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Just The Sports: 2011-01-16

Just The Sports

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Orlando Magic Are A Better Team Since Their Trades

So far, 16 games after the trades, in which the Orlando Magic acquired Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas, and Earl Clark, and shipped out Mickael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat, Rashard Lewis, and Vince Carter, were finalized with the players each suiting up for their new teams, the Magic are a better team.

In the 26 games the Magic played before their roster overhaul was complete, the Magic were outscoring their opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions, a rate not commensurate with an elite team.

Since then, the Magic have outscored their opponents by a more impressive 7.5 points per 100 possessions, a point differential more in line with how one of the best teams in the NBA would perform. Most of the outscoring of their opponents that the Magic have done over the last 16 games occurred in their nine-game winning streak where they beat their foes by 14.7 points per 100 possessions.

The two biggest differences in play between the Magic before the trade and the Magic since are in their improved assist rate (assists per 100 possessions) and shooting percentages.

The increase in the assist rate from 15.2 to 17.5 and the decrease in turnover rate (turnovers per 100 possessions) from 12.0 to 10.9 have everything to do with Hedo Turkoglu. In his playmaker and distribution role on offense, he is truly excelling. Turkoglu has not just returned to his level of play for the Magic since before he left after the 2008-09 season, he is playing better than he ever has for the franchise.

Turkoglu's 27.3 assist percentage and 15.2 turnover percentage comprise the best such ratio he has ever had over the course of his career. Also, his 0.159 win shares per 48 minutes are superior to anything he had done previously while wearing a Magic uniform.

The increases in shooting percentages, including boosts in effective field goal percentage from 51.9 percent to 53.4 percent and true shooting percentage from 55.2 percent to 56.9 percent, have been in large part due to three Magic players.

Jason Richardson is the first player that deserves mentioning. Richardson was secured from the Phoenix Suns to replace Vince Carter, a task he has completed most admirably.

For the Magic, Richardson has a 56.0 effective field goal percentage and a 57.9 true shooting percentage, superior to Carter's 52.1 effective field goal percentage and 55.7 true shooting percentage. The advantage Richardson holds over Carter in effective field goal percentage is due to his 39.8 three-point percentage; Carter's three-point percentage was 34.6 percent for the Magic this season.

With his 17.1 assist percentage, Carter was much better at setting up his teammates for baskets than Richardson (7.8 assist percentage), but with Turkoglu on the roster, the Magic only need Richardson to be an efficient shooter for the team, and he has performed so well in that singular role, his 112 points produced per 100 possessions top the more well-rounded Vince Carter's 110 points produced per 100 possessions.

The improvements the Magic have made on offense since the trade are not the result of just the new players on the roster. Two role players, J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson, are also big reasons why the Magic's offense has been able to score at a more efficient clip, owing to the fact each player is sporting a spectacular 63.1 true shooting percentage in that time frame. They are also averaging 12.1 and 12.6 points per game, respectively.

Over the first 21 games of the season in which Redick played before the roster overhaul, he had a 57.9 true shooting percentage and averaged 8.9 points per game so he has increased his offensive output in a major way. Redick's improved shooting over the last 16 games is the major reason why he has been able to produce a team-leading 119 points per 100 possessions.

Ryan Anderson has also seen a great leap in production, but not necessarily because of the trade. Anderson was plagued by injuries before the trade occurred that limited his minutes and effectiveness. In the ten games he played before receiving new teammates, he managed only a 52.5 true shooting percentage and 4.7 points per game.

Since Anderson's return to healthiness over the past 14 games, he has continued the upward trend he has established over his three-year career. His true shooting percentage and offensive rating have increased from 53.2 percent and 108 points produced per 100 possessions as a rookie in 2008-09, to 57.4 percent and 112 points produced per 100 possessions, and finally to 60.6 percent and 123 points produced per 100 possessions this season.

We should not be surprised by Anderson's superb play this season. We should expect it.

Not everyone has participated equally in the Magic's elevated offensive efficiency, though. Gilbert Arenas, who was thought to be a major piece of the Magic's trades, has taken away from the offense's efficiency with his mediocre performances.

In fact, Arenas is accomplishing a feat I thought would be nigh impossible; in his 16 games with the Magic, he is actually playing worse than in his 21 games with the Wizards earlier this season where he was abysmal.

With the Wizards, Arenas's true shooting percentage was 50.5 percent and his offensive rating was 95 points produced per 100 possessions, which are the statistics of a completely ineffective offensive player. With the Magic, Arenas's true shooting percentage and offensive rating have dropped to 44.8 percent and 90 points produced per 100 possessions, respectively.

Arenas's horrendous shooting coupled with his too-high 26.3 usage percentage, second-highest on the team, is so detrimental that even with a perfectly respectable 30.6 assist percentage and 17.3 turnover percentage, he is the worst offensive player among the eight players who now receive consistent minutes for the Magic. Having Arenas on the floor damages the team's chances of winning.

Even with Arenas, who plays more like a saboteur than a teammate, the Magic have still been a better team since their new roster was finalized because of an improved offense. The new roster has been so good together that if they continue to perform at the same rate for the rest of the season, then they will certainly be a contender to win the Eastern Conference championship come the playoffs.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Jake Locker's NFL Draft Prospects: Don't Waste Your Draft Pick

Along with trying to determine the meaning of life, one of our civilization's greatest mysteries is how anyone could still think former University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker is a viable NFL quarterback prospect. If Locker's actual mission before he started his college football career had been to spend the next four seasons proving just how unsuitable he is to play quarterback in the NFL, or in college for that matter, he could not have done a better job.

Right away, Locker started his college career with a troubling whimper as the hype surrounding him simply did not match his actual play on the field. His hype has tried again and again to cover up his deficiencies for his entire four years at Washington, but it is time to pull back the curtain and reveal the true Jake Locker.

In his freshman season, Locker completed an astonishingly horrendous 47.5 percent of his passes in his eleven games as Washington's primary quarterback; he actually threw more incomplete passes than complete passes, which is an amazing feat. Locker also only managed to gain 6.5 yards per pass attempt, and threw 14 touchdowns (4.5 touchdown percentage) to 15 interceptions (4.8 interception percentage).

Locker apologists may attempt to explain away Locker's truly awful freshman season by saying he was still raw and unpolished, but there is no denying Locker was a terrible quarterback as a freshman.

Out of the 117 FBS qualifying quarterbacks in 2007, Locker was 114th in completion percentage and 83rd in yards per pass attempt. The idea that someone who ranked so low among his college contemporaries would one day be good enough to start for an NFL team is nothing short of ludicrous.

During Locker's truncated sophomore season due to a thumb injury suffered against Stanford, he only played three games as Washington's primary quarterback. He did not play well during those three games, though, since he could only complete 53.6 percent of his passes and gain 5.5 yards per pass attempt.

The 12.8 percent increase in his completion percentage from his freshman season to his limited sophomore season is negated by the 15.4 percent decrease he experienced in yards per pass attempt.

Locker came back healthy for his junior season to a new head coach, Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian had had success with college quarterbacks before taking over the Washington football program so if anyone was going to turn Locker into a decent college quarterback, it was going to be Sarkisian.

Sarkisian's tutelage seemed to pay off for Locker in 2009 as he had his best season as a collegiate passer; for an actual elite quarterback, the season would have been an embarrassment, but for Locker it was a marked improvement.

In 2009, Locker completed 58.2 percent of his passes, gained 7.1 yards per pass attempt, and threw 21 touchdowns (5.3 touchdown percentage) to 11 interceptions (2.8 interception percentage).

The term best is relative because even though Locker played as well as he could, he was still 71st out of 115 qualifying FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage and 69th out of 115 in yards per pass attempt. Yet again, it was a below-average passing season for Locker.

Locker then spent his senior season showing everyone the improvement he made his junior season was only a mirage by regressing to even further below-average levels. For his 2010 season, Locker completed only 55.4 percent of his passes, gained 6.8 yards per pass attempt, and threw 17 touchdowns (5.1 touchdown percentage) to 9 interceptions (2.7 interception percentage).

Compared to the 115 other qualifying FBS quarterbacks, Locker's completion percentage ranked 101st and his yards per pass attempt ranked 75th.

For Locker's entire Washington career as the team's primary quarterback, he completed a measly 54.0 percent of his passes, gained an embarrassingly low 6.7 yards per pass attempt, and threw 53 touchdowns (4.7 touchdown percentage) to 35 interceptions (3.1 interception percentage).

No quarterback who played that poorly in college is worthy of even being on an NFL team's practice squad, never mind starting a meaningful game for one.

No matter what or how many physical tools Locker may possess, they cannot begin to mask the ugliness of his college passing statistics, numbers that should really keep Locker from even being drafted.

For committing the cardinal sin of ignoring a player's production on the field in favor of largely meaningless intangibles, whichever NFL team does waste a draft pick on Locker deserves to lose all the games it no doubt will if it ever lets him start any games.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ryan Mallett's NFL Draft Prospects: Will The Real Ryan Mallett Please Stand Up?

Like his quarterback colleague Cameron Newton, former University of Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett's collegiate career raises more questions than it provides answers, and before any NFL team drafts Mallett, that franchise must first figure out just which Ryan Mallett is the true one.

The first Ryan Mallett the college football world saw after his transfer from the University of Michigan was the 2009 vintage. That Ryan Mallett completed a very inaccurate 55.8 percent of his passes, but his season was saved by his 9.0 yards per pass attempt, thanks to an average of 16.2 yards per receptions, and his 30 touchdowns (7.4 touchdown percentage) to 7 interceptions (1.7 interception percentage).

Based on his passing profile where he had a low completion percentage paired with a high yards per attempt average, the 2009 version of Mallett could best be classified as a boom-or-bust quarterback. As the name suggests, a boom-or-bust quarterback is not the kind of quarterback on which a team should want to rely.

While a boom-or-bust quarterback will net his team some big plays, he will almost as often, as Mallett's 55.8 completion percentage can attest, throw an incompletion, thereby robbing the offense of consistency and efficiency.

A lack of consistency was the hallmark of 2009 Mallett's season. The standard deviation, which is a great tool for measuring consistency, of Mallett's completion percentage was a remarkable, in a truly terrible way, 0.187. The standard deviation for most quarterbacks' completion percentages is around 0.100; anything too high above that is the sign of a very inconsistent passer, of whom you cannot be too sure about.

From an NFL standpoint, what teams should focus on is not the gaudy yards per pass attempt or stellar yards per completion. As research I did a few years ago turned up, yards per pass attempt and yards per completion in college have no bearing on what the same quarterback's yards per pass attempt and yards per completion will be in the NFL.

It is a college quarterback's completion percentage that corresponds most to his NFL career as it is the very rare NFL quarterback whose NFL completion percentage is statistically significantly better than his college mark.

Ryan Mallett's 2009 season speaks to a quarterback whose issues with inaccuracy are too great to predict he would be very successful in the NFL since he was below both the median completion percentage of 59.3 percent for qualifying FBS quarterbacks in 2009 and the median completion percentage of 60.7 percent of qualifying NFL quarterbacks in 2009. By any measure, Mallett's 2009 completion percentage was a below-average one.

Mallett's accuracy problem is one it would seem the 2010 version of Mallett solved, but just how representative his 2010 completion percentage is of his true passing talent is almost impossible to determine. In the season that ended only a couple of weeks ago for Mallett, he completed 64.6 percent of his passes, gained 9.5 yards per pass attempt, and threw 31 touchdowns (7.8 touchdown percentage) to 12 interceptions (3.0 interception percentage) in games where he was Arkansas's primary quarterback.

Compared to his 2009 season, Mallett's completion percentage increased by 15.8 percent, an improvement so drastic one has to question just how sustainable it really is. Some of the increase in his accuracy has to do with the fact his yards per completion dropped to 14.7 so he was not throwing as many deep, harder to complete passes, and there is a correlation of -0.276 between Mallett's yards per completion and his completion percentage.

The negative correlation shows there is a inverse relationship between the two data sets where as his yards per completion decreased, then his completion percentage increased, but the correlation is not strong enough to explain the entire incredible leap in passing accuracy.

No one can definitively say without a shadow of a doubt that Mallett is now a 64.6 percent passer because still lurking in the background is his 2009 season where he was amazingly erratic as a passer.

The first impulse is to give added weight to his 2010 season because it happened most recently, but plenty of athletes' most recent seasons are not characteristic of their true ability.

However, there is no denying that he did make some legitimate improvement so his 2009 season probably should not be given more weight, either. Therefore, it is most likely that Mallett's true accuracy lies somewhere in the middle, but just where in the middle is the question.

Perhaps Mallett's true accuracy is smack dab in the middle since his career completion percentage at Arkansas is 60.2 percent; his career yards per attempt average is 9.3, his career touchdown percentage is 7.6 percent, and his career interception percentage is 2.4 percent. If Mallett really is only capable of being a 60.2 percent passer over his NFL career, NFL teams should not be fighting each other to have him on their rosters because that would only make him a league-average passer in terms of accuracy.

Perhaps his accuracy is closer to 55.8 percent than it is to 64.6 percent or perhaps it is reversed and his accuracy is closer to 64.6 percent than 55.8 percent.

Then again, with his career completion percentage's extremely high standard deviation of 0.151, the one thing we do know for certain is that Mallett is too inconsistent to be considered an elite quarterback.

Of course, trying to figure out Mallett's true accuracy might all be a moot point if he is nothing more than a product of his head coach Bobby Petrino's offensive system. Petrino is known to have an offensive scheme that is very friendly to quarterbacks, and if we are to compare Mallett's career to two other college quarterbacks who played two seasons under Petrino, we find that Mallett does not compare favorably.

Former University of Louisville quarterback Stefan LeFors was the first college quarterback to have Petrino as a head coach. During LeFors's two seasons under Petrino in which he was Louisville's primary quarterback for 28 games, he completed 66.0 percent of his passes, gained 9.3 yards per pass attempt, and threw 34 touchdowns (5.7 touchdown percentage) to 13 interceptions (2.2 interception percentage).

LeFors's career yards per pass attempt matches Mallett's, and his completion percentage blows Mallett's away. It is not quite statistically significantly better than Mallett's, but it is not far away, either. Also, LeFors's completion percentage's standard deviation of only 0.100 shows him to be a much more consistent passing quarterback.

Despite playing in the same offensive system and having a college career that is better than Mallett's because of the superior completion percentage, LeFors is now a free-agent quarterback after failing to stick in the Canadian Football League.

Former University of Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm is the other college quarterback who spent at least two seasons under Petrino. During Brohm's 22 games as Louisville's primary quarterback in that time frame, he completed 66.2 percent of his passes, gained 9.7 yards per pass attempt, and threw 36 touchdowns (5.7 touchdown percentage) to 10 interceptions (1.6 interception percentage).

Brohm actually has a better yards per pass attempt average than Mallett, and like Lefors, Brohm is clearly superior in completion percentage and accuracy. Brohm was also incredibly more consistent during his time under Petrino as his completion percentage's standard deviation is only 0.089. There is no question Brohm was a better college quarterback for Petrino than Mallett was.

Brohm is now a back-up quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.

If two quarterbacks who played better for Petrino than Mallett did cannot even become full-time starters in the NFL, it calls into question whether Mallett is capable of being a successful NFL quarterback; that is on top of the other questions his career raises.

Not only is there no telling which of the two Ryan Malletts, the 2009 version or the 2010 version, is a more accurate portrait of the kind of quarterback he is, but he is not even the best college quarterback his coach ever coached.

Based on those two aspects, NFL teams would be smart to stay away from Mallett and let some other team find out how good or bad he really is. There is simply too much uncertainty surrounding him to risk investing a great deal of money into such an inconsistent and possibly mediocre quarterback.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Cameron Newton's NFL Prospects: Are We Sure He Is Even That Good?

There is no denying that former Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton turned in a fantastic 2010 college football season, one well deserving of a Heisman Trophy. In his 14 games this season, Newton completed 66.1 percent of his passes, gained an extraordinary 10.2 yards per pass attempt, and threw 30 touchdown passes (10.7 touchdown percentage) to only seven interceptions (2.5 interception percentage). For good measure, Newton also had 264 rush attempts for 1,473 rush yards and a 5.6 yards per rush average that is made more impressive when one remembers that sacks in college count against a quarterback's rush totals.

Newton's fine quarterback play was the main reason why Auburn's offense was so incredibly dominant this season and ended up winning the BCS title. However, one great season in college football is never good enough for anyone to definitively say a quarterback will be a good pro because it fails to eliminate question marks about a player's true talent.

Having one excellent season as a college quarterback is no great feat as plenty of quarterbacks before Newton have done it and most have gone on to either fade into football obscurity or football mediocrity.

Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy in 2009, his first season as Alabama's primary quarterback, which is attempting the most passes or throwing the most passing yards for his team, completed 60.2 percent of his passes, gained 7.7 yards per pass attempt, and threw 17 touchdowns (5.2 touchdown percentage) to four interceptions (1.2 interception percentage). Alabama won a BCS title with McElroy as a quarterback, but his first season as a starter was nothing extraordinary.

Just this past season, however, McElroy improved dramatically, completing 70.9 percent of his passes, gaining 9.5 yards per pass attempt, and throwing 20 touchdowns (6.4 touchdown percentage) to five interceptions (1.6 interception percentage). McElroy's season was every bit as great as Newton's, and yet no one is talking about him as a top quarterback prospect because there is no certainty about which season is more representative of his ability. McElroy is just one quarterback who put together a great season.

Southern Methodist sophomore quarterback Kyle Padron exploded on the college football scene last season as a freshman. Over the last seven games of 2009, Padron completed 67.2 percent of his passes, gained 9.6 yards per pass attempt, and threw 10 touchdowns (5.0 touchdown percentage) to 4 interceptions (2.0 interception percentage).

In the season that just ended, Padron's numbers fell off precipitously, and he completed only 59.4 percent of his passes, gained just 7.5 yards per pass attempt, and threw 31 touchdowns (6.1 touchdown percentage) to 14 interceptions (2.8 interception percentage). Think how foolish it would have been if after Padron's freshman campaign, which was every bit as good as Newton's 2010 season, we would have anointed him as a top quarterback prospect. Padron's one excellent season now does not seem indicative of his true talent.

Current Carolina Panthers quarterback and former Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen also had one excellent college football season. In his junior year, which turned out to be his last collegiate season, Clausen completed 68.0 percent of his passes, gained 8.8 yards per pass attempt, and threw 28 touchdowns (6.6 touchdown percentage) to four interceptions (.9 interception percentage).

Clausen's extremely efficient junior season came out of nowhere based on the fact he was a below average to average passer in his other two seasons at Notre Dame. His freshman season, in games as Notre Dame's primary quarterback, Clausen completed 58.0 percent of his passes, gained a pathetic 5.3 yards per pass attempt, and threw seven touchdown passes (5.5 touchdown percentage) to four interceptions (3.1 interception percentage).

Clausen's sophomore effort was little better as he completed 60.9 percent of his passes, gained 7.2 yards per pass attempt, and threw 25 touchdowns (5.7 touchdown percentage) to 17 interceptions (3.9 interception percentage).

Before Clausen's excellent junior season, he had spent more time being a mediocre quarterback, but that still did not keep him from being great for one magical season.

Despite Clausen's impressive junior season at Notre Dame, based on his play this season for the Panthers, when it looked most of the times as if he had never played quarterback before in his life, it is obvious Clausen has more mediocrity in him than excellence.

Former Oakland Raiders quarterback and former LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who many consider as the biggest draft bust in NFL history although he never should have been selected so highly in the first place, also had one great season as a college football quarterback. His junior season was one in which he completed 67.8 percent of his passes, gained 9.2 yards per pass attempt, and threw 28 touchdowns (8.2 touchdown percentage) to eight interceptions (2.3 interception percentage). Again, that season is comparable to Newton's 2010 year.

Russell, however, was not nearly so good in his other two seasons as LSU's primary quarterback. In his freshman season, Russell was pretty awful, as he completed a lousy 50.3 percent of his passes, gained 7.5 yards per pass attempt, and threw nine touchdowns (7.0 touchdown percentage) to two interceptions (1.6 interception percentage).

Russell's sophomore season was better than his freshman one, but still not one that even whispered that here is a future star NFL quarterback. In 2005, Russell completed only 60.5 percent of his passes, gained 7.9 yards per pass attempt, and threw 15 touchdowns (4.8 touchdown percentage) to nine interceptions (2.9 interception percentage).

Once again, Russell's college career proves that even a quarterback who is average at best in his other seasons can put it all together for one great season.

Current Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and former University of Houston quarterback Kevin Kolb is another quarterback whose ordinary seasons did not prevent him from having one great year.

Kolb spent the first three seasons of his collegiate career displaying middling accuracy. As a freshman, Kolb completed 60.9 percent of his passes, gained 8.7 yards per pass attempt, and threw 25 touchdowns (7.0 touchdown percentage) to six interceptions (1.7 interception percentage). For his sophomore year, Kolb's completion percentage dropped to 56.1 percent, he gained 7.8 yards per pass attempt, and threw 11 touchdowns (3.1 touchdown percentage) to six interceptions (1.7 interception percentage). As a junior, Kolb completed 60.5 percent of his passes, gained 7.8 yards per pass attempt, and threw 19 touchdowns (4.5 touchdown percentage) to 15 interceptions (3.6 interception percentage).

While none of Kolb's first three college seasons were anything other than average, he still managed to have one great college football season.

If those examples are not enough to convince you of how unimportant having just one great college football season is in determining how good of a quarterback a player really is, ask Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets if they would not both be better off had Sanchez spent another year at USC honing his quarterback craft.

In Sanchez's one year as a starting quarterback in college, he had an extremely effective season, completing 65.8 percent of his passes, gaining 8.8 yards per attempt, and throwing 34 touchdowns (9.3 touchdown percentage) to 10 interceptions (2.7 interception percentage).

Since that year, in his two seasons as the New York Jets starting quarterback, Sanchez has not come within a marathon's worth of miles of matching any of those college statistics for an extended period of time, and has actually been one of the worst passing quarterbacks in the NFL.

If you look at the college careers of the current elite crop of quarterbacks, be it Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, or Drew Brees, you will find quarterbacks who started at least two years in college and put together consistently excellent seasons with no great difference between any two seasons. What you will not find is just one great season with no other seasons of equal production to back it up.

Not only does Newton only have one year of starting experience, but he was only asked to throw 20 passes per game, 280 pass attempts over 14 games, during that one year so he does not even have the experience of truly carrying an offense with his arm; those 280 pass attempts are the epitome of a sample size that is too small to gauge a college quarterback's pro prospects. No NFL team is going to have great success throwing only 20 times a game, which is all Newton is familiar with.

In addition, there were slight negative correlations between Newton's number of pass attempts and his completion percentage (-0.122) and also his number of pass attempts and his yards per pass attempt (-0.208) so there is some evidence that the more times Newton was asked to throw, the worse he got as a quarterback.

For all of his athletic ability, Newton is not special enough that he should not be examined less rigorously as a quarterback simply because he won a Heisman Trophy and a national championship in the same year or because he is 6'6 and has a very strong arm. Under such rigorous examination, the only thing that can surely be said about Newton is no one knows how good a quarterback he really is.

NFL franchises should never draft a quarterback, let alone using a high draft pick on one, based mostly on a player's potential; leave drafting mostly on potential to the NBA. Instead an NFL team should know exactly what kind of quarterback they will be getting. With Newton, that level of certainty is an impossibility, rendering him unworthy of a high draft pick.

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