Back in October, one of the first things I wrote for Basketball Prospectus involved the persistent nature of a player's role in his team's offense from year to year. In the absence of a major change in personnel, one shouldn't expect a player to blossom from role player to star, or to retreat the other way, in one season.
However, there are always outliers. In his chat on BP last week, John Gasaway mentioned a couple such exceptions--Wisconsin's Trevon Hughes and Drake's Leonard Houston--both of whom have gone from being bit players last season to their team's first or second option this season. There are a few other guys out there who have taken on a greater than expected share of their team's offensive load. For five players, their dramatic role change this season tells a deeper story about their team.
Aron Baynes, Washington State: After two dormant seasons in Pullman, the 6'10" Aussie gives Washington State a scoring threat in the post that they haven't had for a while. His usage is up to a team-high 26.4%, compared to just 18.7% last season. Baynes actually got started on his coming-out party towards the end of last season when he averaged 27.4 minutes over the team's final five games, scoring 12 points per game while making 70.3% of his field goal attempts. This season, he's averaging 11.4 points and shooting 65.2%. He's seen his rebounding rates improve dramatically as well. If Wazzu is to challenge UCLA and Stanford for the Pac-10 title, Baynes is going to have to continue his efficient production during conference play to supplement what the heralded Kyle Weaver/Derrick Low backcourt duo provides.
Gerald Henderson, Duke: Henderson was not invisible last season. He used 21.5% of the Blue Devils' possessions, and for a guy who finished with the worst effective field goal percentage on the team, it was for the best that he didn't use more. This season, though, Henderson has supplanted DeMarcus Nelson as Duke's go-to guy on the offensive end, and his usage is up to 28.3%. Almost the entirety of Henderson's increase can be explained by the decreased influence of point guard Greg Paulus, who has become a traffic cop/occasional sniper in the reborn Duke offense. Surprisingly, Henderson's shooting has improved and his eFG% is up to 49.6%. The increase in minutes, tempo and role have caused Henderson's scoring average to nearly double from 6.8 ppg as a freshman to 13.4 ppg this season. He still doesn't get to the line very often, however he's a good caretaker of the basketball. Still, the rest of the ACC would be wise not to discourage Henderson from trying to lead the Duke offense.
Jessie Sapp, Georgetown: There was some concern over who would pick up the slack left by Jeff Green. It turns out that just about all of it has been taken by Georgetown's starting two-guard, who has used 27.5% of the Hoyas' possessions while he has been on the floor, compared to just 18.7% last season. Amazingly, he's been more involved in the offense than the ultra-efficient Roy Hibbert. However, while Sapp's role has increased, his playing time has decreased from 32.8 minutes per game last season to just 22.0 this season. Freshman Austin Freeman has taken up some of the minutes, and an injury that kept Sapp out for most of the Fairfield game accounts for a bit more of the shortfall. With the increased responsibility, Sapp has been more efficient as well, seeing his eFG% increase from 49.3% to 59.0%. The improvement can be attributed to his 44.1% shooting from three-point range. Given that Sapp was a career 27.3% shooter from that range entering this season, and that he's made merely 64.4% of his free throws in his two-plus seasons at Georgetown, his chances of staying over 40% by season's end aren't good. Sapp appears to be an outlier who will fall back once his shooting suffers against the better competition on the Hoyas' schedule, and the necessity of getting Hibbert more touches increases.
There are some notables on the other side of the equation as well. Here are two players that have seen their role in their team's offense drop significantly:
J.R. Giddens, New Mexico: Say what you want about Steve Alford's ability to coach, but I come away impressed with his ability to reign in J.R. Giddens. Giddens is a phenomenal athlete who was highly touted when he arrived at Kansas out of high school. He probably never envisioned, back then, that he would spend five years at the college level. Last season, his first at New Mexico, Giddens played like he wanted to get his points no matter how many shots it took. His usage was 29.7% despite the fact that he had an offensive rating of 96.8; each of his fellow starters was well over 100. Perhaps the most glaring part of Giddens' stat line was that he took 136 three-point shots while making just 30.1% of them. This season, New Mexico's offense has improved largely because of the shots Giddens isn't taking. His usage has plummeted to 22.8%, but his offensive rating is up to 107.0. His eFG% is up to 54.2 from 49.9 last season. So far, New Mexico's defense has been dominant--as you would expect from an Alford team--against a lackluster slate of foes, but the offense appears to have improved also (although it's aided by an unsustainable 44.1% mark from three-point range). If that trend continues during conference play, Giddens' unusual show of restraint will have a lot to do with it.
Darren Collison, UCLA: Collison's usage is just 18.4%, which ranks him fourth among UCLA's starters. Collison missed the first six games of the season with a knee injury, so it's natural to ask whether he's 100%. Aside from his health, there's a good reason to explain his decreased role and that's the influence of freshman Kevin Love, who's third in the Pac-10 in usage at 28.3%, dwarfing the usage of any player on last year's Bruin team. Collison has averaged 33.3 minutes per game in the six games since his return, so it wouldn't seem that the knee is an issue. However, Collison's stand-in while he was hurt, Russell Westbrook, hasn't seen his role affected very much. It should be noted that Collison has been significantly more efficient in his reduced role, so this very well could be a permanent situation. The real story here is not just Love's influence, but that Westbrook has been much better on the offensive end. Even if Collison is gimpy, his presence allows Westbrook to shift back to the two spot, which is his preferred position.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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