On Harris v. Lucas

Dylan Burkhardt

Without saying a word this site has ended up in the middle of a debate: who’s the better point guard, Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas or Michigan’s Manny Harris.

John Gasaway started the debate on this very site with this comment on Manny Harris:

In fact, I want to pipe up on behalf of one of your players. I read the interview you did with KJ of The Only Colors and I have to take issue with your statement that Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas “is easily the best point guard in the conference.” Really? What about a certain Manny Harris? Oh, I know last year there were always other Wolverines on the floor alongside Harris who proudly wore the “point guard” label (Kelvin Grady, C.J. Lee, Stu Douglass, etc.). I for one don’t buy it. Harris had by far the highest assist rate on the team and, more importantly, he ran this offense in the literal Beilein-ian sense. Plus Lucas is hapless inside the arc, making an anemic 40 percent of his twos last year. I’ll grant you that Lucas made Sherron Collins look really bad at a propitious moment (less than a minute left in a tie game) in the Sweet 16 and is clearly superior to Harris when it comes to nailing threes. I’m just sayin’. Not open and shut from my chair.

KJ ran the numbers to try to determine a winner. Looking at only conference numbers, KJ concludes that Lucas has the advantage in the point guard battle because he turns the ball over less and shot much better from three point range. The other two stats that KJ looked at were assist and free throw rates, which turned out to be roughly equivalent.

The most interesting point that KJ makes is that Kalin Lucas morphs into whatever Michigan State needs him to be based on the opponent:

Against non-Big Ten foes, Lucas fits the mold of the traditional pass-first point guard.  He distributes the ball to his teammates, minimizes turnovers, and scores at a relatively modest rate.  And it isn’t just a case of padding the ball-handling stats against weaker opposition; the numbers don’t change much if you restrict the sample to nonconference opponents from BCS conferences.

Against Big Ten adversaries, meanwhile, Lucas morphs into a shoot-first point guard.  The assist number drops substantially, with an uptick in turnovers, and the scoring average shows an offsetting increase.

Let me state my theory on Lucas in broader (and less emotionally-detached) terms : Kalin Lucas does what his team needs him to do to win games.  Against faster-paced opponents, he runs the fast break with superb efficiency.  Against more plodding opponents, he finds ways to score in the half-court offense.

I think the moral of the story is that Kalin Lucas and Manny Harris are very different players who somehow come away with similar stat lines because of the role each plays for his team.

Lucas is a pure point guard in every sense of the phrase. Luckily for him, he plays in an offense that relies on a guy like him to control the ball and make plays in the half court offense. When MSU runs, he is able to shift gears and turn into a pass first player, distributing the ball to MSU’s stable of wings in transition.

Michigan, on the other hand, runs a two guard offense that was designed to eliminate the need for a true point guard. Beilein’s offense revolves around spacing and doesn’t call for one player to dominate the ball in the half court set. Manny Harris does a little bit of everything for Michigan but it prevents him from falling into any traditional role. He plays the three but distributes like a point guard, scores like a wing, and attacks the defensive glass like a big man.

I concede that Kalin Lucas is a better point guard than Manny Harris, especially in Big Ten play when Lucas snapped out of his early season funk. But I think the most impressive point here is that Manny had a higher assist rate in conference play than one of the top point guards in the country. Not to mention that Harris’ defensive rebounding percentage in conference games was in the same league as Big10 rebounding elites such as Joe Krabbenhoft, Mike Davis, and Paul Carter.

The obvious argument against Harris’ remarkable statistical well-roundedness is that he is forced to do everything as a product of his teams’ flaws. For example, Brian Cook points out that his rebounding is merely a function of being the second tallest player on his team. Maybe so, but I have a hard time believing that Harris wouldn’t be a tremendous defensive rebounder for any school in the country.

  • Don’t get me wrong, Harris is a great rebounder for his position. But on a team with bigger guys his rebounding wouldn’t be nearly as stunning. I’d rather have Lucas’s three-point shooting. You’re right, though, it’s sort of apples to oranges.

  • I think the one firm conclusion all parties involved in these proceedings can draw is that both teams are better off with the player they have than they would be with the one they don’t.

  • ToBlav

    Maybe the real bottom line is that no one is saying Lucas is a better wing player than Harris. The fact that Harris is considered by some knowledgable people to be better, or even nearly as good aa Lucas at Lucas’ position sounds like Harris is the more well rounded player.

  • ZRL

    If you’re going to point out that Manny’s high rebounding numbers are partly due to the make-up of UM’s roster, then you also have to point out that Manny’s low 3pt% is also due to the make-up UM’s roster. Most of Manny’s 3’s are guarded from beyond NBA range. This is partly due to the fact that he doesn’t have anyone to take attention away from him and get him open looks. On the other hand, Kalin gets more open 3’s because he has other players on MSU to take some of the D’s focus off him.

  • gpsimms

    Who are these Brian@mgoblog and KJ@theonlycolors people? We used to have intelligent discussion on this blog.

  • David

    ZRL: Great point. I think the difference in 3pt shooting is probably exaggerated.

    Manny took 50% more threes than K. Lucas. My guess is that if you compared shot selection, Manny took a lot more threes with higher degree of difficulty.

    Although Manny can definitely work on his shot selection, part of the disparity in 3pt% is due shot selection as Michigan needs more scoring from Manny.

  • Wonderful thoughts on three point shooting coming next week!

    It’s a good point that Manny shot significantly more threes, but Kalin is also slightly more efficient and definitely a little more consistent.

  • David

    To buttress my last point about Michigan needing more scoring from Manny, here were the relative usage figures from last year:

    Manny Harris: 31.8%
    Kalin Lucas: 24.9%


  • Respectful Green

    I don’t know, Blav. You have a point of sorts. I wouldn’t argue that Lucas is a more “well-rounded player” than Harris, no, probably not. However, come tourney time, I want the elite point guard who clearly isn’t a wing (certainly true of Lucas) instead of the a guy who can play one position very well and the other adequately.

    I’m not sure “more well-rounded (/versatile) player” always translates into “more valuable player.” The examples are obvious. Shaq circa 2001? Versatile? No. Valuable to winning. You bet. That’s how I feel about Lucas vs. Harris.

  • That’s an interesting point Respectful Green.

    Look at the Final Four point guards
    UNC (Lawson)
    MSU (Lucas)
    Villanova (Reynolds/Fisher)
    UConn (AJ Price)

    They beat these teams in the Elite 8

    I would say not only did all the teams that got to the Final Four have great PGs, they had better point guards than the teams they beat.

  • ToBlav

    It’s hard to go apples to apples so I don’t think this argument is going to reach a consensus (which is fine). I can’t even argue much with the fact that my previous point was only a ‘sort of’. Dylan’s point of the point guards correlating to success in the final four games is fairly convincing. However, if Manny is a point at the wing, and other teams don’t have that, is there enough of a sample to say the needed point play can’t come from the wing?

    Now forgive me in advance, but the strength of a strength seems to be what matters according to what I read above. So it might be the disparity in strength of a key skill more than which skills they have that matters most. Maybe a stonger move to the rim or three point shot matters most if the opposite skill is closer to even.