Because it’s somewhat tangential to the “four factors” of basketball statistical analysis, there’s one tempo-free stat I overlooked in the series on MSU’s historical tempo-free tendencies on offense: assist percentage. Assist percentage is the number of assists a team records divided by its made field goals. That is, what percentage of the time a team converts a field goal was that conversion the result of a pass? Generally, the percentage measures the extent to which a team’s offense relies on team-oriented play vs. individual playmaking.
The graph below shows MSU’s team assist percentage over the last 12 years. (I should note that this percentage can be affected by the subjectiveness of scorers in determining what constitutes an assist. I think that problem should wash out in analyzing long-term trends, though.)
(Those reading via the RSS feed will need to click through to see the graph.)
The graph indicates a fairly steady increase in MSU’s assist percentage over the last 12 years. In only one season prior to the 2004-05 season did MSU rank in the top 100 nationally in assist percentage. The last two MSU teams, on the other hand, have both ranked in the top 10 nationally.
That’s a bit counterintuitive, as most of us think of the early Final Four teams as being extremely “team-oriented.” That may have been true in terms of defense and rebounding, but it appears those teams relied more on individual playmaking on offense than the recent MSU teams have.
One factor explaining the low assist percentages early in Izzo’s tenure is offensive rebounding. Teams that excel at rebounding offensively are likely to score a larger number of “unassistable” field goals off offensive put-backs. Of course, the last two Spartan teams have been pretty good offensive rebounding team, too–making their high assist percentage rankings that much more remarkable.
Looking at the trends in MSU’s assist percentage more closely, the percentage increased over the period of 1996-97 to 2000-01, indicating that the team became more cohesive on offense as the core group of players from that era became more familiar with one another. And, following the dip in 2001-02, another period of growth in assist percentage occurred with the development of the players on the 2004-05 Final Four team.
I do wonder if the new heights MSU’s assist percentage reached over the last two seasons has been somewhat counterproductive, though. I complained several times last season that the offense had gotten too scripted. Players didn’t have the confidence to create offensive opportunities on their own when the situation presented itself–i.e., when defensive pressure took MSU out of its set pieces.
This data may be an indication that the balance needs to swing back somewhat from a heavily-scripted offensive mindset. Looking at the assist percentage data from last season, elite teams were distributed across the rankings, with very few really good teams at either the high or low extremes. The top-3 NCAA seed with the highest assist percentage was Georgetown at #44; the top-3 seed with the lowest percentage was Texas at #298. Northwestern, the epitome of a team that works together on offense but doesn’t have the capability to score off individual playmaking when needed, ranked second in the nation in assist percentage.
This may be one area where the departure of Drew Neitzel will actually help. The team tended to defer to his shooting skills last season–which wasn’t unreasonable given the way he put the team on his back offensively the previous season. This year, though, the team should have a more cohesive idenity. Kalin Lucas will be the primary point guard, and the team will look to run more on offense and use its athleticism to create more scoring opportunities around the basket. Lucas is the first point guard Izzo has had since Mateen Cleaves who can consistently create offensive opportunities by driving to the basket when the shot clock is running down.
To sum up: MSU needs to get just a little bit more selfish.