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Reviews and Previews: Derrick Nix

I actually enjoy it when I'm researching one of these posts and unintentionally bring one of my own preconceptions into question. I'll admit that, without knowing exactly where I got it from, I have always pretty much assumed that "most" college players improve from year to year and that the biggest improvement usually comes between the freshman and sophomore years. There's a kernel of truth in both of these statements, but the evidence is less dramatic than I would have thought. Take a look at the following table I found in the 2009 College Basketball Prospectus:*

Change in Offensive Efficiency:
Returning Division I Players, 2006-2009
in ORtg
Freshman to
Sophomore to
Junior to
+10 or more 32.6% 23.0% 19.0%
+0 to +10 points 32.1% 34.8% 36.0%
-0 to -10 points 24.5% 29.3% 33.0%
-10 or less 10.8% 12.9% 12.0%
Minimum of 10% of team's minutes played

*Gasaway, John (Ed.) College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10. Major-Conference Preview. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, 2009, pg. 84.

About 1/3 of college players make a significant jump as sophomores but a surprising number of players in each year actually regress from the prior year. 42% of juniors and 45% of seniors experience a drop-off. When you have a situation where several players do this in the same year you get, well, the 2010-11 Michigan State Spartans.

Change in Offensive Efficiency:
Michigan State, 2010-2011
Player ORtg 2010 ORtg 2011 Net Change
Kalin Lucas 110.1 105.8 -4.3
Draymond Green 113.6 106.8 -6.8
Durrell Summers 105.0 97.8 -7.2
Delvon Roe 108.7 107.2 -1.5
Korie Lucious 93.5 91.5 -2.0
Garrick Sherman 97.8 99.2 +1.4
Derrick Nix 93.7 98.3 +4.6
Austin Thornton 83.7 92.8 +9.1

Not only did no major offensive contributor make a dramatic improvement this year, none of them was even able to prevent a decline, this in a year where offense was up across the Big Ten.

So why look at this is an article about Derrick Nix? Of the Spartans who did improve, Garrick Sherman managed to tick up slightly and former walk-on Austin Thornton went from well-below-average to around-replacement-level. Among the regular scholarship players with at least one year under their belt, the only one to show some real progress was Derrick Nix.

I'm not, however, preparing to issue a press release on this. The problem was that, for a variety of reasons, Nix played so little that it didn't have much of an impact. He actually played a smaller percentage of the team's minutes than he did as a freshman and there were four games he didn't even appear in. So it's hard to talk about progress in a year where that happens. Nonetheless, there were a few bright spots in Nix's season that are worth looking at.

Nix managed to bump up his offensive rating while slightly increasing his usage rate (20.8% compared to 19.7% last year), so he was, on balance, a little more effective on the offensive end this year. He did this primarily by improving his shot selection and his free-throw shooting. Gone are the memories of his 27% on foul shots last year. Though at 53% he's not going to make anyone forget Blake Ahearn (you have forgotten him, haven't you: see this), he was able to combine this with a ridiculous 113.3 free-throw rate (he actually attempted more free-throws than field goals) to more than double his output from the line over last year. He made 8 fewer field goals than last year but took 24 fewer shots, so his eFG% was up to 60 from 50.7. Nix improved as both a shooter and a scorer over last year.

The problem of course was that Nix couldn't get or stay on the court. He entirely missed the three games in Maui when he stayed home after a spat with Tom Izzo over his role, playing time or nobody's-really-sure-what. He was also a DNP-CD for the first Northwestern game, for reasons that are not entirely clear. In the remainder of the games he averaged only 8 minutes per game, due to match-ups, his conditioning, or Izzo's rotations.

Nix's weight obviously had something to do with his struggles. Among the pieces of good news coming out of last summer was that Nix was really getting in shape and was looking to be down to 275 by the start of the season. I even remember reading about him running around Lake Lansing with strength coach Mike Vorkapich, which, having done it a number of times myself, would be no mean feat for a guy pushing 280. But Nix discovered, as many of us have, that taking it off and keeping it off are two different issues. With the stresses of the season, his worries about his role, the dismissal of his friend Korie Lucious and other factors, he managed to give back a lot of the progress he made in the off-season. And this probably affected his court time in two ways: it made it harder for him to stay on the court for long stretches, and it made him less mobile, especially on defense. We saw a lot more of his favorite trick, where he tries to poke the ball out from behind after being beaten by a drop-step or spin move, as the season wore on.

Nix was, nonetheless, a fairly effective defensive player when he had the right match-ups. He didn't stand out in any one statistical category, but had decent numbers in defensive rebounding percentage (13.2%, 5th on the team), block% (3.5%, 4th) and steal% (2.2%, 2nd). The steal percentage is especially noteworthy. Like Draymond Green, Nix has surprisingly quick hands. Had he been able to maintain his percentage while staying on the court more, he would have been in the top 15 in the conference in steal rate, and by far the largest guy in that group. Also like Green, however, he got called for over 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes of court time. Unfortunately, his steals were often the result of gambling on the reach-in after failing to move his feet in coverage. This had something to do with his limited minutes against teams with mobility in the post.

Like Adreian Payne, the key stat to look for with Nix in the coming year will be minutes. If he can get himself in good enough condition to play 15-20 minutes a game he will be a real asset for Tom Izzo. With Nix, Payne and Alex Gauna being very different players, Nix's ability to stay in the game will give Izzo a lot of flexibility to match up with opponents and create match-up problems for them. Nix was the best post passer of MSU's big men, which, however, is not saying much. He had an assist rate of 6.7% but a turnover rate of 25.8%. He will need to bring that second number down somewhat to keep defenses from collapsing on him. He's brought his shooting pretty close to what it needs to be at this point. He's probably not going to get to the line as much next year: this year's rate was probably the result of his legendarily bad year shooting free-throws as a freshman. Look for him to shoot more often - he only took 13% of the shots attempted while he was on the court this year - and to finish more aggressively at the rim. He missed a fair number of layups that perhaps could have been dunks. He's may not have the overall upside of Adreian Payne, but if Nix can move from limited-minutes role-player status to solid rotation player in 2011-12 then the team will definitely be the better for it.

[This is part of a series of posts on the major players from the past season and players we'll see for the first time in the coming year. Not all of them will be as extensive as this one. If you like this kind of thing it's available in bite-sized chunks by following me on Twitter: @connertp.]