season--i.e., the Men's Division 1 NCAA Basketball Tournament, in which Lucas averaged 14.3 points, 5.7 assists, and 3.0 turnovers per game.  That lends credence to the idea that the all-11-Big-Ten-teams-playing-slowly phenomenon may, in fact, be the significant variable in determining what kind of production MSU gets out of its star point guard.  It wasn't just a case of Lucas' game evolving over the course of the season.

Let me state my theory on Lucas in broader (and less emotionally-detached) terms : Kalin Lucas does what his team needs him to do to win games.  Against faster-paced opponents, he runs the fast break with superb efficiency.  Against more plodding opponents, he finds ways to score in the half-court offense.  Comparisons to other Big Ten stars aside, you can't ask for much more than that.