I wanted to take this mini-data project one step further. Going beyond the best individual individual seasons, I wanted to see if I could use analytics to determine who had the best career I covered in my 10-year career as a college-basketball writer. And, by extension, who was the best player.
A few caveats are in order:
- This sample is limited to players on the teams I primarily covered — St. Bonaventure from 1999-2004, Binghamton from 2004-2009. A larger, and more involved project, will include all players I covered at least once.
- I looked at a player’s entire career, not just the years I covered them. As an example, I covered Tim Winn and Caswell Cyrus for one year at St. Bonaventure. But I included their entire careers, before I joined the beat. This seemed fair, because otherwise, the analytics would be skewed in favor of players whose careers happened to coincide with my career. Guys like Winn, Cyrus, Nick Billings, they had careers before I came on the beat. If I’m judging the players’ careers, I have to take them as a whole.
- Because of this, if a player transferred, I accounted for their Win Shares at their new school (this led to some interesting results).
A reminder from yesterday: Win Shares is an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his offense and defense. It’s not a perfect stat (efficiency stats like PER are much better at evaluating a player’s all-around game), but we make the best with the data we have. For reference, the NCAA record for Win Shares in a single-season (since 1996) is Kevin Love’s 11.29 for UCLA in 2008.
For the players I covered, here are the career Win Shares leaders:
Mike Gansey was one of my favorite players to cover. He was personable, friendly, and very good (he was actually the first person to tell me about LeBron James. Gansey was runner-up to a sophomore James for Ohio Player of the Year). His parents were among the sweetest people I met. He transferred to St. Bonaventure to West Virginia after the welding scandal of 2003, and helped lead the Mountaineers to the Elite 8 a few years later. Gansey had 5.2 of his collegiate win shares at St. Bonaventure.
Caswell Cyrus’ appearance at No. 2 is interesting. In my mind, and in a lot of the stories of the 2000 St. Bonaventure NCAA team, Tim Winn is the leader and David Messiah Capers is the guy who hit those three free throws against Kentucky. But according to the analytics, Cyrus was the best player on that team. It makes sense. Along with scoring, Cyrus was a good rebounder and an elite shot blocker. Analytics like Win Shares seem (at least in my cursory glance) to favor forwards and big men who do a lot of things well. Cyrus did that. He was a good offensive player and, at times, dominant defensively.
Calvin Brown is the most interesting case on here. He played one year at St. Bonaventure — the year the scandal broke — and was a bench player on that team. I got to know his dad pretty well. He transferred from St. Bonaventure to Norfolk State, dropping down from the Atlantic 10 to the Mid-Eastern Conference. But at Norfolk State, he was a three-year starter and among the team’s best players. He set a school record for field-goal percentage his senior year. He was a very good player at the MEAC level.
Nick Billings. Nick Billings. He was the 7-foot center at Binghamton University my first year on the beat. If there’s a story I regret not being able to tell well in my career, its that of Nick Billings. For three years, he was an emerging player in the America East, an agile big man, an elite shot blocker and good scorer. He attracted NBA attention his senior year, my first year on the beat. And for a variety of reasons (many of which I learned long after the fact), his senior season was a bust. He averaged just 4.9 points and 3.8 rebounds as a senior and was benched by the end of the year. But as this shows, he was one of the best players I covered. I just didn’t cover his best season.
The rest of the players are similar to the list from yesterday.
Like the individual seasons, I also looked at what I call a player’s career win-share percentage. Like I wrote yesterday, straight Win Shares didn’t feel accurate. It obviously favors teams that do well — the more wins a team has, the more Win Shares a player can accumulate. But that means a player who has a great individual season for a lousy or average team is devalued.
So I came up with Win Shares Percentage, where I divided a players’ individual Win Shares by the team’s total victories that year.
Calvin Brown. Honestly, it’s a name I hadn’t thought of in probably 15 years. But there he is, at the top of the list. It makes sense. He was a very good player on an average-to-good Norfolk State team. So he was more valuable to his team than, say, a more name player on a more successful team.
Reggie Fuller — he of the best individual season — comes in second. Again, it seems to me that according to Win Shares, versatile big men are better and more valuable to teams. Cyrus and Billings rank high, again I think because of their defensive skills. Gansey’s percentage was a little lower than I may have thought, but he was also on some very successful West Viriginia teams (more wins equals a lower share). Marques Green, who had by my rough measures the best individual season I covered, is the highest-ranking pure guard.
But look who comes in seventh. Look at that name.
The player who defined my sports reporting career. The player who unwittingly, though no fault of his own, found himself at the center of a scandal that brought down an entire program.
He played just one Division I season. He averaged just 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds — pretty pedestrian traditional numbers. But he averaged more than a block a game, and his shooting numbers were outstanding — 61 percent from the field. He had 2.5 Win Shares that year — 19 percent of Bona’s 13 that year.
Looking at the career numbers, making a judgement as to the best player is tougher. Because “best career” and “best player” are two different things.
Calvin Brown’s numbers are the best. But you can also argue that numbers show he was more valuable to his team, not necessarily the best overall player. That’s what Win Shares seems to measure — value to a team.
Brown had one of the best careers, as did Caswell Cyrus, Mike Gansey and Nick Billings. He didn’t appear on the career list, but it’s worth noting that J.R. Bremer is the only player I covered who played in the NBA (and his career continues successfully in Europe).
Based on combination of college and professional success, I’d argue J.R. Bremer was the best player I covered.
Based purely on analytics, career success and their level of play, I’d argue that Caswell Cyrus and Mike Gansey were the best players I covered.
But the numbers show that Calvin Brown had the best career.