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The Haters Need to Stop: Johnathan Motley Deserved the Karl Malone Award

Caleb Swanigan was great, but Johnathan Motley was a worthy selection

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

The wrong person often wins an award. Al Paccino didn’t win Best Actor for his role in The Godfather Part II, and Steve Carell never won an Emmy for playing Michael Scott. Derrick Rose won his MVP trophy while LeBron James and Dwight Howard were a good clip better than him. Even the world’s biggest contrarians have trouble defending those decisions.

Johnathan Motley actually deserved his award, but a lot of folks really thought differently. Last week, Motley nabbed the Karl Malone Award. That honor is bestowed upon the best power forward in college basketball. Quite a few people were shocked Motley won. SB Nation’s Purdue blog said Caleb Swanigan was “screwed over.” Rob Dauster of NBC tweeted:

Ken Pomeroy’s Player of the Year Ranking had Motley above Swanigan. Motley finished 3rd and Swanigan was 4th. How close those two ended up does not mean Motley is definitively better than Swanigan. But it should give a ton of weight to the idea that this race was incredibly close.

Swanigan was a slightly better offensive player than Motley. But Swanigan’s numbers were helped in two respects. First, Purdue plays at a much faster pace than Baylor. The Boilermakers played at the 90th fastest clip in the country, while the Bears played at the 295th fastest. Swanigan had more opportunities to score, assist and rebound. He still edges Motley out in a few adjusted categories, and I think Swanigan is a better offensive player. But Motley blows him away on the offensive boards, which makes this a pretty close comparison. Swanigan was 185th in offensive rebounding rate and Motley was 22nd. If you haven’t seen Motley play, you might have missed this:

Second, Baylor played a tougher schedule than Purdue. It’s tougher to score against Kansas, West Virginia, and Iowa State than it is to score against much of the Big Ten. The Bears played the fifth toughest schedule, according to KenPom. Purdue played the 38th toughest. These aren’t huge differences, but they matter. Swanigan would have been awesome in the Big 12. Motley would have put up better numbers in the Big Ten. Those two things are tough to argue.

Motley’s advantage comes defensively. The Bears finished with the best defense of the Scott Drew era, and they were eight spots better in adjusted defensive efficiency than the Boilermakers. Those team numbers matter in comparing two individuals because Swanigan’s inability to move well laterally hampered Purdue’s defense. Kansas had a crazy offensive day against Purdue, but Frank Mason can’t be contained with Swanigan dropping this far in pick-and-roll coverage:

And his decision-making about when to come out and when to drop back plagued him throughout the season. KU really worked Swanigan:

Swanigan made huge strides with his conditioning and ability to run the floor this season. But he could struggle to get back into plays defensively, and Kansas made Purdue pay on this possession:

In contrast, Motley moves a lot better laterally and is a much better perimeter defender. In close games, these kinds of contests matter:

Motley also did a nice job defending likely lottery pick Miles Bridges. Motley played Bridges in a way that forced him to be a jump shooter, and Motley made those looks tough:

Sorting this all out can become difficult. Beyond the big differences I’ve mentioned, Swanigan is a wonderful 3-point shooter and monster on the defensive glass. And Motley can run the floor and euro-step like a guard:

Ultimately, Johnathan Motley was the right choice for the Karl Malone Award. He was nearly as good as Swanigan offensively, and he separated himself defensively. Maybe Swanigan should have won for having enough double-doubles to make us wonder why Jon Rothstein never compared him to In-N-Out. Maybe he should have won because he was so good at so many things that matter. But Motley winning wasn’t ludicrous or Swanigan getting robbed. Either notion is ludicrous and robs Motley of his well-deserved honor.