Nothing like starting off my tenure as The UConn Blog's number-nerd in residence by bringing up something completely subjective and intangible, but I can't help but notice that the buzz word that's most adhered itself to this year's UConn team is leadership-or lack thereof. It's no secret that Alex Oriakhi has had a rocky beginning of the year. His scoring, rebounding and minutes-played averages are way down, and he's given plenty of indication that he's been unhappy at times. The "lack of leadership" criticisms can be seen as a direct shot at the team's co-captain and senior-most member. It's easy to look at the team's struggles, coupled with the dip in Oriakhi's production and conclude that he isn't working hard or fulfilling his potential.
The problem with using Oriakhi's numbers to support these conclusions is that, they fail to take into account a number of mitigating factors that have affected the numbers Oriakhi puts into the box score each game. For one, he's no longer the primary frontcourt player on the roster, competing (in nearly every statistical category) with Andre Drummond and an improved Tyler Olander. He's also getting used to a new position much of the time (playing the power forward alongside Drummond, instead of small-ball center), and running a new offensive system with new personnel.
These are Oriakhi's tempo-free stats from Kenpom.com (available: here, subscription required):
The first thing that jumps out is his enormous drop in percentage of minutes, which accounts for a lot of the drop in his "box-score" statistics. His offensive rating (ORtg) is down a little bit, but his effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and true shooting percentage (TS%) are essentially the same meaning the drop in ORtg is due almost exclusively to his drops in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage (OR% and DR%) and his increase in turnover percentage (TO%).
The TO% certainly is worrisome and it seems to be a team wide problem (that's another article for another day), but it seems like the drop in rebounding is what has gotten the most chatter in the media and on message boards. The problem is that looking at Oriakhi's per game rebounding output doesn't tell the whole story of why he's grabbed fewer boards. It's easy to look at his decrease in production and ascribe it to a lack of "leadership", "toughness", "hustle", or any number of other intangible qualities. But while there may be an effort component to his struggles, there's also a significant difference in personnel that's not often unaccounted for when comparing Oriakhi's output last year to his output this year. (From here on out, all my numbers are coming from statsheet.com's statistics tables for this year's team and last year's team).
In 2010-2011 Alex Oriakhi was the leading rebounder and 2nd leading minutes-getter on a National Championship-winning team. Playing 71.4% of the possible minutes available to him, Oriakhi pulled in 358 rebounds or 24.16% of the team's total (8350). Included in his final numbers were 152 offensive rebounds (23.22% of the team's 494) and 206 defensive rebounds (30.77% of the team's 988). There's no denying that Oriakhi was a monster on the glass last season (particularly down the stretch). But there's also no denying that Oriakhi benefited from being the team's lone proficient rebounder, and the only true "big" in the team's oft-used, small-ball lineup consisting of Oriakhi at the center flanked by forward Roscoe Smith (a true 3 playing as an undersized 4), and guards Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier.
Quick, off the top of your head, who was the second leading rebounder on last year's team? It wasn't Smith or even backup C Charles Okwandu. Instead Kemba Walker grabbed the second most rebounds on the team with 223 (15.05% of the team's total), a number which reflects the diminutive point guard's percentage of minutes played (92.3%) more than his rebounding prowess. Smith was second on the team in offensive rebounds with 78, barely half Oriakhi's total.
This year's frontcourt is vastly different. Oriakhi is joined by 6'11" wunderkind Andre Drummond, the team's current leading rebounder with 117 (20.93% of the team's total of 559). Drummond has grabbed 52 offensive boards (19.52% of 177) and 65 defensive boards (29.38% of 988). The frontcourt has also benefited from the improved play of Tyler Olander who has grabbed 88 rebounds (32 offensive / 56 defensive). Oriakhi meanwhile has grabbed just 74 rebounds (13.24% of the team's total), including 27 at the offensive end and 47 off the defensive glass. Just as last year's dearth of frontcourt talent inflated Oriakhi's output, this year's crowded frontcourt has minimized his stats.
Partially because of the increase in personnel, Oriakhi has played greatly reduced minutes (down from 71.6% of available minutes to 48.8%). Of the 315 minutes Oriakhi's played, 134 of them were played alongside Olander and 142 of them were played with Drummond. With the added front-line rebounding ability competing for the same number of rebounds, a drop-off in Oriakhi's rebounding production, even on a per-minute basis, is to be expected. Moreover, if we adjust Oriakhi's percentage of team rebounds to account for the lack of minutes (by multiplying the team's total rebounds by his 48.8% minute percentage to gain a rough estimate of rebounds available during his time of the floor), his percentage of team rebounds jumps from 13.24% to 27.11%. It's still down from his percentage of team rebounds last season (24.16% or an adjusted percentage of 33.82%), but it's a lot closer when we account for the higher percentage of time he spends on the bench. (This, of course, assumes that rebounds are spread evenly throughout a game which isn't exactly true, but it's a decent rough estimate).
As you can see above, the team is grabbing almost identical percentages of offensive and defensive rebounds available (team offensive rebounds + opponent offensive rebounds or vice versa). So save the lackluster rebounding effort against West Virginia, the team's rebounding hasn't fallen off, there are simply fewer rebounds to go around.
Now there's certainly a chicken-and-egg argument to be made on minutes played. Oriakhi's minutes are certainly constricted by the increase in frontcourt talent, but earning more minutes is well within his control. Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect him to play as high a percentage of minutes as he did last year, but it's certainly reasonable to assert that Oriakhi would have gotten (and will get) more minutes with improved play in both games and practice.
That said, it's hard for me to simply write off Oriakhi's struggles as a lack of effort or "leadership". Yes Alex Oriakhi has the most experience playing at the college level of anyone on the UConn roster, but he has the same amount of experience playing with this group of personnel as Andre Drummond does. While I think we can all hope for Oriakhi to improve as he settles into his new role, I think it's important that we take the time to understand his early-seasons struggles and box-score lines in context, before labeling his season a disappointment.