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Predicting the development of Northwestern's freshmen

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Northwestern's stable of freshmen have some numbers that suggest future success and some that raise questions. Let's compare them to some Big Ten upperclassmen.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest story of the year heading into 2014-15 for Northwestern was going to be the freshmen.  The famed best recruiting class since ever, the fab five, the foundation for the NCAA Tournament run that was only a few years away.  Some of that hype was well placed (hello Mr. McIntosh).  Some of it might have been a little bit over the top.  Maybe a lot over the top. Three of Northwestern's five freshmen have played significant minutes this year, but with Northwestern mired in its longest losing streak since Kevin O'Neill, the question now becomes less about this year and more about the years to come.

Predicting development of players is darn near impossible.  There are freshmen who come into the Big Ten and immediately make it clear that for however long they will stick around, they will run the conference.  There are the Frank Kaminsky types who do nothing their first years before exploding into a legit all-Big Ten talent.  But more often, it is the guys who play a role as freshmen, get bigger, get more meaningful minutes, and develop over a few years before becoming a legit college player.

I figured it would be a fun experiment to see how the Big Ten's best grew in their years in college and see if there were any unifying themes.  I picked the top ten scoring upperclassmen and compared their freshman year stats (points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage) with their stats from this year.  Conveniently, only two of those players (Aaron White and Frank Kaminsky) are real low-post scorers, the rest are wings or guards like NU's triumvirate.  There were some outliers (see Kaminsky, Frank and LeVert, Caris) but there are some unifying traits in most of these players.  Unsurprisingly, Bryant McIntosh lines up remarkably well.  Law and Lindsey?  That's a mixed bag.

Northwestern-to-Northwestern Comparisons

The best point-guard I've seen in my time watching Northwestern (which is almost 15 years) was Juice Thompson.  Juice's freshman year was pretty superb, but McIntosh's freshman campaign lines up pretty darn well alongside it.  Let's go Player A vs Player B.

Player A
Points Rebounds Assists FG% 3PT% Minutes
11.6 2.0 4.3 43.4 43.3 35.5

Player B
Points Rebounds Assists FG% 3FG% Minutes
11.9 2.7 4.3 43.7 37.5 33.0

The rebounding numbers probably tip it off, but Player A is Juice, and Player B is McIntosh. Juice's shooting numbers in terms of percentages more or less stayed stagnant throughout his career (he shot 39.3% from deep as a senior and 44.7% from the floor), but as his usage went up over his career, the points rose too, scoring 16.3 ppg as a senior.  McIntosh has a slightly higher usage rate than Juice did as a freshman (23.8 and 22.1 respectively), but they're certainly in the same ballpark.

Scottie Lindsey doesn't have gaudy numbers, but he's been playing more and more minutes with Nate Taphorn sidelined due to injury.

Scottie Lindsey Points Rebounds Assists FG% 3FG% Minutes
2014-15 4.1 2.3 0.4 39.3 36.4 13.6

There's not an easy freshman-to-freshman comparison with Lindsey. Drew Crawford has a similar build but entered the program much more ready and averaged 10 points and 4 rebounds (though the three-point shooting numbers are similar). Lindsey as a freshman resembles Jeremy Nash as a junior. Nash was a defensive stopper from his first steps on campus, but it took him a few years for his jump shot to come along. The simple fact that Lindsey is at this stage in his shooting two years before Nash got there is a really good sign. Lindsey's field goal numbers have been dipping lately, but they compare pretty favorably to what most of this year's top scorers did as freshmen.

There is no one at Northwestern who played like Vic Law plays. Law is a hyper-athletic, 6-foot-7 forward who has a decent handle and shoots a bunch of threes that he doesn't make a lot of.

Vic Law Points Rebounds Assists FG% 3PT% Minutes
2014-15 6.5 4.9 1.3 36.2 25.0 24.0

Some of those numbers look really similar to John Shurna's first year at Northwestern, but the biggest difference is the field goal percentage.  Shurna wasn't the lights out shooter he was when he graduated, but he still shot at a much higher clip than Law.

John Shurna Points Rebounds Assists FG% 3PT% Minutes
2008-09 7.3 3.0 1.0 46.6 34.7 18.5

Shurna played less and did more with his scoring chances than Law, but Law brings a lot more defensively than Shurna, who was a minus on that end of the floor. The crazy thing is that, even with Law's unimpressive field goal percentages, his numbers aren't that different than where the best of the Big Ten were as freshmen...

To The Time Machine: Big Ten's Leading Upperclassmen Scorers as Freshmen

Here are our first batch of test subjects, the 10 best upperclassmen scorers:

1.     DJ Newbill, Penn State (transfer from Southern Mississippi)
2.     Terran Pettaway, Nebraska (transfer from Texas Tech)
3.     Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
4.     Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
5.     Shavon Shields, Nebraska
6.     Aaron White, Iowa
7.     Caris LeVert, Michigan
8.     Andre Hollins, Minnesota
9.     Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
10.   Myles Mack, Rutgers

All these guys are averaging north of 14 points per contest now, but two or three years ago, their numbers were more down to earth. As I mentioned earlier, there are some variances among these guys. Terran Pettaway, Caris LeVert, and Frank Kaminsky all scored less than 3.5 points per game as freshmen. Only one player, Aaron White, scored in double figures in his first year. When we average out everyone's freshman numbers, we get a statline that looks pretty pedestrian.

Points Rebounds Assists FG% 3FG% Minutes
6.7 3.3 1.6 42.3 33.6 22.5

This should reassure everyone of what a great year Bryant McIntosh is having.  Freshmen who aren't one-and-done guys almost never have the kind of success that he's having.

There are positives and negatives for both Lindsey and Law with these numbers too. The first three numbers look really good for Vic Law. He outscored four of those ten in their first years. But, of course, we need to talk about efficiency.  Law's field goal percentage only beats out Caris LeVert's 31.5% clip, and Law's three-point shooting numbers are the worst of the bunch.

Lindsey is the opposite of Law. His point numbers are down in the Terran Pettaway (3.1 ppg)/Denzel Valentine (5.0 ppg) range, but only two of the 10 had better three-point shooting percentages than him (Newbill and Hollins). Couple that with the fact that Lindsey's minutes played are firmly in the bottom half of that group, and things are looking up.

Development: The Constants

Everyone scores more as they stay in their programs longer. By beefing up, getting more comfortable in the offense, and gaining experience, players play more, meaning they shoot more, meaning they score more, rebound more, and assist more. On average, our 10 test cases improved their scoring by 9.5 points per game, their rebounding by 2 rebounds per game, and their assisting by 1.6 assists per game from their freshman years to this year. Upping your minutes from an average of 22.5 minutes per game as freshmen to more than 30 as an upperclassmen will help that happen.

Development: The Wild Card

Most people assume that over three or four years playing college ball, your shot has to get better. The numbers don't exactly bear that out. Overall, field goal percentages for our test cases grew by an average of 3 percent, a modest increase helped by bulking up, resulting in more shots from closer to the hoop, and probably experience in picking better shots.

Outside shooting is weirder. Taking out Frank Kaminsky and Aaron White, 3 of the 8 players (LeVert, Valentine, Ferrell) saw their three-point shooting numbers go up by at least 10 percent, a remarkable growth.  But the same number of players saw their three-point shooting get worse (Newbill, Shields, Mack).

The results were so varied I extended the scope of the trial. I looked at every returning player from Wisconsin because they are exactly middle of the pack in the Big Ten in three-point shooting. Five players made a three-pointer their freshman year (Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, and Bronson Koenig). Three of them (Dekker, Jackson, and Gasser) have seen their percentages drop, while Kaminsky and Koenig saw their numbers take off, improving 11.4 percent for the former and 8.2 percent for the latter. While with points, boards, and assists you can pretty simply assume consistent growth, field goal percentages are a bit of a crapshoot.

Takeaways

Bryant McIntosh is in elite company. If four backcourt players get selected to the all-freshman team, he's going to be on it, in all likelihood joined by three future NBA first round guards in Trimble, Blackmon Jr. and Russell. His freshman season is as good as any Wildcat as had.

For Lindsey, he is already shooting at a percentage that can result in putting up big numbers. The question for him will be how he responds to more minutes and more looks. It's hard to gauge success off an average of less than 15 minutes a game. Right now, he doesn't need to worry as much about shot selection as his role is to spark offense. I think his numbers suggest future success more than Law's.

Vic Law's field goal percentage is concerning. You don't see a whole lot of players shoot 25 percent from deep their first year and turn into someone who is a real threat from the outside, especially given the sheer number of shots Law has taken from the outside. Bryant McIntosh, the best healthy three-point shooter NU has right now, shoots 32.6 percent of his shots from outside.  Law shoots 36.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Right now, a lack of bulk might be responsible for Law sticking to the outside, but if he wants to reach his potential, he's going to need to restructure his game. If he can be a more consistent threat off the bounce and on the block, he can be more picky with his shots from three and maybe follow the Denzel Valentine mold.