Power Rankings: Lonzo Ball helps UCLA leap-frog into top 10
This Pass-First Edition of the Power Rankings digs into the peculiarities of Villanova’s point-guard assists, the question of who runs Duke’s offense, the spellbinding generosity of UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, and much more:
11Villanova Wildcatslast week: 1record: 7–0
A charting session of Jalen Brunson’s assists revealed a wild phenomenon: Every single assist he’s made within the Wildcats’ halfcourt offense this season—and my video review* credits him with 18 overall—has been for a three-pointer. Even for a team that historically takes a ton of threes, that is remarkable.
Mapping out the path of Brunson’s passes-for-assists makes it even more interesting. Two clear, left-handed drive-and-kick routes emerge, to two designated positions in Villanova’s motion offense—a spot 3–4 steps to the right of the top of the key, as well as one in the right corner:
(* Play-by-play data does credit Brunson with one halfcourt, two-point assist, but it’s not, by definition, an assist—he just makes a perimeter pass to Eric Paschall that’s followed by a delayed, multi-move, isolation drive.)
Next up: 12/3 vs. Saint Joseph’s, 12/6 vs. La Salle (at the Palestra)
22Kentucky Wildcatslast week: 2record: 7–0
This chart—which includes all assists, both in transition and halfcourt—should give you a sense of how Brunson’s assist distribution is an outlier for point guards on elite teams. Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox has a high assist volume, but just 37.7% of his dimes go for threes, while 41.5% of them go for dunks or layups:
(Chart data mined from hoop-math.com)
Next up: 12/3 vs. UCLA, 12/7 vs. Valparaiso
33Kansas Jayhawkslast week: 5record: 6–1
The Jayhawks have two excellent point guards in Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, but their most electrifying passer is freshman wing Josh Jackson, who has court vision and creativity beyond his years. SBNation put together a supercut of Jackson’s best assists that’s well worth viewing; the most stunning one, by far, is this traffic-threading, transition bounce pass against Long Beach State:
Jackson’s early assist percentage (20.2% of teammates’ buckets) and assists-per-40-minutes, pace-adjusted (4.6) make him an even more attractive prospect. If you don’t consider Ben Simmons a small forward—and I’m not sure what position Simmons really was at LSU—then Jackson has better assist stats than any of the other small forwards who went in the top 10 of the past five drafts:
(Chart data from DraftExpress.com)
Next up: 12/3 vs. Stanford, 12/6 vs. UMKC
44Duke Blue Devilslast week: 7–1record: 6
If you prefer to define a team’s point guard by whoever leads it assist rate and assists per 40 minutes, then Duke’s point guard is Grayson Allen, who has a team-high 19.3% assist rate and 4.4 assists/40.
If you define a team’s point guard by whoever brings the ball up the floor and calls out the offensive set in non-transition situations, then Grayson Allen is definitely not Duke’s point guard. In the Blue Devils’ Tuesday win over Michigan State, freshman Frank Jackson brought the ball up 91.9% of the time in non-transition situations when he was on the floor . . . and when Jackson was on the bench, senior Matt Jones brought it up 83.3% of the time:
Jackson looks like Duke’s designated point guard, but he doesn’t do much shot-creating for others. He mostly calls a set, drops the ball to the elbow or the wing, and then cycles though the offense while Allen or Luke Kennard attack.
Next up: 12/3 vs. Maine, 12/6 vs. Florida in New York
55Indiana Hoosierslast week: 4record: 5–1
The Hoosiers now have two of the season’s biggest nonconference wins—over Kansas on a neutral court, and over North Carolina at home—and thus primo résumé material for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament if they go on to win the Big Ten. Indiana is in a much different place than it was last season at this time, when its defense gave up 1.53 points per possession—and looked so confused that it was uncomfortable to watch, unless you’re into schadenfreude—in a 20-point loss at Duke in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. That 1.53 PPP, as I wrote that night, was “Duke’s most efficient game against a major-conference team in an advanced-stats era that dates back to 2002, and Indiana’s least-efficient defensive game in a Tom Crean coaching era that began in 2008.”
On Wednesday night, the Hoosiers’ D held UNC to 0.94 PPP—the first time the Tar Heels were held under 1.0 this season, and the first time that’s happened since February. This could end up being Crean’s best defensive team since his ‘12–13 squad, which, not coincidentally, was also his last team to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
Next up: 12/2 vs. SIU Edwardsville, 12/4 vs. Southeast Missouri State
66UCLA Bruinslast week: 18record: 6–0
I’m not fully confident in this placement of the Bruins, and they may be in for a wake-up call at Kentucky on Saturday. But they’ve been the nation’s most fun offense to watch, and spending an hour-plus charting film of 77 Lonzo Ball assists—26 of which have come on fastbreaks—barely even qualifies as work, because I’d probably do that voluntarily, so here they are, along with the debut of the Ball Distribution chart:
Ball, as you can see, is an equal-opportunity point guard, as he’s hooked up five different Bruins with at least nine assists each.
Next up: 12/3 at Kentucky, 12/10 vs. Michigan
77North Carolina Tar Heelslast week: 3record: 7–1
Wednesday’s loss at Indiana is no reason to panic for the Tar Heels. They looked excellent coming into that game; a revved-up Assembly Hall is one of the most difficult places to play in all of college hoops; and UNC defended Indiana better on the road than Kansas did on a neutral court. I’d be more bothered by Isiah Thomas hoisting the Crying Jordan than I would be over leaving Bloomington with an L:
Next up: 12/4 vs. Radford, 12/7 vs. Davidson
88Baylor Bearslast week: 12record: 7–0
When I applied some filtering to the nation’s assist-turnover ratio leaderboards—limiting it to major-conference players who average at least 20 minutes per game, and at least 5.0 assists per 40 minutes, pace-adjusted—it was unsurprising that Iowa State point guard Monte Morris came out at No. 1. The No. 2 guy, however, was eyebrow-raising: Baylor’s Ish Wainright, who isn’t even a point guard, but makes the Bears’ offense flow from the wing. He has 26 assists against just five turnovers thus far:
Next up: 12/3 vs. Xavier, 12/14 vs. Southern
99Gonzaga Bulldogslast week: 7record: 6–0
My favorite passer on the Zags roster is also the biggest dude on the roster: 7' 1" center Przemek Karnowski, who has an assist rate on par with his point guard, Nigel Williams-Goss, and is an accomplished destroyer of post double-teams. Karnowski put on a clinic of how to pass out of post doubles in the early part of Gonzaga’s win over Iowa State on Sunday. Watch and savor this edit:
Next up: 12/1 vs. Mississippi Valley State, 12/3 vs. Arizona in Los Angeles
1010Creighton Bluejayslast week: 14record: 7–0
A Great Moment in Ball-and-Screen-Watching, from the Bluejays’ Nov. 20 win over NC State:
I can’t tell if this was the scripted, No. 1 option, but I love the way Creighton baited that back-right defender with multiple distractions—first, what looked like staggered ballscreens for Mo Watson, which then morphed into a cross-screen-and-roll-action between the staggered bigs—to lure his eyes away from the baseline, backdoor cut by Marcus Foster. It was a beautiful act of deception.
(GIF source: CBS Sports Network)
Next up: 12/3 vs. Akron, 12/7 vs. Nebraska
1111Butler Bulldogslast week: 23record: 7–0
Lineup efficiency data for Butler reveals the massive tradeoff in offensive and defensive quality it makes when it plays or sits its starting point guard, Tyler Lewis. In the Bulldogs’ four games against top-100 kenpom opponents—Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Arizona and Utah—they had Lewis on the court 61.3% of the time. Their offense scored 1.19 PPP when he played, and just 0.83 PPP when he was on the bench—a huge and not altogether unexpected drop-off, since Lewis excels at moving the ball.
On defense, however, the situation was flipped: Butler’s D was porous when Lewis played and elite when he didn’t. It’s a team that has two completely different, statistical identities depending on Lewis’ on/off status, but those identities produce nearly the same efficiency margin. Take a look at the full picture, using data from hooplens.com:
Next up: 12/3 vs. Central Arkansas, 12/7 at Indiana State
1212Xavier Musketeerslast week: 11record: 7–0
Edmond Sumner came into this season with first-round-prospect buzz from NBA scouts, but over the Musketeers’ first five games, he reminded us that he’s still a work in progress as a college point guard. Sumner’s assist-to-turnover ratio was a negative 18-to-20 after the conclusion of the Tire Pros Invitational in Florida, and coach Chris Mack said this of his point guard: “I think he can get better. He turned the ball over a little bit more than we need him to, but, you know, it’s a fine line. I want him to be aggressive. The guys will tell you he does a lot for our team when he gets in the lane—he’s able to spray the ball out. We’ve got to get him to change pace a little bit more on offense.”
In Xavier’s two games after returning from Florida—wins over Northern Iowa and North Dakota State—Sumner showed immediate signs of change. He had a combined 14 assists against just one turnover and appeared to be more in control of the Musketeers’ offense. He looked like a prospect and a truly effective point guard.
Next up: 12/3 at Baylor, 12/7 at Colorado
1313Virginia Cavalierslast week: 9record: 7–0
How many programs could avoid imploding—or at the very least, avoid struggling—after losing an All-America (Malcolm Brogdon) to graduation and kicking the guy who was projected to be their new leading scorer (Austin Nichols) off the team? Nichols, a former five-star recruit who transferred in from Memphis, played in just one game—the Cavaliers’ Nov. 15 win over St. Francis (N.Y.)—before getting booted by coach Tony Bennett for multiple violations of team rules. Virginia has since beaten Yale, Iowa, Providence and Ohio State to get to 7–0, and has climbed to No. 3 overall in kenpom.com‘s efficiency-margin rankings. I don’t think the Cavs are top-five good yet, but if Bennett keeps them near the top of the loaded ACC and the top 10 of the polls, he’ll be a contender for national coach of the year. Bennett, Creighton’s Greg McDermott, Butler’s Chris Holtmann, St. Mary’s Randy Bennett and Indiana’s Tom Crean look like early frontrunners.
Next up: 12/3 vs. West Virginia, 12/6 vs. East Carolina
1414Louisville Cardinalslast week: 8record: 6–1
Louisville is defying the notion that you need efficient point guard play to be in the top 25. Junior Quentin Snider is likely to improve, but thus far he’s shooting 28.9% on twos, 27.5% on threes and 69.0% from the free-throw line. He stays on the floor for 30-plus minutes per game, though, because the Cardinals don’t have a great plan B at the point—and because Snider is part of a defense that grinds most opponents to dust. If any NBA fans tuned into the first half of Purdue-Louisville on Wednesday to get a sampling of college basketball, I worry that they may never come back. The Boilermakers managed just 19 points in 35 possessions against the Cardinals’ switching D. It was not pretty.
Next up: 12/3 at Grand Canyon, 12/7 vs. Southern Illinois
1515Saint Mary's Gaelslast week: 19record: 6–0
With the Gaels still perfect after their true-road tests of the nonconference season—at Dayton and at Stanford—it’s reasonable to start talking about how long they can remain undefeated. Their Jan. 14 trip to Gonzaga is looking like a bigger and bigger game every week, as it’s very possible St. Mary’s could enter the Kennel 16–0, and the Zags could be 17–0—as long as they get past Arizona this Saturday in Los Angeles. If both teams are lossless, they’ll likely have both climbed into the top 10 of the polls by then, too, making it arguably the biggest regular-season game in West Coast Conference history—happening at 10 p.m. ET on a Saturday night on ESPN2.
Next up: 12/8 v.s UT Arlington, 12/11 vs. UC Irvine
1616South Carolina Gamecockslast week: URrecord: 6–0
The Power Rankings Hot Take of the Week arrives in the final blurb: The most valuable all-around player on an SEC team in November wasn’t wearing a Kentucky uniform. It was Sindarius Thornwell, who serves as the Gamecocks’ point guard, go-to-guy, best long-range shooter, second-best defensive rebounder and highest-impact overall defender. He was their best player in their wins over Michigan and Syracuse; he’s averaging 20.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists; and he’s carrying an offense while being slightly more efficient than any of Kentucky’s guards. If Thornwell keeps this up, it won’t be a lock that the SEC Player of the Year is a Wildcat.
Next up: 12/1 vs. Vermont, 12/4 vs. Florida International
The Next 16
20. Notre Dame
24. Rhode Island
25. West Virginia
26. Iowa State
28. Ohio State
30. Virginia Tech