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Villanova Basketball: What is Eric Paschall’s best position?

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Taking a look at his positional fit for Villanova, from individual stats to team-wide effectiveness.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Mount St Mary's vs Villanova Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been plenty of discussion this offseason on where exactly Eric Paschall fits into Villanova’s rotation for 2017-18. Paschall spent a lot of time in the frontcourt last year, necessary with the roster crunch after two key rotation pieces became unavailable. While standing only 6-foot-6, he boasts a 6-foot-10 wingspan and a linebacker’s frame, and proved up to the task of doing the dirty work for the Wildcats. He rolled hard to the rim, battled on the boards, and gamely fought bigger guys in the post. His versatility - and the team’s thin backup big situation - helped unlock a potent small ball lineup, and Villanova earned the No. 1 overall seed as reigning champs.

We all know the end of that story, though -- which is why we’re on to what happens this year. With former 5-star recruit Omari Spellman set to debut from his NCAA-imposed redshirt and between Painter, Delaney, and Cosby-Roundtree — a deeper tall-guy rotation than we’ve seen in years — it’s been generally assumed Paschall will size down into the wing rotation, rather than splitting his time between the ‘4’ and ‘5.’

It can easily be argued his natural position is on the wing. It’s where he played in high school, as well as most of his freshman minutes at Fordham — where he won A-10 Rookie of the Year, while averaging more than 15 points per game. While he doesn’t have the shooting stroke you’d love to see from a perimeter player, he has physical and strength advantages over many of the college ‘3’s he’d likely see defend him.

There are people landing on either side of the discussion, both with reasoned points. In framing this ongoing discussion, I wanted to set up a dive into some deeper stats that help provide deeper context to help us think about it. Using substitution data and on-off statistics, I aimed to show how Paschall performed individually at different positions last year, as well as how the team (and other players) did around him.

Individual Performance

For the methodology here, I defined Paschall’s position by the number of big guys on the floor. I considered Darryl Reynolds, Dylan Painter, and Tim Delaney as the ‘bigs.’ I do understand that Painter and Delaney barely played last year - and Delaney especially didn’t play minutes that mattered — but I was interested in maximizing the sample size.

Statistics by Position

Position Off Poss FGM FGA FG% S2PM S2PA S2P% L2PM L2PA L2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
Position Off Poss FGM FGA FG% S2PM S2PA S2P% L2PM L2PA L2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
SF 71 4.2 8.5 50.00% 1.4 1.4 100.00% 1.4 2.8 50.00% 1.4 4.2 33.33% 5.6 8.5 66.67% 14.1 2.8 0 1.4 5.6 1.4 15.5
PF 403 5.7 15.4 37.10% 2.2 4.5 50.00% 1.2 2.5 50.00% 2.2 8.4 26.47% 1.7 2 87.50% 9.7 1.7 2.2 1.5 4.2 5.2 15.4
C 803 9.1 15.7 57.94% 7.2 9.7 74.36% 0.7 2.1 35.29% 1.1 3.9 29.03% 3.4 5.2 64.29% 10.3 1.6 1.2 1.4 2.5 8.5 22.7

Paschall’s possessions as a ‘small forward’ were very small and nearly negligible. Minutes that included any two of Painter, Delaney, or Reynolds—plus Paschall—were almost certainly garbage time. My only note there is that Paschall appeared somewhat less assertive as a scorer — he took just 6 shots during the 71 offensive possessions Villanova spent in such alignments.

Far more interesting are the splits between Paschall’s minutes as a power forward, and a center. When Paschall was the second biggest player on the floor — about a third of the possessions he played last year — he hit just 37.1 percent of his field goal attempts, compared to a 57.8 percent clip when he played at center.

The biggest difference is simply his effectiveness at the rim. While playing as a ‘center,’ about two-thirds of his shot attempts came ‘at the rim.’ This classification includes layups, dunks, and putbacks. And he hit nearly 75 percent of these in-close attempts while playing as the biggest guy on the floor. While playing as a power forward, he hit only 50 percent of his short twos, and more than two-thirds of his shots came either from 3 or two-point jumper range.

The biggest negative that can be seen above is how severely his foul rate spiked whenever he played at center. When Paschall played as a ‘center,’ he committed 8.5 personal fouls per 100 possessions — a rate that would foul him out of a typical Villanova game within 36 minutes. That fell to a far more manageable five fouls per 100 possessions during all other minutes. He was somewhat stretched defensively when playing as a center for long periods, though he certainly could have been smarter about the fouls he gave.

With the extra space afforded him as a ‘center,’ Paschall took great advantage inside. His strength and athleticism let him finish dunks (he led the team with 41 attempts) and offensive rebound putbacks (13 of his team-leading 16 putbacks came when he played as the center). Playing him with four other 3-point shooters helped negate his own difficulties shooting from the perimeter last year, and helped focus on the inside areas he’s best suited to succeed in.

Team Performance

Paschall playing at center also helped flipped a good switch for everyone else on offense. Take a look at the offensive splits below for the team.

Offensive Splits by Position

Classification % Shots S2P S2P% % Shots L2P L2P% % Shots 3P 3P% PPP
Classification % Shots S2P S2P% % Shots L2P L2P% % Shots 3P 3P% PPP
Paschall at SF 30.20% 61.50% 23.30% 50.00% 46.50% 40.00% 0.89
Paschall at PF 31.40% 61.00% 22.50% 44.00% 46.10% 35.10% 1.12
Paschall at C 36.50% 71.50% 22.30% 36.80% 41.30% 37.60% 1.19
All Other Minutes 33.90% 76.10% 22.40% 40.20% 43.60% 37.00% 1.18

The team offense clearly suffered as Paschall moved down positions. There was a seven-point difference between the team offense with Paschall as a ‘4,’ and Paschall as a ‘5.’ Again, the big difference was inside. With the extra space afforded the team with Paschall as the lone big, room was open for forays to the rim (71.5 percent on short 2-pointers, compared with 61.5 percent). And a shift in rates — favorable to the inside — was clear. With Paschall as the ‘5’ the team took 36.5 percent of its shots at the rim; just around 31 percent came from inside when he played any other position.

This bore out especially for both Jalen Brunson and Donte Divincenzo, who saw their short 2-point percentages jump by 25% when Paschall played at the ‘5’, rather than the ‘4’. Brunson also shot close to 50 percent from 3 when Paschall played at center, as his main pick-and-roll partner.

Of note is how well the team did on offense without Paschall — only the alignment with him at center was even close to the 1.18 PPP mark posted when Paschall wasn’t in the game. A simple demonstration of the tenet that offense becomes more difficult with less shooters.

And here’s a look at the team’s defense performed with Paschall at each position.

Defensive Splits by Position

Classification % Shots S2P S2P% % Shots L2P L2P% % Shots 3P 3P% PPP
Classification % Shots S2P S2P% % Shots L2P L2P% % Shots 3P 3P% PPP
Paschall at SF 21.10% 58.30% 17.50% 30.00% 61.40% 22.90% 0.82
Paschall at PF 31.10% 55.90% 27.90% 40.60% 41.10% 28.80% 0.90
Paschall at C 32.30% 53.10% 27.00% 38.10% 40.70% 31.60% 0.93
All Other Minutes 33.70% 59.80% 28.70% 41.50% 37.50% 32.90% 0.97

The team defense improved as Paschall downsized - intriguing for those who favor bigger alignments. Perhaps most encouraging was how well the team defended the 3-point line with multiple ‘bigs’ on the floor. While some of the 28.8 percent mark (from three, when Paschall was a ‘4’) could simply be bad shooting luck for the other team (always possible in a small sample), it’s a good indicator that Villanova wasn’t lost defending on the perimeter even with multiple bigs on the floor.

What’s interesting to me is the short 2P% mark when Paschall played at the ‘5.’ It’s by far the lowest mark of any alignment - with or without Paschall on the floor. While it speaks to the quality of the rim protectors on the roster last year, Paschall may also have been the best on the team. Despite his prolific fouling, a mark of 53.1 percent on all short 2-point attempts for opponents while he was the center is actually quite solid.

CONCLUSIONS

Some of all this is attributable to the bigs Paschall shared the floor with last year. Darryl Reynolds had no offensive range to speak of, and was at best an OK deterrent at the rim. Dylan Painter wasn’t quite ready last year. Playing with them would force Paschall into tougher shots from the perimeter, away from his preferred spots inside.

While Omari Spellman hasn’t flashed range in D-I ball just yet, it’s pretty safe to assume he’ll be stronger away from the rim than Darryl Reynolds and last year’s Dylan Painter. Paschall will likely find more space to work with when paired with a true big this year - as will the rest of the team.

But I think these splits and stats also speak to some of the limitations - and strengths - of Eric Paschall as a player. His shot from 3 was not good last year - and he’s now posted seasons of 31.5 percent and 27.9 percent in college. More worryingly, the 27.9 percent last year came in his second year of working with a Villanova coaching staff that’s been remarkably consistent in improving the strokes of its raw shooters over the past 5-6 years. Even his free throw percentage - often a good indicator of potential for improvement from 3 - plummeted 10 points from his freshman campaign.

Some of these shooting woes have been excused as Paschall getting used to a different position - but the results weren’t all that good when he played in his more ‘natural’ spot at Fordham. The potential’s there for improvement to his form and results - but even a jump to league average from 3 (35-36 percent) would classify as massive improvement. That’s tough to depend on.

And the strengths of his game are quite clearly inside. His ability to roll hard to the rim, finish dunks, and snag offensive rebounds would be quite valuable to Villanova on offense even if he never finds an outside shooting stroke. And he’s demonstrated the ability to hold down the fort as the center on defense - even though he needs to bring down his foul rate during these minutes.

I’m personally a fan of leaving minutes open for him at center - I simply love the wing C, and have my worries about spacing on offense if Paschall isn’t living his best life from beyond the arc. But if he can improve his shot to respectable, a Villanova lineup that sports Paschall as its 3rd-biggest player - without cratering the offense - would be a sight to behold on defense, and a good look for the team on offense.