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Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Huskies will go as Tony Wroten goes

By Eamonn Brennan

Tony Wroten
Washington guard Tony Wroten is showing a lot of promise early in his freshman season.
This summer, at the Nike Skills Camps in Chicago, one guard consistently stood out from the rest. He was left-handed. He had good vision, a solid outside shot and a knack for making the well-timed pass to a streaking forward on the break or appropriately deciding to finish the play himself.

At 6-foot-5, he stood taller than most of his fellow guard attendees, all of which were (or were about to be) the best point guards in the country. By the end of the day, he had NBA scouts raving. In a sea of talented-but-too-short point guards, here, finally, was a player with the skills and size to play the position at the next level.

This player was Tony Wroten, Jr.

This college hoops writer, wary of small sample sizes though he is, allowed himself to throw his data-oriented caution to the wind. I was sold: Wroten was going to be great, and the 2011-12 Huskies were going to be better than anyone had reason to expect.

Moreover, Wroten's commitment to Lorenzo Romar's team couldn't have come at a better time. This summer, the Huskies waved farewell to point guard and spiritual leader Isaiah Thomas, a ball-dominant, left-handed guard who led his team in minutes, points, assists and steals in 2010-11 and won the conference tournament title over Arizona with a floating jumper at the buzzer. With Thomas gone and Wroten in, the Huskies were replacing a very good but undersized lefty point guard with a much bigger, much more naturally talented version -- and a guy with plenty of his own swagger, too.

After seven games, at least one thing is clear: Wroten is every bit as important for the Huskies as Thomas. Maybe even more so.

The question is whether Wroten is ready for that sort of responsibility. On that front, the jury is still very much out.

The freshman guard has had no shortage of opportunities this season. After seven games, per Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency stats, Wroten ranks No. 4 in the nation -- to be clear, that's No. 4 out of every college basketball player in the country -- in usage rate. Wroten finishes 35.9 percent of his team's available possessions when he's on the floor; the next-highest of the Huskies, sophomore Terrence Ross, checks in at 21.7 percent.

Wroten has dominated possessions: He brings the ball up the floor and initiates Washington's offense, but he also has the freedom to create for himself whenever he chooses to do so. He takes 28.8 percent of his team's available shots.

The problem? Wroten's efficiency isn't just so-so -- so-so would be good for a player that shoulders this much of his team's offensive load. No, Wroten's efficiency numbers are downright bad. After seven games, the guard's offensive rating, per KenPom, is 86.0. (For comparison's sake, Ross' 118.5, while teammate C.J. Wilcox is among the best in the country at 131.2.) His effective field goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of a 3-point shot) is 46.2 percent. His true shooting percentage (which factors in free throw percentage) is 47.2. Wroten's turnover rate is 27.6 percent.

According to Synergy Sports Technologies data, Wroten has scored 88 points on his 119 possessions this season -- an average of .739 points per possession. Wroten has been much better in transition (27 points on 26 possessions) than he has in the half court, but half-court possessions have accounted for 78.2 percent of his possessions on the floor. His tallies in those trips: 93 possessions, 61 points, .656 points per possession. Synergy's built-in descriptors politely describe this mark as "below average."

Weirdly enough, it's not as if Wroten has been forcing bad jumpers or obviously trying to do more than he's capable of. According to Synergy, 71.4 percent of his shots are "around basket (not post-ups)." Essentially, as the Wroten film backs up, these are drives to the rim. He simply hasn't been finishing. Throw in the close misses with the turnovers, and you have a recipe for severe individual offensive frustration.

Fortunately, there are plenty of positive signs in Wroten's game. Despite all the turnovers, his turnover-to-assist ratio is still positive, because Wroten has been finding open teammates with regularity. (Assist rate: 30.1 percent, which ranks just outside the top 100 nationally.) Wroten has also turned those drives into plenty of trips to the free throw line; he's drawing nearly 7.2 fouls for every 40 minutes he's on the floor (national rank: No. 32).

In the meantime, the Huskies' problems aren't limited to their freshman guard. He isn't the only one turning the ball over, for example. Plus, Romar has said that he's allowed his team to experiment in the first few weeks in order to better find out what he was.
"I've looked at that quite a bit, and obviously that's my fault," he said. "Early on, as you're putting your team together, a lot of times offensively you kind of let the guys play more just to try to find out who can do what when they're actually playing.

"Sometimes you can restrict players and hold them back and you don't know what they are capable of giving you. I kind of let the guys blow it out early on, probably too much. It usually bites us early because we don't do as good of a job offensively as we should do."

That quote came before Washington's loss at Nevada, but it's no less true for the passage of time. It's safe to assume Romar will gradually attempt to tighten Wroten's game, to accentuate the things he's good at -- leading the Huskies in transition, creating matchup problems on the perimeter, penetrating and working toward the rim -- and minimize the problem areas.

There are other caveats, too. Here's a big one: Wroten is still just a freshman. Much like Austin Rivers or Harrison Barnes or anyone else, it's unfair to judge him after four weeks of college basketball. There's a learning curve, and Wroten is on it.

Likewise, it's important to remember that whole small sample size thing. It's just seven games. It's early.

More likely than not, Wroten will finish more of those plays around the rim, improve his efficiency and have a very productive freshman season in Seattle. He'll adjust to collegiate defenses, realize he can't get away with certain things at this level, and cut down on his turnovers in the process. He'll get used to playing with guys like Ross and Wilcox and Abdul Gaddy, and he'll defer more frequently when the shots don't fall. If I had to guess whether Wroten will improve, worsen or perform at roughly the same level all season, I'd bet the house on "improve."

But as early as it is, we do know this much for sure: Few players in 2011-12 will be as important to their teams' success -- or failures -- as Wroten. The Huskies' potential mirrors their silky 6-foot-5 freshman point guard's. They can't improve if Wroten doesn't.

In other words: Stay tuned.