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The Plus/Minus (12/1)

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The Plus/Minus returns for the 2014-15 season to look at the Baylor men's basketball team. Like last season, we'll consider three pluses, three minuses, and something that could go either way. Let's dive in.

Taurean Waller-Prince, The Gunslinger
Taurean Waller-Prince, The Gunslinger
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

In my last preseason post, I prefaced my season predictions with the following:

What's a preseason without arbitrary predictions that have little to no chance of coming to fruition? Boring, that's what. Here are my ridiculous, indefensible predictions for how this team will shake out this season.

Outside of a couple of obvious predictions (Kenny Chery for MVP, Royce O'Neale for Mr. Everything, Taurean Prince for Gunner), that quote is probably the most accurate prediction I could have made. Lester Medford is not a sixth man; he's a starter. Johnathan Motely will not be taking home the coveted Ish Wainwright Award for overhyped freshman; he's already getting buzz from the folks over at Upside Motor, HP Basketball Network's NBA prospect site, as a young player to watch this season. Deng Deng does not have the look of a starter about him; he's the new Prince, and I mean that in a good/bad way. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Plus

1.) The Defense

Heading into the season, I thought the lack of a true rim protector was going to be an issue for the Bears, and maybe it will be once conference play starts. Through the first six games, however, Baylor has the 25th ranked defense in the country after adjusting for opponent (91.2 points per 100 possessions), per kenpom.com, is 12th in unadjusted defensive rating (82.2 points per 100 possessions), per Sports-Reference.com, and is 7th in points allowed per game (51.5). For comparison, Baylor finished last season ranked 75th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and that was with the Big 12's leading shot blocker, Isaiah Austin.

How is this possible? Well, a big part of it is the hybrid, hyper-aggressive 2-3/1-3-1 zone Scott Drew is implementing. The Bears are quicker to close out on shooters and have been much better at stealing the ball, stripping it from the opposing team on 10.1% of possessions, up from 7.8% from last season. Part of that is increased athleticism on the perimeter. For the stupendous shooting that they brought, Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin simply don't have the quickness that Medford and Al Freeman have. In addition to improved perimeter athleticism, several players are showing improvement after a year or two in Drew's scheme. Chery leads the team with 1.8 steals per game, and a lot of those steals have come from digging down on bigs when they catch the ball in the middle of the zone at the free throw line. Unsurprisingly, O'Neale and Prince are the next two on that list, tied at 1.2 steals per game, making good use of their length and athleticism to disrupt passing lanes on the wing.

One more factor aiding Baylor's defense this season: tempo. Baylor averages just under 63 possessions per game. Adjusting for opponent, Baylor plays like a team averaging 61 possessions per game, which ranks 320th in the country, per KenPom. An average defensive possession lasts 19.2 seconds, ranking 299th. Baylor is a grind-it-out team, making opponents work hard every trip down the court and disrupting opponents' offensive game plans. This defense often forces teams into late shot clock situations where college players will frequently put up a poor shot.

The biggest difference between this season and last is effort. This year's Bears want to win with defense, and they play their butts off on nearly every defensive possession. In games where the offense sputters, like against Illinois, it will be the defense that gives Baylor a chance to win.

I could say a lot more, but I've said enough for now.

2.) Dueling Banjos

Had Chery been available for the game against Illinois, I'm pretty confident the Bears would have come away with the win. The Chery-Medford backcourt is just too much for most teams to handle for an entire game. Both have a reliable outside shot, are excellent ball handlers in the pick-and-roll, and can create their own shot late in the clock to bail out possessions. The two have basically taken turns ending bad possessions, Chery with his jump shot and Medford blowing by his defender to the rim. Admittedly, neither has been particularly efficient scoring the ball, but I've got a theory on how they help the offense just by shooting the ball, even if they miss.

Back in December of 2012, Kirk Goldsberry, an NBA writer for Grantland, introduced a new statistic that he called the Kobe Assist. The Kobe assist, simply, is this: By taking and missing a shot, the shooter creates an opportunity for an offensive rebound for his teammates under the basket. If the offensive rebound turns into a quick score, that counts as one Kobe assist for the shooter who took the initial shot. Combining for nearly 40% of Baylor's shot attempts (39.5%, precisely) Chery and Medford have pretty poor shooting percentages (.361 and .356, respectively), and all those missed shots have given their teammates ample opportunity to gobble up offensive boards, which remains one of Baylor's best skills, particularly with Rico Gathers on the floor. From 177 missed shots, the Bears have produced 83 offensive rebounds. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out a way to track points off offensive rebounds just yet, but I'd be willing to bet Baylor's got a pretty healthy figure.

Improving their own shooting would be nice, and neither one is turning in great assist totals right now, but when these two guards play together, they put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses, opening up opportunities for their teammates just by being a threat to score from anywhere on the floor.

3.) The Gunslinger

Taurean Waller-Prince, hereafter known as The Gunslinger, is the Brett Favre of Baylor basketball. The Gunslinger accounts for 28.5% of shots taken when he is on the floor, far and away the highest percentage on the team. He's largely been on the mark, too. He's shooting .444 from 2P% on 5.4 attempts per game, which is alright. Much more impressive is his work from distance, where he has been a veritable John Wayne. On 3.6 attempts per game, The Gunslinger is shooting .556, the highest rate on the team by some distance. His spot-up shooting has been spectacular, and he has managed to reduce his turnover rate, although it is still a little high. He's also been aggressive driving to the basket and is drawing a good number of fouls (5.1 fouls per 40 minutes, second on the team). Oh, and he leads the team in scoring at 13 points per game. Opposing teams, you'd best circle the wagons. The Gunslinger's coming for you.

Minus

1.) *PING* (WARNING: LINK MAY CONTAIN NIGHTMARE FUEL)

Let me admit up front that this assessment is based almost entirely on the eye test and is probably a reaction to the Illinois game more than anything. The Bears are averaging 66 points per game, 202nd in the country, but that stat is a bit misleading. Once you adjust for pace and opponent, Baylor has the 18th (!) best offense in the country with a 108.5 adjusted offensive efficiency. A lot of that has to do with the Bears aforementioned offensive rebounding prowess. Otherwise, Baylor has been only slightly above average scoring the ball from the field and atrocious from the free throw line.

The Bears rank 286th in the country in free throw percentage (.636 FT%). A lot of this has to do with who is taking the free throws. Gathers has only shot five more field goals than free throws (35 to 30), giving him a free throw rate of 85.7%, an astoundingly high number. The bigger issue, however, is that he is shooting only 50% from the line. Given the number of fouls he draws inside, I would think 80% of Gathers' practice should consist of free throw shooting, but maybe not. Gathers isn't the only one to blame, though. Chery, Medford, and Freeman are the only players averaging above 66% from the charity stripe, and only Freeman has shown the ability to draw fouls at a decent rate among the the guards.

In the game against Illinois, Baylor struggled to get its offense going, especially in the 2nd half. Plays broke down, guys stood around watching the ball handler, often Medford, dribble at the top of the arc, and, until a late game push, no one could generate a good look. Baylor took a lot of contested shots, both at the rim and on jump shots. Several times, I found myself yelling at the TV pretty frequently at guys for shooting a tough layup when a shooter was open on the perimeter or for passing up an open outside shot for a contested mid-range shot. Baylor was a combined 5-21 from three and 12-30 from two. A lot of those twos were contested layups or floaters, but quite a few of those missed threes were open looks. The Bears were also 15-25 from the free throw line. In a game they lost by 8, those ten points left on the court were the difference between winning and losing.

Even with Chery on the floor, the team can be overly reliant on the point guards to create shots and bail out possessions. Personally, I would like to see a little more of Freeman, who has shown flashes as a triple threat offensive player. His jump shot looks good - even if it's not quite falling yet - he's good at drawing fouls when driving, and he can make some nifty bounce passes to teammates cutting to the basket. Drew should consider running out some three guard lineups against the coming cupcakes before conference play begins. He might need them later in the season to juice up the offense when trailing late in games.

2.) Dang, Deng (Did I do it right?)

No one has stressed me out more this season than Deng Deng. He's obviously talented. He can shoot from the short corner, handle the ball when running the open floor in transition, and is leading the team in "WOW" plays so far. When he's not doing those things, he's taking some really tough shots - which have mostly fallen, to his credit - and fouling at a pretty high rate. He's committing 4.2 fouls per 40 minutes, trailing only Motley's 4.4. He is essentially tied with Chery for 2nd on the team in usage rate (how often he ends a possession with a shot, turnover, or foul drawn when he is on the floor), and is significantly higher than Medford. So far, that hasn't been too bad. But once those tough shots stop falling, he'll have to correct his decision making.

3.) Motl3y

Dear Johnathan,

Please stop shooting threes. I know you made one against Illinois, but as the saying goes, you're open for a reason. Sure, you've made 2 of 8 on the season, but it'd be much better if you would attack the space the defense is giving you and go to the rim. Get your defender in foul trouble. It should work out better in the long run.

Sincerely,

PocketChange

Plus/Minus

The Ish Wainwright Bandwagon

Wainwright has continued to be a mixed bag. When he's aggressive, he's not been too bad. Shooting 5-8 from the field (0-2 from three), he only takes shots he's confident he can make, and at least once a game he makes a pass that no one else on the team can make. He has moments on defense when he totally engulfs smaller guards, and the combination of his lateral quickness and wingspan have made him an effective wing defender. But he can still be tentative, leading to turnovers, and he can have trouble getting consistent minutes in the rotation because of his lack of shooting. For both the team's sake and mine, he needs to find a consistent offensive game. That could be a difference maker for the season.

Alum Highlight

I'll just leave this here...

Have your own thoughts? Share them in the comments!