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Matt Coleman and the feedback loop connecting failure and personal growth

The Longhorns guard did some things extremely well as a freshman and has the attributes to become one hell of a basketball player.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Texas vs Nevada Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

On a late January night in Lubbock, Texas — at a pivotal moment in an important game — Matt Coleman failed. The Texas Longhorns were nursing a four-point lead with two and a half minutes remaining. Matt Coleman was at the line with a chance to shoot three free throws. He missed all three.

A few seconds later, he fouled in frustration. It was his fifth foul; he watched the rest of the game — including a Keenan Evans overtime buzzer beater that handed Texas the loss — from the bench.

Failure is a part of life. It is a part of learning and growing. Only cowards never fail — it is what happens next that matters. We have to worry about how the feedback loop works.

Failure is always discouraging, but it doesn’t have to discourage. Sometimes instead it stimulates personal growth. When the feedback loop is properly tuned, it will have such an effect.

There are accounts of Coleman arriving home late at night from that loss to Texas Tech and heading straight to the gym to work out his frustration and work on his free-throw stroke. It is hard to say for certain how much this mattered, as well as the subsequent practice that surely followed in the days and weeks later.

But what we can say with certainty is that Coleman finished the season shooting 36 of 40 from the free-throw line — 90 percent. This may be an example of the properly tuned feedback loop in action, cycling a little faster than normal. Failure driving growth. Growth creating success.

The problem of understanding college basketball generally boils down to a single thorny issue; the players are young. A basketball player generally reaches his peak at an age between 25 and 30. Players in the college game are younger than this, and all are engaged in their own journey of personal growth, aiming to some day reach that peak. The closer they get to that magic age of 25, the better they become.

The problem with personal growth is that it is individual and messy, and as a result quite hard to understand, rationalize, and predict. As viewers of the sport, we are simply along for the ride. Those who don’t like observing this process should probably watch something else.

This is a long buildup to say that I have no idea how good Coleman will be this season, or how good he can be in the future. This general problem is made worse by the fact that Coleman is at a particularly difficult stage to figure out. We have seen lead guards come to Texas and follow a solid freshman season — Coleman’s freshman year clearly qualifies — with a spectacular second season. We have also seen lead guards who needed a little more time to hit their stride.

Looking back at last year

As a freshman guard, Coleman enjoyed a mutually beneficial arrangement where he split ball-handling duties with Kerwin Roach II. Roach had struggled significantly as the team’s primary ball handler the previous season, and had learned a lot from the experience. Coleman’s arrival helped take the pressure off of Roach, and Roach’s presence took the pressure off of Coleman. I won’t go so far to say that the duo flourished — although it did at times — but it did achieve a level of competence that is reflected in measures such as team turnover rate, which dropped rather significantly when compared with the previous season.

As a lead guards in Shaka Smart’s offense, Coleman and Roach are charged with a number of tasks, but perhaps the most important is to make plays off of ball screens. The Texas offense is built around using ball screens — both high ball screens as well as screens set on the wing — and the guard working with the ball in the screen is responsible for reading the defense and making the right play. There are both physical and mental aspects to this. On the mental side, there are something like a half-dozen different ball screen coverages that a defense might typically use, and the ball handler and screener have to identify this coverage and respond appropriately. On the physical side, the ball handler has to be able to beat the defense in the manner made available.

On the whole last year, Coleman did pretty well with ball screens. Synergy Sports logged 329 possessions where Matt Coleman either made a play for himself or for another player off of a ball screen that directly led to a scoring chance or turnover, and Texas ended up coming away with 290 points on these possessions. This is a somewhat above average scoring rate for ball screens logged in the Synergy database. It is a good result for a young guard adjusting to the college game.

(As a point of comparison, Kerwin Roach had 282 logged ball screen possessions, and Texas scored 265 points on these possessions. Roach’s ball screen scoring rate sat just outside the top quartile nationally. Not too bad for a guy who just a season earlier had really struggled.)

When we look in greater depth at Coleman in the ball screen game, a little more than half of the logged possessions resulted in Coleman making a pass to a teammate (either spotting up, rolling to the basket, or doing something else). A little less than half the time the possession ended with either a shot or turnover by Coleman himself.

The situations where he kept the ball were the ones where he wasn’t quite as effective as Roach, and where Coleman has the most room to improve. The greatest difference came in terms of the frequency with which the two guards could get to the basket. When Roach turned the corner on defenders off of a ball screen last season, he made it all the way to the rack about twice as often as Coleman.

The good news here for Coleman is there is plenty of space to get better, and he need not possess all of Roach’s substantial physical gifts to make positive strides. Because Coleman is already doing so many other things well in the ball screen game (his turnover rate was impressively low, particularly for a freshman), getting to the rim a bit more often is going to have a very nice effect on both his game and the performance of the team as a whole.

The remainder of the time, he is going to have to rely on his teammates to knock down shots. Passes out of ball screens frequently generate high-quality looks for a teammate to either shoot a three or attack a closing defender off the dribble. For Coleman, Texas ended up with a perfectly average result of a 49.5 percent effective field goal percentage on these looks. Coleman’s assist numbers could look better next season if his teammates would do him a solid and bury more of the shots coming off of these passes.

Matt Coleman as a basketball player

Performance, athleticism, and skill in a sport are multidimensional and complex. The evolution and development of these traits is no less complex. For players like Coleman, it can sometimes be difficult to resolve exactly what makes them effective, which significantly obscures our understanding of their development.

Coleman more than meets the baseline physical characteristics of a Big 12 guard, but he doesn’t blow them away. Coleman’s shooting is still in the earlier stages of development and is not yet something that he has demonstrated the ability to do in games at a high level. The positive descriptors that come to mind when watching Coleman play are words like “pace” and “feel.” What does growth and development look like for a player like this?

The good news for Coleman is that he may actually already possess the attributes that are the most difficult to train. Pace and feel are just not things that everyone can get. Everyone can get stronger, which opens up a lot of other physical manifestations of what we commonly call athleticism, and usually guys who shoot for a decent free throw percentage (Coleman finished his freshman season shooting 79 percent from the line) eventually figure out how to translate that shooting form to the three-point line.

What I don’t know is how quickly Coleman will travel along these dimensions of development as a basketball player. Personal growth is irregular and highly specific to the person doing the growing. Failure will happen again — probably many times. The good news is we have already seen examples of how Coleman responds to failure, and how quickly his feedback loop works.

All I can say is what I think.

I think Matt Coleman has it in him to be one hell of a basketball player, and I have seen enough to think that it has a chance to happen this season.