It’s difficult to determine exactly where Todd Mayo has improved in his junior season. The per-40 minute numbers are up in every major statistical category, and his percentages are improved from even his freshman season — his 3-point percentage stands at 32.6 percent, slightly worse than his 33 percent mark in 2011-12. His defensive rating is “up” more than five points — it’s middle of the pack on Marquette — and though his individual defense, per Synergy, is just in the 52nd percentile nationally, overall he’s regarded as an above-average defender in Buzz Williams’ system.
Consistency and playing time have fluctuated, though, as Mayo has scored as many as 19 points (Seton Hall) in a Big East game and as few as two (Creighton), and has played as many as 29 minutes off the bench (DePaul) and as few as 15 (Georgetown). As Buzz Williams continues to figure out his rotation without Duane Wilson and Jajuan Johnson and potentially with more John Dawson in the fold, Mayo is the player Williams is still toying with nightly.
Whether or not he starts, it’s time to make Mayo the focal points of the offense. And here’s why.
The one area Mayo undoubtedly has improved is his quickness. Again, there’s really no tangible way to analyze that or put into numbers. It’s essentially using the eye test, watching how Mayo moves about the court. He’s always had a solid first step — like most of his traits, it looked better as a freshman than as a sophomore — and this season it appears to have improved further. That probably should be expected for most third-year players, as they continue to work with strength and conditioning coach Todd Smith.
That quickness and subsequent first step has helped him do what he does best: get to the basket and score points. Though Mayo is just fifth on the team in minutes per game, he’s second in transition possessions (31; Jamil Wilson leads with 32). And he’s been superb on the break, converting 14 of 21 field goals for a 1.419 point-per-possesion mark, putting him in the 91st percentile nationally. Marquette’s playing slower than usual this season — 66.8 adjusted possessions per game, 201st fastest in the country — but with an offense struggling to put points on the board, Mayo’s helping that pace and the possessions the offense produces.
More important is Mayo’s isolation offense. The 6-foot-4 guard has always had a lightning-quick first step, underrated handles and a pull-up jumper with quickness akin to Darius Johnson-Odom’s. He has spoke multiple times about his 1-on-1 games with his brother, OJ, and though he’s never beat the Bucks shooting guard it must have done him some good. This season, Mayo has been nothing short of outstanding in isolation looks. He’s had 12 such possessions, scoring 16 points and making 7 of 12 field goals, putting him in the 97th percentile nationally. He’s turned the ball over once, giving him the best turnover rate in such possessions (8.3 percent) on the team.
Part of the Golden Eagles’ struggles this year has been the lack of facilitating point guard production. Though Marquette’s assist rate of 58.5 is 38th best in the country, that’s been more a product of Williams’ offense than anything Derrick Wilson or Dawson have done.
So maybe the answer is a more free-wheeling offense, at least at times. Williams will never stray away from reversing the ball in an attempt to begin sets with looks inside to Davante Gardner, Chris Otule or Jamil Wilson, resulting in all-important paint touches. But at times, all offenses need a player who can create on his own. In the past that’s been Jerel McNeal, Johnson-Odom, Vander Blue and even Dwight Buycks.
This year’s team doesn’t have such player. Jamil Wilson hasn’t shown in yet (he’s 3-for-12 on isos and has committed three turnovers on isos, ranking him in the sixth percentile nationally), Gardner requires a pass inside to truly “take over” a possession and Jake Thomas, good as he’s been, also requires a screen, a pass and room to shoot. Deonte Burton has Marquette’s most isolation possessions, but that doesn’t seem to be the answer. What Mayo does better than anyone is create for himself. And that doesn’t even necessarily mean a Mayo shot; he’s done a much better job figuring out what he wants to do with the ball once he drives, and it’s resulted in a career-best turnover rate (remember, too, that he has turned it over just once in those 12 possessions; as a freshman he committed 10 turnovers in 28 isolation possessions).
It’s all in an attempt to get Mayo toward the rim, where he’s making nearly 67 percent of his shots. That’s third best, behind Gardner (74.4 percent) and Burton (69.2 percent) and it’s better than Blue last year (63.8 percent) and even Johnson-Odom two seasons ago (59.8 percent). Generating offense is always important, as he broke down in our analysis of Dawson’s 3-pointer in overtime against Georgetown. But sometimes letting the most talented perimeter player shake loose and go to work on his own can be beneficial, and Mayo has showed that in limited touches.
That’s also a key. It’s only 12 possessions, and he almost certainly won’t shoot better than 71 percent on his isolation sets for the entire year. But that eye test is telling; Mayo is quicker, smarter and stronger. At times Mayo’s isolation moves has drawn the ire of fans and Williams alike, but that was him going away from offenses that were among the most efficient in the country (52nd in 2012; 25th in 2013). This year the Golden Eagles are looking for some sort of punch, and in this author’s opinion it’s Mayo.
It doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be Carmelo-esque. This isn’t four corners with Mayo playing hero-ball. What it means is allowing Mayo more touches. However that gets done in Williams’ offense is hard to say. Perhaps it’s more minutes, more plays run for him or him bringing the ball up the court more. Whatever it is, it may be the key to unlocking Marquette’s struggling offense.