When looking at the impact of a perimeter defender, there is seldom a clear-cut answer.
In the 2011-2012 season, the Texas Longhorns played six freshman. This season, Rick Barnes returns five of these players. This is the fourth installment of a five part series looking at Texas' five sophomores. I have previously looked at Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, and Jonathan Holmes. This post takes a look at Julien Lewis.
As a freshman last season, Julien Lewis played a lot. He was fourth on the team in minutes played, despite missing two games. Part of this was necessity; Texas had no choice other than to give many minutes to Lewis. Part of this also reflects on Lewis' talent (he was the #68 ranked freshman in his class, according to the RSCI), and his ability to provide something that Rick Barnes needed on last season's squad. Lewis was Texas' best perimeter defender, and his defense kept him on the court, even when he struggled on offense.
Evaluating the impact of Lewis' defense, and its effect on Texas' wins and losses, is challenging. Team defense is easy to evaluate, but the sort of statistics that are collected during a basketball game give us little to go on when evaluating the defensive contributions of individual players, particularly when that player is a guard. The two defensive statistics that are compiled, steals and blocked shots, tell us little about the impact of a guard on his team's ability to stop its opponent from scoring. One approach to evaluate Lewis' defense would be to go back and watch every Texas game from last year, and track how often the man he was defending scored. I am not going to do this. Instead, I am going to look at the Texas defense as a whole, focusing on areas that ought to be mostly influenced by the perimeter defense.
Last season, the Texas defense was hurt in several ways. Texas' rebounding was not good, which can't be blamed on Lewis. In fact, Lewis was a strong rebounder from the guard spot, grabbing 11 percent of the defensive rebounds while on the floor. Another Longhorn weakness was fouling. Texas fouled a lot, and Lewis had more fouls per minute than any other guard. This doesn't necessarily indicate that Lewis is foul prone, as he usually drew the most difficult defensive assignment.
One clearly positive element of Texas' perimeter defense was its ability to force turnovers. During Big 12 play, opponents turned the ball over in 20 percent of possessions. This is a fairly high turnover rate, which Julien Lewis deserves a share of the credit for.
Perhaps the most important basketball statistic is effective field goal percentage. There are a lot of ways to look at effective field goal percentage defense. Last season, Texas' opponents had an effective field goal percentage of 47 percent. This isn't a bad total for a defense, but it isn't excellent either. The Texas defense struggled more once the Big 12 season started. In conference play, opponents actually shot a effective field goal percentage of 50 percent against the Longhorns. The Big 12 is a tough conference, and Texas played a relatively weak non-conference schedule last season, so this increase in effective field goal percentage in part reflects stronger competition. When we look at how opponents hurt Texas, we find that it was mostly from three point range. During conference play, Texas allowed opponents to shoot 47 percent from two point range and 38 percent from three point range. Shots from three point range had an effective field goal percentage of 56 percent. This is on the perimeter defense, which includes Julien Lewis.
But the Texas three point defense wasn't all bad. While opponents shot well from three point range, Texas did a good job of limiting opponent three point attempts. Texas' opponents shot less than 30 percent of their shots from three point range during conference play, which was the second lowest total in the conference. This suggests that Texas' three point defense wasn't that bad, as there is some evidence that defenses can only do so much to reduce opponent three point shooting percentages.
There is still more to the story when it comes to looking at Texas' three point defense. It turns out, the three point shooting damage was mostly done in transition. On the whole, Texas' defense in the half court against the three point shot was pretty good. In half-court situations opponents took their initial shot of a possession from three point range 32 percent of the time, and made 33 percent of these shots. Where the Texas defense was hurt was in transition; 38 percent of initial opponent attempts in transition were from three point range, and these shots went in 44 percent of the time.
Against Texas, roughly 50 percent of transition shots after a Longhorn basket were from three point range, and opponents made about half of these shots. After rebounding a Texas miss, opponents took just under 40 percent of their transition shots from three point range, and made 40 percent of these shots. Teams getting, and burying, transition three point shots was a serious problem for the Texas defense.
When we look at three point shots across college basketball as a whole, we find that roughly 35 percent of all initial shots of a possession are taken from three point range, and this percentage is more or less the same between transition possessions and half-court ones. What happened to the Texas transition defense last season was a little bit unusual. (Although I will point out that jacking up threes in transition against Kentucky was one of the few ways that teams were able to score on the Wildcats.)
There is further indication that once settled into the half-court, Texas' perimeter defense was good. In half-court sets, only 24 percent of opponents attempts were at the rim; the division one average for this number is around 27 percent. The combination of Texas' perimeter and interior defense was enough to reduce opponent attempts at the rim.
In a way, this analysis is unsatisfying. It is hard to take this, and then say what Lewis is good at defensively, and what he is not good at. Like I said above, advanced statistics don't provide much help in evaluating the individual defense of a guard. Texas' guards as a whole did a decent job of forcing turnovers and playing half court defense, but were not good at picking up perimeter shooters in transition. Lewis is a part of this group.
Julien Lewis on offense
There is a lot less to say about Lewis' offensive game. To put it succinctly, Lewis' strength is as a catch and shoot three point shooter. Last season, he took 40 percent of his shots from three point range and made 32 percent of his three point attempts. He only made 39 percent of his two point shots. Lewis' low two point field goal percentage was due to two things: he seldom made it to the rim, and he only shot 51 percent on these attempts. Lewis also didn't attempt many free throws. Beating his man off the dribble is not part of his game.
Any possession where Lewis catches the ball and shoots an open three is a good possession. Any possession where he puts the ball on the floor and attempts to score probably is not, unless it is in transition.
Julien Lewis fills a need for Texas
It is hard to be a great team without being great defensively. Great teams need players who can play perimeter defense, even if these players are limited offensively. To make significant contributions to Texas, Lewis needs to play defense, chase down rebounds, and knock down open three point shots.