The 2015-16 version of the Cyclones have a number of problems, most notably a lack of wins in Big 12 conference play. After giving up two 58 point halves in consecutive games, the spotlight is on the defense, and when you think Cyclone defense, you have to look at the 2014-15 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year: Jameel McKay.
McKay is a polarizing figure with the Cyclone fanbase. On one hand, his highlight reel dunks are something fans haven't seen since the days of Kelvin Cato or Rahshon Clark. On the other, his frequent pleas to referees and his seemingly worsening defense lead some to worry he's regressing beyond repair.
When McKay made his Cyclone debut against Drake mid-season last year, two things were immediately obvious:
- The Cyclones wanted to throw him the lob.
- He was going to block a lot of shots.
McKay finally became the imposing figure in the middle that Iowa State had longed for ever since Fred Hoiberg took over four years prior. Jameel's arms sometimes went a little wild, but there was no doubt that he was focused on stopping shots.
Then, as suddenly as it started last year, his productivity seemed to dry up this season. McKay seems focused on avoiding foul trouble, and it culminated on Tuesday night as Cyclone fans witnessed Texas guards Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix have a field day in the lane, putting in multiple layups and floaters without McKay being there to contest or swat them away.
So what's changed?
Let me start by pointing out that Jameel McKay is still Jameel McKay on the offensive end. He's playing more minutes and shooting about four more shots a game while maintaining virtually identical field goal (58%) and free throw (57%) percentages as last season. On a per 40 minutes basis, his rebounding, assists & points are almost an exact replica of last year's season totals.
Has Jameel improved? Debatable, but he's definitely doing his thing for longer minutes and not seeing any significant drop off. He hasn't regressed on the offensive end, that's certain.
In advanced statistics, Jameel's PER is only slightly off last season's pace, his assists are slightly up and turnovers are slightly down, but all measures of offensive performance are virtually unchanged. He's even getting the ball 20% (usage) of the time, which is exactly where he ended last season.
Defense is where we start to see a difference in McKay's play. Anecdotally, any Cyclone fan can tell you that Jameel has seemed hesitant and apparently fearful of fouling. On it's face, that seems normal. Iowa State doesn't have another Jameel McKay, in fact we hardly have a bench at all - it makes a lot of sense to not get silly fouls and have to sit for long stretches.
But here's the thing, he's not, and never has, fouled very much. McKay is averaging 1.4 fouls per game (FPG). 1.4! That's less than one foul every half of play!
In fact, if he played the full 40 minutes each game, he'd still average less than 2 FPG. Now, McKay has played foul free in the past, but never more so than this year. He is fouling at half the frequency of last season while playing about five minutes more per game. Hit somebody Jameel! Please!
So he's fouling less... So what? That's good right? Iowa State leads the nation in not putting opposing players on the line - we're winning something!
No. That's bad! Opponents don't get to the line because we don't contest shots, because when you contest shots you inevitably foul sometimes. Lower foul counts just mean other teams are raining open threes or laying the ball in against token efforts to stop them, and McKay has dropped off in fouls more than anyone else on the team.
He's also not blocking shots anymore. Jameel blocked 60 shots last season in 25 games played, but he's on pace for 35 this year in the same number of contests. He didn't get shorter, and he's playing more minutes, so where have all the blocks gone?
Additionally, Jameel's defensive rebounding is off by the same amount his offensive rebounds are up. The cynic will say it's hard to rebound all those opponent makes, if you're that cynical. Even his steal rate is down slightly, rounding out an uninspiring defensive stat line.
So what's the deal?
It seems obvious that Jameel has dialed back the defensive mentality that made him a crowd favorite for some reason.
- Is the coaching staff concerned about depth and fouls enough to shut him down?
- Is there some type of injury or trouble adjusting to the new lineups?
- Are the extra minutes wearing on him and he's conserving energy for the offensive end?
- Is it just a matter of teams "figuring him out" on the defensive end?