Over a four-year college basketball career, odds are, on average, that a player is going to be better their senior year than they were as a freshman. This is common sense. Seniors have learned more about the game, they have gone through a college basketball strength and conditioning program, they have been through the grind of an entire season, and, as long as there has been coaching continuity, they should be well-versed in the offensive and defensive schemes that their coaches ask them to run.
But even with the general improvement from Year One to Year Four (or even Year Five, for redshirt candidates), player development is not usually that neat. Player development is something that we want to be perfectly linear, but instead things like sophomore slumps or injuries or a whole host of things can make it so Player A doesn't quite take that next step they are expected to take from one year to the next.
Of course, that doesn't stop us fans from dreaming. We immediately identify what a player is good at as soon as they step on campus. We then analyze what we feel their talent level should be over the rest of their career. And then, every offseason, we envision that player taking the next step in development toward that higher level. Sometimes it works out, but there are plenty of times where it doesn't. Last season's Iowa men's basketball team was a pretty good example of that. Not that last year was a disappointing season, but I think we were all expecting guys like Mike Gesell, Adam Woodbury, and Peter Jok to take bigger steps forward than they did. Instead, the last of those three fought through a bad, bad slump to start the season, while the other two played fine, but didn't really seem to build a whole lot on their first two seasons on campus.
Thus far, the 2015-2016 season has been a completely different story. Sure, Iowa dropped some frustrating close games early on this season. But it's clear that this team, as a whole, is playing at a higher level than probably most of us envisioned before the season. There is still a lot of college basketball left to be played, but this is what it looks like when all things player development break right for a team. Every player in Fran McCaffery's core rotation of players this season, is playing the best basketball of their career. We've already talked about Jarrod Uthoff, Mike Gesell, and Nicholas Baer, but there are a handful of other guys that deserve some praise, so let's heap some their way.
Iowa's 7-footer is also having a great senior season. He's not the Hawkeyes' biggest scoring threat, but he he's averaging 8.5 points per game this season and his efficiency is way up on the offensive side of the ball. His offensive rating is a career-high 118.7 this season, when his previous high was 110.4 as a sophomore. Woodbury's playing better on offense this year, and he's doing it while playing more minutes than he ever has.
So how's he doing it? Well, he's essentially shooting the ball as well as he has ever done in his career and he's turning it over at a lower rate, too.
First, let's look at shooting.
Again, Woodbury isn't Iowa's first scoring option; he's probably #4. But he's got a few moves he can use to score when he does get the ball. First of all, he's shown that he has a nice nice little baseline spin move he uses in the post. Second, he's shown the ability to take opposing big men off the dribble on occasion when he catches it away from the rim. More importantly, though, what Woodbury has done best this season is carve himself out a nice little niche in the pick and roll game.
Woody's feel for being the roll-man has earned him some really good looks at the basket this season. He's always been good in the pick and roll, of course, but with his improved finishing at the rim this season, he's even more dangerous than in previous years.
As you can see, Woodbury is converting on 77% of his shots near the rim this season, which is up from the past two. Additionally, his free throw shooting has been outstanding after being a detriment in two of his past three seasons. Random variation or real, mechanical improvement? I'm not sure. But, whatever it is, it's been a boost to Iowa's offensive output this season.
On the turnover side of things, Woody has never been horrible with giving the rock to the other team, but he also hasn't been great, either. This year, though, his turnover rate is down to 15.6% on the season, which is better than the 20-24% it had been in years past. That's an above average rate, and it's another part of why his offensive rating is at an all-time high.
Additionally, Woodbury is doing all of this while maintaining his career offensive rebounding rate of about 11%, which is good enough for 150th in the nation this season.
Of course, a good chunk of Woodbury's value provided to Iowa is on the defensive end of the ball and a lot of that value comes via things that just don't show up in the box score. Woodbury's never been much of a shot-blocker, but he's always been great one-on-one in the post and had a knack for altering-shots and clogging up the lane. He's had foul trouble in the past doing so, but he seems to have fixed that this season, as he's gone from 5-6 fouls called per 40 minutes to just 3.7 this season. His blocked shot rate is down, but fewer blocks (he was never a great shot-blocker, anyway) is probably worth the tradeoff of keeping him on the floor for the Hawkeyes. Woodbury showed how valuable he is on defense in the Purdue game, when he (and Dom Uhl and Nicholas Baer) all did a great job of fronting and denying the entry pass in the post to Purdue's big men.
Overall, Woodbury has almost reached his career-high in win shares through just his first 15 games this season. The last two seasons, he has been worth 2 win shares per season. Through 15 games already this year, he is at 1.6. (0.9 on offense and 0.7 on defense) Part of that is the increased minutes he is seeing now that he doesn't split the center position with Gabriel Olaseni. That doesn't explain all of it, though, because his 0.179 win shares per 40 minutes is the highest of his career, and that signifies that he's playing at a higher level this season than he has before.
Ah, Sapp. Similar to Adam Woodbury, Anthony Clemmons provides so much of his value on the defensive side of the ball. He's also having a career year offensively, but I want to start with defense.
Clemmons is Iowa's best perimeter defender. I think his importance was on full display against Nebraska, when Tai Webster continuously poked a hole in Iowa's defense on possession after possession. Clemmons (when healthy) has the ability to keep his man in front of him, but he also has the ability to harass the opposing team's best shooter by fighting through a host of screens and then getting up in their face. Don't believe me? Just ask Bryn Forbes.
If Nebraska was the game where Iowa missed his defense the most, Michigan State was probably the game the Hawkeyes were the happiest to have him on the team. Even Tom Izzo complimented Clemmons after the game, as his defensive effort made Forbes invisible against Iowa. Forbes averaged 23 points per game against non-Iowa opponents without Denzel Valentine in the lineup, but he managed just a paltry 3 points against Clemmons and Iowa.
Clemmons' ability to pick the opposing team's pocket has not declined this season (his steal rate is still right around his career norm), but the number of fouls he is being called for has. He's gone from 3 fouls called per 40 minutes to just 2 this season. From a defensive win shares perspective, all of this has Clemmons on a career-high trajectory. Sapp already has 0.7 defensive win shares through 15 games, when his previous season-high was 1 defensive win share as a freshman and junior.
On offense, Clemmons' 105.1 offensive rating is better than his previous high of 102.8 as a sophomore, but he's doing it while shooting the ball worse than he ever has from long range. He's shown himself to be a consistent 36-37% shooter over his previous three seasons, but he's only making about 30% of his tries from deep this year. We are working with a small sample of only 37 attempts, though, so one nice game could change things quickly. Still, Clemmons' offensive rating isn't up because of better shooting, it's up because he's finally stopped turning the ball over so much. Last year was not nearly as bad as his first two years on campus, but his 17.2% turnover rate as a senior is way down from even last year's improved (relative to the 29-31% he was at the previous two years) 22.7% turnover rate. And, just like with Woodbury, he's doing this while playing a lot more minutes than he has in the past.
As for offensive win shares, Clemmons' 0.5 through 15 games is getting awfully close to last year's career-high of 0.8. And his 0.114 win shares per 40 minutes is up from last year's best of 0.102, which means he's also on pace to set a career record for total win shares as a senior.
Iowa's quick-trigger shooting guard has also had a nice season as a junior. After battling some serious sophomore slump issues last season, Jok's rate stats are back around where they were at as a freshman, and he's playing at this high level while playing 24 minutes per game this season. A number that will likely go up as we get further into conference play.
Now, for all his improvement this year, I should still point out that Jok still has some efficiency issues thanks to his affinity for long jumpers.
But he's clearly one of the best shooters on the team, and his three-point shot continues to be very consistent. And that's good, considering his main value to Iowa on offense is that ability to shoot the ball. He has a quick release, which means his defender can't afford to even give him a sliver of daylight.
Of course, this skill can be a detriment sometimes, as Jok can force a bad shot. This is why his efficiency on the offensive side of the ball still has room for improvement. But the kid can shoot and he's got the green light from McCaffery to do it in the half-court off of screens or when Iowa is out in transition.
Jok knows to get wide when the Hawkeyes get out on the break. Once the defense rushes back to protect the basket, that leaves him wide open on the perimeter for a great look that he rarely misses.
Jok's offensive rating is back up to 108.5 this season after being at 96.9 last year. And that's great timing, seeing how he has been expected to play a bigger role and give Iowa more offensive output as a junior. His usage rate this season is at 26% after being at 21% the past two years, and he's taking about a third of the teams total shots when he is on the court, which is also up from about 25% the last few years. His shooting this season has helped his efficiency return to respectable levels, but another key is the fact that his turnover rate is at an all-time low. In fact, Jok's turnover rate is currently the best on the team and 99th in the country, by Kenpom's standards. Between bad shots and turnovers, Jok's penchant for empty possessions in the past has hurt Iowa's offense. But that has not been much of an issue this year.
What also hasn't been much of an issue this season is Peter Jok's defense this year. I'm not saying he's a lockdown defender, but he no longer seems to be the defensive liability that he used to be. Again, defense is hard to capture with statistics, but Jok's junior season thus far is the first time he has had a defensive rating below 100 (i.e. 1 point per possession allowed). He also seems to be buying into McCaffery's idea of jumping the passing lane this season, as his steal rate has gone from 1.7-2.0%. in his first two years to 3.2% this season. For reference, KenPom has Jok at 142nd in the country in steals, among qualified players.
Just to recap Jok's improvement, he's playing a bigger role and more minutes than he ever has in his career at Iowa, and he's scoring 13 points per game while still hitting shots at a nice clip, not turning the ball over, and he's no longer a liability on defense. His overall game has made huge strides in just one season.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is Dom Uhl. I find Uhl fascinating because he has openly said in interviews that he feels more comfortable "playing outside." He got that opportunity last year when Iowa had White and Olaseni, but he's not really getting that chance this season with their departure. Instead, Uhl is being asked to cover the four and five positions when Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury aren't on the court. And he's doing his job admirably.
First of all, Uhl's offensive rating has been a very pleasant surprise this season. Uhl was awful on offense last season. He took quite a few three-pointers and only made 18.5% of them, he only made 52% of his free throws, and he turned the ball over a lot. Overall, his offensive rating was a ridiculously inefficient 82.0, and he was actually worth -0.2 win shares on offense. Yes, he was so bad that he gave the other team value on offense.
Now, I pile on because I want to stress how successful Uhl's improvement has been this season. Instead of the 82.0 offensive rating from last season, he's up to 119.4 this year and it's because he has suddenly developed a three-point shot and he's suddenly learned how to take care of the ball. In reference to his shooting, Uhl is making 48% of his attempts from beyond the arc this year. And McCaffery has pointed out that he seems to have a knack for hitting them at clutch times.
This, no doubt, will regress, as he's only attempted 29 on the season. And, honestly, he could potentially regress more than we would like him to, seeing how 29 attempts really isn't much of a sample. But as long as he's still shooting in the mid-to-high 30s, we should be happy.
Like everyone else, Uhl has also cut his turnover rate down to one of the lowest on the team, going from 25.5% last season to 11.4% this season. On top of that, his defense has been excellent this season, especially when you remember he has stated that he feels more comfortable playing on the perimeter. He more than held his own against Purdue and their bigs, despite giving up 3-5 inches.
If you focus on Uhl in the background there, you can see him immediately rotate and front A.J. Hammons as the ball swings to the other side of the floor. Jok steals this ball, of course, but Uhl anticipates Purdue trying to get the ball inside to Hammons before that entry is even an option and beats him to the spot. Defense in the post has a lot to do with positioning, and this is great positioning by Uhl.
In total, Uhl has earned 1.3 win shares on the year in just 15 games, and he's done it while flying under the radar. He's starting to gain a little more publicity as of late, but even I'll admit that his numbers have snuck up on me this year. I knew he was having a much-improved sophomore season, but I never would have imagined that he would be 5th on the team in win shares and 4th in win shares per 40 minutes until I looked it up. And considering I wasn't sure what to expect from Uhl (especially on offense) this season, his 7 points, 4 rebounds, and almost 1 block off the bench has been a nice surprise.
As a whole, this Iowa team is playing at a very high level right now. We expected this core group of players (Uthoff and Gesell included) to help get Iowa back to the NCAA tournament for the third time in a row, but I don't think we thought everybody would be having career seasons like this. This is what happens when basically everything goes right in regards to player development. And this does not happen very often. We can, and probably should, expect some regression, adversity, and struggles over the next few months. After all, conference play is a war with two or three battles per week for almost three months, and teams are constantly tested. Just ask Michigan State who had to overcome an injury to one of the best players in the country, or just ask Maryland who caught a hot-shooting Michigan team in Ann Arbor last night. The good thing about Iowa, is that they have a core nucleus of guys who have been here before. They know what the grind of a season is like, and they know what it's like to deal with adversity. And even this season, they played a difficult non-conference schedule, and they have already had to come to grips with some glaring issues in close games.
This team is already pretty battle-tested, so let's hope that sets them up for success as we hit the back stretch of the 2015-2016 season.