Ohio State basketball: Can Thad Matta develop players?

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most popular knocks on Coach Thad Matta is that he doesn't contribute to player development. Do the numbers back up that narrative?

Coaches at every big basketball school must deal with their fair share of critics. Some of them are perceived to have a sort of signature flaw, a weakness that defines the limits of their ability to succeed at the game's highest level. Baseless or not, these become the fallback knocks on a coach or program perpetuated by talking heads and internet commenters.

You may be familiar with a few of these takes: Jim Boeheim's defense is stale and unadaptable. John Calipari can't win without cheating. Rick Barnes can't deal with attitude issues, etc. etc. etc.

The merit of these claims is not for us to tackle here. What we can investigate, however, is one of the major knocks against Buckeye coach Thad Matta: that he is regularly gifted with raw talent but is unable to develop that talent into something better.

LGHL dug into the numbers to try to get a better idea of this claim's merit. We'll save the conclusion for the end, but first, a few points about the parameters of this investigation:

  • Size matters. We want as much data per player as possible in order to judge Matta's impact on their development, so in order to be used they needed to have played more than two seasons under Matta at Ohio State. This rules out the likes of Jared Sullinger, Greg Oden, and Mike Conley, Jr.
  • High ceilings only. We want to know what Matta's impact on the everyday, high-usage guys has been. His positive or negative influence on Aaron Craft's game tells us a lot more than the same influence on, say, Mark Titus'.
  • Brevity is the soul of wit. It can also be useful in sportswriting. We will limit our scope to 4 current and 4 former Matta players, who came into the program with high potential and met the above criteria: Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott, Amir Williams, LaQuinton Ross, William Buford, David Lighty, Evan Turner, and Deshaun Thomas. (Just for fun, we also looked at everyone from PJ Hill to Dallas Lauderdale, but their numbers largely told the same story as the 8 profiled players.)

Let's begin. All data can be found at sports-reference.com.

Inside the Numbers

True Shooting Percentage (TS%) and Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%)

True Shooting Percentage measures a player's shooting ability based on two-point shots, three-point shots, and free throws. It is generally a higher value than Effective Field Goal Percentage, a statistic which considers the fact that a three-pointer is worth more than a two-pointer. For reference, Marcus Smart has a .580 TS% and .537 eFG% this season, while Jabari Parker has posted a .632 TS% and .602 eFG%.  (While these statistics naturally favor big men playing inside, Parker has also managed a 47% three-point clip this year.)


Win Shares per 40 Minutes (WS/40)

WS/40 is a sabermetric measure that identifies a player's contribution to the number of team wins that season, based on value per game (aka in each 40 minute interval). The actual calculations are only for the wonky, but essentially one win share represents about one team win, so WS/40 represents the percentage of wins contributed by a single player per game. In basketball, unlike baseball, players can be assigned negative win shares. The best WS/40 of the last five years belongs to Kelly Olynyk in 2012-2013, an insane .318, but we can consider anything above .200 to be excellent.

Usage Rate (USG%):

Usage rate measures the percentage of plays used by a given player during his time on the court. It takes into account field goal attempts, free throw attempts, and turnovers. As USG% increases, player efficiency has a tendency to drop (fans of the NBA might consider J.R. Smith to be the best example of this). USG% is therefore closely linked to Player Efficiency Rating (PER).

Player Efficiency Rating (PER)

John Hollinger developed PER as a method of determining a player's efficiency, adjusted for pace. It takes both positive and the negative statistics into account, tabulating everything from three-pointers and assists to missed shots and personal fouls. It has an immensely positive correlation with USG%, as the most valuable players are those who are able to maintain high efficiency while using a high number of their team's possessions. 18.0 represents an "average" PER, and anything higher than 22.0 represents an outstanding season. PER is not a great measure for determining a player's defensive contributions to the game.

Total Rebound Percentage (TRB%), Total Assist Percentage (AST%)

TRB% measures the percentage of available rebounds grabbed by a player during his time on the court, taking into account both offensive and defensive boards. AST% measures the percentage of teammate field goals assisted by a given player while he's on the floor. We will not apply both of these categories to every player; rather, we will apply one based on that player's skill set and position.

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Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Current Player Values

Aaron Craft, PG, 2010-Present

First Season (2010-11):
TS%: .577
eFG%: .533
WS/40: .166
USG%: .146
PER: 16.2
AST%: .265

Final/Current Season (2013-14):
TS%: .587
eFG%: .534
WS/40: .168
USG%: .164
PER: 16.4
AST%: .262

Summary: Craft's numbers have essentially remained the same since his arrival in Columbus. His shooting has improved, as has his shot selection and ability to get to the free throw line (as determined by TS%). These categories don't really take into account his value as a leader or his ability to disrupt opposing offenses, though it's probably fair to say that his talents in those areas have remained pretty consistent.

Verdict: Inconclusive, as far as Matta's role is concerned. Even the coach's harshest critics wouldn't claim that he should be responsible for reinventing the wheel. Craft is a talented player with a specific skill set who makes his living on the court with his large basketball IQ and a willingness to sacrifice his body to make plays. Matta hasn't turned Craft into a multi-tooled offensive weapon, but he was never meant to be a volume shooter.

Amir Williams, C, 2011-Present

First Season (2011-12):
TS%: .487
eFG%: .528
WS/40: .173
USG%: .155
PER: 19.5
TRB%: .196

Final/Current Season (2013-14)
TS%: .629
eFG%: .604
WS/40: .194
USG%: .187
PER: 20.3
TRB%: .148

Summary: Amir Williams has come a long way in his three seasons in Columbus. His shooting percentage has gone through the roof this season, a sign of maturity and discipline, and is comparable to Duke sensation Jabari Parker. Even better, his PER has actually gone up despite his increase in USG%, showing that Williams has actually become a more efficient player despite carrying a heavier load on offense this season.

Verdict: Score one for Thad. Under Matta's tutelage, Amir Williams has developed into a consistent and effective scoring threat at the offensive end of the floor. He has learned to use his minutes more wisely, and has become an efficient player while seeing the number of plays where the ball is in his hands increase.

LaQuinton Ross, F, 2011-Present

First Season (2011-12)
TS%: .491
eFG%: .400
WS/40: .112
USG%: .309
PER: 10.9
TRB%: .069

Final/Current Season (2013-14)
TS%: .542
eFG%: .502
WS/40: .197
USG%: .284
PER: 22.1
TRB%: .119

Summary: The jury is still out on whether or not Q is a bona fide first-round NBA pick, as he has disappeared at times in big games for the Buckeyes this year. But there is no doubt that this year's version of Ross is head and shoulders above where he was two seasons ago. His PER has increased while his usage rate has decreased, suggesting that he has developed a much better sense of when to take his shot and when to distribute the ball.

His shooting numbers tell the same story as Craft's and Williams', taking a sizable leap during his time in Columbus. His increase in win shares demonstrates that he now has a much higher value to the team while he's on the floor. It's worth noting that Ross only appeared in 9 games his freshman season thanks to academic issues keeping him sidelined until December, and clearly didn't make the most of his limited minutes.

Verdict: Point, Coach Matta. Ross is a talented guy who has developed a good basketball IQ and has shown flashes of the game-takeover ability necessary to be successful at the college and pro levels. His consistency is probably still not where the team needs it to be, but there is no denying his improvement athletically (and academically) as a member of Matta's team.

Shannon Scott, G, 2011-Present


First Season (2011-12)
TS%: .286
eFG%: .289
WS/40: .023
USG%: .148
PER: 3.6
AST%: .251

Final/Current Season (2013-14)
TS%: .503
eFG%: .476
WS/40: .153
USG%: .180
PER: 16.0
AST%: .257

Summary: Scott's freshman year numbers were objectively pretty awful. He averaged a little over ten minutes a game playing second banana to Craft, and was horribly inefficient with the ball. His assist rate actually peaked last year at an impressive 33.9%, but has otherwise stayed pretty consistent. Scott's PER has exploded while his usage has increased. His expanded and critical role in the Buckeyes' offense is also demonstrated in his WS/40 numbers, which have skyrocketed as well.

Conclusion: A cautious point for Thad. Shannon Scott has obviously gotten much better as a player, but a numbers explosion like that is also correlated with the benefit of experience gained when a player jumps from the bench to a starting role. Still, it's been an impressive increase by Scott, and we have to give Coach Matta credit for grooming a onetime bench player into a serviceable and valuable 2-guard.

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Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Former Player Values

Deshaun Thomas, F, 2010-11 to 2012-13

First Season (2010-11)
TS%: .563
eFG%: .527
WS/40: .230
USG%: .284
PER: 26.0
TRB%: .158

Final Season (2012-13)
TS%: .551
eFG%: .506
WS/40: .212
USG%: .291
PER: 24.2
TRB%: .100

Summary: No one who followed college basketball while Deshaun Thomas was playing would say that he was a better player his freshman year than his junior year. While his averages decreased slightly across the years in these categories, the numbers belie the fact that he was an incredibly prolific scorer who Ohio State needed on the floor as much as possible. This is a noteworthy example of the numbers not being able to tell the whole story of a player's contributions to his team, though it is apparent that despite Thomas' talent he didn't get more disciplined as his career went on. His junior year 24.2 PER was still better than those of the four current profiled players, meaning he was efficient with the ball despite his tendency to heave shots from anywhere he felt comfortable.

Verdict: This one goes against Thad, despite Thomas' obvious talents as a basketball player and the value he brought to the team. We are measuring development under Matta here, not output, and there aren't enough clear signs that Deshaun became objectively more effective as a player in his OSU tenure. This is partially due to the absurdly high baseline that we are starting from, as Thomas put up solid averages in limited time during his first season, but this baseline can't definitively be attributed to Matta's influence.

William Buford, G, 2008-09 to 2011-12

First Season (2008-09)
TS%: .544
eFG%: .516
WS/40: .175*
USG%: .243*
PER: 19.8*
AST%: .181*

*these numbers represent Buford's second season at OSU, as data was unavailable for these categories for 2008.

Final Season (2011-12)
TS%: .521
eFG%: .483
WS/40: .164
USG%: .241
PER: 17.4
AST%: .151

Summary: Buford was a four-year starter at OSU that added value with his good mid-range jumper and long wingspan. He was also an outstanding free throw shooter. Still, his numbers in the advanced statistical categories tell us that Buford never really got any better after his first two seasons, and may have actually regressed in a few areas. The most disappointing numbers for Buford are his eFG%, which tells us that his shooting diminished in effectiveness despite his solid free throw numbers, and his PER, which decreased a few points despite his usage remaining relatively constant. Savvy readers will notice that Buford's flat 17.4 PER is still higher than Shannon Scott's, the difference being that Scott has blossomed in his OSU career while Buford remained pretty constant in his level of contribution.

Verdict: Another scratch against Thad. Buford was (and still is) a very talented basketball player, but it falls on the coach when a guy with that skill set doesn't show any kind of statistical improvement from year to year. Granted, Bu's numbers were still fantastic despite never making any great leaps forward, but we are looking for clear indications that Thad Matta can develop the talent that he is given to work with.

Evan Turner, G, 2007-08 to 2009-10

First Season (2007-08)
TS%: .557
eFG%: .519
WS/40: .247*
USG%: .331*
PER: 30.0*
AST%: .375*

*these numbers represent Turner's third and final season at OSU, as data was unavailable for these categories before 2009.

Final Season (2009-10)
TS%: .581
eFG%: .540
WS/40: .247
USG%: .331
PER: 30.0
AST%: .375

Summary: We obviously don't see a lot of variance here, as Turner only had one season of data available for 4 of the 6 profiled categories. However, we do know that his other numbers increased pretty much across the board. He attempted 4.5 free throws per game a a junior compared to just 1.9 as a freshman, saw his PPG increase from 8.5 to 20.4, his assists per game go from 2.6 to 6.0, and a notable jump in shooting percentage from every distance. His 30.0 PER was crazy good, particularly given how high his junior year usage rate was. It's no surprise that he won the Wooden Award as the nation's most outstanding player that season.

Verdict: A definite point for Coach Matta. By the time Turner declared for the NBA draft (in which he was selected second overall), he had turned into an offensive machine capable of playing either guard position and occasionally dabbling as a small forward. He was versatile, and the kind of guy who you want to have the ball in his hands (anyone remember the Michigan game in the 2010 B1G Tournament?). More importantly, he showed clear signs of improvement in every major statistical category as his career progressed, and it's fair to say that Matta had a big hand in helping turn an excellent guard into one of the most dangerous players in college basketball.

David Lighty, Guard/Forward, 2006-07 to 2010-11

First Season (2006-07)
TS%: .456
eFG%: .405
WS/40: .160*
USG%: .19.7*
PER: 17.8*
AST%: .152*

*these numbers represent Lighty's fourth season at OSU, as data was unavailable for these categories before 2009.

Final Season (2010-11)
TS%: .565
eFG%: .546
WS/40: .203
USG%: .203
PER: 20.9
AST%: .185

Summary: David Lighty, like Turner, has a limited amount of data available for the categories we are hitting here. Still, his other numbers can tell the story: as his minutes increased, so did his output, and he finished his senior season with 1,458 career points despite accruing just 143 in his freshman year. Lighty's efficiency increased as his workload got marginally larger, and his assists increased as he became a more effective distributor of the ball. Lighty was another jack-of-all-trades who made steady improvement and could be called on to step in at just about any position on the floor.

Verdict: We'll give the point to Matta. Lighty's shooting numbers are of particular interest, as he made good strides in improving his shooting and his shot selection as he put more games under his belt. His fourth season numbers are not shown here, but they are almost identical to his final season. While that hardly constitutes development, it is doubtful that any player really improves much between their fourth and fifth seasons at the college level. More importantly, his numbers rose steadily across the arc of his entire career, and that's the kind of statistic we like to see.

For kicks, let's look at a few other high profile guys in the NCAA today and see if their numbers tell a different story. The same rules apply: he needs to be in at least his third season, and be playing significant minutes with a perceived high ceiling of talent. Please note that our format here is changing slightly in the interests of saving space, with the freshman year and final year stats listed side-by-side.

Non-Ohio State Players

Adreian Payne, Michigan State, Center (Freshman Stats/Senior Stats):

TS%: .480/ .621
eFG%: .472/ .583
WS/40: .087/ .223
USG%: .184/ .269
PER: 15.3/ 26.0
TRB%: .151/ .151

Yikes. Those are some seriously outrageous improvements across the board. Let's check another Izzo guy to see if Thad might be outmatched within his conference.

Keith Appling, Michigan State, Guard (Freshman Stats/Senior Stats):

TS%: .593/ .564
eFG%: .555/ .521
WS/40: .087/ .193
USG%: .155/ .231
PER: 11.8/ 20.6
AST%: .115/ .271

Appling seems to have made some pretty big leaps in his overall contributions to the team and his effectiveness when on the floor, though his shooting numbers have dipped slightly since his freshman year. Despite the heavy increases in usage for both Payne and Appling, they both also made huge gains in the efficiency department. It might be safe to give Izzo the nod over Matta in this department, if we're forgiving of a small sample size. How about comparing Matta's guys with the most recent national champs, Rick Pitino's Louisville squad?

Russ Smith, Louisville, Guard (Freshman Stats/Senior Stats):

TS%: .438/ .569
eFG%: .427/ .534
WS/40: .080/ .237
USG%: .293/ .312
PER: 13.3/ 25.3
AST%: .280/ .312

Russ Smith is a bit of an outlier in the sense that he was a 2-star recruit who did not come into college ready to contribute at the highest level. Pitino's roller coaster guard has come a long way since. So far in his senior season, Smith is effectively averaging almost a quarter of a win every time he plays. That smashes his freshman season, and outdoes every OSU player in our sample except Evan Turner in his Wooden Award-winning season. We'd hate to project based on just one Pitino guy, so let's go for two:

Wayne Blackshear, Louisville, Guard-Forward (Freshman Stats/Junior Stats):

TS%: .396/ .605
eFG%: .366/ .561
WS/40: .065/ .250
USG%: .256/ .201
PER: 8.5/ 22.0
TRB%: .110/ .088

Gulp. Those are scary-good numbers this season, and monstrous improvements since his freshman campaign.

Conclusions

So what do we take away from all of this? How do we find sense amidst all of this statistical noise?

We are obviously working with a very small sample size here, but those players featured have been chiefly responsible for Ohio State's success in the last 5 or 6 seasons (minus those ineligible based on our parameters). The statistical measures used don't give a full picture of a player's development or a coach's role in that, but they broadly cover some of the benchmarks that are most helpful to look at when evaluating progress.

It is probably fair to say that Thad Matta isn't the greatest coach at developing the raw talent given to him

It is probably fair to say, from a statistical standpoint, that Thad Matta isn't the greatest coach in the NCAA at developing the raw talent given to him. Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo both have at least two current players outpacing any of Ohio State's in their development, though there's no shame in finishing behind either of those men in anything. And all these numbers don't speak to the incredible recent run of success (this year...pending) that the Buckeyes have had. Matta has yet to notch a title to his belt, but Ohio State has been a scary team to face come March for years now.

An interesting sidebar is that a number of these players actually put up their best numbers in their second seasons under Thad Matta. Aaron Craft put up career highs in every category we have measured here in his sophomore season, with a line of 18.3 (PER)/ .185 (WS/40)/ .592; .550 (TS%; eFG%). Deshaun Thomas peaked in shooting and win shares per 40 minutes his second year, and the same holds true for William Buford. Shannon Scott's career-best PER (19.4) came in his sophomore season, and his WS/40 peaked then as well.

There is never a single answer to a question with such broad implications, but we have done our best to reign in some of the available data and paint a better picture of where Coach Matta stands in the area of player development. There have been some clear disappointments, like William Buford. Based on all available data, and the so-called eye test, Matta missed on that one. But there have also been a number of successes: players hardly stick around if they're done getting better and learning from their coaches, and Evan Turner was a better player in his third season than his first in every measurable way. Matta may not be the best in the business, but he hasn't exactly been a slouch.

Thanks for sticking it out this far, folks. Agree? Disagree? Have some numbers or insight of your own to contribute? Let us know in the comment section!

Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) contributed (heavily) to this report.

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