As always all numbers and metrics are from the amazing College Basketball section of Sports-Reference.com
For the 2015-16 Syracuse basketball team to regain its place among the best programs in the country and challenge for an ACC title, two major things must occur:
- Develop consistent threats from the outside (we’ll dive into that issue in another post)
- Replace the front court production of Rakeem Christmas
To do the latter the ‘Cuse doesn’t need to find a replacement for Christmas himself, but rather make up for the lost production that left when the senior was drafted in the second round by the Cavs (he was later traded to Pacers and is currently suiting up for their D-League affiliate the Fort Wayne Mad Ants).
Syracuse also lost a potential impact big when Chris McCullough decided to turn pro after playing just 16 games as a freshman before a major knee injury.
Since there is no one player on the roster capable of being the focal point in the front court, especially on offense, picking up the slack will become a team effort. That missing productivity can, and will have to, be supplemented through the collective efforts of a finally healthy DaJuan Coleman, still very raw Chinonso Obokoh, freshman Tyler Lyndon and Malachi Richardson as well as junior forward Tyler Roberson.
Of all of those options its Roberson who has the experience and talent to make the biggest difference. Richardson will have something to say about that, but his all around skill set will allow him to impact the game in various ways both inside and out of the post. He has the skills of a guard and will likely play a versatile role in the offense this year, whereas Roberson is more of a traditional power forward.
Roberson joined the Orange as part of the loaded 2013 recruiting class including five start point guard Tyler Ennis and now departed B.J. Johnson and Ron Patterson. Obokoh was also part of that group. Roberson was a four star recruit according to Rivals and was listed at 6’8 210 pounds, which is right about where he’s at currently.
In a perfect world Roberson would continue on his solid sophomore year improvement and become an indispensable part of the front court rotation. The reason the hopes are so high for the junior from Union, NJ is because he has the athleticism to score around the basket, beat opponents for rebounds and cover ground defensively in the 2-3 zone.
Syracuse has seen the rapid rise of two other front court players in recent years. While neither is a perfect facsimile of Roberson they both share pieces of his skill set and affect the game in similar ways. They also represent a best case scenario of sort for the talented Roberson, as both made impressive strides during their tenure. The major leaps both C.J. Fair and Rakeem Christmas made are no guarantee for Roberson to replicate but lets take a look at all three players career stats.
This first set shows Minutes per Game, Usage% and Field Goal Attempts per 100 possessions. (For a look at any of the metrics used check out my last post, which also has links to other sources). These three metrics do a solid job showing the effect a player has on an offense from a volume perspective. I like the term offensive “gravity” but the great Kevin Pelton of ESPN uses that term to describe the attention an offensive player draws from defenders, which is not the same as what we’re talking about here. For now I’ll refer to what we’re looking at as offensive “volume”.
If you look at Roberson’s stats you notice that aside from a 254% increase in minutes per game (a massive jump that eclipses both Christmas and Fair) he actually took up less offensive volume in his sophomore year. At the same time Roberson is not the type of player offensively who will ever be a go-to scorer or primary option. What is interesting though is that he actually has a higher second year USG% and FGA per 100 possessions than Fair or Christmas.
At first glance that seems like a misprint but maybe that’s actually a reminder that it took stellar junior and senior seasons for Fair and Christmas to become the offensive centerpieces we remember them for. For example, Christmas had the lowest USG% rate of 12.2% his junior season. For perspective, that would be lower than any player last year that averaged at least 10 minutes per game (which includes all scholarship players except Obokoh). That would leave him 3.1% lower than Ron Patterson, the lowest usage player in 2014-15 other than Obokoh at 5.1%. Christmas then spiked to 25.8% in his senior season, which represents a 111.48% increase. Fair’s increase in usage and FGA was much more steady but he ended higher than Christmas in all three categories.
So to summarize, despite USG% and FGA per 100 possessions actually declining, Roberson’s sophomore offensive volume metrics actually lead both Fair and Christmas with the biggest gainer from his freshman year being minutes per game. Remember, however, the frequency of shots has nothing to do with how often they’re actually made. To see how effective a player is offensively we need to gauge his efficiency.
As we saw earlier Roberson is on a trajectory to outpace Fair and Christmas in overall shooting frequency, but does that mean he’s been more effective? Looking at a few metrics like points per 100 possessions, Offensive Rating and PER will help us determine that.
In terms of producing points Roberson seems to be well behind Fair’s pace but in line with that of Christmas. 17.4 points per 100 possessions isn’t much but that relatively low number wouldn’t mean much if it wasn’t paired with the high volume numbers in the previous section. Meaning, the fact that Roberson didn’t average many points compared to Fair and Christmas would be a small point if he didn’t also shoot more or “use” more possessions as measured by USG% and FGA per 100 possessions. Having said that both ORtg and PER attempt to quantify how efficient a player is and should in theory reflect that themselves. Roberson’s PER is again behind Fair’s but above Christmas’ pace, yet saw a large uptick (50.91% increase), while his ORtg is actually an outlier (in the positive direction) in this data set. 145.5 is well above any other rating and more than 20 points above Fair’s two highest postings.
We haven’t really gotten into how each players scores their buckets, which is clearly a huge factor in this discussion. Without the benefit of advanced spacial tracking data like the NBA gets from SportVU or Synergy Sports we’ll have to make some educated guesses. From casual observation the skill sets are relatively distinguishable. Fair was by far the most effective shooter of the three, eventually even becoming a three point threat. Christmas mainly operated down low and became a dynamite back to the basket player in the low post.
Roberson is a bit of a hybrid of the two: not developed enough to be a consistent jump shooter but also not limited to scoring on post ups. The real key in Roberson’s development will be his shooting ability. If he can refine his mechanics and establish a smoother stroke he could become a legitimate offensive threat who can create points without having plays designed for him much in the vein of Fair.
It seems a little strange that even though Roberson’s volume numbers are high and his points per 100 possessions are low that he still manages to post solid PER and excellent ORtg ratings. Nonetheless its a good sign for his development as scoring points but doing so efficiently is really the sweet spot in basketball.
Finally we’ll look at what, in theory, will sum it all up for us. These metrics vie to quantify all the various factors in basketball and distill them down to a number that signifies a player’s overall impact. Offensive Wins Shares, Win Share per 40 minutes and Offensive Box Plus/Minus all seek to answer the age old question of who will add the most wins to a team. OWS and WS/40 follow similar methods but in this case paint a pretty cloudy picture.
C.J. Fair’s outstanding ratings all the way around in this category ins’t too surprising. Fair was the clear go-to option his final two seasons and was quietly effective in limited action early on. With his all-around game and ability to score inside, outside and transition he was clearly a huge positive to the Orange.
What is shocking is that Christmas’ final year (one where he carried the ‘Cuse offense at times) posted a pedestrian 0.045 WS/40 and negative marks in OWS and OBPM. While the fact that Christmas was forced to be a high volume workhouse would certainly hinder his ability to produce efficiently and therefore lower his relative value in some of the metrics, there is no doubt from my untrained eye that he was by far the Orange’s best offensive player last season.
Roberson seems to somewhat shadow Christmas’ trajectory from season one to season two. While these metrics have great value, because of their complex nature I think its fair to praise Fair for his excellent ratings but somewhat overlook Christmas’ poor marks.
Roberson’s value metrics aren’t stellar, but the massive increase in the positive direction from year one to two suggests as he’s gained experience he become more and more valuable to the squad. We should temper our expectations but seeing win shares and other value based ratings shoot up is incredibly encouraging.
What’s key to note as we wrap up here is that we’ve pretty much limited our evaluation to the most obvious offensive skill of scoring. To me what’s most encouraging for Roberson is that scoring is actually the weakest part of his offensive game and he still seems to be progressing in line with eventual offensive studs.
Roberson’s game is predicated on athleticism and hustle and has his biggest impact on the offensive boards. He grabbed 11.1% of available offensive rebounds last season, which was second on the team to Obokoh who did so in limited playing time. Roberson also lead front court players with an 11.3% assist rate.
When its all said and done Roberson will have to follow in some pretty impressive footsteps to be as effective on offense as C.J. Fair and Rakeem Christmas, but there are signs that he can make a similar progression.