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The Season in Review: Kalin Lucas Edition

Over the next few weeks, I'll be doing a series of posts looking at the performance of individual MSU basketball players this past season.  Because the end goal is to discuss improvements/adjustments that appear to be in order for next season, the series will be limited to returning players.  First up: Kalin Lucas.

In a superlative Spartan basketball season, Kalin Lucas was the superlative Spartan:

  • First-team All-Big Ten selection
  • Big Ten Player of the Year
  • NCAA Midwest All-Regional selection
  • NCAA All-Final Four selection
  • AP honorable mention All-American

Considering those accolades, it seems like a very long time ago that this blogger was asking the question "What's wrong with Kalin Lucas?"  What was wrong was that Lucas wasn't shooting the ball very well.  In nonconference play, he shot just 34.5% on 2-point attempts, 34.8% on 3-point attempts, and 73.2% from the free throw line.

As shown in the table below, those numbers improved markedly in conference play:

Nonconference 2.7 7.9 34.5 0.7 2.1 34.8 3.7 5.1 73.2 11.4
Conf Reg Season 4.1 9.7 41.8 1.3 3.1 41.4 4.9 5.7 85.3 16.8
Postseason 3.1 7.8 40.3 1.1 3.0 37.5 4.8 6.0 79.2 14.4
Full season 3.5 8.8 39.6 1.1 2.8 39.0 4.5 5.6 80.8 14.7

(Notes: Click "Wide" on the left sidebar if you can't see all the numbers.  "Conference Regular Season" includes the Kansas game.  2PM/G = 2-pointers made per game, etc.)

Both Lucas' 2-point and 3-point shooting percentages climbed above 40% in conference play, while his free throw shooting improved to a stellar 85.3%.  And he did this while (1) taking an additional 2.8 shots per game from the field and (2) playing against generally tougher/slower Big Ten defenses.

The shooting numbers dropped a little big in postseason play, but were still in the general vicinity of the conference figures.

On the downside, Lucas's ball-handling stats took a major hit in conference play:

Nonconference 29.5 0.3 1.4 6.5 1.0 1.2 0.3 1.4
Conf Reg Season 33.1 0.9 1.7 3.5 2.6 0.8 0.1 1.4
Postseason 32.5 0.8 0.9 4.8 2.9 1.4 0.1 1.0
Full season 31.9 0.7 1.4 4.6 2.2 1.0 0.2 1.3

Admittedly, the nonconference assist-turnover ratio of 6.5 was so efficient as to be unsustainable, but the drop in assists was pretty striking.  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.  Thankfully, he was able to convert a relatively high percentage of those 2-point attempts.  (The fact that he takes a lot of shots late in the shot clock also helps explain why a 2-point shooting percentage of 41.8% is "relatively high" in Lucas' case.)

Looking ahead to next season, I think the graduation of Travis Walton will affect Lucas' play, both positive and negatively.

On offense, MSU will generally have a stronger offensive group on the floor than it did this season, as Korie Lucious, Chris Allen, and Durrell Summers consume the minutes Walton leaves behind.  Hopefully, this will create more opportunities for Lucas to set teammates up for good shots and result in fewer instances in which he has to generate tougher shots late in the shot clock.

On the other end of the court, Lucas faces a substantial adjustment.  During the first two years of his career, Lucas has had the luxury of not having to guard top opposing point guards most of the time, as Walton could be assigned to that task.  Next season, Lucas will have to expend more energy on defense, as he becomes arguably MSU's top perimeter defender.

To sum up: Kalin Lucas's performance this season was a, if not the, driving factor in winning a Big Ten championship and reaching the Final Four.  He showed substantial improvement from his first season to his second.  Despite the early-season shooting woes, Lucas increased his offensive rating from 103.4 as a freshman to 110.4 as a sophomore (third in the conference among players with a usage rate of at least 24%, based on full-season stats).  That was largely a function of how often he forced the defense to foul him this year, as he more than doubled the number of free throw attempts he took per game compared to last season.

But, as well as Lucas played this season, there's actually still room for improvement.  I expect Lucas will be a popular all-American pick going into next season.  The question will be whether he can match those expectations by improving the balance between scoring and distributing on offense and becoming a bigger factor on defense.