There’s more to a basketball game than putting the ball in the basket.
This accurate, albeit obvious, statement easily can be overlooked at times, and nowhere is that seen more often than in the case of Vander Blue.
Marquette’s sophomore guard has been under a microscope the past year and a half after coming to the Golden Eagles as the highest-rated recruit since Doc Rivers over 30 years ago.
Much of the criticism facing Blue has come due to his inability to be a consistent scorer. His awkward shooting motion has made his misses seem worse and an off-the-court incident early in his freshman season did him no favors in the eyes of critical, sometimes misguided, fans and experts.
But the truth of it all is that Blue, despite a quirky shooting motion and unimpressive scoring numbers, is one of the most complete players on the Marquette roster and an integral part to what the Golden Eagles do on the both ends of the floor.
It’s true that Blue has struggled to put the ball in the basket in his 53 career games at Marquette. In 36 chances, Blue has scored in double figures only four times against a major conference opponent. His career 6.2 points per game has been lackluster for a top-30 recruit out of high school, but there has been clear improvement from his freshman to sophomore season.
His 8.9 points per game this year may not be what most expected from a top-30 recruit out of high school in his second season, but Buzz Williams has admitted that Blue’s offense has been good enough for a team with Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder.
But looking past Blue’s points per game, one of dozens of statistics to gauge basketball players, Blue has been exceptional in his sophomore season.
First and foremost, Blue’s prowess on the defensive end has gone from solid to superb in a matter of one season. His long arms and athleticism allow Blue to defend his opponent close to the hip and contest any attempted shot. Many times Blue, the “third” guard in Marquette’s three-guard offense, has been asked to defend the other team’s small forward, usually two or three inches taller than the Madison native.
And Blue has more than held his own in the rebounding department for a player of his size matched up against a forward on many occasion. His 11.3 defensive rebounding rate is fourth among Big East players under 6-foot-5 and he is committing just 2.5 fouls per 40 minutes, the lowest mark on Marquette’s roster and good for top 30 in the Big East. Not only has Blue held his own and put up numbers defensively; he’s doing it efficiently.
Blue’s ability to read passing lanes, defend before the catch and use his active hands to create turnovers also has been crucial to a Marquette team that has, at times, needed transition point to get its offense going. His 3.2 steal percentage (steals per 100 defensive possessions) is 19th among all Big East players.
One area where Buzz Williams said Blue needed to improve on was crashing the offensive glass and, since Chris Otule’s knee injury, he has succeeded. Blue has 12 offensive rebounds in eight games since Marquette’s win over Washington.
Staying on the offensive end, Blue’s detractors have thrived on the theory that the sophomore is out of control. While, at times, Blue’s fast feet work quicker than his mind, that aggressiveness also has helped him get to the free throw line.
His 51.7 percent free throw rate proves that, while Blue rarely looks to score, he does create contact and draws trip to the line when he does. That number is second on the team, behind only the free throw machine Davante Gardner. While he is only shooting 62 percent from the free throw line, his 3.8 attempts per game is third most on the Golden Eagles.
The final, potentially most important, area where Blue has thrived is passing the ball. Freshman Derrick Wilson has seen his playing time decrease drastically over the past three weeks and the Golden Eagles have called upon Blue to become a point guard in many instances, specifically in late-game sequences alongside guards Johnson-Odom and Todd Mayo.
Blue has responded well, averaging 3.6 assists per game and playing significantly better from the top of the key as opposed to the wing. Minus each times starting point guard, Blue’s 24.1 assist rate is fifth among Big East players and his ability to create for others off the drive has helped Marquette free up shooters beyond the arc.
Blue has struggled in some areas, specifically turning the ball over (22.3 turnover rate) and shooting from the perimeter (20 percent on 3-point field goals), but there are few sophomores in the country without a flaw in their game.
And for the most part Blue has understood his limitations.
He has taken a shot on just 18.6 percent of Marquette’s possessions, fewer than all but Junior Cadougan and Jamil Wilson. There are times when Blue should take a shot and doesn’t, but it’s rare that he attempts one when he shouldn’t.
Despite the numerous statistics that show Blue has played well above what his detractors say, his intangibles may speak the loudest.
Prior to the season, both Derrick Wilson and Todd Mayo mentioned Blue by name as the one player who took both under his wing and showed them the way transitioning from the high school to collegiate level. Wilson said that Blue used his turbulent freshman season as a teaching tool for the underclassmen.
And even Jamil Wilson, in his post-game press conference following Marquette’s win over Milwaukee, said Blue was one player who spoke up following the team’s loss to LSU to keep the team focused.
Vander Blue won’t challenge Jerel McNeal for the Marquette scoring record and, for that matter, might never be a top scorer for the Golden Eagles. But in a world filled with YouTube videos showing prospects only on the offensive end and one-and-dones who make fans believe all underclassmen should show promise from day one, the completeness of Blue’s game has been entirely overshadowed by many for all the wrong reasons.