"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Dispelling the Myths

Howard's game is more than scoring | Photo by Dylan Buell - Getty Images

In sports, reputations are often earned early on. Once a player is regarded as a defensive liability, a selfish chucker, or turnover-prone, fans and pundits tend to stick by those opinions throughout that player's career. That is especially true in college basketball where players stick around at most four years. If the truth behind those narratives changes, people rarely call those inaccurate takes into question. Howard has been regarded as all three of those things listed above, but all three are myths that are not supported by statistical evidence. Let's examine them in order.

Myth 1: Markus Howard is a poor defender

During Markus Howard's first two years at Marquette, the team defense was atrocious. While there are many factors that contributed to that, Markus Howard was absolutely one of the reasons for that. To be clear, Markus Howard most certainly was a very poor defender when he arrived at Marquette.

Ken Pomeroy uses Adjusted Defensive Efficiency to rank defenses, which calculates the number of points a team allows per possession adjusted against the quality of opponents they play. In 2016-17, Marquette made the tournament despite a defensive efficiency rating of 104.2, good enough to rank #165 in the nation. The "advantage" that team had was the ability to play one of the small guards alongside a bigger guard like Jajuan Johnson, Haanif Cheatham, or Duane Wilson. The next year the defense got worse as both Howard and Rowsey spent virtually the entire time on the court together, leading to a defensive efficiency rating of 105.6 and a rank of #182.

What many people missed in that decline was that Howard's individual defense actually improved significantly. Since his reputation was already established, the Markus Howard is a poor defender narrative was set in stone. And what those same people continue to not realize today is that Markus Howard has actually developed into a good defender. Here are the defensive points per possession numbers for Howard by season on Synergy:

Year Player # Poss. Points DPPP Percentile Rating
2016-17 Markus Howard 177 177 1.000 9% Poor
2017-18 Markus Howard 240 217 0.904 38% Average
2018-19 Markus Howard 301 220 0.731 85% Excellent
2019-20 Markus Howard 182 129 0.709 81% Very Good

There's no beating around the bush, Howard was one of the worst defenders in the country as a freshman. But despite playing alongside Rowsey (9th percentile in 2017-18) Howard was at least a capable defender his sophomore year. And with Rowsey being such a miserable defender, that also meant that Howard was likely taking the task of going up against the opposition's best guard on a nightly basis.

In 2018-19, Marquette's defense improved significantly. Howard no longer had to play alongside Rowsey, which also meant he didn't have to be saddled with the task of taking the best offensive guard, and he blossomed defensively. His 0.731 defensive points per possession allowed was in the 85th percentile and good enough to rank 7th among all players in the Big East with 150 or more possessions as the primary defender.

What makes Howard's performance even more notable is the number of possessions he is taking as the primary defender, especially when compared to where he stands among the other NPOY candidates.

Player # Poss. Pts DPPP Rank Rating
Devon Dotson 245 173 0.706 81% Very Good
Markus Howard 182 129 0.709 81% Very Good
Myles Powell 139 99 0.712 80% Very Good
Malachi Flynn 196 140 0.714 80% Very Good
Jordan Nwora 181 140 0.773 65% Very Good
Payton Pritchard 181 141 0.779 64% Good
Cassius Winston 199 159 0.799 58% Good
Vernon Carey 114 106 0.930 23% Below Average
Obi Toppin 159 150 0.943 21% Below Average
Luka Garza 158 156 0.987 14% Poor

If you scroll to the right side of the column, a few things become very obvious. First, Dotson, Howard, Powell, and Flynn are all relatively close to each other as a top tier defensively. Second, Carey, Toppin, and Garza are bad defenders. Bigs often get a pass when it comes to defense because blocks are exciting, but I admit I threw up in my mouth a little while watching an Iowa game on the Big Ten Network where the announcer said "Don't be fooled by his offense, Luka Garza is also a terrific defender!" The only world in which one could call Garza a "terrific" defender is one where we are going back to the original meaning of terrific, which shares etymological roots with terrible. Luka Garza is a slightly worse defender than Markus Howard was as a freshman when he earned his reputation as a bad defender. If defense matters remotely, Carey, Toppin, and Garza should all be eliminated from the conversation out of hand because while Howard is clearly more impactful on offense, he is also better on the defensive end.

While there wasn't room in the above table, it's worth noting the 182 possessions where opposing offenses were attacking Howard. This is in the 91st percentile of all players in the country. Opposing offenses are trying to exploit Howard but he still maintains his DPPP despite teams going at him

Howard's defense alone isn't a reason to vote for him for National Player of the Year, but it certainly should not discount him from the conversation. Players like Toppin and Garza, on the other hand...

 Howard has a top-200 Assist Rate the past two years | Photo by Dylan Buell - Getty Images

Myth 2: Markus Howard is a Selfish Chucker

While it's true that Markus Howard shoots a lot, there is a definite perception out there that he is a ball-hog who doesn't share with his teammates. I don't remember ever hearing the same about Myles Powell, Devon Dotson, or Luka Garza. However when you look at the numbers, Howard provides assists at a higher rate than any of those players. Using Synergy Sports, I was able to calculate not just the points scored by all of the individual NPOY candidates but also the points scored off assists those players created.

Player Games Usage Ast Rate Points Pts Assisted Total PPG
Cassius Winston 23 30.1 38.3 428 311 32.1
Payton Pritchard 24 28.1 33.9 467 357 34.3
Malachi Flynn 23 25.7 30.9 396 311 30.7
Markus Howard 22 37.9 26.3 603 171 35.2
Devon Dotson 21 27.4 26.2 397 311 30.7
Myles Powell 21 33.9 18.0 459 114 27.6
Obi Toppin 23 26.5 14.4 451 113 24.5
Vernon Carey 24 30.5 9.4 419 60 20.0
Jordan Nwora 24 26.7 8.4 467 74 22.5
Luka Garza 24 30.5 8.1 555 64 25.8

The chart above shows us a lot of data. Here are the key points. First, while Howard is highest-usage player, he is 4th in Assist Rate, which is the percentage of teammates made shots assisted on. So not only is Howard scoring when he's on the floor, he has a high likelihood of creating shots for others. Synergy allowed me to generate the total points created off assists for each of these players. By adding the points scored and assisted, we can see that Howard's total offensive contributions put him almost a full point ahead of the closest competition, Pritchard (who is the only other NPOY candidate worth mentioning, we'll revisit that in a later article), 7.6 points ahead of his closest Big East competition, Powell, and way out ahead of NPOY favorites Garza and Toppin.

As we mentioned in the last article, Howard is the main focus of every defense. By drawing that attention, he is making things easier on his teammates, which is why despite his high usage rate he also leads his team in assist rate.

Historically, Howard also fares well when compared to other high usage players of the kenpom era. The next table shows all the uber-high (34+%) usage high-major players of the kenpom era sorted by assist rate.

Player Team Usage Assist Rate Adj Ortg Year
Trae Young Oklahoma 38.5 48.5 112.1 2017-18
Evan Turner Ohio State 34.7 37.4 108.5 2009-10
Ethan Happ Wisconsin 34.9 35.6 102.2 2018-19
Mike Taylor Iowa State 34.2 34.6 86.7 2006-07
Ethan Happ Wisconsin 35.6 33.3 105.1 2017-18
Markus Howard Marquette 36.1 27.2 110.7 2018-19
Markus Howard Marquette 38.4 26.5 112.1 2019-20
Carsen Edwards Purdue 34.7 18.3 108 2018-19
Marco Killingsworth Indiana 34.2 16.6 97.2 2005-06
Luke Harangody Notre Dame 34 14.1 109.2 2008-09
Craig Brackins Iowa State 34 11.8 99.4 2008-09
Aleks Maric Nebraska 34.2 8.5 102.4 2006-07

While Howard falls in the middle of this list, it's worth noting that no player on the list has an Adjusted Offensive Rating higher than Howard's 112.1 and only Trae Young equals him. What this means is that more often than not, a Howard possession is going to be the best option at scoring and Howard is still creating for teammates. It's also worth noting that Myles Powell is very close to qualifying for the above list (33.9% Usage) but his Assist Rate and Total PPG lag far behind Howard.

 Howard shields the ball from a defender | Photo by Nati Harnik - AP

Myth 3: Markus Howard is a Turnover Machine

This myth is propagated by an over-reliance on counting stats. A player like Howard will regularly finish with a high raw quantity of turnovers because of how much he has the ball in his hands, which is why turnover rate is a better statistic. Simply put, turnover rate calculates how likely a player is to end a possession by turning over the ball. This next table will show the turnover rates for all of the NPOY candidates:

Player Usage TO Rate TO/Game
Luka Garza 30.5 10.3 1.7
Malachi Flynn 25.7 10.5 1.5
Myles Powell 33.9 13.8 2.6
Jordan Nwora 26.7 14.0 2.1
Markus Howard 37.9 14.4 3.2
Vernon Carey 30.5 15.4 2.1
Devon Dotson 26.8 15.6 2.5
Payton Pritchard 28.1 15.9 2.7
Obi Toppin 26.5 16.2 2.3
Cassius Winston 30.1 17.8 3.0

While Howard has the most raw turnovers of any player on this list, he is one of the less likely to turn the ball over on any given possession. Part of the reason Howard is highly efficient is because the vast majority of his possessions end with a shot rather than a turnover. Howard doesn't just impress when it comes to NPOY candidates. Let's again consider that list of uber-high usage high-major players from before. Here is how Howard matches up in the kenpom era:

Player Team Usage TO Rate TO/Game Year
Luke Harangody Notre Dame 34.0 9.1 1.8 2008-09
Craig Brackins Iowa State 34.0 13.6 2.1 2008-09
Markus Howard Marquette 37.9 14.4 3.2 2019-20
Carsen Edwards Purdue 34.7 15.5 3.1 2018-19
Ethan Happ Wisconsin 35.6 16.2 2.8 2017-18
Marco Killingsworth Indiana 34.2 16.6 3.9 2005-06
Ethan Happ Wisconsin 34.9 16.9 3.1 2018-19
Markus Howard Marquette 36.1 18.4 3.9 2018-19
Trae Young Oklahoma 38.5 20.0 5.2 2017-18
Aleks Maric Nebraska 34.2 20.3 3.2 2006-07
Evan Turner Ohio State 34.7 21.5 4.4 2009-10
Mike Taylor Iowa State 34.2 29.3 5.4 2006-07

I encourage readers to look at two things. First, the TO/game column shows that high usage players have high volume turnovers. Second, Howard's 14.4% TO Rate is the third best in the kenpom era by a high-major player with a usage of 34+%

None of this taken of its own accord is evidence that Markus Howard is the National Player of the Year. However, it is decisive evidence that anyone whose argument against Howard includes "he can't defend," "he never passes the ball," or "he turns it over too much" is simply wrong. Further, if you consider the DPPP rating, Assist Rate, and Turnover Rate of Goodman's top-10, Howard is one of only two players along with Malachi Flynn to be ranked in the top-5 of all three categories among these players. So if anyone is trying to make those arguments, they are not only wrong, they are talking about things that are actually strengths to Howard's game.

TL;DR Version:

  • Markus Howard is no longer the poor defender he was as a freshman and now ranks in the top-20% of Defensive Points Per Possession allowed in the country, and significantly better than NPOY favorites Obi Toppin and Luka Garza.
  • In addition to his scoring, Howard is top-200 nationally in Assist Rate and 4th among NPOY candidates; Howard's 35.7 Total PPG (Points Scored + Points Assisted) is the best of all the NPOY candidates.
  • Howard is tied for the highest Adjusted Offensive Efficiency for high-major uber-high (34+%) usage players in the history of kenpom.com.
  • Howard excels at holding on to the ball and has the 5th best turnover rate of NPOY candidates and the 3rd best turnover rate of uber-high usage players in the kenpom.com era.
  • The only two players to rank top-5 in DPPP, Assist Rate, and Turnover Rate (perceived to be Howard's "weaknesses") are Howard and Malachi Flynn.

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