When Baylor's Isaiah Austin announced that he'd be returning for his sophomore season, I noticed a common thought among college basketball fans and national pundits alike. With Austin and Cory Jefferson back in the fold, many seemed to believe the Bears would have the best returning frontcourt duo in the Big 12. While it's hard to argue with that line of thinking, especially on paper, I'm not so sure I agree. Sure, Austin could have been a potential lottery pick in this year's draft and the super-athletic Jefferson would have heard his named called at some point as well, but do measurables and potential automatically make them the best returning frontcourt duo in the conference?
To be honest, this comparison couldn't have worked out better. Niang and Austin both play a "stretch forward" for their respective teams while Ejim and Jefferson are the athletic interiors that do most of the dirty work. It really comes down to what you value; production and head-to-head success or measureables and potential on the next level.
Now, it has to be noted that Iowa State and Baylor play differing styles, which is important when doing these comparisons. In Ames, Fred Hoiberg values versatility and shooting ability from his post players while in Waco, Scott Drew covets size, raw athletic ability and someone naive enough to think that Scott Drew will actually make him a better basketball player.
Niang vs. Austin
Physically, these two couldn't look any more different. Niang is a stocky 6'7" and does most of his damage below the rim, using superior footwork and basketball smarts to impact the game. Austin on the other hand is a slender 7-footer that oozes pro potential and makes a living above the iron circle. What about their respective abilities and production though? To the charts...
*All information was pulled from www.statsheet.com.
As you can see, Niang rated better as an offensive player in just about every category. He was a more efficient player, shot better from outside and his assist percentage shows just how savvy of a passer he is. Just looking at traditional stats, Austin averaged more points per game (13.0 to 12.1) but using offensive rating and effective field goal percentage, it shows that Niang was actually the better offensive player of the two.
Now, Austin held significant advantages in rebounds per game as well as blocks, which is understandable given his obvious size advantage. I don't think anyone would make the argument on which player has more of an impact on the defensive end of the floor and the glass.
Given that sizable gap in rebounds and blocks per game, one could make the case that Austin is the better overall player as his offensive stats aren't terribly far behind Niang's. I'd listen to that argument but blocks alone can be a very misleading stat as they doesn't necessarily mean that an individual is an outstanding defensive player. Take Austin for example. While his physical gifts allowed him to get his hands on a lot shots throughout the year, he was often a roamer on defense. If you go back and watch both of Iowa State's games against Baylor, you'll see that Austin was often a target to attack when Iowa State had the ball because he could be beat and he often played off his man.
Alright, so how do we settle who had the better freshman season? Well, we could look at head-to-head match ups.
In Ames - Iowa State 79 - Baylor 71
In Waco - Iowa State 87 - Baylor 82
Ejim vs. Jefferson
Again, there's an obvious disparity in size between the two. Jefferson stands 6'9" and can jump out of the gym while Ejim plays an undersized forward at 6'6" and relies on toughness and effort. Back to the charts...
Let's point out what we know. Jefferson got most of his points (76.4% to be exact) near the rim. Ejm on the other hand only got 60.2% of his points near the rim. Closer looks + freak athlete that dunks a lot = better offensive rating. Jefferson was 18th in the country in field goal percentage (61.5%) and was among the top 30 in true shooting percentage, which measures a players's free throws and total field goals. This last season, Jefferson could put the ball in the basket and he could do it well. But what about when he had to step away from the paint? Looking at that 3PT%, it appears he was about as accurate as Ejim. Jefferson, however, only attempted nine 3's on the year while Ejim attempted 69. Furthermore, Ejim's 34.8% from outside starts to look better when you compare him to other forwards in the conference like Amath M'Baye (27.9%), Le'Bryan Nash (24%) and Jonathan Holmes (28.9%), not to mention standout guards like Marcus Smart (29%) and Myck Kabongo (29.6%). Offensively, it's tough to say that one of these guys is better than the other. They're just different players.
That brings us to rebounding, where Ejim wound up as the Big 12 leader pulling down 9.3 per game. Now, you can say that Jefferson or Austin might have averaged more boards had they not been battling each other for errant shots, and there's some validity to that. But if that's the case, then shouldn't Ejim get the same benefit of the doubt as he had to battle teammate Will Clyburn, who finished 6th in the conference in rebounding? Ejim kicked wholesale ass on the glass this season and his instincts and toughness were unmatched by league opponents.
Finally, I included the +/- stats to show something I'd suspected throughout the year, but had been unable to tangibly lock down. I don't love the +/- stat, simply because it allows for too much variability depending on what lineups a particular player plays with, but it's still a solid measure of how well a unit performs when a particular player is on the floor. As you can see, Jefferson as a whole had a much better +/- number than Ejim, but look at the Clutch +/- (Clutch plus/minus stats are calculated by counting a team and opponent's score when there is less than 5 minutes to play in the 2nd half or OT and the score margin is less than 5 - statsheet.com). Ejim had the best Clutch +/- on Iowa State's roster by far and the 8th best number in the conference. Ejim fouled out of six games this year and ISU was 2-4 in those games. Combine that with the Clutch +/- stat and you can see how important it was for Fred Hoiberg to have Ejim available in a close game.
Finally, for the hell of it, let's look again at the head-to-head match ups.
In Ames - Iowa State 79 - Baylor 71
In Waco - Iowa State 87 - Baylor 82
Each had a sub par game the first go around as Ejim got into early foul trouble and Jefferson was pulled as Scott Drew went to a smaller line-up, but in game two, each put up big numbers and Ejim especially had a monster game as ISU picked up a crucial road win toward the end of the regular season. Both Jefferson and Ejim serve important roles on their respective teams, but from watching the two, it's easy to see that Ejim is better on the boards and also possesses more ability when it comes to creating looks away from the basket. Again, I wouldn't necessarily say that one is better than the other, but they're different players.
As I originally mentioned, I hope this has shown if anything that Ejim/Niang's production and versatility easily go toe-to-toe with Austin/Jefferson's measureables and pro potential. There's multiple ways to define "best returning frontcourt duo in the Big 12", but both Iowa State and Baylor should feel pretty good about what they have returning inside. Given The Mayor's style of play, I'll gladly take my chances with Ejim and Niang.