In an article on ESPN.com (which since seems to have disappeared), Eamonn Brennan suggested that Adam Woodbury could be Iowa's most important player this season. It's worth noting that important does not mean equalbest. I think most observers, here and elsewhere, would agree that Roy Devyn Marble is Iowa's best player. (Or perhaps Aaron White, if you prefer.) Marble emerged as Iowa's leader a year ago and was arguably the key force in Iowa's NIT run. He led Iowa in minutes, points, assists, was Iowa's best free-throw shooter, and also ranked highly in rebounds and steals. So what's the case for Woodbury, not Marble, being Iowa's most important player?
The logic behind Woodbury being Iowa's most important player is that he has the ability to raise the ceiling for Iowa's potential as a team. We've seen how good Iowa can be with Marble playing at a high level; we haven't seen how good Iowa might be with Woodbury playing at a high level. And Woodbury remains such a tantalizing source of potential because big men can still have a very pronounced impact on a team. For all the talk about the importance of guards and the rise of small-ball, big men were still very important to some of last year's best teams.
Don't believe me? Let's take a look at the top teams in last year's final KenPom ratings. KenPom's player stats lump players into several categories. Players in Limited Roles are those used on 12-16% of their team's possessions. (Iowa example: Gabe Olaseni.) Players categorized as Role Players are those used in 16-20% of possession. (Iowa example: Adam Woodbury or Josh Oglesby.) Players tabbed as Significant Contributors are those used in 20-24% of possessions. (Iowa example: Aaron White.) Players denoted as Major Contributors are those used in 24-28% of possessions. (Iowa example: RDM.) And, finally, players listed as Go-To Guys are those used in >28% of possessions. (Iowa example: none.)
Most Prominent Big: Gorgui Dieng, JR, 6-11; role player; 63% of minutes
Stats: 31.1 mpg, 9.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.3 spg, 2.5 bpg; 53% FG
Most Prominent Big: Erik Murphy, SR, 6-10; significant contributor; 64% of minutes
Stats: 26.4 mpg, 12.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.4 apg, 0.6 spg, 0.7 bpg; 51% FG
Most Prominent Big: Cody Zeller, SO, 7-0; major contributor; 73% of minutes
Stats: 29.5 mpg, 16.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1.0 spg, 1.3 bpg; 56% FG
Most Prominent Big: Kelly Olynyk, JR, 7-0; go-to guy; 60% of minutes
Stats: 26.4 mpg, 17.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.7 apg, 0.7 spg, 1.1 bpg, 63% FG
Most Prominent Big: Mitch McGary, FR, 6-10; significant contributor; 49% of minutes
Stats: 19.7 mpg, 7.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 0.6 apg, 1.1 spg, 0.7 bpg; 60% FG
#6 Ohio St
Most Prominent Big: none
Most Prominent Big: Mason Plumlee, SR, 6-10; major contributor; 87% of minutes
Also: Ryan Kelly, SR, 6-11; significant contributor; 46% of minutes
Stats: (Plumlee) 34.7 mpg, 17.1 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.0 spg, 1.4 bpg, 60% FG
Stats: (Kelly) 28.9 mpg, 12.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.7 apg, 0.7 spg, 1.6 bpg, 45% FG (also 42% 3FG)
Most Prominent Big: none
Most Prominent Big: Jeff Withey, SR, 7-0; significantcontributor; 76% of minutes
Stats: 30.9 mpg, 13.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.8 spg, 3.9 bpg, 58% FG
#10 Michigan St
Most Prominent Big: Adreian Payne, JR, 6-10; significant contributor; 64% of minutes
Stats: 25.6 mpg, 10.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 0.8 apg, 0.8 spg, 1.3 bpg, 55% FG (also 38% 3FG)
Past the top ten, the prevalence of excellent bigs (which I defined as anyone 6-10 or taller for the purposes of this exercise) is less frequent; of the teams in the 11-20 range in the KenPom ratings, only two (Miami and Wisconsin) had significant bigs on their team. So it's certainly possible to assemble a good team without good bigs. But good big players do seem to be able to elevate teams to another level with their play.
Of course, even among the bigs featured on those top-10 teams, there's a wide range of difference in the way they play. Ryan Kelly and Adreian Payne were certainly very different bigs than, say, Mitch McGary or Jeff Withey. Woodbury seems more in the mold of the latter duo than the former duo; I don't expect we'll see him stretch the floor with long-range shooting anytime soon. Which is fine.
One interesting note about the bigs represented above? Seven of the nine players singled out were juniors or seniors. Zeller (SO) and McGary (FR) were the only underclassmen listed there. Zeller was a phenom from day one, but McGary had his ups and downs as a freshman. He was a monster during Michigan's NCAA Tournament run and a major reason that they made it to the NCAA Championship Game, but he had his struggles, too. He played eight games in January and didn't crack double-figures in scoring in any of them, for instance.
Bigs often just take a while to develop. Take Withey, for example. His name has been thrown around as a possible career template for Woodbury (not undeservedly, either).
FR: 3.0 mpg, 1.3 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 0.4 bpg, 54% FG
SO: 6.2 mpg, 2.3 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 0.7 bpg, 65% FG
JR: 24.8 mpg, 9.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.6 bpg, 54% FG
SR: 30.9 mpg, 13.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 3.9 bpg, 58% FG
He flashed as a sophomore, but didn't truly emerge as a significant presence until his junior season.
By way of comparison, here are Woodbury's freshman stats.
FR: 16.5 mpg, 4.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 0.8 bpg, 49% FG
He had the benefit of a lot more playing time early than Withey got (likely because he didn't have to fight through a mess of blue chippers just to see the floor), but his freshman year stats look pretty similar to Withey's stats. We've seen Woodbury flash that potential, too. While Marble may have been the driving force behind Iowa's NIT run, Woodbury played a key role as well, especially in the games against Virginia and Maryland; he scored 10 points (on 5/7 shooting) and had 8 rebounds against Virginia and put up 9 points (3/8 shooting) and had 3 rebounds against the Terps.
If Woodbury can emerge as a very good big, the potential for this Iowa team gets much more exciting. If that happens, this becomes a team that really could contend for a Big Ten title and push for 25 regular season wins -- and that, I think, is what makes Woodbury's perhaps Iowa's most important player.. (I'm less sure of what it might mean in terms of NCAA Tournament success because the Tourney can be such a crapshoot. But it certainly couldn't hurt Iowa's chances of making a run there.) That said, we're still talking about a pretty big "if" there -- Woodbury is still just a sophomore and the development plan for bigs can sometimes be long and arduous. We might be a year or so away from Woodbury becoming the big we want/think/hope he can be. For now, we watch and wait to see what Woody will do this year.