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Eric May: A Senior Day Appreciation

Looking back on the exhilarating, frustrating, and finally respectable career of Iowa's lone senior.

Eric May did things like this a lot
Eric May did things like this a lot

It's Eric May's senior day today, and it seems like an appropriate time to look back on a career that was as thrilling as it was frustrating. May was and is thrilling because he could do things like this, right out of the gate:

And this:

Frustrating because he had to endure the Bataan Death March that was the 2009-10 Iowa basketball season, a season wherein he played the most minutes of any season of his career out of sheer necessity. That team won ten games, and the starting five players (Payne-Gatens-May-Fuller-Cole) played 74% of the minutes. It was not an ideal situation for a freshman to become acclimated to the college game, or for any basketball player, really, and May struggled that year, shooting 40% on 8 field goal attempts and 4.5 three point attempts a game. At that time, the general thinking was that May could be a volume scorer, a prototypical two-guard -- sort of like Gatens, but more athletic. His shooting percentages that year were the first indications that he didn't quite fit that role. Certain skills did emerge, though: he led the team in steals and, amazingly enough, blocks that year, and demonstrated that he had the size, strength and speed to guard a variety of players. He also had a knack for the weak-side block out of nowhere or the steal that he would quickly turn into a dunk at the other end.

The basic flaw in May's game that emerged was that he didn't quite have the dribbling ability to keep defenses honest. He had the speed and vertical jump to become a dominant attacking player, but he seemed to become defensive and tentative when he had the ball on the move. His jump-shot was always decent, and he has even developed into a very solid three-point shooter (39.4% from three his sophomore year and above 33% his junior and senior years), but a certain lack of shiftiness with the ball prevented him from fully leveraging his considerable athletic gifts.

To his credit, though, he stuck it out at Iowa (at a time when a lot of players were jumping ship), despite that miserable first season, and continued to contribute as Iowa rebuilt under Fran McCaffery. In McCaffery's first year, a very young team with a thin bench fought and scrapped their way to just 11 wins, but played teams a lot tougher than anyone expected them to. A lot of that toughness came down to defense (Iowa ranked an impressive 53rd in the country in KenPom's adjusted defensive rankings that year), and May was a big part of that defense, playing 25 minutes a game and once again leading the team in steals.

His junior year, a back injury severely hampered his game, and his minutes and production dropped dramatically. He looked like a completely different player, one that was painfully earthbound and who frequently was forced to take layups (layups!) instead of his usual high-flying dunks.

But this season has been by far May's best. And it's been the first one where he has really settled into his role: defensive stopper, transition dunker, and occasional three-point shooter. In other words, sort of what Bruce Bowen did for the Spurs, except with more highlight-reel dunks. The offense still struggles when May is the only shooting guard in the game, but he thrives when he is allowed to play the three, use as much energy as he can on defense, and dunk on fools in transition. By limiting his game to only what he can do well, May has put up the best numbers of his career: highs in effective field goal percentage (50.9%), true shooting percentage (55.6%), free throw percentage (78.6%, a huge jump over his 65% average up till this year), offensive rebound percentage, total rebound percentage, turnover percentage, and assist percentage. His passing, in particular, has greatly improved, and he even makes some point guard-worthy passes out of the post on occasion.

In a way, May's career is a testament to the usage-efficiency tradeoff. This idea basically states that, as players' usage increases (the number of times they shoot, turn the ball over, or get fouled), at a certain point their efficiency will diminish. In other words, that most players are pretty good when they can be selective about when they shoot and dribble, but that the more you force them to use possessions where they have no alternative but to take a bad shot or make a bad pass, their performance will necessarily worsen. The best players, like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant, are remarkable because their performance doesn't diminish very much as their usage increases -- they can keep scoring at a decent clip even if they are double-teamed, triple-teamed, whatever. Most players aren't like that, though, and Eric May was no exception. This year, he got the chance to play on a deep team with maybe five players that would rate higher than him on opposing coaches' offensive scouting reports. For the first time in his career, he was on a team that was good enough (and where he was healthy enough) that he could take what the game gave him and do what he does best: creating chaos and doing things well above the rim.