We all know that Jarrod Uthoff is unreal, and is the best player on this Iowa team. However, Uthoff aside, Mike Gesell's play this season is a huge part of why Iowa is currently sitting at 12-3 overall, and 3-0 in the conference. And there is a real argument to be made that Mike Gesell is the most important player to Iowa's offense. At point guard, he is the leader of the offense and he is the engine that keeps everything running smoothly. Iowa's offense tends to bog down when there is no real penetration into the defense, and guys start settling for contested jump shots. But they are at their best when Mike Gesell is utilizing the ball screen for pick and rolls or simply taking his man off the dribble and attacking the basket. Gesell has shown the ability to get to the rim all throughout his career, but he's steadily made it a bigger part of his offensive game over the years, and his senior year is no exception.
You can see that he is getting to the rim at a much-increased level this season. In fact, he's approaching close to 50% of his attempts from the field near the rim. He's taking less threes, and attacking the basket more, which is probably a good plan because Gesell has not been a great outside shooter over his career. He's only taken 20 this season, and the lower volume seems to be working better for him, as picking his spots has allowed him to shoot 50% from beyond the arc through 15 games.
But, let's get back to shots near the rim.
One reason Gesell hasn't always been very efficient on offense in the past (besides struggling from long distance), is because when he would get into the lane, he often struggled to finish at the rim or he would fail to earn a trip to the line. He often would find himself getting his shot rejected or throwing the ball up wildly, only to see it fall off the rim into the hands of a defensive player. This year, though, that is not the case.
On top of just getting into the lane for more high-percentage shots, Gesell's emphasis on driving has also allowed him to increase the number of fouls he draws. Over his career, he's only drawn about 3 fouls per 40 minutes played. This season, though, he's up to 4.4, and his free throw rate has basically doubled.
Not many guys can put that type of a look on Tom Izzo's face.
Anyway, Gesell's past efficiency issues also stemmed from up-and-down free throw shooting when he did visit the charity stripe. Of course, this year his free throw shooting is up from the past two seasons. And if we look at his overall scoring, the changes in his game this season are reflected.
He's still getting most of his points at the rim, but his value at the free throw line is way up this season. So any coaches that want to try the hack-a-Mike strategy this season might want to reconsider.
Now, Gesell's increased emphasis on driving to the basket this season has done a host of things for Iowa and their Kenpom-ranked 11th best offense in the nation. Aside from scoring, Gesell's ability to penetrate the defense also leaves Iowa's shooters open on the perimeter for good looks. And that's important because, need I remind you, this has been the best shooting team (by far) that Fran McCaffery has ever had at Iowa.
His increased efficiency at the rim has also made him an even bigger threat in the pick and roll this season. He's always been a great passer, but now he's a legitimate threat to score or draw the foul and that's opening up things for his teammates rolling to the basket.
And outside of masterfully running Iowa's half-court offense, Gesell also excels in transition. McCaffery likes to recruit athletes who run the floor after makes and misses, and Gesell has a knack for finding those guys when they streak open down the court.
Gesell's ability to find the open guy has been insanely valuable for Iowa this year. His 37.9% assist rate is the highest of his career, and currently 13th in the country, according to Kenpom. In just three Big Ten games this season, that has actually shot up to 41%. His 7 assists per game is a record-setting pace for the Hawkeyes, and if he continues at this rate, he should easily surpass Andre Woolridge's single season assist record of 192. Gesell has 104 assists already, and if he continues to hand out 7 dimes per game, he should have the record set after Iowa plays Ohio State in Columbus on February 28th. It's more likely that pace will slow a bit now that Iowa is in their conference schedule, but so far he is at 6.7 per game through three Big Ten contests. Small sample, of course, but still...
Even with 15 conference games and who knows how many postseason games on top of that total remaining, Mike Gesell is looking at easily the best season of his career. Here are the stats to back that assertion up:
|Statistic||Previous High||This Season|
|Free Throw Rate||30.4%||54.5%|
|Offensive Win Shares||1.1||1.3|
|Win Shares Per 40 Min||0.121||0.192|
Increased shooting efficiency and another uptick in assists has Gesell's offensive rating at an all-time high this year. Additionally, he's already set a personal record for offensive win shares in a season... in just 15 games. His 0.192 win shares per 40 minutes is also the best rate of value he has provided Iowa over his four year tenure, which puts him on pace for about 4.5 win shares this season. Not only does that crush his previous high of 2.5, but it also means he's more than living up to the lofty expectations of a senior who was once a 4 star recruit.
Basically, Iowa's four year starter at point guard is playing the best season of basketball he ever has during his time in Iowa City, and you could argue he's been their most valuable player over the first three Big Ten games. In those three games he has already come close to totaling 1 complete win share. That's right. That means that 0.8 of his 2.1 win shares this season have come in his last three games. His 0.315 win shares per 40 minutes in Big Ten play so far is absolutely off the charts. It's sure to regress, of course, but his play over the last three games just further reinforces the outstanding senior season he is having.
This post only covers offense, of course, and Gesell more than holds his own on the defensive end of the ball. His defense is as great as ever, but his big step forward in offensive efficiency this season is what has taken his game to the next level and is why Iowa's offense is much improved from last year. If he can keep this up, Gesell should be a lock to make one of the Big Ten All-Conference teams. Of course, he's got stiff competition from Melo Trimble and Yogi Ferrell for the first or second team spot. I think Gesell is at least a lock for third team at this point, but if Iowa continues to win and they end up finishing in the top three in the conference, I could see the Hawkeyes' win total influencing voters to put him on the second team roster.
He got some love from the conference this week, too, as he was named Big Ten Player of the Week after his double-double (22 points, 10 assists) in Iowa's win over Nebraska last week.
But no matter what All-Conference team he makes, though, Mike Gesell's breakthrough year is a huge reason why Iowa basketball is having the success they are having this season. And, if he continues to play at this level, there is no telling how far this team could go.
We only have a few more months of him, you guys. Don't take it for granted.