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Who are the SEC’s top returners?

Massive roster turnover at the top of the conference and a quartet of coaching changes have reshuffled the deck. But has it made talent equally distributed? Let’s figure it out.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Mississippi vs Alabama Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, assembling a hardwood forecast for the SEC left you with a picture of stability.

Across the conference, veteran cores remained fully intact, while enough freshman passed on NBA paydays in a bid to boost their stock in what was shaping up as a shallow 2019 draft. Twelve months ago, Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, and Mississippi State all looked like certifiable contenders, while LSU and Kentucky’s recruiting prowess gave each a glut of talent capable of overcoming abundant youth.

Sure enough, when March arrived, all six saw their names pop up in the NCAA tournament bracket. Meanwhile, few were surprised that three of those programs — Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky — made deep runs. Ole Miss’ resurgence and Vanderbilt’s utter collapse made for a slightly unexpected juxtaposition, but events — and the players driving them — mostly held to form.

Now, that staid order has given way to some unruly offseason intrigue.

Of the conference’s 25 most-efficient players, only seven will be back on campus as over half the SEC’s roster turned over in a matter of three months. The exodus also coincided by coaching changes made at Alabama, Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt, meaning roughly half the conference’s jobs changed hands in the last two years.

Even at a place like Florida, which reached second of the NCAA tournament and reinforced with a top-10 recruiting class, couldn’t avoid churn. Just last week, Isaiah Stokes announced he was seeking a new home, becoming the ninth player and fifth transfer to exit Gainesville this offseason.

And so a distinction has become a central question for each program: Are you rebuilding or simply retooling?

As we move toward the 2019-2020 season where the SEC pecking order is fluid, the answer depends, in part, on what assets you already have on hand. In that case, every school but Georgia can lay claim to having at least one cornerstone player. So the next logical step is to narrow down and stratify those players into groups.

Over the next five days, we’ll take a look at five tiers of players and try to start making sense of the SEC’s scrambled hierarchy.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Alabama
Alabama point guard Kira Lewis Jr. is coming off a stellar freshman season. Imagine how potent he’ll if he gets stronger and more consistent finishing at the rim?
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

How can you measure a player’s impact?

We start by asking about the level of a player’s involvement and role in the rotation. Are they seeing lots of possessions? How do their minutes stack up against their teammates? And when they check in, how big of a role do they play? Fortunately, Hoop Lens and KenPom help us with accounting.

  • Offensive Possessions: A raw measure of how often a player was on the court
  • Percentage of Minutes: Basically, what percentage of available minutes did a player see action.
  • Percentage of Possessions: In other words, this is usage rate, which quantifies how many of a team’s possessions a player is personally responsible for when on the court.

While usage rate is a handy metric, it tells us little about the player’s individual impact and what his presence does for the team writ large. Using Hoop Lens and Synergy, helps tells us. It’s also an approach I used to quantify the individual impact of Mizzou’s returners.

  • Player Net Rating: This is the difference between a player’s raw offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. Take Kira Lewis Jr., for example, who tallied .892 points per possession and allowed .785 PPP. When we multiply those numbers by 100 possessions and look at the difference, we find the point guard’s net rating is 10.7.
  • On/Off Split: This is the difference between net ratings when a player is on the floor and when they’re on the bench. For example, Alabama posts a 0.8 net rating when Kira Lewis Jr. is running the point, but a minus-10 rating when he checks out. As a result, his presence is worth 10.8 points per 100 possessions.

At this point, we should know how heavily a player was used, how efficiently they played and the impact they had. Yet these stats are retrospective. For a pair of guards like Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, their usage figures to increase now that Jordan Bone and Admiral Schofield have moved on from Tennessee.

Wouldn’t it be handy to have some metrics to predict future performance? They exist thanks to Bart Torvik, who has already posted projected stat lines for the 2019-2020 season. Obviously, traditional measures such as points, rebounds and assists don’t require an explanation. Ultimately, we can produce a table for Lewis that looks like the one below.

Kira Lewis Jr. | Measuring Impact

School Player Poss. %Min %Poss Player Net On/Off Diff Torvik PPG Torvik RPG Torvik APG
School Player Poss. %Min %Poss Player Net On/Off Diff Torvik PPG Torvik RPG Torvik APG
Alabama Kira Lewis Jr 961 78.8 22.1 10.7 10.8 15.4 3.4 3
Hoop Lens, Ken Pom, Synergy Sports, Bart Torvik

With a quick skim, we learn that the freshman received heavy minutes for the Crimson Tide and had steady usage. While he could play more efficiently on the offensive end, he more than held up defensively. Finally, Lewis’ output as a sophomore could be robust.

While it takes some time, a similar profile can be created for the bulk of SEC returners — and get a sense of the conference topography next season.

Culling the list of critical returners starts out simply enough. We only include players that saw least 1,000 offensive possessions or 40 percent of available minutes — chopping 30 names off our list and leaving 50 in the pool. Next, I found the top-10 performers in each statistical category. Finally, I counted up how many times each player appeared in each list, breaking out the top five into a tier.

Then I repeated the process four more times. The end result: five tiers of returners — or 25 total — that begins with heavy-usage headliners and ends with a quintet of starters that could clean up their respective games.

Tier 1: The Headliners

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

SEC Returners | The Headliners

School Player Poss. %Min %Poss Player Net On/Off Diff Torvik PPG Torvik RPG Torvik APG
School Player Poss. %Min %Poss Player Net On/Off Diff Torvik PPG Torvik RPG Torvik APG
Texas A&M Savion Flagg 1850 86.9 21.7 15.9 2.6 15 7.2 2.1
Ole Miss Breein Tyree 1792 84.3 25.2 12.9 9.6 17.6 3.4 2.4
Vanderbilt Saben Lee 1459 81 22.8 -10.2 -11.8 14.6 3.6 4.1
Ole Miss Devontae Shuler 1781 80.2 16.7 13 18.3 13.1 4 2.9
Arkansas Mason Jones 1756 72.7 22.3 12.2 9.2 14.8 4.1 2.2
Hoop Lens, KenPom, Bart Torvik

Imagine for a moment you’ve been hired to overhaul a floundering high-major program. All in all, the situation isn’t totally dire. Your athletic department mints money. The facilities are top-flight. And you aren’t marooned from away from fertile recruiting territory.

Now, your roster obviously needs work. Why else would you be here? Fortunately, the last staff didn’t totally strike out, bequeathing you a couple cornerstones to anchor the rebuild. With a new scheme and player development program, who knows? Maybe you shave time off the project calendar.

This, dear reader, describes the situation in the top layer of SEC soil.

Let’s start in Oxford. Last season, Ole Miss dragged itself out of the cellar and into the NCAA tournament – a feat that coincided with breakouts by Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler. Now, the veteran guards are running it back in coach Kermit Davis’ second season.

The only thing standing in the way of a redux: a withered supporting cast. Terence Davis, Bruce Stevens and Dominik Olejniczak moved along, and it could mean a heftier work rate for the duo. Now, there’s a reason to think Tyree, who already had a high usage rate, can manage. In the case of Shuler, though, it’s worth watching what happens to an efficiency rate (0.966 PPP) after a season where the Rebels only turned to him 15.3 percent of the time. Any concern, though, gets tamped down if Blake Hinson and KJ Buffen each take a step forward.

In Fayetteville, coach Eric Musselman inherited quality parts to build out his backcourt. It’s just a matter of how he tries to assemble them. Standing pat and relying on development wouldn’t be inertia. Not after Jalen Harris, Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe dispelled predictions calling for Arkansas to tumble to the bottom of the SEC table.

Coming off a season that landed him on the All-Freshman team, Joe might be the best returning spot-up threat in the SEC. Then comes Jones, whose game is a nice complement. The JUCO product thrives in transition, but he’s capable enough using ball screens to create mid-range pull-ups and steady enough shooting off movement when Arkansas has to run its offense.

Yet Muss remained faithful to a template he used at Nevada: importing transfers. Chiefly, Jimmy Whitt Jr., who is circling back from SMU to the program where his college career began. Currently, Torvik’s algorithm projects Whitt to put up starter-level production – implying Joe or Jones would be due for a role reduction. If I were in Musselman’s shoes, I couldn’t justify pulling Joe off the floor, mainly because swapping Jones and Whitt makes more sense given their overlapping skills.

Meanwhile, Flagg could be in the running for the most underrated returner. Quietly, he boosted his offensive efficiency by 5 percent last season and dramatically improved as an on-ball defender. The next step: improving a shooting stroke that’s posted a 33.4 percent clip behind the arc.

As for Saben Lee, his presence is pretty easy to explain: Inevitably, somebody has to get buckets and fill up the stat sheet on a rebuilding team. This year, Lee and Aaron Nesmith will likely vie for that job at Vanderbilt.