Udoka Azubuike’s Wrist Injury or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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When news broke a little over a week ago about Udoka Azubuike’s season-ending wrist injury, like most KU fans, I was both bummed for it having happened to him in the first place as well as worried about how it would impact the team’s chances – both this year and next. Without being able to play and get reps in, I don’t expect ‘Doke to start the 2017-2018 season significantly better than how he was at the time of his injury, but I am hopeful and have faith in the coaching staff’s ability to help him progress as much as possible. This year’s team, though…well…up until his injury I was confident this was a Final Four-worthy team; after his injury, I started listening & reading various takes on how big of a blow this was going to be and was no longer so confident. Now that some time has gone by however, I have a bit more perspective – in fact, I think there’s a chance KU could be even better than how we were up until his injury.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying it’s as simple as the Jayhawks will benefit from addition by subtraction. Without ‘Doke, things are potentially harder. The options on-hand for Coach Self to counter different match-ups, the sheer lack of (to date) consistent & quality play on the inside, and ‘Doke’s talent & ability to continue to grow are all big losses and the margin for error is definitely less for KU than what it was with him healthy. But a thought I’d been having congealed earlier today when I read a rant by Marshall Coach Dan D’Antoni (Mike’s brother). It’s a great read, and though I won’t go into all the details here, D’Antoni basically takes down a reporter who was asking why Marshall didn’t try to get more points in the paint. Marshall goes into great detail about statistics laying out how three-pointers are the best option and how points in the paint are the worst option via points-per-attempt. It really was insightful stuff to hear a coach describe, though I obviously also enjoyed how D’Antoni told the reporter that he wasn’t finished with his damn analytics story yet and asked the reporter if he needed to go to bed when said reporter interrupted him.

It was good to hear a coach go into the probabilities & statistics part of coaching. Analytics aren’t just things that the Nerd Army focuses on to make participation in fantasy sports leagues seem more intellectual. There are honest-to-goodness benefits from paying attention to, well, what is statistically shown to work.

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So, to bring it back to the Jayhawks, the thought I’d been having has been focused on emulating what many NBA and college teams are now doing – pace and space, and letting the threes fly. Self, obviously, has always emphasized points in the paint and put a premium on getting a shot off from as close to the rim as possible. A strategy that’s been effective, sure – but maybe, just maybe, the lack of depth on the inside will force Self to play to this team’s strengths.

One of those strengths is clearly shooting the three – KU ranks tenth in the nation in three-point shooting percentage at 41.3%. KU is currently the nation’s sixth most efficient offense, getting 118 points per 100 possessions. We’re accomplishing this despite our horrible showing at the free-throw line, and despite the fact that the number of three-point attempts we take as a percentage of our total attempts per game rank 247th in the nation, at 33.4% (all stats from http://kenpom.com/). In summary, KU shoots really well from the outside, but probably takes fewer three-point shots than we should.

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When you look back at Self’s teams at Kansas, the number of three-point attempts as a percentage of overall field goals has always been relatively conservative, averaging around 28-29%. The successful & steady stream of strong post play has obviously played a large part in determining that approach. Three-point field goal percentage has always been solid under Self too, usually in the mid-/upper-30s. Last year’s Jayhawk team was an exception, as it ended up being the fifth-best three-point shooting team in the nation, though still “middling” (238th in the nation) in terms of those attempts as a overall percentage of field goal attempts – presumably because of being able to rely on Perry Ellis’ offense. This year’s team, in case you weren’t sure, doesn’t have an Ellis to rely on, so why not play to an obvious strength of the team instead of hoping that one of the current post players can turn into him?

Every season Self has at least one instance where he calls relying on 3s “fool’s gold,” but that seems a bit anachronistic to me: The three-pointer has become an effective weapon via a combination of current defensive schemes being focused on protecting the rim, outside shooting continuing to evolve & improve, and a better understanding of how to incorporate the shot into the overall strategy. Maybe, just maybe, ‘Doke’s injury and the lack of depth on the inside combined with the talent of KU’s guards this year will force Coach Self to embrace the three-point shot and increase its use. If we do that, like I posed earlier, there is a chance that this team could become even better. If you have an effective weapon, why not use it? As Dr. Strangelove said, “The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!” Since TCU is the nearest target opportunity, let’s let those birds fly…

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