Texas' hopes for basketball greatness this season depend on Myck Kabongo. Texas can be a good team with only modest improvement from Kabongo, but to make Texas great the 6-1 Canadian will need to improve significantly for his sophomore campaign. This post looks at the sorts of improvements that will be needed for Myck Kabongo to have a breakout season.
As a starting point, I first want to try to put Myck Kabongo's freshman season into context, by comparing him with two other highly rated freshman point guards from last season. After that, I will look at his strengths and weaknesses. While Kabongo's freshman season was not great, it was not unusually poor either. Myck Kabongo came to Texas last season as one of the top point guard prospects in college basketball. By the RSCI consensus recruiting rankings, he was the #2 rated incoming point guard in his class, second only to Kentucky freshman Marquis Teague. The #3 rated point guard in the RSCI ratings was B.J. Young of Arkansas. A logical starting point is to compare Kabongo's freshman year with Teague's freshman year -- I will touch on Young's excellent season in a few paragraphs.
Teague and Kabongo's numbers were remarkably similar. Both used about 20% of their teams' possessions while on the floor. Both had very similar overall offensive ratings: Kabongo had an offensive rating of 103, whereas Teague had an offensive rating of 102 (*). These offensive ratings are typical of a player who is good, but not great. Both Kabongo and Teague had low offensive ratings compared with most of their teammates.
(* Offensive rating is described in detail in Dean Oliver's book Basketball on Paper. It combines box score statistics to come up with an estimate of how efficient a player was in the possessions that they participated in for their team.)
Kabongo was a somewhat more efficient scorer than Teague, with a true shooting percentage of 52%, compared with Teague's 49%. Kabongo also had a higher assist rate. Teague made up for the difference in scoring and assist statistics by turning the ball over less frequently than Kabongo.
When we look at Kabongo and Teague using play-by-play statistics, there are a lot of similarities in how the two players scored their points, but also an important difference. Both Kabongo and Teague were good at getting to the rim. Kabongo took 37% of his field goal attempts at the rim, and Teague took 38% of his field goal attempts at the rim. Teague finished a few more of his attempts at the rim than Kabongo. Neither player was particularly effective shooting jump shots. Kabongo's higher true shooting percentage mostly comes from his ability to get to the free throw line. Kabongo was outstanding at getting to the free throw line, taking 0.74 free throw attempts for every field goal attempt. Teague's numbers were more typical for a guard, taking 0.34 free throw attempts for every field goal attempt.
Kabongo's free throw attempt rate is unusually high. To put this into context, in the 2002-2003 season, TJ Ford shot 0.49 free throws for every field goal he attempted, and Ford seemed to be able to get to the free throw line whenever he wanted. Kabongo's rate of shooting free throws was the 19th highest rate in all of Division 1 basketball last season. Virtually all of the players ranked higher than Kabongo in free throw rate were big men.
B.J. Young of Arkansas was the the third ranked point guard by the RSCI system in the incoming 2011-2012 class. Young was arguably the best freshman point guard in college basketball last season. He used 29% of his teams possessions while managing an offensive rating of 113. This is really good -- it means that Young was worth about 10 more points per 100 possessions that he was involved in, when compared with Kabongo and Teague. Young did this while taking a much larger part in the Arkansas offense than either Kabongo or Teague did for their teams. Young's efficiency was the result of several factors. He took 39% of his attempts at the rim, and made 72% of these attempts. That is a high field goal percentage for shots at the rim, particularly for a guy who is 6-3. Young also hit 41% of his three point attempts. Finally, Young's turnover rate was very low; Young turned the ball over in only 16% of the possessions where the ball ended up in his hands. Getting to the rim and finishing, burying three point shots, and protecting the basketball are great attributes in a lead guard.
When we compare Kabongo with his peers, his freshman season does not look unusually bad. Marquis Teague started for the NCAA champion, and he didn't play any better than Kabongo. On the other hand, Kabongo's freshman year was not great in the way that B.J. Young's freshman year was.
What would it take for Kabongo to have a breakout season, and how likely is this to happen?
Kabongo's strengths are pretty clear. He is good at getting to the rim, and fantastic at getting to the free throw line. He also is good at creating scoring opportunities for other players; he had the 61st highest assist rate in Division 1 last season, assisting on 33% of his teammates field goals while on the floor. On defense, he applies a lot of ball pressure and is always a threat to pick an opponent's pocket.
Kabongo's weaknesses are also clear. He only converted 54% of his shot attempts at the rim last season. His jump shooting numbers aren't very impressive either. Free throw shooting was clearly a problem -- Myck Kabongo only made 68% of his free throw attempts last season. Additionally, Kabongo struggled protecting the ball, turning the ball over in 27% of the possessions that ended with the ball in his hands. On defense, he was sometimes too aggressive, picking up needless fouls.
Free throw shooting. One thing that stands out when studying these numbers is how much better Kabongo can become simply by making small improvements at the free throw line. Because he shoots free throws more than twice as often as most other guards, a two or four percent increase in his free throw shooting percentage would have an unusually high effect on his shooting efficiency. A four percent increase in free throw percentage would raise his true shooting percentage to 53%, if all of his other numbers stay the same. While this effect may seem small, it is still important.
Free throw shooting improvements are difficult to forecast. For whatever reason, many players don't ever really improve from the free throw line, while others make great progress. The best lead guards at Texas under Rick Barnes -- TJ Ford, Daniel Gibson, DJ Augustin, and J'Covan Brown -- all were already good free throw shooters when they came to Texas, so we cannot use their history to suggest how well Kabongo is likely to improve.
Turnovers. The second area where serious improvement for Kabongo is possible is in reducing turnovers. Thankfully, Rick Barnes' guards have a long history of reducing their turnover rates as their careers' progress. As a freshman, J'Covan Brown had a turnover percentage of 21%, which turned into a 19% turnover rate as a sophomore and a 16% turnover rate as a junior. In his first season, Dogus Balbay had a 27% turnover rate. In his second and third years, Balbay's turnover rates were 28% and 24%, respectively (*). D.J. Augustin had a turnover rate of 23% as a freshman and 16% as a sophomore. Daniel Gibson's turnover rate as a freshman was 24% and as a sophomore was 17%. Of course, Kenton Paulino did much of the ball handling in Gibson's sophomore season. Paulino's turnover rate also decreased as his career progressed, falling from 25% in 2004-2005, to 21% in the following season. T.J. Ford's turnover rate dropped from 28% as freshman to 21% as a sophomore. In Ivan Wagner's first season playing for Rick Barnes his turnover rate was 37%. Wagner's turnover rate dropped to 27% in his second season with Barnes.
(* Balbay's turnover rate didn't fall as much as the other guards on this list. Guards like Balbay who handle the ball a lot and don't shoot very often tend to have high turnover rates. This is because turnover rate is the number of turnovers a player has divided by the total number of possessions that end with the ball in that player's hands. You can only end a possession in two ways: turning the ball over, or shooting. Turnover rate is probably not a useful statistic for evaluating a player like Balbay, who handled the ball so much and rarely shot.)
Texas point guards under Rick Barnes usually reduce their turnover rates after their first season. The probability that Kabongo reduces his turnover rate this year is high.
Field goal percentage on shots at the rim. It would help if Kabongo could finish a few more of his attempts at the rim. Unfortunately, I don't have data to look at patterns from other guards while at Texas, so we cannot use history as a guide.
I suspect Kabongo's 54% field goal percentage on shots at the rim last year was a fluke. Projecting a field goal percentage at the rim in the 60-65% range for the coming season seems realistic. This type of improvement could raise Kabongo's true shooting percentage to about 54% without any other improvements.
Jump shooting. It would be great if Kabongo came back as a dead-eyed three point shooter, but I am a realist.
If things break well for Myck Kabongo, it is easy to imagine him ending up with a 53-55% true shooting percentage, a 20% turnover rate, and assisting on 35-40% of his teammates' field goals while he is on the court. Additionally, with J'Covan Brown no longer at Texas, Kabongo will have to take a larger role in the offense this year, and will almost certainly use more possessions than he did last season. Kabongo, as a passing oriented lead guard, will probably end up with a usage rate of 25% or less, unless he takes on much more of a scoring role than I expect.
In the 2002-2003 season, Texas guard T.J. Ford had a true true shooting percentage of 51%, a turnover rate of 21%, and assisted on 42% of his teammates' field goals while on the court, while using 26% of the Texas possessions while on the floor. Kabongo probably won't reach Ford's assist rate, but Kabongo will very likely end up with a better true shooting percentage than Ford.
In the 2007-2008 season, Texas guard D.J. Augustin had a true shooting percentage of 56%, a turnover rate of 16%, and assisted on 31% of his teammates' field goals while on the court. Augustin also used 28% of Texas' possessions, and played 93% of the available minutes for Texas. That is both a lot of possessions, and a lot of minutes. While I expect Kabongo to have a higher turnover rate and use a lower percentage of possessions than Augustin did in his All-American season, Kabongo is likely to set up more shots for his teammates.
I still have high hopes for Myck Kabongo. While his game is different from the great lead guards of Texas' recent past, becoming Texas' next great lead guard is within his reach.