Fair warning in advance: This post is going to be long, and it's going to be thorough. There's a good reason for that -- this is the one and only time I'm going to write about this topic. I'm tired of complaining about it because I've reached a point where I assume it's not going to change, so I want to make sure I cover it all and then just leave it alone for the rest of the season.
I'm well aware that some could interpret this piece as a personal attack on a particular player. It's not. Like many of you, I think attacking student-athletes is generally bad form. They're certainly fair game for some criticism -- accepting a scholarship to play athletics at a university makes you a de facto public figure to a certain degree -- but there's a line of good taste I'm going to work very hard not to cross.
So please believe me when I tell you that this is not about the player. The player has worked hard to play athletics at a level I could never even come close to achieving, and I don't begrudge him for playing the game the best way he knows how. He is who he is both because of who he's created himself to be and what the environment he's in has allowed him to become.
It's that latter part that makes this really about the coach, on whom we depend to know what's best for the team, to know how best to deploy the talent at his disposal. And in this case, he doesn't.
I normally would hesitate to write that kind of a statement. To borrow an old adage, I'm certain Ken Bone has forgotten more about basketball than I know. But when both the objective and anecdotal evidence speak so clearly to the fact that he's wrong, there's really no delicate way to say it.
So here it is.
Ken Bone's usage of Faisal Aden is actively hurting the WSU basketball team. Consequently, until Bone dispenses with his heavy reliance on Aden, this team will continue to fall short of its potential.
This is why.
First, A Disclaimer
Aden is not without value. Although I'm going to run through some scenarios where Aden doesn't play at all, this isn't a piece to advocate for benching Aden altogether; it's a piece to implore Ken Bone to use him more wisely. Keep that in mind until you get to the end. (If you make it that far.)
What Kind Of A Player Are We Dealing With?
Just in watching him play, Aden has driven many of us crazy over the past year and a half. If it feels like he takes a ton of shots, he does -- last year, it was 32.4 percent of WSU's shots when he was on the floor, and this year it's all the way up to 37.5 percent. If those numbers have no meaning to you, consider that the former ranked him 35th nationally, while the latter ranks him fourth nationally -- out of more than 2,000 contributing players across 340-plus Division I teams. For even further context (especially of this year's number), consider that BYU's Jimmer Fredette took 38 percent his team's shots while on the floor last year.
That's correct: Faisal Aden currently takes shots at basically the same rate as last year's college basketball consensus player of the year.
Fredette was amazing ... so that made sense. However, Aden is clearly not Fredette. Like Jimmer, he takes a ton of shots that would, under most circumstances, be deemed questionable. But unlike Jimmer, he doesn't convert enough of them -- his 55.6 true shooting percentage pales in comparison to Fredette's 59.4.
Of course, shooting isn't all there is to the game of basketball. When you take into account the different ways a player can end a possession -- with a shot that doesn't result in an offensive rebound, a trip to the free throw line or a turnover -- Aden actually "uses" nearly 31 percent of WSU's possessions when he's on the floor.* That's 33rd nationally.
*His possession percentage is less than his shot percentage because there's an assumption that WSU is rebounding his misses at the team offensive rebounding rate, and also because he shoots very few free throws.
But when a guy doesn't get to the free throw line and has more turnovers than assists, as Aden does ... well, again, it should be pretty obvious that the player probably shouldn't be using that many possessions. How much worse off is WSU because of it? Let's quantify.
How About A Little Math?
Dean Oliver, one of the foremost pioneers of the usage of advanced statistical analysis in basketball, developed this great stat called Offensive Rating. The thing about ORtg is that it's incredibly complicated to calculate, and I readily admit that I don't fully understand how one arrives at the final number. But I know this: It includes shots, free throws, assists and turnovers, and people who are smarter than me who I trust believe it's an accurate representation of roughly the number of points a player will produce over the course of 100 possessions. And that's good enough for me.
Since we know that the average college offense generally is going to be very close to 1.0 points per possession, an average individual offensive rating is going to be 100. Aden's ORtg in his nine games played is 96; loosely translated, he's been about four percent worse than an average college basketball player so far this year.
If you're tempted to chalk that up to small sample size, his ORtg last season in 33 games was 95.1. In fact, most of Aden's peripherals are remarkably similar to last year, and the ones that aren't -- both his assist and turnover rates have increased dramatically -- are easily explained by his increase in usage. When it's all added up, he's basically the same player he was a year ago. (That's assuming, of course, that he maintains the same level of production in Pac-12 play this year, something he did not do a year ago.)
Logical conclusion? Aden is who he is, and at 22 years of age -- halfway through his senior season -- his skill set is unlikely to change over the next 20 games. Because he's been roughly a 0.96 points per possession player for 42 games, I'm going to go ahead and assume that going forward. I probably could just stop right here, as it obviously doesn't take a math wiz to realize that a below average player shouldn't be using the huge number of possessions Aden is allowed to use, but let's go ahead and crunch some numbers anyway.
Aden was playing 28 minutes a game before sitting out three games with a concussion. In the two games back, he's played 22 minutes a game. Part of that has to do with him coming off the bench, but part of that also has to do with both games being blowouts. So let's split the difference and say he plays 25 minutes a game going forward. I do believe it will probably end up being 28 or more in Pac-12 play, but I'm trying to be as conservative as possible in this exercise.
WSU's adjusted average tempo, according to kenpom.com, is 68.5 -- identical to last year. In 19 Pac-10 games last season, WSU averaged 69 possessions; let's then assume this team again plays at a 69-possession pace in conference play this year. At 25 minutes a game and his current usage of 30.7 percent, Aden will use about 13 possessions a game. (If that seems low, remember that a team's offensive rebounding rate is factored in to usage - it assumes that a certain percentage of shots being missed are being rebounded, resulting in the possession continuing.) And on those 13 possessions, Aden produces about 12.7 points.
Now, let's say we take all 13 of those possessions and give them to guys whose offensive ratings are significantly higher - guys such as Brock Motum (103.2), DaVonte Lacy (108.5), Charlie Enquist (146.5), D.J. Shelton (102.0) and Marcus Capers (107.6). For the sake of argument, let's assume those guys use those possessions at a 1.05 points per possession clip. On those same 13 possessions, a player producing 1.05 points per possession would total about 13.9 points -- a 1.2-point increase.
In fact, here's how those theoretical 1.05 points per possession players would improve the overall production at various minutes played:
|Aden's Minutes||Possessions |
|Value Of Aden |
|Value Of Player(s) |
Pretty dramatic difference. The thing is, you could easily make a pretty convincing argument that those possessions being used by other players would actually perform at a higher than 1.05 clip -- the team's adjusted offensive efficiency is already 1.05, and that's with Aden dragging it down for nine games. If you want to get really frisky and say that the team would perform even better than 1.05, here's what that might look like:
|Aden's Minutes||Possessions |
|Value Of Aden |
|Value Of Player(s) |
When Aden starts getting up around 30 minutes a game, as I believe he inevitably will, he'll be costing WSU anywhere between 1.5 and 2 points a game. That's a conservative estimate, and that, my friends, is not small.
Step Away From The Calculator And Into Reality, Stat Boy
Fortunately, we don't have to imagine what a theoretical world without Aden in the lineup would be like -- we saw it with our own eyes when he sat out for three games. The result was the Cougars putting up three of their four finest offensive performances of the season (the season opener against Gonzaga being the other). Not only did WSU look more fluid than at any point in the season, the results back up the aesthetics as the Cougs put up 1.11, 1.04 and 1.43 points per possession against three decent midmajor opponents.
Yet, for whatever reason, Ken Bone is still convinced that his best way to use Aden going forward is exactly as he was being used before that -- when the team was blown out by Oklahoma, New Mexico and blew a lead to UC Riverside. Forget the fact that he's not starting; he's getting his minutes, and he's shooting at an even greater rate than he was before the injury, if you can believe that.
It shows. For a year and a half, the offense has almost always stalled when the ball hits Aden's hands, and it has continued to do so in the last two games. It's not as bad as it was earlier in the year, but it's still been a noticeable contrast to the three games without Aden. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that Aden's presence in the lineup in his current role might actually cause his teammates to play worse because they don't get the ball in advantageous positions nearly as often because of the lack of fluidity in the offense.
Despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, there's obviously something that's causing Ken Bone's presumably bright basketball mind to conclude that Aden shooting at will is a great idea. I just have very little idea what it is, although recent comments and history lead me to some theories.
Bone spoke a bit about Aden in his weekly teleconference yesterday, and while I tried to get a hold of the actual audio so I could interpret his words himself, there appears to have been a problem with the recording. So, I'm left with Vince Grippi's second-hand account of what was said:
Bone said he'll come off the bench for now - he doesn't want to mess with a successful starting lineup - but he expects him to start again and hopes he does. That means he's been playing well but regardless, Aden, who prefers to start, will play his minutes. Asked if he's OK with Aden shooting as much as he does - I described Aden as a "high-volume shooter" to Reggie Moore later in the day and Moore laughed, saying that's a fair description - and Bone didn't hesitate. He is happy with Aden shooting 15-20-25 times a game, Bone said, as long as they are within what the Cougars are trying to do offensively, that the shots are expected and come within the framework of the offense. He is, Bone reiterated, the best shooter WSU has.
This jives both with what I heard Bone say after the Pepperdine game and with how Bone has used Aden for a year and a half, so I have no reason to think this isn't an accurate representation. And it's incredibly troubling.
Looking back on history, Bone has no problem with guys he deems as good shooters jacking up shots whether they're actually efficient at doing it or not. Bone's first two teams at Portland State featured a pair of inefficient scorers (Anthony Washington, Dupree Lucas) using most of the possessions. His first two teams at Washington State revolved around Klay Thompson, who was anything but efficient in Pac-10 play two seasons ago. Perhaps he believes that it's important to have a singular scorer that a team can depend on once it reaches the rigors of conference play.
The fascinating thing is that Bone's two best offenses at PSU were actually his most balanced. Which is what's so confounding about this whole OK-with-Aden-shooting-15-to-25-times-a-game thing. I understood it two years ago when Thompson was shooting the team into oblivion -- there really weren't any other options, and you could already see that Klay was a potential future pro.
But this team? As we've touched on, there are plenty of other viable options. In fact, Bone himself acknowledges this fact! Again, via Grippi:
"I like the fact there is a lot of parity there, you don’t have a Klay Thompson in the lineup but we’ve got a lot of guys that are interchangeable. ... It allows us to hold guys accountable. I felt like the first year, the second year, there were times that even when we weren’t doing the right things on the floor, I felt a little bit like we had to keep going with certain kids.
"If one guy is not doing the job, there is a guy sitting next to me who is ready and willing to go out and try to do the job."
Except ... what constitutes not doing the right things on the floor? I don't know the answer to that, but I do know this: It's not an inefficient player taking a disproportionate amount of shots at the expense of his more efficient teammates. It's whatever Mike Ladd, DaVonte Lacy and (to some extent) Reggie Moore do to get yo-yoed in and out of each game all night.
Bone can talk all he wants about being OK with however much Aden shoots as long as he lets the offense come to him, but here's the truth in a nutshell.
There is no scenario where a player can take 37.5 percent of his team's shots within what you're trying to do on offense, unless what you're trying to do on offense is get that player shots.
We're being told by Bone that there's a flow to the offense he wants, suggesting the offense is not designed to get Aden shots. Yet, for two years, Aden has been permitted to take more than 32 percent of his team's shots when he's been on the floor. So we can conclude one of three things.
1. Bone has no control over his players.
2. The offense really is designed for Aden to get this many shots, despite appearances to the contrary.
3. Bone really doesn't mean what he says.
None reflect well on him.
A Quick Word About Defense
All this, and we haven't even touched on what Aden does (or, more accurately, doesn't) do on the defensive end; it's also probably no coincidence that WSU played its best defense of the season when Aden was out of the lineup. Yes, WSU shut down Pepperdine with Aden in there for plenty of minutes, but Pepperdine is an atrocious offensive club, so I don't think you should read a whole lot into that.
There's really no objective way to measure individual defense yet, but here's what anecdotal evidence from close observation tells us: Aden is an awful defender from a fundamental perspective. He can't stay in front of his man, he doesn't work hard to chase his man when he's away from the ball, and his help rotations are poor. He does get a fair number of steals, which adds some value, but not enough to offset his deficiencies.
To that end, he's got to be good enough on offense to be a net positive for the team. But as we've already demonstrated, at length, that's not the case.
The Ideal Solution
As I said at the very beginning, Aden is not without value. He's above 40 percent from beyond the arc this year, and Bone is obviously not wrong about his ability to shoot being an asset. I believe that's an accurate reflection of what Aden is capable of from out there, so his ability to stretch defenses for his teammates who are more deft around the basket is a positive skill set for the offense.
What needs to be dramatically reduced are the possessions that too often end with a negative result. He converts midrange jumpers at far too low of a rate -- he's at a paltry 48 percent overall on 2s, and that obviously includes some fastbreak layups. Beyond that, the midrange jumpers provide surprisingly little opportunity for an offensive rebound when they don't go in. His drives too often lack a positive result, as evidenced by his high turnover and low free throw rates.
If Bone chose to deploy Aden for 15 to 20 minutes a night and reduced his usage to 18 to 20 percent with an emphasis on simply being a spot-up shooter, I believe Aden could be a real asset to the team. His overall efficiency would increase, and the ball would also find its way more often into the hands of other efficienty teammates. He could indeed become a net positive.
But until it happens, Bone's use of Aden will continue to be a detriment to the team -- especially if his production tails off against superior athletes in Pac-12 play, as I predict will happen. And that's a real hard pill for a fan to swallow.