College Basketball

A slightly biased, completely justified analysis of Klay Thompson’s case for Player of the Year

This article comes about due to a recent piece I read on Yahoo! about BYU’s Jimmer Fredette being a “worthy candidate” for college basketball’s annual John R. Wooden (Player of the Year) award. I have no problems with that assertion and even support it. The main reason for my aversion to the article is my undying faithfulness to the Washington State University basketball team; especially Klay Thompson, and the limited amount of consideration he is getting for the award.

Don’t get me wrong, he is on the midseason list of 30 finalists and any coverage of Cougar basketball this season has been chock full of praise for the junior shooting guard (one announcer even raved, “Thompson might just be the best pure shooter in the nation.”). And yes, I am biased. I’m a senior at WSU and a huge fan of the basketball team. Waking up before dawn and camping out in the snow to be first in line for the games is a regular occurrence for me.

But, as the title suggests, making a strong case for Thompson is completely justified. Through 18 games, he is averaging 22.9 points per game; eighth best in the nation. Additionally, he is shooting 47.6% from the field, 85% from the line and 44.1% from three-point range. Throw in 5.2 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.8 steals and 1 block per game and you can really see why Thompson is essentially the only reason WSU is in contention for a tournament berth.

What I did is used a cool website called to pull up and compare Thompson’s stats to the five players I believe are the current frontrunners for the Wooden Award. So here goes a slightly biased, completely justified analysis of Thompson’s case for the award, as measured against Fredette, UConn’s Kemba Walker, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Duke’s Nolan Smith and Baylor’s LaceDarius Dunn (all stats are per game averages and current as of January 15, 2011).

Player/Position Record/conference Points Ast. Reb. Steals Blocks FG% FT% 3PT%
Thompson, SG 13-5/Pac-10 22.9 4.0 5.2 1.8 1.0 48% 85% 44%
Fredette, PG 17-1/MWC 26.1 4.4 3.4 1.3 0.1 48% 90% 41%
Walker, PG 14-2/Big East 25.6 3.8 5.4 2.3 0.3 46% 85% 37%
Sullinger, C 18-0/Big Ten 17.6 1.4 9.9 1.1 0.4 60% 73% 14%
Smith, SG 16-1/ACC 20.1 5.7 4.9 1.4 0.1 50% 81% 37%
Dunn, SG 12-4/Big 12 22.3 2.3 4.7 1.8 0.0 45% 83% 42%

Let’s start by looking at the records. In this aspect, Thompson actually is dead last. That being said, everyone else besides Fredette on this list plays at a school with big-time basketball reputations. Duke, Baylor, Ohio State and UConn are all annual powerhouses. They attract better athletes and have an easier time recruiting. Let me tell you, nobody wants to play in Pullman, Wash. It’s cold, it’s in the middle of nowhere and the closest major town is Spokane, over an hour away. And let me tell you, nobody wants to go to Spokane either. My point is that while everyone on this list is their team’s star and best player, Thompson and Fredette have the worst supporting casts. They aren’t bad, just not as stellar as the other four. Also, despite success of mid-major conferences like the MWC where Fredette plays, the overall quality of play does not compare to the Big Six conferences. Essentially I’m saying that Thompson at Washington State, playing in the Pac-10, has to constantly carry his team more often and against better competition than the other five. He does more with less, against better.

Points per game is, at the game’s core, the most important statistic to determine a player’s worth. After all, the goal of basketball is to score more points than the other team. So the more a single player can contribute to their team’s point total, the more important they are. In this category, Thompson ranks behind Fredette and Walker. The leader board for points per game is going to look different at the end of the season, but expect those three guys to still be in the top ten. It might sound strange, but to be the best player in college basketball means to have the best all-around game and be most valuable to your team, we can not solely rely on points per game to determine which of these six players is most deserving. For example, Sullinger ranks last in points per game, but he basically averages a double-double and plays stellar defense as a freshman in a competitive conference. Smith and Dunn have stepped up and carried their teams while averaging over 20 per game, yet they rank far behind Fredette and Walker.

Also, the clutch factor is something that can not be taken into consideration. Every player I am looking at is what I would call “clutch.” I have personally seen it with Thompson; the guy steps up and knocks down the big shot when the situation dictates it. More than a few times, everybody on this list has put their team on their back and willed it to a big victory. If I had to choose the most clutch player, I would have to take Walker, who always seems to hit a game-winning basket for UConn. But, like points per game, the clutch is very arbitrary among these guys; they all carry their teams, they are all stars and they are all clutch. Now, let’s move on to the stats that actually separate these players.

Before we get to this last section, I want to throw out a quick disclaimer. By no means by through this article am I claiming that Thompson is the most deserving candidate to win the Wooden Award. In fact, if I absolutely had to make that decision today, I’d take Walker by a hair over Dunn and Fredette. It remains to be seen who will take home the trophy, but for now all I want to accomplish is to show people that a relatively underrated basketball team in the icy wheat fields of Eastern Washington has quietly produced one of the best ten players in the nation.

So, as you can see above, Thompson does a lot more than just score for WSU. He is sharing the ball well, getting his teammates involved, pulling down rebounds and playing stingy defense. He’s also been very consistent, scoring in double digits every game and pouring in almost half of his attempts from the field. Only Fredette has a better free-throw percentage and nobody is more reliable than Thompson from beyond the arc. I am most impressed by the massive lead Thompson has in blocks, especially over a center, Sullinger. His hustle defense is one underappreciated aspect of Thompson’s improved game.

This isn’t an actual mathematical, statistical formula for selecting who is better at what, but I’d like to think it’s a pretty accurate reading into how consistently a player’s non-scoring numbers compare. If you add up assists, rebounds, steals and blocks per game, Thompson sits at exactly 12.0, third out of the six. Smith is at 12.1 and Sullinger, largely due to the naturally large rebounding number that a center gets, leads the pack at 12.8. So, Thompson pours in almost 23 points per game, shoots the lights out from everywhere on the floor and averages 12 other plays per game in which he is either contributing to the scoring with an assist, gaining possession for the team with a rebound, or playing pesky defense with a block or steal. I just think that’s an interesting, abstract measure of how many big plays a player is a key to in any given game.

The fact that Thompson’s stats do line up to some of the most talented, most talked-about players in the nation demonstrates all I wanted to accomplish by writing this article. Klay Thompson deserves recognition. He deserves to be known among all college basketball fans. He deserves to be talked about in the company of Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, LaceDarius Dunn, etc. Without being able to watch him play regularly, it’s understandable that he is not a household name yet. Even here in Pullman we often can’t watch the away games on TV. But, I do expect Thompson to keep playing well enough to continue gaining attention and would be shocked if he didn’t make the next cut for the Wooden Award candidate list.

Now, one could make the case that Derrick Williams of Arizona or Isaiah Thomas of Washington are actually better than Thompson in his own conference. Kyle Singler of Duke, E’Twaun Moore of Purdue and Jacob Pullen of Kansas State are a few players I could have mentioned in the same breath as the guys we just analyzed.

So, obviously there are plenty of worthy candidates, and only time will tell who is actually anointed the best player in the nation. I can only hope that Thompson continues to lead my Cougs to big wins, and continues to get recognition along the way. And to analysts, voters, pollsters, etc. everywhere: Don’t let WSU’s lesser reputation scare you away from lavishing some love on our star, one of the best college basketball players in America, Klay Thompson.

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