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August 2, 2010
Five Players
Eight Positions

by Drew Cannon


Conventional wisdom bothers me. It bothers me because way too often, when put under a microscope, everything from the value of a bunt to the fairness of age cutoffs to the complexities of heart-attack patients (about halfway down the page) falls apart. Of course when conventional wisdom is quashed, the first people to recognize market inefficiencies can exploit them.

Well, if you have any pull with a mid-major basketball program, I may have a market inefficiency for you: Stop slotting players into traditional positions, already.

Now, obviously, there's a reason positions exist as they do, just as there's always a reason any conventional wisdom becomes the norm. Naturally a lightning-fast player will have an easier time getting his shot and an easier time defending his opponent than a slower player. The same is true of a kid who's 7-4 versus someone who's 5-5. If we assume that, say, two percent of people can be qualified as fast and two percent of people can be qualified as tall, then only 0.4 percent of all of us are both fast and tall. So the great majority of players available are, at best, 1-for-2.

As people figured this out (which I'm sure didn't take all that long), the position spectrum developed to combat the speed and height of an unknown opponent. Essentially, you wanted to have the most athletic player at each height you could have at the highest possible skill level. And, since skill level is also easier to find the lower you go on the height spectrum (by way of natural height distribution), the ballhandling duties often fell to smaller players.

But what do you really need from a lineup?

On defense, you need to be able to guard your opponents. This means you have to be ready for speeds and heights of all kinds. You need to have a player capable of guarding each of the five traditional C-PF-SF-SG-PG positions. We'll call the players capable of defending each position "D1" through "D5," respectively, with speed/athleticism on the x-axis and height/strength on the y-axis:

And on offense what do you need to be successful? You need to be able to make shots (from the field or free throw line), avoid turnovers, and clean up the offensive glass--at the very least to the point where you aren't handing over points by doing the opposite. This means that you need someone who can take care of the ball, someone who can put it in the basket, someone who can get the ball to that guy, and someone who can get the ball back when someone misses. We'll call these four characters the Handler, the Scorer, the Creator, and the Rebounder.

Quick point. The Creator and the Handler have to be the same guy. Because you can't have your Creator losing the ball all the time before he can feed your Scorers, and you can't have your Handler with the ball all the time but unable to get it to the Scorers. So this leaves us with the eight positions described in the title are D1, D2, D3, D4, D5, Creator/Handler, Scorer, and Rebounder.

It boils down to this: On defense, you have to be ready for whatever the offense throws at you. But on offense, you really just need to rebound and protect the ball enough to let your scorers go to work (or protect the ball just enough that your dominant rebounding can keep putting points on the board despite below-average scoring, etc.). Really, how you put points on the board is your business. The defense is just reacting.

So before we get to the market inefficiency inherent in the status quo, this is what a typical lineup looks like in terms of our new positions:

C: Rebounder, D5
PF: Rebounder-Scorer, D4
SF: Scorer, D3
SG: Scorer-Creator/Handler, D2
PG: Creator/Handler, D1

Here's where conventional wisdom breaks down. In reality, players have an offensive responsibility and a defensive responsibility, not just one position. I'm in Las Vegas on the recruiting trail, and already I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone ask if a kid projects as a 2 or a 3, or whether so-and-so can defend the 1.

Take a player like Drake's recently-graduated Josh Young. He's lightning-quick and a big-time scorer, but Young was slotted as a tweener. Too small to defend the 2, but also didn't handle the point on offense. What I'm saying is that we should start understanding that all of the above is OK. Josh Young was a high-major scoring talent who played defense well enough to guard a high-major 1, but he fell through the cracks, so to speak, to the Missouri Valley because those characteristics didn't slot into a traditional "position." High-major schools didn't like him at the 1, and they didn't like him at the 2. So they didn't like him.

I did a study on mid-major all-conference players last summer, and I learned a couple things about these high mid-level performers. For a player to become a mid-major all-conference player, he has to be effective enough to be named all-conference, yet for whatever reason he wasn't snatched up by a high-major. True, there were a couple players who simply chose schools lower on the totem pole, a couple who transferred into smaller schools, and a few who seemingly nobody had ever seen before they arrived on campus. But for almost every other type of player, there was just a disconnect between his "offensive position" and "defensive position." High-major coaches couldn't decide what position he'd play, so he fell.

What's especially odd about this conundrum is that it seems to apply only in the recruiting stage. Once a player's actually on campus, coaches look past the disconnect. Take the national champion Duke Blue Devils this past season. Jon Scheyer was a Creator/Handler and a D2, while Nolan Smith was a Scorer and a D1. No, Mike Krzyzewski wasn't being particularly wacky or out-of-the-box. In preparing this article I talked to UNC-Greensboro assistant Wes Miller, and he brought up that he was a D1-Scorer; while at North Carolina Bobby Frasor was a D2-Creator/Handler. It's not that teams aren't aware that using lineups like this can be effective. It's that coaches hit the recruiting trail with positional needs, and those needs are considered on a player-by-player basis rather than collectively on offense and defense.

Not that anyone's asked me, but if I were coaching at a mid-major I'd try to put together a team like this (built entirely on known quantities who were available at that level recently): Young, Pat Calathes from St. Joe's, Nate Funk from Creighton, Jeremy Crouch from Bradley, and Will Thomas from George Mason.

Offensively you'd have a high-assist, low-turnover guy in Nate Funk as your Creator/Handler. You'd have big-time shooter Jeremy Crouch and lightning-quick Young for scoring. Pat Calathes would be a scoring face-up 4 type, and Thomas would be a junkyard dog offensive rebounding machine who was constantly at the stripe.

Defensively, you'd have Young at D1, Funk and Crouch at D2 and D3 (one of them would have some trouble at times but I'll take the trade for now), and Wilson and Calathes at D4 and D5, depending on the width of the opponent's big men.

So we'd have a traditional offensive 1 playing defensive 3, offensive 2 playing defensive 1, offensive 3 playing defensive 2, offensive 4 playing defensive 5, offensive 5 playing defensive 4. Now, obviously, in putting together an actual team made up of flesh-and-blood recruits, we wouldn't be nearly this effective at picking out studs at their respective spots. But these opportunities really are out there for mid-major coaches. These actual players were at recruiting events. They were seen by high-major coaches. They didn't get high-major offers. But this starting five is a high-major team at every position on offense and on defense.

To be sure, players with this type of ability are no easier to find than those who slot into the "traditional" positions. But hunting down non-traditional prospects is well worth a coach's time, because these players are undervalued by the recruiting "market." These guys may be as effective as those at high-major schools, but their need to be used unconventionally means the competition for them is significantly less intense.

There's a big gaping hole there if someone wants to walk through it.

Drew Cannon is a college student who for the past five summers has worked for the Dave Telep Scouting Service.

Drew Cannon is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Drew by clicking here or click here to see Drew's other articles.

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Making a Career (07/30)
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The Books are Back (08/03)

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