When Darian Anderson’s colliegiate career ended due to foot surgery on Monday, it robbed the Northeast Conference of one’s of its best guards. Anderson was instrumental, check that essential, in guiding Fairleigh Dickinson to their first NCAA tournament berth in more than a decade. His uncanny ability to create offense for himself and his teammates, as well as make clutch shot after clutch shot, was a critical reason the 2015-16 Knights made it to Dayton.
In other words, Anderson was a great playmaker. Take it away, Ron Ratner!
Let’s celebrate Darian Anderson’s stellar @FDUKnights & #NECMBB career with a few of his finest moments. No one was better with the game on the line. I remember this one vividly. #MrBigShot #NECPride pic.twitter.com/8jfu8FuA0W
— Ron Ratner (@NECHoopsRon) January 23, 2018
And now back to the point of this post. The term “playmaker” gets thrown around a lot at the college basketball level, but allow me to offer my subjective definition. A playmaker must be able to create open looks and opportunities for himself and his teammates. The playmaker must be fairly efficient in his takes and be a threat to score anywhere on the floor – behind the arc, mid-range and around the rim. A playmaker, of course, must be very difficult to guard, and as a result, can manufacture a lot of points from the charity stripe.
Everyone has their own definition, but I wanted to put forth a statistical benchmark that would identify the very best playmakers the NEC has to offer this season. We all have our eyes, but what players would my arbitrary statistical benchmarks identify? Here are the numbers I set, with a quick explanation for why:
- KenPom Offensive Rating (ORtg) >/= 100.0 – Like I said earlier, my playmakers have to be at least moderately efficient, so a 100.0 ORtg or better should qualify. Most of these players have possession rates north of 25 percent, and with more possessions, it becomes more difficult to keep their ORtg above the 100.0 threshold. Especially when you enter the 30-plus percent territory.
- Assist Rate > 17.5 percent – An assist rate at this level usually puts you in the top 10-15 of the league in any given year. I prefer that my playmakers keep their teammates involved in the offense. I don’t want to witness any “hero ball.”
- 3-Point Percentage > 33.3 percent – There’s debate at where an efficient 3-point percentage stands at, so I set it at making at least one third of your long distance attempts. Anything less from a high usage player morphs closer to a ball chucker in my book. You should be a competent outside shooter with the ability to pull up late in the game with the shot clock winding down.
- Field Goal Percentage Near the Rim > 50 percent – With most playmakers being guards, they need to at least be average in finishing around the rim after successful dribble penetration. Some of the very best are adept at both finishing and creating contact from trips to the free throw line.
- Free Throw Rate (FTA/FGA) > 30 percent – Speaking of the charity stripe, getting there is much coveted skill and an easy way for stars to earn free points.
And there you have it – my arduous benchmark for what I consider to be an elite playmaker! Checking the box for all five of these stats is very difficult. In reality, if an player meets the threshold for four of the five while barely missing the fifth, they still have the necessary tools to be an elite playmaker.
(It should be noted that the aforementioned Darian Anderson, Junior Robinson and Wagner’s Corey Henson met these playmaker criteria from the 2016-17 season. Keith Braxton, as a freshman, barely missed with an assist rate of 17.4 percent.)
In my quest to identity these players, I found four who met all five benchmarks, while two others just barely missed out on all five. Let’s identity these stars, some of whom are obvious.
Junior Robinson, Mount St. Mary’s – Well, duh. There isn’t a more terrifying player in the league than Robinson who, despite his size, can terrorize opponents so many different ways. Robinson has the 11th highest possession rate in the country, and yet, he’s been wonderfully efficient with a 107.9 ORtg. Of the ten players in Division I with a higher possession rate, only Oklahoma’s Trae Young (41.5% poss rate, 117.7 ORtg) and Campbell’s Chris Clemons (33.7% poss rate, 109.9 ORtg) have a better ORtg. That speaks volumes to the words Robinson has been doing as a senior in Jamion Christian’s normally balanced scheme.
Jamaal King, Saint Francis U – A few weeks back when I identified the best players of the non-conference season, I omitted King, who at the time was playing at an all-conference team level. Now, the junior has emerged as one of the five best players in the league, after an excellent NEC stretch (22.9 ppg, 3.1 apg, 44 of 49 free throws). The most impressive thing about the 5-10 King, is his efficiency near the rim as he’s made a remarkable 68.8 percent of his takes. He may only take a little than 30 percent of his takes near the rim, yet when he gets there his ability to finish is second to none. He’s currently third in league play in fouls drawn at 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes. King is a star and a vital reason why Rob Krimmel doesn’t miss Isaiah Blackmon’s absence at the moment.
JoJo Cooper, Wagner – Maybe a week or two ago, Cooper insertion into this list may have surprised you, but that’s no longer the case coming off a NEC Player of the Week and Prime Performer distinction. Defense has always been Cooper’s calling card, yet an brilliant offensive showing has made the senior guard a force to be reckon with. His assent has been remarkable – he’s fifteenth nationally in assist rate (38.1 percent) and has posted career highs in ORtg (103.5), 3-point percentage (36.7 percent), fouls drawn (4.9 fouls per 40 minutes) and defensive rebounding rate (15.5 percent). It was tough to see this coming after a 3-year history, yet the 6-0 guard now has a chance to guide Bashir Mason’s team to that ever elusive NEC championship. Wagner currently sits tied for the regular season lead; without Cooper the Seahawks are easily two games lower in the standings.
Joel Hernandez, LIU Brooklyn – Hernandez narrowly made it to this list with a 100.0 ORtg, yet the five-year senior certainly deserved the playmaker distinction. He’s done well to keep his teammates involved with an assist rate that exceeds 20 percent (his previous high was 7.9 percent) and he’s improved his outside shot to the point where’s he’s seen more than an 8 percent improvement from deep (27.6 percent to 35.9 percent).
Those Players Who Just Missed
Dechon Burke, Robert Morris – In my opinion, Burke is one of the most difficult players to keep in front, a testament to the athletic guards shiftiness in the open floor. His assist rate at 16.6 percent fell just short, but in due time I expect that will climb into the 20s.
Keith Braxton, Saint Francis U – Braxton has revolutionized Rob Krimmel’s offense as a playmaking forward who does it all. Like Burke, Braxton’s assist rate was underneath my 17.5 percent threshold, but he doesn’t have far to go.
And there you have it. My imperfect way to determine the NEC’s best playmakers. There are others who have the potential to crack this list someday – like Tyler Kohl, Rasheem Dunn and Adam Grant – but for now six players have been identified. It’ll be interesting to see how these players perform when the NEC tournament rolls around.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride