By the only number that matters, LSU is a better basketball team than it was a year ago.
This year’s squad, short two current NBA players and two current D-League players from last year’s roster, is a game better (5-2) than it was a year ago through seven games (4-3).
And against a tougher schedule, too. The Tigers’ two losses are both to top 35 teams in the KenPom ratings — the 2015-16 Tigers didn’t even play a top-35 team until the conference opener against Vanderbilt.
Heading into the break for final exams, a look at the numbers behind LSU’s start to the season reveals some useful information.
THE NUMBERS SAY….
1. Duop is the Difference
LSU is a different team when junior Duop Reath is on the floor. His diverse offensive skillset and defensive intensity and mobility make him extremely valuable to the team.
That value is tangible. According to Open Look Analytics, LSU is 29 points per 100 possessions better when Reath is on the floor. When he plays, the Tigers outscore foes by 16 points per 100. When he sits, foes outscore the Tigers by 13 points per 100.
Last night’s win over Houston is a prime example. Sidelined much of the first half with foul trouble, Reath watched his teammates battle a likely NCAA Tournament bubble team to a virtual draw, 39-38. When he was able to play in the second half, he racked up five blocks, and his team outscored the Cougars 45-27.
Reath is a rim protector, as evidenced by his team-best 8.0 block percentage — more than triple the percentage Ben Simmons posted a year ago. Last year, teams shot 51.3 percent on two-point shots against LSU, giving the Tigers the 273rd worst interior defense in the country. That number is down to 46.9 percent this year, two points below the national average. The shots he doesn’t block, he often alters into unmakeable attempts.
He’s also a skilled scorer, particularly in the pick and roll as the screener. According to Synergy Sports, Reath is scoring 1.41 points per possession as the roll man in the PNR, which puts him in the 89th percentile of all college basketball players. He can pick and pop to for jumpers — he’s hitting 44 percent of his 3s and scoring 1.33 points per possession when popping — or he can crash to the rim for dunks and layups — he’s scoring a basically perfect 2 points per possession as the roll man.
He’s also one of the team’s best screeners in the half court.
The biggest thing for Reath moving forward is staying out of foul trouble, which has been the only thing that has slowed him down all year. He’s committing 4.4 fouls per 40 minutes, which isn’t a terrible figure for a player averaging 26.9 minutes per game. But if the former number goes down, the latter will go up, and that’s good for everyone in purple and gold.
2. Good Cubs Become Good Tigers
Skylar Mays and Wayde Sims teamed up for two state championships and a bunch of points and assists between them in four seasons at University High, before Mays transferred to Findlay Prep in Nevada for his senior season.
Their reunion at LSU has been a productive one so far.
Mays could be the best pure point guard LSU has had since his current coach, Randy Livingston. He dished out a Johnny-Jones-era-best 11 assists vs. Houston, the most by a Tiger in 14 years. And he did it in just 23 minutes. On the year, he ranks second in the SEC in assist percentage, setting up teammates on 35.5 percent of possessions.
He’s deadly in the pick and roll as a passer, producing 1.31 points per possession when he dishes it after a ball screen. His teammates score 51 percent of the time on such plays, and he’s turning it over only 3 percent of the time.
His vision, handle, and passing accuracy make him a threat to challenge Kenny Higgs’ all-time assists record, if he stays healthy and eligible for four years.Sims, meanwhile, is scoring with remarkable efficiency in his role as both a big and wing option off the bench. His 143.4 offensive rating is second among all SEC players.
What’s especially valuable about Sims is he doesn’t need the ball to be effective. His 14.0 percent usage is the lowest among LSU’s rotation players, and he’s scored exactly 50 percent of his points on either spot ups or put backs.
Sims has great touch, both as a shooter (40 percent from 3) and as a rebounder and catcher of passes. He comes down with balls most players wouldn’t dream of snagging, which — coupled with his 6-foot-9 wingspan — helps offset a relative height disadvantage inside at 6-foot-6.
These two players have a lot of developing to do, particularly defensively, but they’re well ahead of the freshman learning curve.
3. Patterson Must Play
Jalyn Patterson’s junior season hasn’t been up to par on paper. He’s shooting just 32 percent from the floor, 16 percent from behind the arc, and 55 percent from the line — all career lows.
And yet he’s still critical to LSU’s success.
LSU 21 points better when he plays than when he sits, mostly because of what he brings to the table on defense. Opponents score just 91 points per 100 when he’s on the floor, best among LSU’s rotation, and as an individual, he’s giving up just 72.7 points per 100 when he’s the primary defender — the best mark on the team. In fact, no one Patterson is guarding has scored on a spot up shot all year, a testament to his ability to disrupt shooters with hard closeouts and contests. His 6-foot-6 wingspan helps in that regard.
It’s more difficult to quantify his helpside defense, but it’s excellent, so here’s video evidence. Watch him dart to cut off a passing lane and force a turnover.
Keep in mind, LSU is a much better team with Patterson playing, and he’s yet to find his offensive rhythm this year. When he progresses to the mean, so to speak, he’ll take his team to another level.