by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
The augmented offensive presence of Dave Sobolewski over the last two games is not an illusion. The anecdotal evidence is statistically grounded. Sobolewski’s usage rate, which measures the percentage of possessions involving the designated player, skyrocketed against Butler and Texas State; he used 31 percent of possessions against the Bulldogs and 32 percent against Texas State (per kenpom.com), the most since posting a 21 percent rate in the season-opener.
And he’s not just getting involved in the offense more frequently. Sobolewski is becoming more efficient as he gets more touches and commands more shots, an incredibly difficult balance to maintain – growing your role within the offense while leveraging greater value out of each possession and field goal attempt. Offensive rating is a possession-free statistic that measures the number of points produced per 100 possessions. In the last two games, Sobolewski submitted O-ratings of 104 and 105, respectively. On the surface, that is not all that noteworthy. Sobolewski filed a hyper-efficient 170 Ortg in an early-season win over Delaware State. The difference is, Sobolewski’s 170 was accompanied by a 14 percent usage rate, not even half of his two most recent scores.
His effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for the cost-benefit analysis of the extra valued accrued by three-point field goals, and true shooting percentage (another measure that takes into account three-point shots, as well as field goals) have also jumped over the last two games, and now rank as top-100 figures nationwide.
All of which points to Sobolewski becoming a more efficient offensive player as he controls a larger chunk of Northwestern’s point production and is featured in offensive sets on a more frequent basis. The rise in offensive usage during the Texas State game has a fairly logical narrative correlate: Drew Crawford’s injury. It was reasonable to expect Sobolewski to shoulder a greater share of the scoring load and become more aggressive on offense without Crawford on the floor.
The Butler game was a different story. Sobolewski didn’t go in planning to increase his offensive workload. His magnified role came as a byproduct of favorable defensive matchups – namely, Bulldogs’ guard Rotnei Clarke getting forced to the bench with foul trouble, which afforded Sobolewski a more forgiving matchup with a “smaller guy.” The exploitable matchup situation allowed Sobolewski greater leeway to dart into the paint and finish at the rim.
Crawford’s injury changed things.
“With him going down, it’s a huge blow to us offensively and defensively,” Sobolewski said after a team workout Tuesday. “That’s ten more shots that have to be distributed throughout the team. I’m looking to be a little bit more aggressive with the ball, looking for my own shot rather than passing it to Drew.”
It is a mental shift that gives credence to Sobolewski’s statistical trends. It is also a distinct change the sophomore point guard has discussed with coach Bill Carmody.
Now that the Wildcats have lost their most effective perimeter scorer, a collection of efforts will be required to replace that offensive output. While Sobolewski acknowledges the best way to approach the situation is to piece together Crawford’s lost scoring, he realizes his individual effort is particularly important to keeping Northwestern’s offense afloat.
“Even before Drew got hurt, it was about everyone stepping up and filling the 20 John [Shurna] gave us every night,” he said. “Now with Drew gone, that bumps me up another level in terms of being aggressive, in terms of getting my own shot.”
It is important to note that Sobolewski stressed his intention is not a focused increase in shot attempts or points, but rather a greater overall command of the offense. The loss of Crawford is just as much a physical burden as it is an emotional one. Along with senior guard Reggie Hearn, Sobolewski has made strides to become more vocal in leading the offense and directing traffic in Carmody’s complex Princeton offense.
One year removed from seizing the starting point guard job as a true freshman, Sobolewski has grown into one of the team’s most important leaders. His job would’ve been difficult under any circumstance. The overall youth and inexperience on Northwestern’s roster – freshmen Kale Abrahamson and Alex Olah are starters, while redshirt freshmen Tre Demps and Mike Turner earn major minutes – makes leadership obligations even more daunting. For his part, Sobolewski is prepared to move on without Crawford.
“We can’t dwell on the fact that he won’t be there,” he said. “Coach Carmody has had a lot of freshmen do well in his program. We need new guys to step in and do well.”
A six-point win over Texas State did little to ease the minds of anxious fans looking for a reason to believe the Wildcats can overcome a loss as immensely impactful as Crawford’s. Northwestern will get its first real test sans-Crawford on Friday, when Stanford visits Welsh-Ryan Arena. Beating the Cardinal, whose 89.0 defensive rating ranks 22nd nationally, will likely require Sobolewski to sustain his offensive upswing.
Only this time, stronger defensive resistance threatens to disrupt his new approach. Sobolewski knows what to expect, having teamed with Stanford guard Chasson Randle on the AAU circuit for three years. But if the Wildcats can handle this Pac-12 foe, it would be a strong statement for Northwestern’s ability to cope without their most dynamic off-the-dribble scorer. Sobolewski recognizes the importance of finishing on a strong note as Northwestern heads into conference play. “It would be a big momentum boost for us,” he said.
So too, would another big offensive effort from the Wildcats new primary scoring threat.