Getting Defensive



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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I noted in the Salt Lake Tribune today a quote from Utah coach Jim Boylen about his center David Foster:

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"To me, (Foster) is the (MWC) Defensive Player of the Year, it's not even close with the way he blocks shots and alters teams' offenses and his presence..."

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I think Foster's coach should definitely back his guy for the award, but to say the Defensive Player of the Year Award competition is not even close is a stretch. This much is true: the award will probably go to Foster or BYU's Jackson Emery, and it's a pretty safe bet it will come down to those two guys, whether or not they are the "best" defenders in the conference--here's why:

The MWC Defensive Player of the Year Award was started in 2002 (there was no award in the first two years of the conference). Of the previous nine winners (one year had co-winners), six led the league in either blocks or steals--that's just the way it is. Rightly or wrongly, those two particular stats scream "defensive player of the year" to the voters.

Interestingly, two of the three exceptions were both BYU wing players who traditionally guarded the opposition's best perimeter player (Travis Hansen in 2003 and Mike Hall in 2004). Jackson Emery occupies the same role for BYU today, and he also leads the league in steals. More on Emery later...

Blocked shots clearly excite the MWC voters; four of the last five winners of the yearly defensive award have been the league's top shot-blocker (Luke Nevill in 2009, Joel Anthony in 2007, Justin Williams in 2006 and 2005). The one exception was in 2008, when Air Force guard Tim Anderson surprised me by taking the honor. That season, Anderson did very little of statistical note, other than playing particularly hard, and there is value in that. It was just weird seeing him win that award while playing for a mediocre AFA team that season.

Okay, back now to the issue at hand...

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The case for Foster:

1) He blocks a lot of shots (4.3 per game in conference play, 4th nationally overall), in part because he is 7'3" tall. He is not to be penalized for his height, but his height is the most important element of his particular defensive strength. Those who have watched enough Utah games know he also alters many shots and impacts the way some players play. He is an imposing presence, no doubt.

2) Utah leads the league in 3PFG% defense; this may seem like an unusual argument in Foster's favor, but I think Foster scares teams into taking more low-percentage long-distance shots than they might otherwise take. The intimidation factor inside likely influences limitations of the outside game. Overall (conference and nonconference games), Utah is also 30th nationally in 2PFG% defense, lending credence to the inside shot-altering effect.

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The case against Foster:

1) The impact of a blocked shot is debatable; it only ends one shot attempt. It could be blocked out of bounds resulting in a new possession for the offense, it could be blocked to an offensive player for a new possession, or it could be secured by the defense. In essence, there is a one in three chance that Foster's block will actually end a possession.

2) Foster is an extremely poor rebounder for his size; 14th in league play at 4.9 rebounds per game, he is not in the top ten in defensive rebounds, and is ranked 455th by Ken Pomeroy in defensive rebounding percentage, due in part to the relatively few minutes Foster plays (22.7 mpg on the year).

3) On that note, Foster probably doesn't play enough to be the most impactful defensive player in the league, in part due to the fact he struggles to get up and down the floor as well as more agile players. His playing time is up to 25.5 mpg in conference play, but that ranks only 32nd in the MWC, behind Utah bench players Jay Watkins and Carlon Brown in league games.

4) Utah is 6th in MWC scoring defense, and what is defense if not preventing points? Utah is also 7th in rebounds allowed, 5th in rebounds gained, and 5th in defensive rebound percentage. Foster's defensive impact (as a strategy-changing presence) may not be reflected in some important overall defensive standards.

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The case for Jackson Emery:

1) As a returning member of the MWC All-Defensive team last season, he is once again BYU's primary perimeter defender, and leads the league in steals at 2.4/game (15th nationally, 7th in Ken Pomeroy steal percentage). The gap between Emery and the second-place stealer is equal to the gap between second-place and 17th place; he is so far and away the best stealer of the ball, "it's not even close." Foster blocks so many shots mostly because he's so much taller than other players. Comparatively, Emery's physical tools are intuitive and athletic, but not seemingly or apparently dominant, from a physical standpoint. The way I see it, he has to "earn" more of what he gets than David Foster, for lack of a better term; that may seem unfair, but Foster is aided by a physical dimension more so than Emery, when comparing relative attributes.

2) A steal definitively ends a possession, and as a bonus in Emery's favor, his steals more often than not result in points, either by him or a teammate. Clearly, there is a closer correlation between steals and points at the other end than there is a blocked shot and points. I know this is a defensive award, but turning defense into offense has to count for something.

3) Emery is a very good defensive rebounder from the shooting guard position; in conference play, he actually has more defensive rebounds (45) at 6'3" than Foster has (43) at 7'3".

4) Back to the point about Emery guarding the opponent's best perimeter player: Tre'von Willis remains the only opposing MWC wing starter to shoot better than 50% from the field in a game while being guarded primarily by Emery. Interestingly (relative to Boylen's comment), Emery had six steals and helped limit Utah's Marshall Henderson to 5/15 shooting at the Marriott Center. There is some anecdotal evidence that Emery really frustrated Henderson that day...

5) Emery is the best defender on the best defensive team in the MWC. The Cougars lead the league in scoring defense, and rank second in both FG% defense and 3PFG% defense. BYU's combined ranking number of 5 (1st, 2nd, 2nd) in those three main defensive categories leads the conference.

Combined Defensive Ranking (scoring defense, FG% defense, 3PFG% defense)

1. BYU: 5

2. UNLV: 8

3. Utah: 10

4. New Mexico: 13

5. SDSU: 15

6. TCU: 16

7. CSU: 22

8. Wyoming: 23

9. Air Force: 23

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The case against Emery:

1) Emery's defensive strengths are likely to be judged as less of a "game-changer" than Foster's presence alone.

2) UNLV shooting guard Tre'von Willis had two great games against BYU, and UNM point guard Dairese Gary also played well against BYU on a night Emery drew the primary guarding responsibility as part of BYU's match-up defensive plan at The Pit.

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This breakdown isn't meant to denigrate David Foster's defensive value; obviously he produces impressive defensive results relative to blocked and altered shots. But to say he should be a runaway winner of the MWC Defensive Player of the Year Award is to ignore what is arguably and statistically an equally impressive and more complete defensive effort. That's my point.

I am not saying Foster can not, or will not, or should not win the league's annual defensive award--indeed, I won't be surprised if he does. What I am saying is that by the numbers and otherwise, Jackson Emery has to be in the conversation and should be considered a front-runner for DPOY in the MWC.

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