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Texas Longhorns Basketball, Inside the Numbers: What is wrong with Cameron Ridley?

A look at the problems for the Texas big man.

Cameron Ridley has struggled so far this year.
Cameron Ridley has struggled so far this year.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns are off to a strong start for the 2014-2015 season. Despite Texas' early success, it has been impossible not to notice how much trouble junior center Cameron Ridley has had through the first eight games.

After struggling horribly as a freshman, the former five star prospect had a breakout year last season as a sophomore. During his second year, the 6-9 post player was a force, controlling the game defensively while becoming on of Rick Barnes' most important offensive players.

Through Texas' first eight games this season, Ridley's defensive contributions are still significant, but his offense has been lacking. He has struggled in many ways, failing to impact the game as much as he did last season.

So what has gone wrong?

The missing offensive rebounds

A large portion of Ridley's struggles stem from the fact that he isn't getting chances on the offensive glass like he did last year. While Ridley is often thought of as a low post scorer, a substantial fraction of his offense comes on the boards.

Last season, Ridley rebounded 13.5 percent of Texas' missed shots while in the game, and had the second highest number of offensive rebound putback shot attempts in the nation, averaging nearly two putback attempts per game. This year, his productivity on the glass has been cut in half. His offensive rebounding percentage is 7.5 percent, and he is averaging one putback attempt per game.

I frequently use a tool called Points Above Median (PAM), which measures how many "extra" points a player scores relative to the number of shots he takes. A player with a large PAM total improves his team's points per shot attempt more than a player with a small PAM value. PAM tells us more than just how much a player's total scoring is contributing to his team's offensive efficiency. Using play-by-play data, it is possible to break down scoring into distinct categories, and then calculate the PAM results for each category. This exercise helps us see just where an individual player is creating (or hurting) his scoring value.

Based on PAM, last season Ridley's putback shots generated a quarter of his positive scoring value, while this year so far this total is less than 10 percent. Offensive rebounds are great for Ridley, as they frequently give him a chance to score near the rim, which is what he does best.

To a certain extent, offensive rebounds are a zero sum game. I wondered if with all the other big guys hitting the glass for Texas this year if teammates were "stealing" rebounds that he might normally get. To help determine if this might be happening, I looked at Texas' offensive rebounding stats when Ridley was in the game, and when he sat. My thought was that if Texas' offensive rebounding numbers as a team were still strong with Ridley in the game, then we likely shouldn't hold his reduced rebounding success against him.

The table below is taken from my new project, It shows the performance of the Texas offense and defense when Ridley is in the game, compared with when he sits. This season, when Ridley plays the Longhorn offensive rebounding percentage drops from 46 percent to 36 percent. This makes it hard to argue that the other Longhorns on the floor are getting offensive rebounds that would have otherwise gone to Ridley.

It is hard to explain this reduction in Ridley's rebounding rate. Even during Ridley's difficult freshman year, his offensive (and defensive) rebounding rates where much higher than they are this season. I went back and watched Ridley work for offensive rebounds, and it is hard to see any difference between what he is doing this season compared with last year.

Ridley's offensive rebounds typically come from him occupying space on one side of the basket, and if the ball comes into his space he frequently comes up with the ball. He does not really appear any less aggressive -- it is quite possible that the ball just hasn't bounced his way quite as much yet as it did last year.

Turnover Problems

There is another noticeable problem in the table above. When Ridley is in the game, the Texas turnover rate jumps, which is largely attributable to him, given his troubles protecting the ball this season. Ridley is currently turning the ball over in 32 percent of the possessions that end with the ball in his hands. Ridley had a high turnover rate as a freshman, while he protected the ball well during his breakout sophomore season.

It is worth taking a look at where Ridley's turnovers come from. For Ridley, a certain percentage of his turnovers have always come on offensive fouls. During his freshman year, this was a reoccurring problem, and in particular it reared its head again in the matchup with Kentucky last Friday. In that game, three of Ridley's five turnovers came on offensive fouls, while jockeying for position in the low post.

To a certain extent, I don't want to hold those fouls against Ridley. Against Kentucky, the officials did a poor job of establishing what was, and what was not, a foul inside in what was an extremely physical game. Frankly, neither team had any idea what was going to be called a foul on the low block on any posession, as the whistles seemed to come at random. In particular, two of Ridley's offensive fouls were borderline, as were some of the fouls called on UK defenders in the low post. (One of Ridley's three offensive fouls was well-earned.)

But not all of Ridley's turnovers come from being a bit to enthusiastic about establishing position on the low block. In fact, much of the trouble begins once he catches the ball.

There are two Cameron Ridleys

I charted 20 of Ridley's low post opportunities so far this season. These were chances where Ridley either got off a shot, drew a foul, or turned the ball over. For the Texas junior, success scoring in the low block is largely determined before he catches the ball.

Ridley's post touches cleanly separate into two categories; within each category he is almost a different player. In the first category, Ridley had nine chances in the low post where he caught the ball deep in the paint. When Rick Barnes' center can catch the ball with two feet in the lane, good things generally follow. Six of these nine possessions resulted in a score or drawn foul, two ended with missed shots, and one led to a turnover.

The image below shows what good position for Ridley looks like. In this example, taken from the game against UConn, Ridley has sealed his defender deep in the lane. These situations play to his strength, which is, well, strength. With position this deep, Ridley can quickly pivot and shoot, and there isn't much other than fouling that the defense can do.

The video clip below shows how this possession plays out. In it, Ridley draws a foul, and earns two free throws.

Deep post touches are the ideal state for most big guys, and Cameron Ridley is no different. On the season, he is converting on 70 percent of his shots at the rim, and has hit 69 percent of his free throws. Two feet from the cup, he is nearly unstoppable.

When Ridley catches the ball outside of the lane, the story is completely different. Virtually every time he attempts a post move from outside the paint, he attempts to back his man down with the dribble before shooting a jump hook or a fade away jumper. The results are predictably awful. In my study of Ridley post touches, 11 of the 20 chances were ones where Ridley caught the ball outside of the paint. In all but one of these chances he attempted to back his man down.

In the 11 possessions where Ridley caught the ball outside of the lane, he scored or drew a foul three times, missed five shots, and committed three turnovers. One of these turnovers came on a quick double-team, but the other two came while trying to back his defender closer to the basket.

Catching the ball outside of the paint creates problems for Ridley, who probably needs to develop some sort of quick face up post move if he wants to become effective scoring from this spot on the floor. In the image below, we see the challenge that Ridley faces when he puts the ball on the floor with his back to the basket. We can see that in addition to his defender, he has two or three other defenders who are potentially able to poke at the ball.

Watching the full clip shows just how many defenders have a chance to take a stab at the ball while Ridley backs in. Ultimately, one of them gets it.

Even when Ridley doesn't lose the ball while backing his man down, he seldom gets a good shot off. These post touches generally end with some sort of jump hook or fade away shot -- all shots where Ridley is falling away from the basket. While I don't generally have a problem with short jump hooks, a hook shot taken from five or six feet from the basket is usually a low percentage look. And fade away is an indisputably bad shot for all but a handful of players.

Ridley relied on a similar approach to scoring in the low post last season, frequently relying on dribbling to back his defender down before shooting. While he didn't turn the ball over nearly as often last year, he still struggled to find good shots this way.

An interesting contrast to Ridley's post game is the way Myles Turner works on the low block. Turner lacks the strength of Ridley, and doesn't have the ability to seal for deep position. Yet Turner's post touches have been far more productive, despite this considerable disadvantage.

In part, Turner's productivity comes from the fact that he can really shoot the ball. But an other part of his success is because of what he does when he catches the ball on the block. When Turner catches the ball in the low post, he almost always quickly pivots and faces the basket, keeping the ball up high. This keeps the ball away from danger, and provides Turner multiple options when looking to score. These are options that will never materialize if he were to instead immediately try to back his man down with the dribble.

I went back and watched 26 Turner post touches, and counted only four times where he put the ball on the floor prior to pivoting to face the basket. While Turner's post game has a lot of room to grow (he needs further develop his footwork, learn a few more moves to complement his jump shot, and spend some time in the weight room), it is built on a solid foundation of low post fundamentals. I send my complements to the people who taught Turner the game. It is amazing how simple these things are when they are done right.

How can Ridley get going?

The gap between Ridley being successful and continuing the struggle is not insurmountable. His turnover struggles have masked the fact that he is still very good at converting shots around the basket, and has maintained his significant progress shooting free throws. In fact, Ridley's ability to draw fouls and go to the line has become some of his (and Texas') best offense.

While Ridley has struggled, there are mostly two things dragging him down. By getting to a few more offensive rebounds and doing a better job of protecting the ball, Ridley could once again return to being an important part of the Texas offense.