For those curious what my life is like these days, consider that I'm taking a break from studying for law exams... and using that time to write this week's Texas Basketball Report. I don't know which is sadder - that I have so little free time, or that I'm happy to spend it writing the TBR. Judge as you will.
But this column - this site! - stops for no one and no thing. I've got my Torts exam on Friday, which means the TBR moves up to Thursday. This week we're taking a look at the two players whose improvement has outside observers gushing with praise - Damion James and Connor Atchley.
Texas fans can clearly see the improvement just watching the two play, but I was curious how much improvement the two were enjoying production-wise. With that question in mind, I charted each of James' and Atchley's 2006-07 and 2007-08 (to date) numbers, followed by the increase or decrease in production. It's not the most systematic look at the two, as there are both counting and rate statistics in the chart, but included at the bottom is each player's minutes per game. For the counting stats, we can easily eyeball where the increased production is due to more minutes on the floor and where the two are simply improved.
(Note, as well, that these numbers are not adjusted for tempo, either. So far this season, Texas has played at a tempo averaging about 5 fewer possessions per 40 minutes than 2006-07. Among several of the categories below, James' and Atchley's numbers would be even more impressive if we controlled for possessions/40 minutes.)
Update [2007-12-15 14:0:5 by HornsFan]: An eagle-eye reader noted that I hadn't carried a one in my spreadsheet, leading to the confounding 40% 2PT FG% for Connor Atchley. I noted in the commentary below that I hadn't noticed Atchley struggling with two point shots... and it turns out he hasn't. Anyhow, the new chart reflects Connor's correct shooting percentage, which is terrific. The commentary is also revised.
Let's quickly walk through each category before a few concluding thoughts:
Both Atchley and James are playing more this season, but especially Atchley. Though Texas fans knew Atchley's minutes were going to increase, there was some understandable concern about giving him 25-30 minutes per game. He's more than justified that thus far, however, with his much improved play. I've been enormously impressed.
Neither James nor Atchley are giving Texas empty minutes scoring-wise, with each handily exceeding their increased percentage of playing time with even more scoring. This is a huge help in replacing Kevin Durant's scoring.
Though Atchley is rebounding at about the same rate as he was a year ago, James has stepped up his game to a new level. Because Kevin Durant was such a prolific scorer, it was easy to forget how many rebounds he sucked up each game. James is helping fuel the post-KD transition in that regard, as well.
It's no accident that Texas is tops in the nation in turnover percentage on offense, coughing up the ball on only 14% of their possessions. This team is even better than last year's at not giving up possessions.
Interestingly, both players have taken slight dips in their 2PT FG% so far this year. James' difference is statistically insignificant, but Connor's only hit 29 of his 47 two point attempts thus far. I haven't noticed this on the court during the games, but it's interesting to see in the season box score. Connor has improved in this area as well, which comports much better with what we've observed thus far. He's getting out ahead on fast breaks, finishing around the rim, and doing a solid job of being in a good spot for Augustin's passes.
James is 4-6 on the year; Connor 12 of 21. Atchley's numbers do give me reason to pause: teams are going to be more and more keyed in on him as a three point shooter as the scouting report catches up to his improvement. Will he be as significant a contributor if teams start playing him to stretch? As for James, he's doing most of his damage inside the arc, selectively taking his 20-foot jumpers. I couldn't be more impressed with his offensive development.
James is still scoring about as efficiently as he did a year ago; Connor's improvement from beyond the arc has helped push up his points per shot to a terrific rate. I don't think that's sustainable, though. Connor needs to be ready to diversify as team's adjust.
The big surprise to me here is that Atchley was as prolific blocking shots last year as he has been this year. It had seemed to me like he was blocking more shots per game this year, but he's really just playing more minutes. He was an outstanding shot blocker last season, as well.
Both players are improved from a season ago (at least so far), but neither are doing much in the way of drawing fouls.
This isn't just a problem for these two - it's a problem for the team as a whole. Texas ranks 285th in the nation in trips to the free throw line per possession. Though that rate doesn't hurt a team that's shot as well as this Texas team has (especially behind the three point line), it's assured to be problematic in at least a couple games down the line. Texas is as dependent on shooting the ball well as any top team in the country.
If Rick Barnes had to give out a Most Improved Award right now, he'd have a damn hard time making a choice between these two. (For a bonus fun thought of the day, consider: AJ Abrams and DJ Augustin have taken big steps forward this year, too.) Among the two being discussed today, though I think James' improvement is more important to Texas' ability to be an elite team from here forward, the big step up from Atchley has been, and will be, tremendously valuable, too.
In my mind, Damion James' ability to sustain this improvement is more critical to Texas because good coaches are going to spend as much defensive capital as they dare on disrupting DJ Augustin's game. This year that's becoming a truly tall order, but even so, Augustin's going to face teams who throw everything but the kitchen sink at getting the ball out of his hands. And Damion James is the only other player on this Longhorn squad who can get a good look almost any time he wants it. He's quick, he has good height, expanded range, and tremendous vertical game. No longer just a dunker/athlete, James can get off 12 foot jumpers over his defender more or less when he wants to. That's going to be something Texas needs when facing a defense that can harass Augustin and Abrams.
Like, for example, UCLA...
That's all for this week. It's been fun watching this entire team develop from a season ago, but these two in particular have stood out with their improvements, if for no other reason than it caught most - if not all - of us by surprise.