Co-written with Seth Kindig.
Did you hear about the guard in NCAA basketball that LeBron James compared to the likes of Kobe Bryan and Wilt Chamberlain? That comparison came last year - during the player's freshman year. This year? He got the attention of ESPN and USA Today. Who and why? The buzz is about Jack Taylor, a sophomore guard for Grinnell College. This past Sunday, he scored 109 points in a 173-123 win over Crossroads College. As a freshman, he scored 138 against Faith Baptist Bible College.
How is it even possible for one player to shoot over 100 points, let alone do it twice in under a year? No, he wasn't the only scorer on the Grinnell Pioneers basketball team. For example, when he scored 138, the team won with 179 points. So again, how is such a feat possibly accomplished? Inherently, such a feat isn't easy - at all. Let's look to the numbers of the game to add some insight.
Some quick computations uncover the nature of the game, even if you didn't travel to Iowa to watch it. In 2012, Taylor played 36 of 40 minutes in the game and made 52 of his 108 shots. This equates to 3 shots a minute. In that game, 70 of his shots were 3-point attempts. So, Taylor averaged two 3-point attempts per minute. Clearly, both games were fast-paced games for both teams, making the 34-second shot clock seem irrelevant.
Statistics like this can help a team prepare for an opponent. It's essentially the Moneyball of basketball and is called APBRmetrics. However, data on players and teams in college basketball is not always readily available. This is especially true of any teams outside of Division-I basketball. Still, such methods can be used.
Let's get an even better sense of this game through the math. One of the current trends inside statistical analytics is computing a team's efficiency while a player is on the floor. So, can we do this in Jack Taylor's case, and if so, how?
In order to examine efficiency, the number of possessions a team has in a certain game is required. However, possessions are not a statistic recorded in traditional box scores. Given this, formulas have been devised that approximate the number of possessions for a team in a game. It uses numbers in traditional box scores like field goal attempts, turnovers, free throw attempts, assists and blocks.
A quick computation estimates that Grinnell had about 108 possessions on Sunday. Efficiency is computed as the number of points divided by the number of possessions. So, Grinnell averaged 173/108 or 1.6 points per possession or 1.6 PPP. So, one would expect Grinnell to score 160 points in 100 possessions. This is a very high efficiency.
Returning to Jack Taylor, if he played the entire game then this 1.6 PPP would represent the team's efficiency while Taylor was on the court. The key is, he didn't. He played 29 of 40 minutes or 72.5 percent of the game. How many possessions did Jack have? That's also not easily accessible without counting by hand. So, let's assume that's around 72.5 percent of the team's 108 possessions. That's 78 possessions.
This allows us to compute Jack Taylor's offensive rating, a statistic developed by Dean Oliver. It equals (Points Scored/Individual Possessions)*100. For the sophomore Grinnell Pioneer guard this equals (109/78)*100 or 139.7.
In Taylor's 138-point game from last November, Grinnell's efficiency was 1.46 points per possession, Taylor played 36 minutes, and his offensive rating was 125.4. In both games, Taylor was scoring at a ridiculous rate. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, his offensive rating was actually better in his 109 point outing than in his 138-point outing.
The statistical methods we've just used allow us to compare players in games occurring at very different paces. Grinnell and its opponents had to both play a fast-paced game to allow enough possessions for such a performance to even be possible. But, this is only necessary for such a feat to be possible.
A player with a higher offensive rating might not actually score more points than Jack. Recall, Jack Taylor's offensive rating was 139.7 for Sunday's game. The top offensive rating for any Division I player in NCAA basketball is currently 146.7, and this is an average over only 3 games. This stat assumes a player can play at a given rate throughout the game, without wearing out. Any coach will tell you that players vary in how long they are productive. Said another way, players vary in the size of their gas tank.
Jack Taylor? The numbers clearly tell us that he has a pretty deep gas tank. Moreover, scoring over 100 points in two games takes an amount of consistency that most think impossible in a 40-minute game. And remember, he's only a sophomore. Let's all look forward to the numbers to come.