The purpose of this post is two-fold. First, Brock Motum has made me look like a moron, and I need to own up to it. Second, I'm going to make a case for something that has a non-zero chance of happening -- but probably only slightly more than zero. However, the argument for Motum winning Pac-12 player of the year needs to be made by somebody, and gosh darn it, I'm going to be that guy.
At the end of each season, fans like to sit back and assess the direction of the team. Is there hope for the future? Which guys could make big improvements the following year? That cycle is what makes college sports unique -- and so great.
Motum, who had just finished his sophomore season, was the subject of much such speculation last April.
A number of community members here expressed optimism that Motum would be able to develop into a centerpiece of the team. The prevailing thought among those individuals was that he already was a good offensive player -- he just needed to play more minutes and add some strength to become a good rebounder.
I was skeptical. Here was a guy who indeed was an efficient offensive player, but his offensive game benefited tremendously from other guys -- Klay Thompson and Reggie Moore -- dominating the basketball. Motum always has been good at putting himself in scoring positions with his movement away from the ball, and while there's no way to know how many of his baskets came off of assists from other guys, my impression was that it was a good number. Would he improve enough to create is own offense? Debatable.
But even with that very good offense last year, the fact remains that was unable to get on the floor for more than about 19 minutes a game on a team that wasn't exactly bursting at the seams with great forwards. Why? Because he couldn't rebound and he struggled to defend. His defensive rebounding percentage of 10.1 was absurdly low -- a 6-foot-10 player should luck into at least 14 or 15 percent. DeAngelo Casto, at 6-foot-8, was grabbing 17.5 percent of opponents' misses. Abe Lodwick, at 6-7, was pulling down 15.4 percent. Even 6-6 Thompson posted 14 percent from the wing.
As for the theory that a little strength would solve all of his problems? Despite popular belief, rebounding is a bit of an inherent skill -- it's rare to see guys make huge jumps in rebounding percentage. Motum had started at 8.5 percent as a freshman, had jumped only a percentage and a half in his sophomore season ... was it reasonable to expect him to suddenly rebound at 17 percent, which is pretty much average? I didn't think that was a reasonable thing to expect at all.
Essentially, after two seasons, I had already made up my mind about Motum: He was a nice piece whose ideal use was as a complimentary player, either off the bench or next to a more dominant post presence. Despite the hype surrounding him as an Australian international, he was not a star in the making.
Turns out, I was wrong. Really, really wrong!
It's clear from Motum's play this year -- exemplified in last night's 28-point, five-rebound performance, missed free throws be damned -- that he hasn't just developed into a worthy anchor on the front line; he's made himself into one of the best players in all of the Pac-12. And if it weren't for coaches' predisposition to favor players from the top few teams in the conference, I'd say Motum had a very good case for Pac-12 player of the year.
In fact I'll go one step further: Motum indeed is the best player in the conference and should win Pac-12 player of the year.
Since we obviously generally take a statistical angle to our analysis, let's start on the other end for once. Anyone who has watched Motum play this season knows that he's simply, for all intents and purposes, become practically unguardable one on one, and all his skills were on display against Arizona. He almost singlehandedly put two guys in foul trouble with an array of moves that would make any big man in the country -- not just the Pac-12, but the entire country -- jealous.
He repeatedly took guys off the dribble, including a delicious crossover of Angelo Chol that resulted in a trip to the line. To compensate, defenders sagged off -- so he hit a pair of threes in their faces. Then, when they tried to crowd him again on his face-ups, Motum twice drew fouls with the decidedly NBA move of ripping the ball through the defenders hands on a jumper, including on a three in the waning moments.
And he was just as good in the post. On one of the balls he caught down there, he felt the smaller Josiah Turner shading to this right shoulder (presumably because he was expecting Motum to go his natural left hand), so he pivoted the other direction and again drew a foul on Chol, who was attempting to help his badly beaten teammate. Another time, again feeling the defense shading his left hand, he finished with a right handed jump hook in the lane.
Only the missed free throws down the stretch are keeping last night's performance from being discussed as one of the most dominant in the league this season. And that's a shame, because allowing what otherwise is a fluke occurrence (he had been shooting 76 percent) to diminish that performance is silly; the Cougs aren't even in that game if not for Motum (and, I might add, vintage Reggie Moore -- but that's a post for another day).
This, clearly, is an entirely different Motum than we saw in his first two seasons.
Motum's evolution truly has been extraordinary. With a huge hat tip to one Ken Pomeroy (his site is awesome people -- go subscribe!), here's his tempo-neutral development over his three years* (numbers don't include last night; bigger version here):
*And if you prefer pictures with colorful bars, it looks pretty good there, too!
The super green areas are where Motum hasn't just made an improvement over his sophomore season, they're where he's made a dramatic improvement. He's shooting a lot more but maintaining nearly the same kind of efficiency by getting to the free throw line more, hitting more of his attempts when he's there, and making his threes at a more-than-respectable rate. He's also rebounding more -- a lot more. To see that kind of advancement in nearly every important area -- and see only marginal drops in a couple of other areas that can be explained almost entirely by the increased workload -- is remarkable.
Of all of these improvements, the one that obviously stuns me the most is the rebounding. He's jumped all the way up to 17 percent defensive rebounding, and that includes a mark over 18 percent in conference play (thanks to statsheet.com for that one). Remember: Casto pulled down 17 percent last year. I generally think Casto was pretty overrated as a rebounder, but to have the numbers suggest that Motum has become his equal is pretty incredible.
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of all this is that he's doing it all while playing 80 percent of the available minutes this year. That is most among Pac-12 big men - only forwards Solomon Hill (78 percent) and E.J. Singler (76 percent) are even close, and neither of them even remotely carry the kind of offensive load that Motum does.
Of course, he's not perfect. He turns it over too much, and he doesn't really block any shots. But even when you take that into consideration -- when you add it all up -- you don't just have the best player on WSU ... you don't just have one of the best players in the conference ... you have the best player in the Pac-12.
Don't believe me? Beyond what we all have witnessed over the course of Pac-12 play via the eye test, consider the following objective evidence.
There are exactly four players in the Pac-12 who use 28 percent of their team's possessions, which is Pomeroy's threshold for a "go-to player": Motum, UCLA's Joshua Smith, UW's Tony Wroten and Jiggy Watkins (who no longer plays for Utah). Their offensive ratings? Motum 111; Smith 103; Wroten 95; Watkins, 87.
If you lower the usage threshold to 24 percent -- designated by Pomeroy as a "significant contributor" -- you find 14 players. Guess what? Motum's still tops. The other guys who are generally considered the Pac-12's best? Jared Cunningham is at 109 offensive rating while using 27 percent of possessions, Jorge Gutierrez is at 106 using 25 percent ... and that's it. Terrence Ross and Devoe Joseph? They only use 23 and 22 percent, respectively, and only Joseph's offensive rating exceeds Motum's.
What if we just limit it to Pac-12 play? Motum looks even better, as he's posting a 116 offensive rating on 29 percent of possessions used. Cunningham is at 108 on 28 percent, Gutierrez is at 104 on 24 percent, Ross is at 105 on 24 percent, and Wroten is at 98 on 30 percent. Only Joseph compares favorably with a spectacular 121 offensive rating, but he's used just 22 percent of possessions.
Sure, you can try and bring in other arguments for other players to try and move them past Motum. For example, you could talk about the defense of Cunningham (quantifiable through steals) and Gutierrez (not really quantifiable at all, but great on the eye test). But when you compare those with the rebounding Motum does, it's a wash. And even if you're inclined to say it's not, I would think that the disproportionate load Motum carries on offense would make up that gap.
If you want to say that Gutierrez assists a bunch or makes his teammates better, I'd tell you that assists are factored into offensive rating and that Cal's adjusted offensive efficiency is only slightly better than WSU's (110.7 to 109.7). And if you want to say that Ross and Wroten should be considered the best player because they're more talented, well, I'd say NBA draft potential isn't the same as performance. And Motum has out-performed them both. By a long shot.
In short, when you combine his minutes played with possessions used, the only player in the conference has carried a similar kind of offensive load as Motum is Cunningham, and he simply hasn't done as much with it. Beyond that, of those carrying less of a load, only Joseph can even make a marginal case that his efficiency overwhelms the disparity in usage. And I'd argue that the seven percent disparity is just too significant.
Add it all up, and you've got the best player in the conference, and the guy who should win the Pac-12 player of the year award.
Will he? Chances are very small. The coaches tend to favor "winners" for that award. The last guy to win the award from a team that didn't place in the top three was Ike Diogu in 2005 -- Arizona State was sixth that year. It was a year where there just weren't a lot of other good players, and Diogu was dominant. The top two teams -- Arizona and Washignton -- featured incredibly balanced attacks.
In fact, 2005 ought to be a pretty good precedent for Motum being taken seriously as a candidate this year. Like 2005, the two best performers in the league come from lower division teams (Diogu and Oregon's Aaron Brooks). Like 2005, the top teams feature balanced attacks.
But given the coaches' recent voting history, I'd expect it to go to whichever guy plays best down the stretch on which ever team ends up winning the league. That will likely be Gutierrez, Ross, Joseph, etc. But if Arizona or Oregon end up winning it? Or if the "race" is a stumble-fest to the finish line? Or, and this is probably the best thing that could happen, WSU wins three of their final four with Motum playing well? Maybe Motum gets a look. Probably all of these things need to happen.
But even if Motum doesn't get what he deserves, we all will know the truth.
Brock Motum has become the best player in the Pac-12. I didn't necessarily see it coming, but I sure am glad I was wrong.