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The Defensive Value of Bernard James

COLLEGE PARK MD - FEBRUARY 23: Adrian Bowie #1 of the  Maryland Terrapins is fouled by Bernard James of the Florida State Seminoles at the Comast Center on February 23 2011 in College Park Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
COLLEGE PARK MD - FEBRUARY 23: Adrian Bowie #1 of the Maryland Terrapins is fouled by Bernard James of the Florida State Seminoles at the Comast Center on February 23 2011 in College Park Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Last season John Henson dominated the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He received 66% of the media’s votes while FSU’s Chris Singleton received 22% and no one else even reached 3%. I had watched every FSU game and most UNC games and I felt the voting was backwards. And this I attributed to two things: ACC media bias, and Michael Rogner bias.

Measuring individual defense in a team sport is nearly impossible. Tempo free hoops data gives great insight into how teams perform, but for individuals we are primarily left with block and steal rates, and defensive rebounding. For the record, John Henson blocked 11.6% of his opponent’s shots when he was on the floor, recorded a steal in 1.2% of UNC’s defensive possessions, and grabbed 25.4% of the available defensive rebounds. Chris Singleton blocked half as many shots (5.9%), stole the ball three times as often (3.9%), and grabbed 17.1% of the defensive rebounds. Using those numbers alone, the edge would go to Henson. Of course, very (VERY) few members of the old media use tempo free stats. They cite blocks per game, steals per game, etc... But I’m not here to argue with them.

As I was wrestling with Chris Singleton’s defense and whether or not bias was clouding my ability to watch a game, the coach’s awards came out. In those, all 12 ACC coaches agreed on the Defensive Player of the Year, and all 12 picked Chris Singleton. With my hoops IQ vindicated, I moved on to a new year.

Rather than guess like last season, I wanted something more. So what I’m doing is tracking defense, so that when the voting happens I have some data to back up the opinion formed by watching the games.

The method is simple. Tedious, but simple. I’m tracking every defensive possession for several players, and recording the result. If the other team scores - that’s bad. If there’s a stop – that’s good. The end result is that I know how many defensive possessions these players are in games for, and how many points the other team scores. Then I compare that to how many possessions they spend on the bench, and how the other team performs while they’re out of the game. The results are illuminating.

A quick note about methods. When players are substituted around foul shots the possession is credited to where they were when the foul occurred. If they were on the floor and then get shuffled off before the FTs are made, they still count against that player (and the opposite is true as well). The other common situation is a team missing a shot, grabbing the offensive rebound, and calling a timeout. If the player I’m tracking comes out of the game during that timeout then the possession is removed as there is no sense crediting them (or punishing them) when the point scoring portion of the possession is going to occur with them on the bench.


Bernard James, FloridaState Seminoles

6’10, 240 lbs

Bernard James isn’t your typical senior. Not only is he a high school dropout, but he never even played basketball while he was in high school. So when Leonard Hamilton spotted him playing in a military tournament he had to extend his imagination to see the potential. He convinced him to enroll at TallahasseeCommunity College, and then two years later provided the scholarship he’d promised to FSU. James didn’t play the recruiting game at JUCO, and so few people knew who he was. But it didn’t take long for them to figure it out.

In his first season at FloridaState he finished with the second highest FG% in school history (65.7%) and the second most blocks (82). He’s already ninth on the career blocked shot list and he’s only played about 1 1/3 seasons.

But none of that matters. What I’m interested in is possessions and points. And through ten games here is what that looks like:

possessions points scored points per possession +/-
in game 456 341 0.75 23.3%
on bench 325 295 0.91

FloridaState allows 0.75 points per possession when Bernard James is in the game, and 0.91 when he’s not, a difference of over 23%. What to make of this? First, his defense is not only legit, but it’s elite (as we’ll see when we look at other players). Second, these numbers can’t be compared on a straight 1-to-1 basis. The reason is that is doesn’t calculate a value over his replacement. FSU is a huge team, and when James leaves the floor the Noles often get bigger. Xavier Gibson is typically on the floor (6’11) and Jon Kreft comes off the bench (7’0). And herein lies the major challenge of interpreting individual defense in basketball.

The good news is that lots of people are working on it. SB Nations’ own Sea of Blue is tracking all of the Kentucky players using nearly identical methods that I’m using. And Luke Winn at Sports Illustrated initiated a group that is watching game film and breaking down every possession that way. The problem is that cracking the defensive code is going be a long and tedious process, so the end result will be a private firm collecting the data and selling it to those who can afford it. In other words, SI, Yahoo, CBS, etc... are going to have a corner on the market. So it goes.

*for the complete article (featuring non-FSU players) read this