In projecting an athlete’s worthiness for a promotion to the next level — be it for a college scholarship, an advancement from the minors to the majors in baseball, a jump to the NFL or NBA — statistics are best used as a tool, not as gospel or as a crutch.
Some stats mean a great deal more than others. Baseball scouts long have paid far greater attention to a prospect’s performance against other top prospects than versus journeyman minor-leaguers. How a prospect hits against a career minor-leaguer who doesn’t throw particularly hard and doesn’t have sharpness to his breaking ball doesn’t tell a scout much about how the hitter will do in the big leagues.
That’s why, in this age of Moneyball turning anyone who can read a stat sheet into a great judge of “talent,” I loved Kansas basketball coach Bill Self’s response to a question. It involved Andrew Wiggins posting better numbers against better competition than when facing lesser teams.
In five games against teams ranked at the time KU played them, Wiggins is averaging 20.2 points and 9.6 rebounds, shooting .446 overall and .348 from three-point range. In the other 11 games, his numbers drop to 13.8 points and 4.7 boards, .433 overall, .313 from three.
“So many times, people get hung up on overall stats and things like that, but I think if you’re going to ask NBA people, they’d want to see how he played when he played against the best competition and the best teams,” Self said. “With the exception maybe of one game, he’s had really big games in our hardest games.”
The disparity in numbers could lead one to suspect Wiggins tries harder against better teams and isn’t interested in the others. Not so fast. The way I see it, three factors play in his improved play against better competition.
His size and athleticism translate better to stronger competition, so he’s not going to be taken out of his game, even when facing defenders accustomed to slowing down lesser or shorter athletes.
The adrenaline factor: It can’t be manufactured. The circumstances kick it into gear. The greater the athlete, the more he benefits from an adrenaline boost. Look at it this way: If Wiggins is a 10 athlete and, say, Kansas State’s Marcus Foster is a 7, and they both had a 10 percent adrenaline boost, Wiggins became an 11, Foster a 7.7. So Wiggins went from being three points better to 3.3 points better. (Plus, Wiggins’ size advantage was one that neutralized Foster.)
Scoring hunger: Wiggins has more of it when facing a strong team because he knows the team needs him carrying a heavier load against strong competition. If KU is blowing out a pushover, Wiggins, being an unselfish athlete, is fine with getting the victory and letting others shoot.
“Saturday will be one of our hardest games without question, so we’re going to need him to be big there too,” Self said. “I do think he’s learning how to impact games in more ways.”
Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, another terrific athlete, will be guarded by Wayne Selden most of the time, Wiggins here and there. Smart also tends to perform better in big games for similar reasons as Wiggins. In three games vs. ranked teams, Smart is averaging 23 points, 16.8 in the other 14 games.
Big talents sharing a famous court in a big game. Can’t beat it.