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Howard’s delicate dance of volume vs. efficiency

(Photo by Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

If you just saw the ticker on ESPN at the bottom of the screen, Markus Howard’s 27-point game in an overtime win against Wisconsin wouldn’t bat many eyelashes. Howard did what he does best, put the ball in the hoop and lead his team to victory. 

But his performance against Wisconsin wasn’t your ordinary Markus being Markus game, it was decidedly not that. For the first time ever, he put up over 20, 2-point shots (22 in all). For only the second time in his collegiate career, he put up 29 shots.

But unlike the last time he did that, a record-breaking 52-point performance against Providence, Markus did not come close to hitting 58% of his shots. In fact, the 24.1% he shot was his 5th worst percentage ever, and in the other 4 worse outings, he had only combined to shoot 5 times. Not to mention all of those came in the first three months of his freshman year.  

It is in that vain that I felt comfortable Tweeting this in the last 5 minutes of the 2nd half.

And unlike many of my negative #mubb comments, this received little to no pushback both in real time or in the post-win glow. This wasn’t a hot take and it wasn’t a heat of the moment exaggeration.

In fact, since the 2011 season, an individual player has taken 29 or more shots in a game 77 times. Only four players scored fewer points on those 29 attempts than Howard’s 27. Howard was chucking at a high and inefficient rate, and you didn’t even need fancy stats to tell you that. 

But the fancy stats do add revealing context, and make this performance stand out more negatively than any he’s probably ever had.

Howard’s usage rate for the game was 45.8%, meaning that almost half of Marquette’s possessions (in the 41 minutes he played) ended with a Howard shot attempt, free throw attempt, or turnover. That was the third highest usage rate of his career, and the first time he played more than 25 minutes and had a usage rate over 45%. In those 4 games with usage rates at 45% or higher, Marquette has gone 1-3, with the only victory coming Saturday against Wisconsin.    

In Marquette’s recent history (since 2008), no other player has played over 30 minutes with a usage rating over 45% like Howard’s. Not Rowsey nor Ellenson nor Carlino even cracked 40%. The next highest single game usage at 30+ minutes was Duane Wilson against Tennessee his freshman year, when he used 43.4% of possessions in his 31 minutes. 

All of that is to say, this was a very atypical game for any player both in terms of the volume of shots taken, and the inefficient rate at which they were made. 

Scrolling through Tweets, listening to podcasts and reading the forums, it seems to be the consensus that Howard is reverting to too much “hero ball,” taking too many tough shots and hampering the offensive production and efficiency. 

And reading the first 10 paragraphs of this post, you could safely assume that I was in that camp. But I’m not. In fact, I’m probably one of the most extreme proponents of the “let it fly” crowd.  

This mini Tweet-storm from exactly a month ago perfectly encapsulates my thinking, so I recommend clicking on it and reading the full thing. 

Basically, Marquette’s elite offense predicated on two things the past two years: elite pick and roll ball handlers and phenomenal shooting from distance. 

In 2017, Marquette had a plethora of players who could create a shot or drive to the rim on their own, and do it relatively efficiently. You had Rowsey, Howard, Reinhardt, Johnson as well as Cheatham and Wilson in spurts. From there, you had elite 3-point shooters in Markus, Sam and Rowsey to kick out to, or a super-efficient big man to dump off to in Luke Fischer. Looking back on it now, it makes a ton of sense why this team finished ranked No. 8 in offensive efficiency on Ken Pom.

In 2018, Marquette lost most of the variety it had the previous year, but made up for it in super-efficient volume. Consider that two of the top 3 individual seasons (since 2008) in terms of usage occurred in 2018. Rowsey led the way at 30.2% with Markus coming in just behind at 29.0%. Only Lazar in 2010 and Jerel, in 2008 and 2009, had ever topped 26% usage for a season before that.

Chart taken from BartTorvik.com

So even though the offense last year was extremely 3 dimensional (Howard, Hauser and Rowsey combined to score 67% of all points) the load was taken so efficiently, that Marquette could still boast a top-15 Ken Pom offense. 

Going into the season, the expectation was that Howard would keep his usage and efficiency high, Hauser would bump up his usage from 18% to mid 20s and the additions (Joey and Joseph) and improvements (Anim, Cain, Elliott) from the roster would fill in what Rowsey left off. That has clearly not been close to what has occured.   

Simply put, there no substitute for Rowsey when it comes to creating offense. Theo John and Ed Morrow aren’t particularly efficient at post ups. Anim has had successful spurts of attacking the rim, but still disappears for large stretches. Chartouny has had an impact in a few games with his passing, but the shot and drive aren’t materializing. Cain has either regressed or been passed up. Bailey has done well from time to time, but hasn’t been consistent. Elliott has been hurt all year. 

The only other sources of offensive creation have been the Hauser brothers. And although Sam started the year aggressively, his usage has barely budged from his 2018 levels. Joey has taken on the role as the offensive creator behind Markus, but his usage is also below 20% and turnovers have been a bit of an issue, as they are for most freshman. 

Which brings us back to the question of just how many possessions should Markus be taking. 

It can be reasonably argued that the only reason the Hausers’ usage is so low is because Markus is taking so many of the shots, there aren’t that many left over. And while there is more than a morsel of truth in that, Sam in particular is still too hesitant to pull the trigger on an inefficient shot. And in isolation, that is not a bad thing. He knows his range and his ability and he has not forced matters, which is why he leads the team in ORtg. 

But for Joey, as much as he has improved in the last month, and as impressive as he has been, he still looks like a freshman at times. And a majority of his success has come off spot up shots and as the roller in the P&R. When he is creating on his own, he does have the ability to make it to the rim off the bounce, as he did successfuly multiple times against Wisconsin. But his TO% is highest on post ups, isos and transition opportunities, or situations where he’s creating on his own. 

Faced with these limitations, Wojo has given Markus the ultimate green light to pull up or attack at will. The futility of the Wisconsin game shows the dangers of such a liberal trigger when the shots aren’t falling. There were at least 3 drives in the 2nd half and overtime where Markus forced up a shot in the paint against 2 defenders, missing all 3. 

The final instance happened in overtime, with Marquette up 2 and 2:30 left in OT, and is a particularly clear illustration of the blinders Howard can have at times. He splits the P&R deftly and is coming downhill at Happ, with Reuvers at his side. 

You can see at this point Howard was already set on shooting no matter what. Joey is sitting to his right, just a simple easy pass away. 

And there Joey will stay, 15+ feet from the closest defender.

Morrow ended up grabbing the offensive board and muscling in the put-back, but this was one of many instances where Howard’s aggressive instincts came back to bit him. 

And yet, I’m still all for having him shoot away early and often. As easily as it is to cherry-pick UW as a worst case scenario of what super-heavy usage does to a player, it was only a week before where he had similarly heavy usage and put up an uber-efficient 45 points on 11-17 shooting. His usage against Kansas Sate was 42.3%, the second highest of his career at 30+ minutes, and you didn’t hear many peeps from peeps. It just made him Big East Player of the Week.

So the answer isn’t to limit Howard’s overall aggressiveness, but rather to increase situational awareness. This offense relies on Howard to both score himself and create for others. In games where calls may not be going his way and the 3-point shot just isn’t falling, the drive and kick has to be used more frequently. He can blow past most defenders with relative ease. If his initial instinct to score could be altered for a few possessions in games he doesn’t have it, it would not only give others clean, high percentage looks, it would also help to spread the floor for Markus to have more room to drive.

Alas, this is not some novel concept I concocted or magic elixir that will cure Marquette’s offensive woes. Sam is a known quantity and is rarely left open. And through 10 games, non-Sam or Markus Marquette players are 15/52 from long-range on spot up shots, a meager 28.9%. For reference Sam Hauser is 14/21 in these situations, with 10 of the 14 makes via a Howard assist. 

Until we see consistent improvement in the 3-ball from others, the drive and kick as a plan B is probably less effective than a generic Howard finish, particularly with his 41.5 Free Throw Rate. 

The one area that I think Howard can make significant improvements right away is his shot selection behind the arc. Howard is shooting 34.1% from 3 this season which would be middling for most players and is downright bad for one of Markus’ caliber. Drilling in a bit further, he’s taking too many long ones.  

If you follow the link in the Tweet above, you’ll see that Markus is 20/56 from NBA range, which is respectable, though not great. However, he’s a paltry 29.63% shooter from 25 feet and out, which is bad in its own right, but worse when he has taken close to 3 a game thus far. 

Of those 56 bombs, only 1 of those makes has been classified in Synergy as a dribble jumper. On all 71 of his dribble jumper attempts (including 2s), he’s shooting 26.8%, with a .676 PPP. Compare that to 46.5% and 1.26 PPP in 2018 and 48% and 1.40 PPP in 2017 and you can see just how inefficient that part of his game has been, even relative to his previous seasons. 

And yet, his AdjORtg is still at a respectable 110.3, 3rd best on the team of anyone playing at least 20% of minutes this year. Much of that has to do with his increased ability to draw fouls and get calls. Markus is drawing a career best 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes to go with almost doubling his Free Throw Rate from last year up to 41.5. That doesn’t happen without Howard being in full-on aggressive mode, and as he shoots 91% from the line for his career, is as efficient a scoring method as any Marquette has. 

We’ll rewind one last time to get back to the question at hand, should Howard ease up on the hero ball? I’ve provided plenty of stats to let you decide for yourselves, but in my interpretation, his usage is not only passable, it’s necessary. 

That’s not to say there aren’t areas to improve on. Cutting back on long 3s and tough off-the-dribble 3s can definitely put some of the shine on his efficiency. Using his aggressiveness to benefit others more often can also help mitigate some of the low percentage shots at the rim. 

But on the whole, I don’t think Markus’ approach should change. I mean, even with all this usages, he is putting up career best assist numbers both in volume (4.7 per game) and rate (29.7%). Until Elliott gets healthy or Chartouny can get defenses to respect his shot or dribble ability, Marquette simply doesn’t have anyone other than him capable of initiating offense. I wouldn’t recommend averaging 40+% usage for the rest of the year, but using him heavily in the biggest games this year is totally appropriate (and, again, necessary). 

Don’t believe me, here is the final piece of data, a breakdown of Markus’ stats in wins and losses.

ResultMINSORTGUSAGEEFGTS%OR%DR%AST%
W35.63112.8831.845560.251.3812.530.75
L3691.5532.3540.545.509.530

The minutes, assist rate and usage are pretty much the same for both, the only difference is his effectiveness. 

Markus Howard may be the most gifted scorer since Dwayne Wade, and has a good chance to end up as Marquette’s all-time leading scorer. If this team wants to lay a claim on the wide open Big East crown, it will require using every last one of Howard’s skills to score the ball.  

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