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March 9, 2009
National Player of the Year
DeJuan Blair

by John Gasaway

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Choosing a single national player of the year this season was difficult. I took a very long look at Lester Hudson of Tennessee-Martin. How could I not? When a point guard averages 27 points a game while also serving as his team's best defensive rebounder and ranking among the top 75 players nationally in steals, that player gets my attention. (Congratulations to Morehead State for winning the Ohio Valley tournament and securing the league's automatic bid. Still, it's a shame the nation won't get to see Hudson go up against the likes of North Carolina or Connecticut in a first-round game. That would have been fun.)

I also thought about indulging in a bit of "The Beatles are good"-variety iconoclasm and naming Ty Lawson as my POY. His season has been little short of fascinating to me. Here is Lawson, playing for a team coming off a Final Four appearance, at one of the two or three most prominent programs in the nation. On offense he's had what one might term without too much hyperbole the ideal season for a point guard, one that compares very favorably to the year that Chris Paul had for Wake Forest in 2005. Yet somehow I've heard nary a peep (OK, maybe one peep) in celebration of that year. What does a nationally recognized player in Chapel Hill have to do to get noticed around here? Every time I think I've figured out exactly how conventional wisdom is produced, said wisdom goes and confounds me one more time.

In the end, however, my choice came down to two more traditional candidates: Oklahoma's Blake Griffin and Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair. For the second consecutive year, I have opted to throw my support behind a player who will not win the actual award. I'm going with Blair.

Let's start with two numbers that were already present in separate compartments of my brain but that Ken Pomeroy brought to my attention as a wedded couple:

25.1     21.1      

Ah, the decimals, the Courier typeface, you just know I'm gearing up to wield some incredibly complex calculations in support of my choice, right?

Hardly. The number on the left is Blair's offensive rebound percentage this year. The number on the right is Colorado's offensive rebound percentage. Repeat: the number on the right is what the entire Colorado team combined to accomplish this season, rebounding 21 percent of their own misses. Blair by himself hauled in 25 percent of his team's misses during his minutes. For the record Blair also outperformed Nebraska, Samford, Weber State and Iowa State, among others. He is a team unto himself.

You might object that Colorado and their ilk choose not to go after offensive rebounds. True enough, but that's been the case for decades. A significant minority of teams have always elected to concede the offensive glass, preferring instead to worship exclusively at the shrine of transition defense. Yet even though such a philosophy has long existed, this is the first year we've seen a player dominate the offensive glass to such a ridiculous extreme that he alone can outperform entire teams.

The tempo-free record book is admittedly thin, going back just a few seasons. Still, following through on a point first made by an alert reader, we can see how Blair hasn't just broken a modern record, he's redefined what our expectations will be from this point forward.

Not a Typo

Highest individual major-conference offensive rebounding percentages, 2005 to present

                                     OR%
DeJuan Blair, Pitt (2009)           25.1
Tracy Smith, NC State (2009)        18.3
Aleks Maric, Nebraska (2008)        16.8
DeJuan Blair, Pitt (2008)           16.6
Sean May, North Carolina (2005)     16.6
 

Seen by itself, Blair's outlandishly monstrous offensive rebounding might be a mere statistical curio, albeit a striking one. In fact, it's been a key ingredient in his offense's ascension this season to a lofty perch shared with perhaps just two other teams.

At the risk of oversimplifying, there are three offenses that have separated themselves from the rest of the nation this year: Pitt, UCLA and North Carolina. The Panthers and the Bruins both scored 1.17 points per trip within their respective conferences; the Tar Heels scored 1.16 in ACC play. If you've been awake and sentient during the Roy Williams era, you don't need me to tell you that the Heels are scoring their points via transition baskets (including threes), offensive boards and free throws. For their part, Ben Howland's team is getting it done with the best shooting from the field seen in major-conference play in at least four years. (Note that UCLA has been even more accurate in conference play than was Florida during their famously lights-out season in 2007.)

As for Pitt, they've done it with a nucleus comprised of Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields. Jamie Dixon's team wouldn't be where they are--mortal lock for a one-seed--if not for the contributions of all three players. That being said, the outstanding feature of this offense is its offensive rebounding. The Panthers are actually a very good shooting team, but even when they miss the fun is just starting. Blair simply won't allow a Pitt possession to end until the ball goes through the net.

Now, in fairness, Blair is not the only player achieving unprecedented supremacy with his rebounding this year.

Defensive Rebounding Matters, Too

Highest individual major-conference defensive rebounding percentages, 2005 to present

                                     DR%
Blake Griffin, Oklahoma (2009)      32.7
DeJuan Blair, Pitt (2009)           29.9
Michael Beasley, Kansas St. (2008)  29.9
Kevin Love, UCLA (2008)             28.5
Cole Aldrich, Kansas (2009)         28.3

Call 2009 the year of the boards, for in DeJuan Blair and Blake Griffin we have two outstanding players doing things on the glass at either end of the floor that no major-conference player in the last five seasons has been able to match.

Fran Fraschilla of ESPN, who seemingly has done every Oklahoma conference game this year, calls Blake Griffin in the act of rebounding "a dump truck on a trampoline." That about captures it: the NBA may be skeptical of Griffin's true height, but there's no denying he combines brawn and lift and in way few players ever have.

Let's look at how these two burgeoning legends compare in several facets of the game.

Behold 516 Renowned Pounds of Rebound

                                                    
            ORtg    %Poss.    eFG%     DR%     OR%    TORate   FTRate     FT%
Blair      127.0     26.9     59.7    29.9    25.1     11.4     37.0     61.4
Griffin    115.1     32.0     63.2    32.7    13.0     17.9     70.7     59.3

Where Blair is a sophomore playing with two well-established senior stars, Griffin as a sophomore is the featured player on a team whose other main weapon on offense, Willie Warren, is a freshman. Thus we see that Griffin accounts for a much higher percentage of possessions in his offense than Blair does in his, a difference in roles that would be expected to favor Blair's offensive rating at the expense of Griffin's.

Sure enough, Blair is the more efficient offensive weapon, but the magnitude of the difference here (keeping in mind that Griffin's offensive rating is of course excellent in its own right) can't be attributed to workload alone. Part of it is Blair's superiority on the offensive glass. Another factor helping Blair in this comparison is that he commits fewer turnovers than Griffin does, even when adjusted for each player's prominence in their offense. At least one part of this difference in efficiency, however, can be explained even more simply: Blair shoots fewer free throws. With these two players, that's a good thing.

That being said, throw Griffin at any of ten recent seasons and I'd wager you'd find me supporting him for POY in six or seven of them. Alas, this year is different.

DeJuan Blair is both one of the most efficient offensive players in the nation and the second best defensive rebounder in major-conference hoops over the past five seasons. His unprecedented offensive rebounding has played a major role in making his team quite possibly the single most effective offense in the country. When he's in foul trouble, Pitt fans get visibly nervous. When he's not, they have the sense that their team can do anything, up to and including beating Connecticut twice. He flipped Hasheem Thabeet over his head. He wears what appear to be headbands on his biceps. He even commits steals.

It's enough to make him my Player of the Year. Congratulations, DeJuan.

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

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