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Kris Jenkins, and the Value of Stretch

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Taking a look at the game of Kris Jenkins, and how he has helped the team's offense.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Kris Jenkins has been an enigma on this Villanova team for the last two years. Soon after arriving on campus as a slightly doughy, tall-ish ‘3 point specialist', he played a key role as a fill-in big man (especially for the USC and Iowa games) during the team's Battle 4 Atlantis run, even earning the nod as an overtime ‘starter' in the penultimate game of the series over some of Villanova's more experienced bigs.

He drained 3s, defended above his weight class, and flat-out impressed with consistent flashes of his basketball IQ.

By the time Big East play rolled around, though, he barely saw the floor. Rumors and flat-out calling out of his weight and fitness struggles abounded, and he stayed glued to the bench - he saw more than 10 minutes just 6 times in his first 14 conference games, and more than 15 only twice.  He shot 7 for 28 (25%) from three during this stretch, and looked to be a lost cause until the next year.

Then, he just played better. And more. He finished the season's last 7 games averaging about 16 minutes and shooting less than 50% from 3 in a game just once, becoming one of the more important players on a team that was struggling with a lot of individual slumps toward the end of the year.

2014-2015 looked like a potential breakout year for Jenkins after his strong finish to the season - James Bell's size and 3 point shooting were gone, and a team with just one other above-average 3 point shooter returning looked to be crying out for his skills.  I know I picked him to replace what Bell could do - which shouldn't mean much - but expectations were certainly on the higher side.

And then - more of the same.  He's thrown together quite a few excellent games so far this year, but he's also struggled through a few with uncharacteristic turnovers and head-scratching defensive gaffes.  He's currently playing the second-fewest minutes of any rotation player (18.5 per game), and often goes wanting for shot attempts.  He's still hitting a solid number of his 3s - 38.7% - but he's taken fewer shots than anyone but Phil Booth.  Does it make sense? Is he struggling? And what's the true value of Jenkins' presence on the floor?

This second part of a deeper dive into the stats behind Villanova's first half will take a look at the contributions of Jenkins as an individual, and what he does for the team.

First, A Shooter

Jenk

Let's get it out of the way quickly: he's not struggling, at least with his shot.  Jenkins has developed tremendously as a shooter from year one to year two.  Take a look at his shot chart:  in our sampled games, he's hit 37.5% of his attempts from deep.  He has been a steadily above-average 3 point shooter for his college career thus far - this is just more of the same competence.  Jenkins hasn't exactly lit it up from deep, but he's a steady, dependable, volume-shooting presence behind the arc.

In a funny visual note, his percentage sinks as you move from left to right behind the arc - unfortunately, the volume goes the other way.  He's been nearly perfect from the left wing, on only 8 shots, while he's shooting under 25% from the right - on 14 attempts.  It's doubtful this points to any sort of long-term trend or preference for one side, but it's something Jay and co. should at least experiment with to see if they can work a few more attempts for him from his so-far-sweeter zones.

Where he's really improved his game, though, is inside the arc.  A year after going 8 for 15 (53.3%) near the rim on 118 total shot attempts, Jenk has hit 11 of his 12 shots from in close, on just 84 total attempts.  He's also essentially removed the mid-range jumper from his arsenal, taking just 9 shots (though he hit 4 of them!) from the long areas inside the 3 point line.  He's been much more comfortable driving in from the wing this year, and looks just as assured passing out of the drive as he does finishing at the rim.  It's an excellent wrinkle for a feared 3 point shooter other teams will often try to chase off the line.

This combination of improved volume and efficiency at the rim (and excising of the non 3 point jumper) has allowed Jenkins' shooting percentages to skyrocket.  A year after shooting just 37.3% from the field (just a few hundredths above his 3 point percentage, strangely enough), he's currently knocking down his shots at a 46.4% clip, with an effective field goal percentage of 60.7%, behind only Phil Booth and Ochefu.

What's more, he's shooting nearly twice as many free throws per field goal attempt as he was a year ago.  Jenkins is masterful at sucking defenders in with his shot fake, and leaning into the contact to draw a foul and free throws - it helps that he's feared as a 3 point specialist.  Even inside the arc, he's flashed developing skills in forcing his defender off balance, clearing a path for an easy shot or layup, or drawing a foul.  He's been wresting an extra foul per 40 minutes (3.7 vs. 2.7) from the D, and has raised his free throw rate from 22.1% to 38.1% (remember, free throw rate is free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts).  A free throw rate of 38.1% is incredibly high for a guy taking almost 75% of his shots from deep - you just get fouled less on the perimeter, typically. Those extra easy shots (plus his natural shooting skills, and low turnover rate) have propelled Jenkins to the top 70s in the country in terms of individual offensive rating, per kenpom.com's numbers.  Kris has been very, very effective on the relatively limited opportunities provided to him, in terms of minutes and shots.  I'm personally of the opinion he could be used MUCH more, but it's difficult to really argue with the results of the team and its current rotation so far.

Gravity's Rainbow

So we know Jenkins has been an excellent shooter so far.  It's great - though Villanova has fallen from the lofty heights last year's 3PA% rank, they still take about 38% of all their shots from deep - and having guys that can actually shoot take those shots is a good thing.  But there's value to Jenkins's shooting beyond the simple stats of his percentages, and it's tied up in the position he plays for Villanova.

While Kris Jenkins rates out on the small side for a ‘power forward,' you may have noticed that Villanova doesn't have a whole lot of guys bigger than him available - he's a big by necessity, by Villanova's current roster construction.  His bulk and (sort of) height make him relatively difficult to move in the post, and he's a heady defender who (usually) rarely beats himself.  He's also an excellent generator of steals for a player of his size and quickness (I like to think of his movements as ‘deliberate'); he's actually currently logging the second highest steal percentage on the team, behind only press point man, Darrun Hilliard.  Typically, when he loses to his man, it's because he's simply giving up too much size - skilled true bigs can finish and rebound above him when they get position.

While it's certainly a concern for lineups slotting Jenkins in at the ‘4' spot, it's typically not a killer - the rest of the team is too good at defense, and Jenkins contributes in ways that don't involve him being taller than the other guy.  Villanova really just needs him to hold his own on the defensive end, anyway, because it's on the other side his ‘position' is really felt.  The effect of a shooting ‘big' of Jenkins's caliber on an offense is huge, and it can be summed up by one concept: gravity.  The pull of a good shooter on the other team's defense - especially when that shooter is a big - is real, and it's spectacular.

I've mentioned the SportsVU camera tracking systems recently installed throughout the NBA several times - it's essentially a missile tracking system calibrated to track the movements of all ten players on the floor, and the ball.  Just recently, Stats LLC, the firm behind the SportsVU system, has begun to release proprietary metrics based on the tracking data provided by these cameras.

Two of these metrics deal with the amount of attention an offensive player gets from defenders when he doesn't have the ball.  The first, known as a ‘gravity score,' measures how often defenders are really guarding a player away from the ball by quantifying the average distance said defender strays away from the offensive player he's guarding.  The second, called ‘distraction score,' is a similar measurement that determines how often a defender strays from the player he's guarding to check on-ball action.

These measurements are adjusted for the typical tendencies of the defender in question - if, say, a defending center who typically strays off the man he's guarding (if that man is sitting on the perimeter), because centers typically don't guard players who can shoot, sticks really close to his offensive cover on the perimeter, that offensive player gets a higher gravity score.  He's ‘pulling' the defender in question farther away from his typical positioning.

Higher gravity scores typically belong to bigs, for the reasons described above - a sweet shooting big from the perimeter is a relatively rare commodity, even in the NBA.  Bigs who shoot well from deep pull the guys guarding them well out of their typical haunts, and help unclog the spaces closest to the basket.  By pulling bigs out to the perimeter, ‘stretch 4s', or even 5s, take bodies and potential help defenders away from the paths to the basket.  Driving lanes and spaces for off-ball cuts (from non-bigs) are yanked wide open, and it's just easier for guards to penetrate and score (or dish).  It's a simple, powerful concept.

While NCAA basketball doesn't have the league-wide benefit of these cameras - and the richer schools that have installed them have released none of their data to the public - I used those metrics to highlight a means to measure the effects spacing can have on a team's offense, and the opposing team's defense.  It's not just a concept - it can be measured!

So, while I don't have any fancy cameras, or the ability to design missile tracking software, I DO have a way to isolate lineups that included Kris Jenkins (and those that didn't), and the respective shot profiles of each.

Observe the beautiful rainbow of the stretch 4.

With Jenkins

WithJenk

Without Jenkins

WithoutJenk

It's incredible how stark that impact is, around the rim.  Despite attempting 51 less shots near the rim, lineups including Jenkins have made just 19 fewer shots at the rim than those without him.  The team is shooting about 10% better at the rim when Jenkins is in the game, which is just crazy.  Without Jenkins, the team is about average at converting there; with him, top 15 in the country.  The team also manages a significantly higher number of short two point jumpers (from the paint area, below the foul line), pointing directly to a significantly higher amount of space near the basket.  The team (with Jenkins) is also converting almost 57% of these short jumpers; without him, the percentage falls to under 37%.  The effect of Jenkins pulling his defender (typically a big) away from the basket has been great for the offense, and is readily apparent in these two shot charts.

Unfortunately, the team's clearly been worse from 3 with Jenkins in the game vs. him out, though much of that appears to be directly traceable to his struggles from the right side.  As his percentages even out, or he shifts to more attempts from the left side, I kind of expect this difference to go away - Jenkins is one of the team's most consistent shooters - but it's also possible it remains a trend.

In any case, the freeing effects around the basket Jenkins's presence in the game provides is absurd.  The difference in those two charts, especially around the basket, illustrates the value of a power forward with a shot, no matter how overmatched he may be at times on the other end.  It makes everything for an offense easier.

And, finally, let's take a look at the team's splits (and stats) when Jenkins is on the floor vs. off.

Offense

Offense - With Jenkins

Player 1

MIN

eFG%

TO%

OR%

FTR

O Rtg

ASST%

A/T

D Reb%

Kris Jenkins

244.65

56.15%

15.15%

32.31%

41.53%

1.15

55.87%

1.49

75.27%

Offense - Without Jenkins

Player 1

MIN

eFG%

TO%

OR%

FTR

O Rtg

ASST%

A/T

D Reb%

Kris Jenkins

307.73

51.46%

18.13%

32.03%

44.77%

1.07

63.44%

1.26

75.61%

Defense

Defense -With Jenkins

Player 1

MIN

eFG%

TO%

OR%

FTR

D Rtg

ASST%

A/T

D Reb%

Kris Jenkins

244.65

49.56%

23.52%

24.73%

32.15%

0.91

55.78%

0.77

67.69%

Defense - Without Jenkins

Player 1

MIN

eFG%

TO%

OR%

FTR

D Rtg

ASST%

A/T

D Reb%

Kris Jenkins

307.73

42.18%

20.31%

24.39%

27.36%

0.83

45.56%

0.70

67.97%

Jenkins has obviously been in the game for fewer minutes than he hasn't, but the positive effects of his presence can be seen up and down the lineup statistics.

While the team's offense can struggle a bit with spacing when Jay pairs two traditional (at least in terms of playing style) bigs, in JVP and Ochefu, it loosens up when Jenkins (or Hart) subs in to replace one of the two.  The team scores about 115 points per 100 possessions with Jenkins in the game - the best rating on the team - while 'struggling' to a mark of 107 points per 100 possessions when he's not on the floor.  This jump is mainly due to the better shooting (a jump of nearly five percentage points in eFG%) and reduced turnover rate (which falls about 2 percentage points). While, obviously, that 107 mark isn't truly struggling, it's obvious that Jenkins's presence can jumpstart the offense.

And the defense doesn't suffer all too much in the end, jumping to 91 points allowed per 100 possessions while he's on the court, up from 83 points per possession when he's off.  The team will likely struggle to match its suffocating brilliance when such an undersized 4 is defending, but it's far from a disaster when he's on the court.

And, as a note for those who criticize his rebounding, the team's rebounding doesn't suffer at all when he replaces one of the traditional bigs, grabbing 32.31% of its misses on the offensive end when he's in, vs. 32.03% while he's out.  The numbers are similarly unaffected on the defensive end, where the two competing rates are separated by just a few tenths of a percent whether he's on or off the court.  His totals may not be gaudy, but there's little indication he's actively hurting the team on the boards.

Spacing is a real, valuable thing, and it's nice to be able to visually illustrate the effect a stretch big like Jenkins can have for our team.

Conclusion

Jenkins has been called a poor rebounder, a role player, fat, and the next Paul Pierce on here.  The negative stuff is a bit hyperbolic (ok, probably some of the positive stuff too).  Kris Jenkins is an essential part of what this team wants to do - shoot well from 3, and finish at the rim effectively - and I honestly believe he should be used a bit more than he is.  I also believe Jay has his reasons for muting Jenkins's minutes (and thus impact), but I'm really hoping he breaks through the ~55-60% minutes played barrier and becomes a more vital part of the rotation.  His game is underrated, he's a pretty good defender (good enough to justify letting him blow the offense wide open), and the positive effect his presence can have on the team's offense should not be understated.  Here's to a new year with more Jenkins, more spacing, and more opportunities to admire his old man game.