Through the first nine games of the season, Drew Neitzel is averaging 14.2 points per game–down 3.9 points per game from last season. This is a substantial decline: 21.5%. I thought I’d take a look at what might be responsible for the decline and if we can expect his scoring average to go back up (or whether it needs to).
But before we get to those questions, let’s step back a moment and take a look back at Neitzel’s career to date. Among all the basketball players in the universe, Neitzel may be the player I’m most qualified to write about. He and I share the same high school alma mater (Wyoming Park; Go Vikings!) so I’ve followed his career even more closely than those of other Spartan stars.
Drew Neitzel was a superstar in high school, winning Michigan’s Mr. Basketball award as a senior. For his high school career, he finished as the state’s 6th all-time leading scorer and 2nd all-time assist leader. As a senior, he averaged 33.0 points and 9.2 assists per game playing at the Class B level. Those are lofty numbers at the high school level–where they play 32 minute games and don’t have a shot clock.
I saw Neitzel play in person 6-8 times during his final two years of high school. And it was a sight to behold. He played nearly every minute of every game. The ball never left his hands until he was double-teamed. At times, he was instructed to wait for the triple team before passing. He had the green light to shoot from anywhere on the court. I don’t have the stats to back this up, but he must have taken at least half of his team’s shots as a senior.
So he came to MSU as a freshman with a legitimate reputation as a big-time scorer. Of course, when he arrived there was very little need for him to score. Between Ager, Anderson, Davis, Brown, Torbert, and Hill, Izzo had all the scoring options he needed. Neitzel averaged just 3.5 points per game as a freshman as he focused on running the offense and distributing the ball.
As a sophomore, his scoring averaged increased to 8.3 points/game as Anderson, Hill, and Tobert all moved on. As a junior, he was the lone returning legitimate scoring option and, as we all know, he blossomed–scoring 18.1 points/game.
Below is a summary of Neitzel’s shooting stats over his first three seasons, with the fourth season thrown in for future reference:
Season Pts/G FGA/G 2pt% 3pt% eFG% 2004-05 3.5 3.4 42.2 32.7 45.1 2005-06 8.3 7.1 41.3 40.4 50.4 2006-07 18.1 13.3 44.7 41.2 54.8 *************************************** 2007-08 14.2 10.3 43.6 42.6 55.4
Most remarkable about these numbers is that, as Neitzel’s shooting attempts increased, so did his scoring efficiency. His effective FG percentage increased by nearly a full 10 percentage points from his freshman season to his junior season–despite the fact that he was taking more difficult shots and the defense was focusing on him more.
This points to something about Neitzel’s game I’ve theorized since high school: the more he shoots, the better he gets. In high school, he’d miss four or five shots in a row at times. But he always had the green light and eventually he’d knock down several big shots in a row. While he’s certainly a great shooter, I’m not sure he’s the same kind of a shooter as someone like J.J. Reddick or Shawn Respert, who has picture-perfect, textbook form on every shot. Neitzel is more of a touch shooter. The more shots he takes, the more he zeroes in on the rim.
This theory makes sense intuitively. It explains why his shooting stats were poor as a freshman, when he almost never took enough shots to get into a rhythm. It also explains the high number of game where he’s scored very few points in the first half of a game only to heat up in the second half and score 12-15 points.
But I also wanted to test the theory a little more rigorously. So I took Neitzel’s career game logs from ESPN.com (which only include regular season games) and broke them down by number of FG attempts. Here are the results:
FGA #ofGames eFG% 0-4 28 35.1 5-9 33 48.9 10-14 20 55.3 15+ 13 59.1
The results confirm the theory: the more shots Neitzel takes, the more efficiently he shoots the ball. At the high end of the range, he shoots at a lofty 59.1 effective FG % when he takes 15 or more shots in a game.
And this isn’t just a result of the fact that the number of shots he took increased as his career (and presumably his scoring ability) progressed. The trend above holds for each of his first three individual seasons (I’ll spare you all the numbers; trust me).
So now that we’ve established Neitzel’s scoring tendencies coming into this season, let’s look at his performance to date this season. As shown in the first table above, his shooting efficiency is actually almost exactly where it was last season. But he’s taking three fewer shots per game. So, broadly speaking, the reason for his scoring decline is pretty simple: he’s taking fewer shots.
There’s been quite a bit of variation in his shooting proficiency over the first nine games of the season, though. Here are his game-by-game performances:
OPPPONENT FGA Pts eFG% Chicago St 10 12 60.0 ULMONROE 5 15 80.0 Missouri 10 21 75.0 UCLA 11 13 45.5 Oakland 9 12 44.4 NC State 11 17 77.3 Jacksonville 7 10 57.1 Bradley 16 13 31.3 BYU 14 15 53.6
Sadly, for those of us who prefer elegant mathematical results, these figures don’t jive with what we would have predicted based on the data from his first three seasons. The one game he put up more than 15 shots was his lowest eFG% of the season (Bradley). And he shot very well in his first three games, when he was taking 10 or fewer shots per game.
The quantitative analysis of this season’s games having failed me (and keep in mind we’re dealing with a limited sample size against uneven competition), I’m now going to resort to some qualitative analysis:
- In the first two games, the freshman we’re being phased in and Raymar Morgan stepped up his scoring from last season. So there was no need for Neitzel to shoot much against inferior opposition. But he shot well on his relatively few attempts.
- He then hit the stretch of four games against tougher opposition, but was fighting illness. So his shot attempts didn’t go up much. His shooting performance was uneven–two good games, two bad games.
- Throw out the Jacksonville game.
- In the Bradley and BYU games, he clearly looked to shoot more. But he shot poorly for three out of four halves, before heating up in second half against BYU. As I expressed in an Bradley recap post, to me he just looked like he was a little off. And that was one of the rare games where he kept shooting but never heated up. In the BYU game, he also kept shooting and heated up in the second half.
So I’m going to throw out seven of the games due to inferior opponents and illness, assert that the Bradley game was an anomaly, and state unequivocally that the BYU game proves my theory: Neitzel needs to keep shooting. In the world of academia, this is what is called “data mining.”
The trick for Izzo to figure out down the stretch is the balance between using the multiple scoring options he now has at his disposal (Morgan, Suton, the freshmen) and making sure Neitzel gets enough shots to get in the groove. To some extent, this will be a function of how much they push the ball up the court to score in transition (where Morgan and the freshmen will probably be bigger factors) and how much they pull the ball back and run their half court offense (where Neitzel and Suton will be bigger factors). Given that the Big Ten looks like it will continue its lethargic ways this season, though, ensuring that Neitzel is getting enough opportunities to shoot off screen in the half court game will undoubtedly be essential to a successful conference season.
And Izzo certainly knows this: “When he’s passing up shots, he’s going to hear about it.” As the schedule gets tougher and the freshmen find their roles, I think it’s a pretty good bet Neitzel will finish the season with a scoring average closer to last year’s 18 points/game than the 14 points/game he’s scored so far this season.
OK, I’ve carried on long enough here. What do others have to say? Does Neitzel need to score more for MSU to have a successful season? And, if so, how does MSU get him more shots?