Coming off yet another close Big 12 loss, the Texas Longhorns seem to be doing just enough to stay in games against stronger opponents, but not enough to win them.
As we have detailed all season here at Burnt Orange Nation, the Longhorns are struggling to score, which has resulted in a team that has a hard time beating quality opponents. Quite honestly, the Longhorns have been consistently good on defense, and are currently ranked in the top 30 nationally on this end of the floor by kenpom.com. But on offense, they are something other than good.
Offensive struggles explain most of the Longhorns’ losses. Texas is 6-1 when scoring greater than one point per possessions this season, with the sole loss coming in a game against Arkansas where Texas barely cleared the one PPP mark. The Longhorns are 1-9 when scoring less than one PPP, with the only win coming in the season opener against Incarnate Word.
We cannot similarly segregate the season by defense. For example, Texas wasted three of its five best defensive efforts by struggling to score, has held roughly half of its opponents to under one PPP, and has only allowed opponents to clear the 1.1 PPP mark twice this season.
Given all of this, I have written about offense almost exclusively this year, and cannot recall a Texas season when I have spent less time looking at the Longhorn defense. If Shaka Smart’s team strings together a couple of wins it will justify me writing something positive without all of you laughing at me, and perhaps then I will write about the defense.
I have previously discussed some of Texas’ shooting problems at length, and at least in recent games the Longhorns are clearly shooting the ball far better. Texas has connected on 36 percent of its threes and 71 percent of its free-throw attempts so far during Big 12 games. Some of this may be due to the accumulation of small offensive improvements, and some of it is likely just reversion to the mean — the Longhorns weren’t likely to spend an entire year shooting below 30 percent from three-point range, which is something that rarely occurs in high major college hoops.
With better shooting it forces us to consider the Longhorn offense’s other big problem this season — turnovers. Through its first five games of Big 12 play, Smart’s team has given the ball away in 23 percent of its offensive possessions, which ranks ninth out of 10 teams in the league.
That is not a good number. In games where Smart’s men have taken care of the ball, things have gone pretty well. On the season, Texas is 7-2 when it turns the ball over in fewer than 20 percent of its possessions, and is 0-8 when the turnover rate exceeds 20 percent. The single Big 12 win came in a game where Texas managed to achieve a 15-percent turnover rate against Oklahoma State’s defensive pressure.
Who is committing the turnovers for Texas?
There are three Texas Longhorns who are turning the ball over more than two times per game this season: Jarrett Allen, Kerwin Roach, and Andrew Jones. These three players are also the three of the four Longhorns who turn the ball over in greater than 20 percent of the possessions that end with the ball in their hands. The fourth is freshman center James Banks, who doesn’t play enough and doesn’t touch the ball enough when he plays to have a significant impact on the team turnover rate.
We can dig deeper to sort out when these turnovers come.
Jarrett Allen has 45 turnovers on the season, 43 of which have been logged by Synergy Sports. (Synergy misses plays from time to time; this happens partly because the early parts of basketball games are sometimes missed if a previous game runs over its TV time window.) Twenty of Allen’s logged turnovers have come in post-up situations.
It should come as no secret to Texas fans who have watched many of the games that Jarrett Allen has been somewhat turnover-prone in the low post. These turnovers have come both in cases where the defense has elected to guard him with a single defender (situations where when Allen doesn’t turn the ball over he is highly effective as a scorer) and against double-teams.
Allen is far from the first offensively-gifted big man to struggle with turnovers in the low post. The Longhorns lived through similar experiences with Cameron Ridley, who had a high turnover rate as a freshman but then lowered his turnover rate during his sophomore year.
Synergy Sports has logged 37 of Kerwin Roach’s 38 turnovers so far this season. Seventeen of these turnovers come when Roach has handled the ball in pick-and-roll situations, while 10 have come in transition.
I have previously taken a fairly in-depth look at Roach’s pick and roll game. One thing that I will note since writing that piece several weeks ago is that Roach’s overall pick-and-roll numbers are improving. This is numerical support for what I think we have all been seeing: Roach is getting better in pick and roll as demonstrated by the fact that his shooting numbers in ball screens are trending up and turnover rate when he works off of picks is trending down through the early part of Big 12 play.
And this isn’t really surprising. One thing that struck me when I took my detailed look at Roach in the ball screen game was just how close he was to making things work. I found that he was frequently making the right play, but things just weren’t quite working out for him.
Roach is gradually improving as Texas’ point guard, and it doesn’t hurt that he is also starting to knock down some three pointers.
That said, he still has games where he struggles and gives the ball to the wrong team too often. Ball security in pick and roll is still costing him some of the time, and it is still worth following.
Synergy Sports has logged all 38 of Andrew Jones’ turnovers. They are primarily spread across three categories in the Synergy database. 14 have come in transition, seven in pick and roll, and nine in the “miscellaneous” category which generally contains a hodgepodge of strange plays that fall outside of the normal flow of offense.
Part of the reason that so many of Jones’ turnovers are coming in transition is that so much of Jones’ offense comes in transition. A full 42 percent of the logged plays in the Synergy database for Jones come in transition, and my own numbers indicate that 43 percent of Jones’ field goal attempts have come early in possessions that start from a live ball.
Jones is a fast and aggressive player in the open court who is a tremendous finisher around the basket. He has converted 74 percent of his layups and dunks this season, while completing 73 percent of his transition chances near the basket (and a staggering 77 percent of his non-transition chances). While 74 percent shooting may not at first sound impressive on what are supposed to be easy shots, the average field goal percentage for layups and dunks in D-I basketball this season is 60 percent, and for players listed at 6’4 (Andrew Jones’ listed height) it is about 59 percent. The ability to finish around the basket is one of the key advantages of explosive athletes and Jones surely qualifies.
But Jones has a tendency to occasionally be a little too fast and aggressive. He is a young and gifted guard turning the ball over in transition. He will probably do it less as he develops and matures.
Turnover rates improve as players progress through their career
If there is one thing that watching basketball has taught me, it is that young guards turn the ball over a lot, and as they progress through their career they reduce their turnovers.
We can illustrate this effect in a lot of ways, but rather than conducting an exhaustive study of something that is pretty clearly true, it is easier to look at some of the guards Smart has coached, to see how they have progressed from year to year.
Roach is sort of a tricky player to investigate, as he played off the ball much of the time as a freshman and moved to point guard during his sophomore season. This change is reflected in the distribution of play types for Roach in the Synergy database these two seasons, as well as by his assist numbers. While more of his possessions come in pick and rolls this season than any other play type, last season he was far more likely to catch the ball in spot-up situations or in transition.
In this context, Roach’s freshman turnover rate of 21 percent and sophomore rate of 20 percent cannot really be directly compared, as Roach is being put in more situations where he is far more likely to turn the ball over this year than he was last season, when someone else was available to handle the ball. I think we can make the argument that his ball security has improved somewhat, but from these numbers it is hard to gauge by just how much it has.
Smart only coached Isaiah Taylor for one year, but since Texas fans are familiar with him I figured it would be worth including him here to show how point guard progression frequently works.
As a freshman, Taylor turned the ball over in 18 percent of his possessions, which is quite frankly an excellent total for a point guard, particularly a freshman. In a sophomore year where he spent a portion of the season out with an injury, Taylor’s turnover rate went up slightly, hitting 20 percent.
During his junior season the Texas point guard put it all together, dropping his personal turnover rate to 13 percent, which is brushing up to the edge of Monte Morris territory. As a result of Taylor being so solid with the ball, the Longhorns had the lowest turnover rate in the Big 12 and finished the season in the top 25 nationally in this metric.
JeQuan Lewis is a senior this season at VCU, and played for Smart for his first two seasons of college basketball. Lewis played a lot in his freshman year and has played heavily since that season. His turnover rates progressed in a normal manner for a college guard from season to season, starting at 29 percent as a freshman, 24 percent as a sophomore and junior, and 22 percent so far during his senior season.
When I think of VCU basketball during Smart’s time in Richmond, no player comes to mind more than point guard Briante Weber, who had an excellent college basketball career that was cut short by injury during his senior season.
While it is an almost impossible question to contemplate, I suspect Weber belongs on a short list of the greatest defensive guards in the history of college basketball; he is perhaps the best college on-ball defender that I have ever watched play. But that is besides the point, as here we are talking about offense. So how did Weber, who functioned as one of Smart’s point guards, progress?
During his freshman year Weber turned the ball over in 23 percent of his possessions. As a sophomore the rate dropped to 20 percent, and then finally settled at 19 percent during his junior and senior seasons.
Another point guard who spent four seasons playing for Smart is Darius Theus. As a freshman and sophomore, the turnover rates for Theus were quite high, ending up at 30 percent both seasons. This is an extraordinary high turnover rate relative to some of the other players I have described, which is partly due to the fact that Theus was more of a play-making lead guard, rather than a scoring one, which artificially inflates the turnover percentage. Point guards who don’t shoot a lot tend to have higher turnover rates than ones that do, simply because of how turnover percentage is calculated.
For our purposes here, we are not interested in his raw turnover percentage, but how it changed over his college career. During his junior and senior seasons Theus cut his turnover rate to 23 percent, which is not a terrible number for a guard who handles the ball a lot but doesn’t shoot all that often.
When Smart became the head coach at VCU, Joey Rodriguez is one of the players that he inherited from Anthony Grant. Rodriguez played for Smart his final two seasons in college basketball.
During his college career, Rodriguez gradually reduced his turnover rate, progressing from 28 percent as a freshman, 25 percent as a sophomore, 21 percent as a junior, and 20 percent as a senior.
The cure for turnovers is time
I haven’t created this list to argue that Shaka Smart is uniquely gifted at helping point guards develop ball security. In fact, I could create a similar list for most college coaches with similar results. We could do the same exercise with guards under Rick Barnes at Texas, or for many other coaches and schools.
The fact that this is seemingly a general trend among college guards should be encouraging to Texas fans. Roach and Jones will cut their turnover rates as their career’s progress, just like virtually every other guard who has played at the college level.
And as these rates go down, the Texas offense will improve.