Think back with me to the end of November and our early season discussion about who would replace Kevin Durant's scoring. That's looking like a mostly solid evaluation, with two notable exceptions: Justin Mason and Damion James. Mason's struggles on offense are well-documented, and we took a look at Damion James' sophomore leap in mid-December.
Fast forward to today, and the Austin Chronicle's Thomas Hackett is asking the same question we were in December: How is Texas thriving despite losing a player as exceptional as Kevin Durant?
To answer that, Hackett turned to Dr. David Berri, an economist and the author of The Wages of Wins, which seeks to explain a basketball player's value with statistics more comprehensive than traditional counting stats. Writes Hackett:
Last season Augustin had a win score of .149. So far this year, it's .182 – an improvement but nothing compared to James' .393, which is within spitting distance of Durant's score of .403.
"It's important to understand that when Kevin Durant is not there, somebody else is going to take those shots," Berri explained. "The question is: Are they doing that and the other things that create wins efficiently?"
The table showing all the Longhorns' Win Scores from 2007-08 is here, and it's clear just how valuable James has been to this team. This comports with our eyeball test, too. When James has been sidelined by foul trouble, the team has struggled mightily; when he's out on the floor we look like an entirely different team.
I'd caution readers not to rely too heavily on Berri's formula, however, which looks problematic on a number of different levels. Wages of wins was created for the NBA, which is an entirely different game. Berri does not control for pace (critical in the college game), relies heavily on counting statistics, and does not account for the significantly higher value of the three point shot in college basketball. Which is why Hackett should have complimented Berri's analysis with what we can learn about Texas from Ken Pomeroy.
Pomeroy's stats also illuminate James' value to the 'Horns, but they present a more comprehensive data set to evaluate the contributions. Effective Field Goal Percentage (which appropriately weights the value of three point shots) shows that Connor Atchley is the most efficient offensive weapon on the Longhorn basketball team. James, in fact, is only fourth, behind both Augustin and Abrams. This reflects one of the fundamental differences between college and pro basketball - the importance of the three pointer. With the three point line nearly four feet closer to the rim, this isn't surprising.
I go through all of this to make a few points about the team:
1. Damion James' contributions to this team shouldn't be underestimated. By almost any analysis, James' value to the 2007-08 Longhorns is obvious. Even though Berri's numbers probably exaggerate his efficiency, Win Scores is really a composite rating; that is, it's meant to reflect the player's total contribution to the team. Fouls, rebounds, blocks, steals, points - it's all in there. Even though better controlled data would produce a more realistic assessment of James's contributions, as a rough measure, it makes the right point: there's no question that we need Damion on the floor to be the team we saw in December.
2. James' value can't be appreciated out of context. Take another peek at KP's Texas stat page. The number that jumps out to me is 15.3. As in, Texas gets 15.3 percent of its minutes from bench players - the 341st fewest in the country. So it's not just that Damion James is terrific when he's out on the floor, it's that Texas is still extremely weak behind the starting five.
3. The three point shot is Texas' double-edged sword. The biggest problem in Berri's analysis is that it ignores the relative value of the three point shot. Not only is it more prevalent in the college game, but, more fundamentally, three points is 50% more valuable than two. With that in mind, lessons abound:
- AJ Abrams' three point slump has had a huge (negative) impact on our offensive efficiency.
- Connor Atchley's value (22-38 from beyond the arc) this season has been tremendous.
- Our small guards kill us defensively, as we rank 221st nationally in 3-point FG%.
At this point, it's just wishcasting to hope for better perimeter defense, but we can hope for Abrams to find his stroke again. Equally important, we must keep Connor Atchley involved - in games he's disappeared, Texas has struggled mightily. And finally, we can't afford to have Damion James sitting on the bench with foul trouble.