This Season’s Surprise Contributor… James Southerland?
Over the last few seasons as Syracuse has returned to “perennial NCAA Tournament team” status, the Orange have had a surprise contribution from someone in a reserve role. In 2009, it was the transformation of a junior Andy Rautins from a spot-up shooter to a sniper who was also a solid defender. The next year, Rautins continued to improve, but Wes Johnson’s historically terrific season, Kris Joseph’s efficiency off the bench and the dual threat of Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson down low helped propel the Orange to a regular season Big East title. Though Jonny Flynn and Jim Boeheim both warned us of Johnson’s domination, but I don’t think anyone was ready for the show he put on. In 2011, C.J. Fair emerged as a spark plug who let his game, and not his pedestrian scouting service rankings, do the talking.
Currently (and somewhat suddenly), we’re about 20% into this season. We’re approaching the point where we have a firm idea of what the team is, where it becomes harder to write off any given strong performance by a complimentary player due to small sample size or the competition on the other end. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting close. Seven games in, it’s starting to look like James Southerland might be that surprise player for the 2011-12 season.
Admittedly, it’s still too early to make a huge extrapolation, but as of this writing, Southerland leads not just the entire Big East in offensive rating (the closest thing to a catch-all offensive stat), but all of college basketball with a mark of 167.4. This is astronomical, but we’ll get to that in a bit. For a briefing on offensive rating, suppose that a player were to use 100 possessions for his team, which can be done in any of the following ways:
- Making a shot from the field or from the free throw line
- Missing a shot from the field or free throw line that is rebounded by the other team
- Getting an offensive rebound that leads to a made field goal or free throw
- Assisting on a made field goal
- Turning the ball over
The offensive rating is the number of points a player contributes through the means described above per 100 possessions. At the current pace, Southerland is contributing 167 points for every 100 possessions he uses. For perspective, the national leader in offensive rating every season typically checks in around 125, but the early-season cupcakes inflate those numbers in the early going.
If you’d rather stick with the traditional stats, though, he’s fourth in the Big East in overall shooting percentage (61.7%), second in three-point percentage (52.4%), and has turned the ball over just once in 115 minutes of action to boot. Looking back at some of SU’s most prolific three-point shooters in recent memory, neither Gerry McNamara nor Andy Rautins ever started a season as hot as Southerland has this year, though Wes Johnson started 16-30 from deep for a 55% rate. If Southerland were to keep this up all season, it would go down as one of the most efficient individual seasons in modern college basketball history. Despite that, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to snatch up a 43 jersey anytime soon.
To elaborate, the competition has to be factored in when we look at why Southerland has been balling out of control. Fordham, Manhattan, Albany, Colgate and Eastern Michigan leave a lot to be desired defensively, as they rank 183rd, 231st, 255th, 291st and 218th in adjusted defensive efficiency, respectively. Against beefed up opposition in Stanford (10th in the country in defensive efficiency) and Virginia Tech (39th), Southerland logged just 13 minutes combined and didn’t sink any of the three shots he took in New York City. It wasn’t that he was ineffective, but C.J. Fair, who he’s battling for playing time, couldn’t be taken off the court against the Hokies, and the team needed to keep defense a priority in the final against Stanford.
Against bad teams, there was a big enough talent disparity for Jim Boeheim to freely use his bench from Baye on down to Mookie and beyond and get a feel for the complimentary players without fretting over the outcome. When facing tougher battles, as we’ve learned, the rotation slims down, and that’s when Boeheim is faced with tougher decisions. Some players get squeezed out, and Southerland found himself in that class in his first two seasons. While I feel he’s earned the right to get a long look in non-conference play, I’m still bearish on him in the long run.
The Orange’s game against Florida tomorrow night should present a great opportunity for Southerland to get some extended minutes, not because I think the team will separate itself early and allow Boeheim to look Southerland’s way, but because of the size advantage he’ll have on the floor. The Gators roll with a guard-heavy lineup small enough for Southerland to shoot over without much of a problem. Florida’s already thin up front, but with Erik Murphy expected to sit out with an injury, they’ll be even more depleted. I’d like to see Southerland crash the boards hard on both ends of the court, which is an area of his game that hasn’t been of great emphasis so far, at least going by the results.
James Southerland is hitting shots at a crazy pace and doing many of the other things the Orange need to win games. But, as in previous seasons, the question remains as to how he’ll do when the heat is turned up. He’s no Jimmer, but if he continues to shoot well and do enough on defense to stay on the floor, he’ll be an immensely valuable weapon in Boeheim’s system.