There wasn’t a ton going on this week in the world of Northwestern sports.
The men’s basketball team dropped two games.
The women’s team won two games.
The sun rose.
The sun set.
It’s all the same.
📵Blame the narrative
We’re now 18 games into Northwestern’s season. So we’re past the point where every five minutes contains a reminder that Pat Spencer played four years of lacrosse and was really good at it.
But that is putting announcers and commentators in the unenvious of having to fill air time by talking about Northwestern — a team consistently overmatched so far in Big Ten play.
The flavor of the month: play-by-play duos comparing the freshman and sophomores on the current squad to the classes that pushed Northwestern to its only NCAA Tournament berth in 2016-17.
It’s happening twice a game now, I swear. And it sometimes gets the addition of a reported endorsement by Chris Collins.
So how true, statistically, is that comparison?
Northwestern’s core five right now is pretty clear: freshman point guard Boo Buie, sophomore wing Miller Kopp, sophomore wing Pete Nance, freshman wing Robbie Beran, and redshirt freshman center Ryan Young.
Compare that with the core group from the ‘16-’17 team: guard Bryant McIntosh, wings Scottie Lindsey, Sanjay Lumpkin, Vic Law, and center Dererk Pardon.
So let’s break it down.
Bryant McIntosh (Freshman, ‘14-’15) vs. Boo Buie (‘19-’20)
Notable advanced stats:
*for definitions, scroll all the way down to the bottom
We’ll start at point guard — by far the most important position in Collins’ offense. Collins employs one lead ball-handler at a time. That’s it. And McIntosh and Buie both featured in that role as freshmen.
Buie’s numbers paint him as a different player than McIntosh, at least during their first years. As a high-usage, three-point-hunting guard, Buie is more trigger-happy than McIntosh ever was. And Northwestern probably needs him to be based on the talent they have surrounding him (keep reading to find out more).
McIntosh, on the other hand, had a surrounding cast that allowed him to be more of a facilitator. That 32.6% assist rate as a freshman was really good, especially when combined with his ability to stay somewhat efficient as a shooter when measured by true shooting percentage. McIntosh got less efficient, statistically, as the years went on. A lot of that, I think, had to do with a rising usage rate and the fact that he really didn’t take too many threes. His scoring came mostly in the midrange with a healthy number of floaters mixed in.
Are they similar? Not really. Buie is a modern shooting lead guard. He’s showing a lot of promise, but I don’t see Buie ever becoming the facilitator McIntosh was. But he’s also playing in an offensive role that McIntosh only took on as a junior once Tre Demps graduated.
Scottie Lindsey (Sophomore, ‘15-’16) vs. Miller Kopp (‘19-’20)
Notable advanced stats:
Let me just put this out in the open. Scottie Lindsey is my favorite Northwestern basketball player ever, but we can get into that another time.
Lindsey was a late bloomer. Miller Kopp is not. Lindsey was a role player on this squad. His job: take and make threes, move the ball, be a secondary ball-handler when needed. That’s really it. Lindsey had to grow into his eventual role as a high-usage scorer who caused problems for defenses at all three levels.
Kopp is Northwestern’s best player as a sophomore, albeit on a worse team. I wish Collins drew up more set plays for Kopp, as it seems like he gets most of his best scoring changes in transition, on the secondary break, or through catch-and-shoot chances.
Kopp’s role now is kind of what Lindsey’s was when he was a junior in ‘16-’17. Lindsey’s usage rate from that season is pretty similar to what Kopp is taking on now. But while Lindsey’s shooting percentages dipped with the increased role, Kopp’s are really impressive. He doesn’t create much off the bounce for him or his teammates. But even so, he’s more than just a standstill shooter. Kopp’s shooting five threes per game right now, which is around what Lindsey was doing as a junior. And at a 40% clip, Northwestern needs to be finding ways to get him to take more.
Are they similar? Yes! Kopp can still develop the off-the-bounce game that Lindsey did as a junior and senior. But, for now, Kopp and Lindsey compare pretty favorably.
Sanjay Lumpkin (Sophomore, ‘14-’15) vs. Pete Nance (‘19-’20)
Notable advanced stats:
This is a tough one.
So tough, that I cheated. Sanjay Lumpkin’s role was very different than Pete Nance’s. But, based on a number of factors, Nance might be best served playing Lumpkin’s role.
Lumpkin was a versatile defensive star who became a pretty reliable catch-and-shoot jump-shooter. He was all threes, layups, dunks, and free throws. A modern “three-and-D” wing.
His offensive usage rate as a sophomore: 11.3%. And that’s the highest it ever was.
Nance has been Northwestern’s least efficient offensive player this season by a pretty large margin. But, his offensive usage rate is just a shade below Kopp’s.
Where Nance shines, though, is as a rebounder and rim protector. He’s long, athletic, and smart enough to ruin games for opponents as he moves in his career. His big issue on that end is foul trouble. He’s picking up over four fouls per 40 minutes in conference play this year. Lumpkin had those issues, too.
Nance can do more offensively than Lumpkin, though. And that’s kind of the frustrating part. He’s a creative passer and isn’t a turnover machine. He can get to the bucket, but struggles to finish consistently.
Are they similar? No, at least not right now. But, I do think that if Nance was to become the best version of himself, it would be in the mold of Lumpkin, with a bit more shot creation on the offensive end. I’m still high on Nance.
Vic Law (Freshman, ‘14-’15) vs. Robbie Beran (‘19-’20)
Notable advanced stats:
During his freshman year, Vic Law confirmed one thing: he was a really high-ceiling player for Northwestern. And he proved another thing: his floor was really high, too.
In my mind, Robbie Beran is doing the same thing with his minutes this season.
Law and Beran both came to Northwestern as big-time prospects, with the size and athleticism to be all-Big Ten players. Law fulfilled that by the end of his career. Beran could do the same.
Looking at their freshman stats, Beran was a better shooter than Law, but Law took more threes. Law also got to the line more, which is an area Beran must improve if Collins wants to eventually build an offense around his ability to get buckets. The playmaking isn’t quite where Law’s was, and it’s taken him a bit longer to get acclimated to the college game.
But man, Beran holds his own defensively. He’s not afraid to use his athleticism and timing to meet opponents at the rim, creating highlight blocks much like Law did during his career. Sure, there are lapses. But the potential is there.
Are they similar? Yes. Beran has a long way to go to eventually play as well as Law did, but as freshmen, they do match-up pretty well.
Dererk Pardon (Freshman, ‘15-’16) vs. Ryan Young (‘19-’20)
Notable advanced stats:
I’ll always remember sitting in Collins’ office before the ‘15-’16 season. The year before was very mediocre. But he was super pumped about the season. And one of the reasons was a player he didn’t want to have to play that season. It was Dererk Pardon.
Pardon was not a big-time recruit out of Cleveland. And I don’t think Collins and his staff realized what they had when he arrived on campus that summer. The plan was to redshirt Pardon during that season. It was Alex Olah’s senior season. And, they signed ex-Virginia Tech center Joey van Zegeren as a grad transfer. Their bigs were set.
But after a good start to the season, Olah went down. And Collins was desperate to try to make a tourney run in Olah’s and Demps’ senior seasons. So, off came Pardon’s redshirt, beginning a remarkable three-and-a-half season career.
Ryan Young did redshirt his true freshman year. And he’s been a pleasant surprise so far this year. His 27 minutes per game are a lot for a freshman big man. His finishing around the rim is OK, not great. He’s hesitant to step outside and shoot threes, but he’ll launch one every game or so. Young’s getting to the line as much as Pardon did as a freshman and he’s been gobbling up defensive boards.
The big difference: defense. That’s where Pardon had an immediate impact. That block rate continued to climb during his time at Northwestern. And he became one of the Big Ten’s best rim protectors. I don’t really see that from Young.
Are they similar? No. Rim protection and rim finishing were Pardon’s calling cards. Young might be able to improve in both areas, but for now, he’s not where Pardon was as a freshman.
The cores aren’t really that similar. You can see some pretty clear connections between the two groups, especially with Kopp and Lindsey. I’ll admit comparing Beran and Law is a bit ambitious, so feel free to throw this back in my face when Beran never averages more than 10 points per game in his career. I can take it.
Overall, it’s cool to see Northwestern have a few promising pieces line up in consecutive recruiting classes, but it’s going to take a lot of individual improvement for this group to have the success its predecessors had.
Also, Collins is going to have to shift his offense around. He’s not budging from his four-around-one sets, nor should he. But Buie ≠ McIntosh, which sets in motion a ton of other things for the eventual development of this offense. But if Buie can get around 15 points per game next season or the season after, it will unlock a lot for Kopp and Beran to excel as off-ball scorers.
📵Blame no one, everything’s great!
Another week, another couple of wins for the Northwestern women’s hoops program. The No. 22-ranked squad took care of business against Penn State over the weekend and on the road at Michigan State last night.
They’re still in first in the Big Ten, but the road does get a bit tougher coming up.
Northwestern will visit No. 20 Maryland on Sunday as the Terps seek revenge for the Wildcats’ big win earlier this season.
That’s where we’ll end things this week. Thanks for sticking with another edition of 📵Blame the Phones.
And remember, if you want to be one my bag people, it’s here.
Please let me know if you have any questions or ideas. I’d love to hear them.
Statistical definitions, courtesy Sports Reference
MPG: Minutes played per game
TS%: True Shooting Percentage, a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, three-point field goals, and free throws
3PAr: Percentage of field goal attempts from three-point range
FTr: Free throw attempts per field goal attempts, as a percent
ORB%: Estimate of percentage of offensive rebounds a player grabbed while they were on the floor
DRB%: Estimate of percentage of defensive rebounds a player grabbed while they were on the floor
TRB%: Estimate of percentage of total rebounds a player grabbed while they were on the floor
AST%: Estimate of percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while they were on the floor
TOV%: Estimate of turnovers per 100 plays
STL%: Estimate of the percentage of opponent possessions that end with a steal by the player while they were on the floor
BLK%: Estimate of the percentage of opponent possessions that end with a block by the player while they were on the floor
USG%: Estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while they were on the floor