Texas Basketball Report 3.4: Hell Week Aftermath Part 1, The Guards

Beginning to pick up where we left off with the UCONN post-game wrap, this week's TBR unfolds with the first of a series of comprehensive player and team notes. As I wrote in the aftermath of the loss on Saturday, while I understand why everyone was feeling so negative, my own take on Saturday's game was decidedly more upbeat, focused on my observation of a handful of positive developments that could prove critical to the team reaching its top potential.

Because I can't seem to write a post without spilling way, way over my intended target, we continue to move forward in piecemeal fashion. First up, player notes on the guards, with Part 2's thoughts on the big men arriving (I hope) before Wednesday night's 8 p.m. CST tip-off against Texas Tech. From there, I'll reserve any promises about what follows until seeing how the team looks at home against Tech. Ideally, the points made in these Player Notes will fit neatly with what we see from the 'Horns tonight and I'll be able to sneak in a few team-centric thoughts before the weekend's big home game against Baylor.

Update, Wednesday, 2:00 p.m. Multiple interruptions in an already crammed day are keeping me from finishing up Part 2 on the big men in time to post before tonight's game against Tech. Guess I'll hold off and see what we get from those guys tonight.  Abbreviated notes:

James: Doing everything well, still. Need to run the offense through him more often.

Pittman: Needs to calm down, focus on fundamentals (including not fouling). Understandably frustrated -- we're doing him no favors, nor are the refs -- but he's got to take care of himself before he can get frustrated with anyone else. We need his offensive rebounding to be our best.

Johnson: Doing a lot well, and more and more of it all the time. Really, really need him to play big when he's out there and help clear defensive rebounds. With Pittman struggling to get to 20-25 minutes and Wangmene and Hill the twin disasters of the team, Johnson's got to do as much for us with defensive rebounding as he's doing for us as an offensive lift.

Wangmene and Hill: Absolutely terrible, the both of them. Wangmene's the single biggest disappointment of the season, and if he's going to be as useless going forward as he has been to this point, Dexter Pittman must doubly commit to doing what he has to in order to ensure he's on the floor for 20-25 minutes per game. Forget the lack of offense, which I wasn't counting on -- what's maddeningly disappointing about Wangmene is that he's not giving us rebounding or defense, the two things we desperately need from him and which would make a huge difference in helping us hide any Pittman problems in a given game.

Let's see how these guys do tonight against Tech -- I like the match up and expect Texas' bigs to have a strong night more characteristic of their play in the first half of the season. Important tune up with a very quick, athletic and opportunistic Baylor squad coming to town on Saturday.

Part 1. The Guards

DOGUS BALBAY  Take away his three-foul outburst in the first minute of the second half and who knows how things turn out Saturday, because Connecticut's second half explosion was fueled in no small measure by two things -- Texas' offensive slump with Lucas/Mason manning the point and its repeated defensive breakdowns on the perimeter and stopping penetration -- directly attributable to Balbay's absence. Saturday sucked, but at least where reviewing Balbay is concerned, this marks one of the positives in my scorebook, considering the ease with which he should be able to control fouls enough to give Texas 25-30 minutes. Indeed, on the season Balbay is averaging 4.3 fouls per 40 minutes played, which is a bit elevated from what you'd ideally want to see, but perfectly acceptable given that (1) Barnes is not likely to call on him for more than 30 minutes in any given contest, and (2) some of those fouls are a byproduct of the brilliant defensive play he gives us, which we really don't want to ask him to tone down.

No one will confuse his penetrate-and-pass abilities for an elite point guard, but he is an elite athlete with uncanny quickness and explosive athletic ability, allowing him to be a great penetrator. Saturday, we saw Balbay fulfilling that essential role to the dribble-drive offense that we run for three-quarters of every game, with generally positive results. He can finish around the rim and really, he needs to continue looking for his points on drives when it's there, but in the main he's developing into a perfectly functional offensive point guard, while playing the best on-ball defense in the country. Frankly, I've never seen a better on-ball defender in the college game. Fantastic does not do his defense justice. It's better than that.

Balbay_photoshop_3_medium
Dogus Balbay, Defensive Wizard.

JAI LUCAS  When UCONN got it going he became a suboptimal guy to have out on the floor, but his overall game, both prior to that point in the game Saturday, and when a complementary part of the right personnel situations this year generally, have been mostly encouraging. In fact, I'd say the biggest problem with Jai Lucas right now has nothing to do with him at all, but rather Barnes' continued practice of hyper-substitution. There is theoretical value in being able to send out a dozen different playing lineups; actual value is limited to those cohesive personnel groups among the dozen that are comprised of players who complement one another.

Both here and elsewhere, Lucas took a good deal of heat for Saturday's performance, but some of it seemed to me to be misplaced. Prior to UCONN's big runs, the bulk of my notes on Lucas were positive -- most notably, "Even if you didn't know his background, it shows in his play that he must have grown up competing against older, bigger players." The smallest guy on the court made both of his lay ups on penetration (something our more athletically gifted guys are struggling to do), scoring the buckets with high-arching, soft-touch finishes that cleared the blocking arms of the trees down low. Likewise, he has a good understanding of where we want the ball to be, and he's one of six players in the Rick Barnes era who has successfully completed two or more post-entry passes in the same season.

There are situations and opponent match ups that will limit our ability to get good stuff from him on a consistent basis, so again, this is a matter of proper usage (a running theme of this report, I'm afraid), but it would be just as big a mistake to miss out on the positives he'll add in the right situations, as it is to suffer his liabilities by playing him in the wrong ones.

JUSTIN MASON  My parade of positives stops right here, as Mason had what I would characterize as a forgettable afternoon. His box line wasn't empty and he on a couple occasions did what we need him to be doing the entire time he's in the game, but his overall value to the team was deep in the red, as he retreated once again into playing as a passive offensive player who largely just tries to stay out of the way. Some part of me believes Mason's biggest shooting problem is a mental/confidence one (as opposed to, say, Balbay, who can't shoot, period), but whatever the cause, he can't/won't/isn't shooting his way out of the problem, which necessitates he attack the lane and the rim with penetration, to use his strong body to get a clean look at a short two, earn a trip to the foul line, or if defensive help arrives to distribute the ball to the man open.

We return again, then, to Rick Barns and personnel decisions. Let's start with the obvious: Mason cannot start. It is indefensible under any analysis, and if there were reasons to give Barnes a long leash in developing this team, the calendar is about to turn to February. Put another way: I was fine before the season letting Barnes start Mason while he gathered data and brought others along, but we now have data and we are at the point in the season where the others either are ready to be who we need them to be, or we're not going to be the team we hope we can be. So forget fretting about whether or not this should have happened any sooner; it can't wait any longer.

Justin Mason cannot start because the best possibility for his being a positive offensive contributor is incompatible with the needs of our primary offensive contributors. Especially if it's getting the most out of Dexter Pittman that we're talking about, Mason does nothing to alleviate Texas' lane-clogging problem -- triply so if playing alongside Dogus Balbay. But in any scenario involving getting the most out of our top offensive players, Mason's offerings do not maximize our potential effectiveness. If Barnes wants 5-10 minutes per game from Mason, I would offer the following handy set of rules that Rick can consult throughout the game:

1. Is Dogus Balbay in the game? If yes, do not insert Justin Mason. If no, proceed to the next question.

2. Is Dexter Pittman in the game? If yes, do not insert Justin Mason unless there are two (2) strong perimeter shooters also in the game. If neither Balbay nor Pittman are in the game, proceed to the next question.

3. Are you willing to press and run? If yes, congratulations! Justin Mason could be a good substitution here. Be sure when you call his number to tell him that if he hangs out on the perimeter, he's coming right back out.

JORDAN HAMILTON  Because he's Jordan Hamilton, he made at least four plays on Saturday that probably made you curse His Airness Errorness. Twice he fell asleep in transition, three times he stood and watched on weakside rebounding, and he kept his streak alive by launching one truly mind-numbing three point attempt from the wrong place at the wrong time.

Howevah... among the various developments from Saturday's game that I saw as positive, none may be more responsible for my overall (cautious) optimism than some of the things we saw from Hamilton. It started at Kansas State, continuing on Saturday in Storrs, and looking back through my comment history for the last two games, you can pick up on where and what I was starting to see that I liked. Note the progression:

KANSAS STATE

"Ha! Jordan actually should have shot that one."

"Huge three. Nice Jordan."

"WTF Jordan. Passes the easy shot and takes the impossible one."

"Awful shot Jordan."

"Good pass Jordan."

"To the rim. Nice, Jordan."

"Jordan playing great."

"Good good good. Wild shot by Hamilton, but it wasn't a jumper. Good things happen on the offensive rebound."

[comment thread of Horn Brain's post-game review] "Jordan wasn't so bad last night. He’s still lost on shot selection, but he started getting to the rim last night, an encouraging sign. He was the least of our problems last night. Dexter, Damion, and Gary turned in shameful performances."

[from same post-game review thread] "You're describing Jordan accurately... but prior to last night. Look, he’s been terrible for most of this year. And he made mistakes last night. But he also did more encouraging things than he’s done in a long while. I thought it was a step forward."

CONNECTICUT

"Nice, Jordan."

"Hamilton smoked on defense falling asleep."

"Good block by Damion, good get by Hamilton."

"Hamilton to the rim twice. Missed both, but I liked both."

"Hamilton not getting great results. But his approach is night and day — big step forward, if this sticks."

Without context, any one of these comments doesn't offer much, but laying them all out together you can get a real sense that there have been encouraging, observable signs from the supremely talented freshman. Mostly, though, I went through the trouble to post all these because this is a really big deal.

Recall TBR 3.3, published on the Monday afternoon before we played KSU, in which I spent some time wondering "What To Do With Jordan Hamilton?":

There won't be minutes for him in the tourney if he's taking the floor with his current scoring mindset. The one thing that keeps giving me pause comes each time or two a game when a long body impressive snatches a ball out of the air near the rim and puts it in for a score, and I have to lean in a little for a closer look before I realize it was Hamilton.

And I always think to myself that if I were Jordan Hamilton, I'd worry about being the perimeter scorer I think I can be later, and for purposes of this year, try to re-invent myself as a scorer from 10 feet and in. He's not strong enough to do that against professionals, but he's long enough to do it against college players. There aren't many college guards who have the length to bother his shot if he gets it in close, nor are there many forwards who are quick enough to prevent him from penetrating past them.

I think if I were Rick Barnes, I'd tell Hamilton that he's out of the game the first time he shoots a three pointer. Even if he makes it. The rule lasts for two weeks. Go.

I'd guess he'd start to re-invent his mindset pretty quickly, and I suspect he'd succeed in a way that made him a useful contributor to this year's team.

For most of the year, Hamilton had been struggling beneath two fundamental problems: (1) inconsistency with decision-making (or more often, consistently bad decision-making), and (2) a terrible approach to the game involving many, many long jumpers, and far too few appearances at or near the rim. Obviously, the lapses and mistakes the past two games still implicate #1 (the consistency issues), but beginning in Manhattan and escalating in Storrs, there appeared to be a genuine breakthrough in #2 (his approach). Again, this is a big deal.

Same as everyone else, he didn't get any favors from Lady Luck, with most of his positive moves near/to the basket resulting in shots we want him taking, but netting empty results on the scoreboard when the short shots rattled out. Similarly, after he struggled early in the game with the aforementioned mental letdowns that led to transition buckets and/or weakside rebounds for the Huskies, he was for the rest of the game vastly improved, and not in a "he didn't stand out for buffoonery" way. He was active, aggressive, and consistently in the paint trying to make plays/rebound (on both ends of the floor). He made two exceptional passes, both of which were a direct result of his improved approach, and neither of which are even possible if he's sashay-ing about the perimeter with a three-point trigger-finger.

This is progress. Important progress, for reasons we'll get into more in the team talk. Though I wrote on Saturday night that it looked like I might be the only Longhorn fan who thought there were important positives to focus on, when Barking Carnival's Trips Right (whose analysis is consistently excellent) got to posting his thoughts on UCONN, I was glad to see him write that he "thought yesterday was an unmitigated disaster before [he] rewound the tape." And even more pleased to see that a big part of his more positive outlook had to do with Hamilton:

Second, the light for Jordan Hamilton is starting to flicker. The shots he took in this ballgame were exactly what the team needed after Uconn had made its run. We just need to find a way to protect the kid on the other end because he is a horrible off the ball, helpside defender. But as the team’s only true 3 Jordan is a valuable weapon in every other aspect of the game. He’s an elite scorer, an elite shooter, and his length allows him to compete on the glass with the best frontcourts in the nation which is huge because he’s doing that from the 3 spot. Also, the two magnificent dimes he had were special, special stuff. He needs to be given some more freedom and more minutes.

So there you have it. Within this TBR, I've devoted more than enough space to Hamilton to fill a post its own. I'm not sure I can do much more to make clear how important this potential development is to the team. I understand why everyone's frustrated by last week's losses, and I'll be the first to admit that to make the Final Four run we all expect this team to make, there's a lot that needs to happen between now and March, but if Jordan Hamilton's light is coming on as it appears that it is, I cannot emphasize enough how much that strengthens our chances to be great.

(We'll set aside his defensive limitations until later. For now, it's enough to say that while we don't want to defend in such a way that we're leaving Hamilton alone in the halfcourt to deal with a legit scorer, he's plenty athletic enough that he can be a functional component of good team defense.)

AVERY BRADLEY  By contrast, I'm not compelled to say too much about Bradley at this particular moment, because for the most part, it's all good. He's a really fun, interesting, and exciting player to watch develop, and at this point, I think the most important thing to say is that he's right on track. We could talk about where he's thriving. We could talk about where he's still learning. We could talk about the aspects of his game that already make me laugh with delight. We could talk about the aspects of his game that strongly suggest he'll be back in Austin for a second year of college ball.

We've been talking about Bradley in that way all year, though. He continues mostly to get better, continues to learn, continues to flash the skills that make him special, and continues to battle through a defined set of challenges presented by elevated competition. Avery Bradley has the skill set, athleticism, and potential to be as superior in college as he was as a prep player, but this marks the first time that he's been legitimately challenged by the level of competition.

Here, the big picture tells the story, as Bradley continues to learn how, where, and when to assert himself. My read on his development is that he's right on track, such that if Texas gets some of the peripheral problems fixed as it closes out the season and finds the right ways to get the most out of the guys surrounding Bradley, the freshman is right on track to be the dynamic, sometimes explosive freshman who helps make it a memorable March for the Longhorns. Watch out for what he's capable of if this team ever starts to space the floor well.

J'COVAN BROWN  In last week's report we discussed the way forward for an unproductive, lots-to-learn Jordan Hamilton. A week later, Hamilton appears to be on the right path, but the same question is on the table. Only this time, the questions center on J'Covan Brown. If you missed the last week, you're probably a little bit confused (wasn't he critical to the OT win over A&M?), but Brown's terrible week at KSU and UCONN highlights a potential dilemma concerning his role on this year's team the rest of the way.

In just 15 minutes against Kansas State, Brown was 1-6 from the field (0-2 from downtown), with 4 fouls, 2 assists, 2 turnovers, and 1 steal; and in 12 minutes on Saturday vs UCONN he was 0-5 from the field (0-3 from downtown), with 2 fouls, 1 assist and 1 turnover. True, the week prior he was good for 14 points and 10 boards versus the Aggies and prior to that 11 points and 3 boards against Iowa State, but his strong games (including the unforgettable 21 point, 5 rebound performance against UNC) have made it easy to overlook his poor outings and, in so doing, incompletely evaluate him and his season. At least in my case, until this past week I was caught up in Brown's upside and charisma (skills and demeanor) -- and the team's continued success -- to such a degree that I tended to gloss over Brown's bad nights, without giving them enough critical thought.

However, his (and the team's) struggles this week took off some of that shine, and as I took a closer, more critical look at both Brown and the team as a whole, I found it not so easy to be nonchalant. If you were going just by the relatively light treatment he's generally received (here and elsewhere), you'd be hard pressed to guess that J'Covan Brown has had an awfully tough time of things offensively. But take a look at his season line, and the tempo-free stats, in particular:


2PT FG 3PT FG
Tempo Free Stats
G M M A Pct M A Pct ORtg %Poss %Shots eFG% TS% FTRate ARate TORate Stl% Blk% OR% DR%
J`Covan Brown 17 20.8 35 80 43.8 22 80 28.0 93.3 25.5 25.8 42.5 49.2 28.8 16.5 26.0 2.2 0.5 2.7 10.5

Data via Ken Pomeroy.

You can go here to learn more about these metrics, but you don't need to be intimately familiar with the details of each measurement to understand how poor Brown's numbers are in most of these categories. 

  • If we confine our evaluation to counting stats, a season box score tells us J'Covan Brown averages 12 points/6 rebounds per game and Justin Mason 3 points/2 rebounds. The utility of rate statistics is to provide relevant context, such as the production per minute (playing time) or per possession used (usage when in the game), and to normalize counting stats to a rating that allows us to compare players who differ across them.
  • Pomeroy's Offensive Rating metric measures a player's points scored per 100 possessions used, where his usage is measured by how many of his team’s possessions the player is personally responsible for ending while he is on the floor (via basket scored, turnover, etc.). Comparing Brown and Mason again, this time normalizing production by usage, J'Covan Brown has an Offensive Rating of 93.3, worst on the team -- below, even, Justin Mason's Offensive Rating of 96.6, and substantially below that of Dogus Balbay, who cannot shoot a basketball, yet has a 101.0 Offensive Rating. This makes no sense if you think of it as a measure of offensive ability, since Brown is an exponentially better shooter, scorer, and ball-handler than both. Rather, the metric shows just how inefficient and mistake-prone J'Covan Brown has been this year -- scoring fewer points per possession he is accountable for (missed shot, made shot, turnover, foul charged) than anyone on the team.
  • The rating is so low in part because his %Poss is so high -- his 25.5% higher than every player on the team but Damion James. That is, when Brown's out there, he's responsible for the end of the Texas possession one out of every four possessions. For such a high rate of responsibility to translate to a good Offensive Rating, you'd better be ending those possessions with baskets made, which of course Brown is not. He's turning it over at an ungodly rate (26% of the possessions he's responsible for are TOs), and though it's easy to miss since his makes look so sweet, he's shooting the ball absolutely terribly -- connecting on a horrid 22 of 80 three point shots (27.5%) and just 35 of 80 from inside the arc (43.8%). Even his Effective Field Goal (eFG) percentage -- which takes into account the extra value on made three pointers and should launch him ahead of outside bricklayers like Balbay and Mason -- is 43.3%, worst on the team. 
  • If you want perspective on the other numbers, go to the Texas team page and compare his various rate stats with his teammates. His Assist Rate of 16.5% is merely average (roughly equal to Hamilton and Bradly, well below both Balbay and Lucas). His 93% free throw percentage is brilliant, but his ability to get to the line (as measured by FTRate) is pedestrian. And so on.

I detail all this because it is hard otherwise to take seriously the idea that Brown's role going forward should be in question. I can hardly wrap my mind around it myself, but these are the facts: Brown is shooting too much, missing way too much, turning it over way-way too much, and doing nothing particularly remarkable as a passer, defender, or rebounder. Statistically, Brown has been the worst player on the team when you control the stats for opportunity and usage.

So, yes, difficult as it to see -- especially relative to how easy it has been with His Errorness -- we have to confront the question: What To Do About J'Covan Brown? Like it was a week ago talking about Hamilton, it's a terribly difficult question (and for mostly the same reasons) -- though perhaps in some ways harder and other ways easier. It's an easier question because after watching what the kid is capable of doing at his best, it's just incredibly difficult even to entertain the possibility that someone who has in his best moments already presented so much could even be considered for a insubstantial role on the team. On the other hand, it is in some ways a more difficult question because an honest evaluation of Brown includes an understanding that he may be a ways off in his development as a team basketball player from being something different than what he is now.

Put another way: With Hamilton, the question was (and will continue to be) whether he was willing to tweak his approach to better take advantage of the interior-oriented things he can do 10 feet and in; the question with Brown is whether he's able to change his style of play to a substantially more team-oriented brand of basketball. Maybe it's a distinction without a difference, but I'm not so sure, given what we've seen from J'Covan Brown thus far. He's a natural player who's capable (in the long-term) of improving his effectiveness playing as he plays, but I don't know that he's capable of changing his style of play.

On this question, we're at Rick Barnes' mercy, and if there's a reason not to fret too much about this particular question, it's that this is one of those areas in which Barnes has proven his mettle. He handles these kids awfully, awfully well, which is why they're all so devoted to him, both while they're here and after they move on. So while this presents a question beyond our analytical reach, it's not one I necessarily think is beyond Barnes' reach as a coach. If Brown is capable of tightening his game to suit our needs (this year), Barnes will get that from him. If he's not, I don't think Barnes will let us sink with J'Covan, either -- Brown will either improve his efficiency or see his minutes wane as the stakes continue to rise.

Just like with Hamilton, this is not a question that need be resolved with finality until post-season play, and in the meantime, my preference is to see Brown out on the floor for substantial periods of time, where he can demonstrate improvement in one of the two areas he must if he's to be someone we trust in March -- either better production from the same style of play, or a better style of play that supports efficient production by the team.

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