Big Ten’s Most Improved Players

Dylan Burkhardt

Today we examine the most improved players in the Big Ten by using usage rate and offensive efficiency as a tool. The scatterplot above plots last year’s production against this year’s production as we hone in on eight of the most improved players in the conference — and four who have disappointed just a bit.

The Big Leap

Yogi Ferrell (Indiana)

This Year: 17.5 ppg, 4 apg; Last Year: 7.6 ppg, 4 apg

Ferrell was an afterthought in Indiana’s offense last season. He was Indiana’s fourth option and his job was to pass the ball to the lottery picks on the floor with him. He did a pretty good job of that, and Indiana wouldn’t have won the Big Ten without him. This year, Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls are all gone and while Indiana has taken a step backward, Ferrell has taken as big of a step forward as anyone. Ferrell increased his usage rate by over 7% while still managing to become more efficient – on an offense that isn’t.

Nik Stauskas (Michigan)

This Year: 18.5 ppg, 4 rpb, 4 apg; Last Year: 11 ppg, 3 rpg, 1.3 apg

Stauskas, like Ferrell, spent most of last year deferring to NBA first-rounders. He was extraordinarily efficient, but he used just 16% of Michigan’s offensive possessions. While everyone loved to kid that he ‘wasn’t just a shooter’, he still spent most of his time shooting jumpers. His improvement this season has been covered Ad nauseam, but he’s managing to use 8% more of Michigan’s possessions while somehow increasing his efficiency. Stauskas is shooting the ball better inside and outside the arc and he’s also attempting free throws nearly twice as often as a year ago. He’s is ranked ninth in Ken Pomeroy’s National Player of the Year metric and about the only knock might be that he doesn’t use an astronomical number of possessions like some of college basketball’s other stars.

Started from the Bottom

Caris LeVert (Michigan)

This Year: 11.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.8 apg; Last Year: 2.3 ppg, 1.1 rpg, .8 apg

Let’s play the blind resume game with Caris LeVert’s statistics.


Player 1 is Caris LeVert, Player 2 is Tim Hardaway Jr. last season. LeVert isn’t Hardaway by any means, but he’s come awfully close to filling his production as a sophomore. Considering LeVert’s freshman numbers – 22.6% of minutes and 93 offensive rating – that’s an impressive accomplishment. LeVert has emerged as a major isolation threat for John Beilein’s Wolverines and he continues to find opportunities as opposing defenses focus on Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. The next step in his development will be using his ability to get in the lane off of ball screens and isolations and find his teammates either at the rim or on the perimeter.

Traevon Jackson (Wisconsin)

This Year: 11.2 ppg, 4 rpg, 4 apg; Last Year: 6.9 ppg, 3 apg, 3 rpg

Jackson started to come on late last season, but he’s continued moving forward this season. Jackson played a lot of minutes as a sophomore, but he turned the ball over on a quarter of his possessions, shot 41% on twos and just 29% on threes. As a junior, he’s raised his offensive rating 15 points to 105.8, cut down on his turnovers and improved his shooting.

More from Less

Aaron White (Iowa)

This Year: 13.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.2 apg; Last Year: 12.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.3 apg

Playing on a good team doesn’t always mean more opportunities. Aaron White plays on one of the deepest, most balanced squads in the country, but he’s managed to improve his efficiency and scoring output with a slight decrease in usage. White has the tendency to drift in and out of games, but when he’s involved in the offense he can be devastating. Most notably, he’s one of the best fast break players in the conference.

Branden Dawson (Michigan State)

This Year: 10.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg; Last Year: 8.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg

It’s tough to put Dawson on this list because he’s sidelined for a month after breaking his hand while watching film, but his offensive efficiency saw a massive up-tick this season. Dawson was finally healthy from his injury plagued sopohomore, and he improved his offensive rating by 20 points. His turnovers are down, his rebounding is up, and he’s finishing more effectively. Now Michigan State just needs to get him back for a NCAA tournament run.

Just Needed a Chance

Frank Kaminsky

This Year: 13.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.2 apg; Last Year: 4.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg

Kaminsky’s efficiency numbers haven’t changed much, but his playing time has. Last year he played just 23% of available minutes for the Badgers, this year that number is up to 65.5%. Kaminsky has managed to improve on almost all of his tempo-neutral statistics with increased playing time — an impressive feat that’s allowed him to triple his per game averages.

Gabriel Olanesi (Iowa)

This Year: 6.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg; Last Year: 2.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg

Olanesi probably still needs more of a chance, as he’s playing only 37% of available minutes for the Hawkeyes, but he’s using far more possessions and continues to be a shotblocking and rebounding presence around the rim.

Other Notables: Jordan Morgan, Brandon Taylor, Donovan Jack, Amir Williams, Elliott Eliason, Lenzelle Smith Jr., Gary Harris, Shavon Shieldss

Four Who Didn’t


Glenn Robinson III (Michigan)

Robinson is using a lot more possessions this season, and his efficiency numbers from last season would be almost impossible to replicate at that rate, but he hasn’t been nearly as effective.  Robinson’s offensive rating of 115.6 points per 100 possessions isn’t bad – it ranks 10th among Big Ten players that use at least 20% of their teams offensive possessions – but it’s not quite the stuff of an NBA lottery pick.

AJ Hammons (Purdue)

Everybody loves to talk about Hammons’ NBA potential, but he hasn’t realized it yet. Hammons is massive, skilled and a good shot blocker, but he just can’t put it all together. With so much size and skill, it’s almost unexplainable that Hammons has been held to single digit scoring ten times this season.

Aaron Craft (Ohio State)

Ohio State desperately needs an offensive threat, but Aaron Craft is using fewer Buckeye possessions than he did a year ago. Sure, Craft has kept up his pedestrian level of efficiency, but his inability to step up as a go-to scorer is obvious for a floundering Ohio State offense.

Will Sheehey (Indiana)

Yogi Ferrell stepped up in Bloomington, but Will Sheehey is stuck in neutral. Sheehey is using fewer possessions and is less efficient this season. His 2-point and 3-point shooting numbers are down and he’s turning the ball over more often than a year ago. Sheehey, like Robinson, had the luxury of being a secondary option on a team filled with pros, and has struggled a bit as the focus of opposing defenses.

  • Indiana_Banners

    You can say that again as far as Sheehey. He’s been a huge disappointment for IU fans.

    Great article, by the way.

    • Champswest

      The question is why? Did he assume that he would be a star this year, did he benefit last year from the surrounding talent or are opponents keying on him?

      • IUfanPurduePhD

        He’s also getting blocked at the rim at what would seem to be a very high clip (although I couldn’t find specific “blocks against” stats), which is part of the reason his 2fg% has dipped. I’d also argue that defenses are crowding inside the arc because IU only has two legitimate three-point threats (Yogi & Vonleh), so that mid-range game of his has been bottled up.

        Excellent article, Mr. Burkhardt! Sorry to have invaded (trolled?) a Wolverine site.

      • jblair52

        I think it’s like GR3 to an extent. Last year surrounded by great talent so they could do their thing. 6’6″ athletes.

        Problem I see with IU is their lack of offensive identity and poor play calling. They just don’t get anything and all their 2-4 spots are all “athletes” – no shooters, no post, etc.

  • sjspm

    Dylan, I don’t comment very often (or, at all, really) – but I have to say the level of analysis and thought in the posts recently has been incredible. Keep up the great work.

    That said, I think the game will start opening up a lot more for GRIII once he starts knocking down a few more 3-pointers. Definitely think he’s better than a 28% college 3-point shooter.

  • JGiebz

    You probably want to change Dawson to “was finally healthy”

  • kam

    This is a very fun read! i like this.. I wonder who will win most improved player.. Usually they don’t give it to the POY so i think NIK probably wont get it.. Yogi was kinda expected to step up, same with Gary.. caris? white? appling? jackson?

  • guestavo

    Cool article. Nik really is an amazing player. GR3’s biggest flaws are his non-existent 3 point shot, which I think is more of a slump, and his inability to run PnR. Another summer of learning different ball-handling moves to get his defender dancing would do him wonders, instead of straight line driving all the time.

    Found this site a few days back

    Caris seems to be ELITE at finishing at the rim and is a deadly catch and shoot guy from 3, yet, 38% of his shots come from 2 pt jumpers (second highest on the team), where he only connects at a 29 % rate and is assisted on only 10 % of those jumpers (all three significantly lower than any other wing on our roster).

    • kam

      That hoop math is pretty cool!

  • colinbb10

    you do a fantastic job, Dylan

  • Good work as always, Dylan. Michigan fans are lucky to have this site as a resource.

  • Bigplaybray

    Great analysis Dylan. Love the advanced statistics. It would be interesting to see a similar analysis on the defensive side of the ball.

    I see a lot of similarities between the GRob3/Sheehey performances. Both benefited tremendously from playing with talented offensive rosters where they were never “the guy”. They could pick their spots. They rarely created on their own. And they benefit from open looks that the doubles on the primary weapons received.

    • rlcBlue

      I was going to speculate, but I decided to check Hoop Math first:
      (edit: note that all the numbers in the table below are percentages)

      At Rim 2pt J 3pt J FT
      Name shots makes asstd shots makes asstd shots makes asstd A/FGA makes
      GRIII14 27.9 92.5 69.4 40.0 38.2 27.6 32.1 27.9 82.4 36.8 74.3
      GRIII13 43.5 78.0 64.6 32.2 32.8 10.0 24.3 32.4 100.0 36.0 67.6

      Sheehey14 42.3 58.0 57.5 24.5 42.5 76.5 33.1 27.8 100.0 29.4 68.8
      Sheehey13 35.5 67.4 64.5 33.2 41.9 47.2 31.3 34.6 100.0 37.1 65.6

      GRIII is a great finisher – this year, insanely great – but he doesn’t get himself to the rim very much; he’s at his best filling the right lane on the break. This year, in order to shoulder a larger portion of the offense, he’s taking more shots; however, the added shots are mostly difficult ones – two point jumpers and unassisted three pointers. Even though he’s shooting the two point jumpers better than last year, they drag down his efficiency compared to last year. Every player would be more efficient if he attempted only shots at the rim and three pointers. He’s also shooting worse on threes than last year, partly because of selection, I’d guess; he’s not only shooting threes when the ball is kicked out to him, but also when he’s dribbling around looking for a shot, so he’s probably taking more contested shots.

      Sheehey, by contrast, is attempting more shots at the rim and sinking fewer – I’d guess he’s driving more in the half court but not converting too well; oddly, though, this approach isn’t resulting in more free throw attempts. He’s taking fewer 2 point jumpers and the ones he does take are mostly on passes where he’s presumably open. The big hit on his efficiency, though is the three point shooting – he’s taking many fewer threes (edit:oops – wrong column; he’s taking slightly more threes) and not knocking down the ones he does take. That’s really hurting IU’s offense.

  • Don

    Love the data visualizations. Great work, Dylan…thank you!

  • Chris Vandervoort

    Great article! I really liked the Levert/Hardaway blind comparison. Seeing that makes me question why Hardaway is seen as so “good” despite not that great efficiency. If Glenn Robinson’s 115 is too low to be a lottery pick, how did Hardaway get drafted so high with roughly 10 points lower efficiency? I am not saying Hardaway wasn’t/isn’t good. He helped lead us to the finals last year and is having a very solid rookie campaign in the NBA.

    I realize his role last year was to make things happen late in the shot clock at times, which skews the numbers low. Also, he doesn’t get set up as much as GRIII, so his role last year is more comparable to Levert’s this year. Still no one is worrying about Levert going to the NBA. Can someone explain how Hardaway is so “good” despite having just OK numbers (in advanced stats)?

    • Efficiency is just a part of the puzzle. Hardaway is 6-6 with a good frame, even if he wasn’t the most efficient player (he was very streaky).

      And even Robinson’s 115 isn’t necessarily bad, he just set a really high standard for himself and people expected a lot more.

      • mikey_mac

        The timing of this chart doesn’t help GR3 either … He’s just 3-for-18 on 3PT FG over the start to the B1G season. I expect he’ll be better than a 17% 3PT shooter on the full season, which should get him above 120 ORtg.

    • guestavo

      Our offense is built around PnR, Hardaway is a pure scorer and not so good high ball screen guy. It’s why guys like him and GR3 are projected better at the next level than in our offense imo.

    • kam

      Hardaway is a good scorer. Levert is a good pick and roll player which is a main part of JBs offense

  • kam

    Nik is number 14 on chad fords big board.. Thats LOTTERY!

  • Matt Silich

    If you don’t mind me asking, where did you find these stats? I’d be interesting in looking at some of these on my own, for Illinois players.

    • You can find offensive rating and usage (% of poss) in a few places. KenPom is great but I pulled these from RealGM just because it was easier to get a bigger sample. is also good.

      • Matt Silich

        Great! Just found them on RealGM. A quick google search didn’t turn any up so I figured I’d ask. Awesome piece.