The Most Unlikely Assist Man in College BasketballPosted by IRenko on December 19th, 2011
I. Renko is an RTC correspondent.
If you were to line up the 100 players with the highest assist rates in the nation, one of them would stick out like a sore thumb. Well, more like a long, muscular, imposing thumb. Georgetown’s 6’10” center Henry Sims, who sports a 33% assist rate, is the only player in the top 100 taller than 6’4”. And he is far and away the most important assist man on the Hoyas, averaging 3.7 per game. By contrast, point guards Markel Starks and Jason Clark average 1.4 and 1.2 assists per game and have assist rates of just 10.4% and 8.3%, respectively.
On Saturday afternoon, Sims demonstrated just how important his passing game is to Georgetown’s success. Despite the Hoyas’ significant height advantage over the visiting American Eagles, Sims and his frontcourt mates had a quiet first half, as the Hoyas ground out a six-point lead. But right out of the second half gate, Sims took over the game without even scoring, pulling the strings from his pedestal at the high post. From the 18:58 mark to the 13:19 mark of the second half, Sims assisted on five layups, as the Hoyas pushed their lead to 15 points. You sometimes see a 6’10” center take over the game with his shot-blocking or even rebounding. But rarely, as we saw on Saturday, with his passing.
With the loss of guards Chris Wright and Austin Freeman and starting center Julian Vaughn, this was expected to be a rebuilding year for the Hoyas. But Sims’ one-of-a-kind offensive game has led them to a top 20 ranking. It also underscores the extent to which Georgetown’s success doesn’t necessarily depend on a playmaking point guard. Rather, what makes John Thompson III’s Princeton-influenced offense really click is a skilled big man who can be a triple threat in the high post — able to shoot, pass, or drive. Jeff Green played that role on the Hoyas’ 2007 Final Four team, which had the second most efficient offense in the country. Greg Monroe had the job on the 2010 team that earned a 3 seed and was ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. And years ago, when JTIII was coaching Princeton, he had an all-Ivy center named Judson Wallace who had the same kind of game.
But so far this year, Sims has mastered the passing role in a way that even his JTIII-coached predecessors hadn’t. Just how unique is Sims’ dime-dropping success? Not only is he the only big man sporting a top 100 assist rate this year, but according to kenpom.com, if he finishes this season in the top 100, he will be one of only two players taller than 6’7” to accomplish the feat since 2007 (Ken Pomeroy’s excellent website doesn’t list player heights prior to 2007). The player whose company he’ll be joining is 6’10” Travis Peterson, who finished 2008 with a 32.1% assist rate for Samford. Samford, of course, has run the Princeton offense for years under head coach Jimmy Tillette.
Sims’ development into a model big man for the Georgetown offense this year was hardly an inevitability. Over his first three years, he sometimes showed flashes of his potential, but struggled to play consistently. After playing sparingly his freshman and sophomore years, Sims sported a solid assist rate of 16.2% during his junior year, but he also had a 27.1% turnover rate. This year, he has cut down on his turnovers, coughing it up at a rate of only 15.8%. And his overall production has increased. He has upped his scoring average from 3.6 to 12.1 points per game, and he has demonstrated a more refined ability to knock down short jumpers and drive to the basket from the high post. Sims’ offensive rating, per Pomeroy, is 124.2 — good for another top 100 ranking.
And none of that speaks to his role on defense, which, despite his heroics at the other end, Sims’ coach thought was his most important contribution on Saturday. “He was best today — and I told him this in the locker room — at his communication on defense,” said Thompson following the win. “The whole time, you heard Henry talking, and our defense got better in the second half because, I think, our talking got better. And he was, I thought, outstanding. I heard Henry calling screens, calling switches, ‘watch this,’ and I think that’s what he did better than anything — better than the points, better than the passes. His communication on defense, I thought, was outstanding today.” Indeed, Sims is an imposing inside defensive presence for the Hoyas. His 7.8 block percentage gives him another top 100 national ranking.
In a light moment after Saturday’s game, a reporter asked Sims whether his role was kind of like a point guard. Sims started to say “Something like that” before heeding a disapproving coach and insisting that he was not a point guard. Perhaps they’re both right. Sims’ playmaking out of the post may be something like a point guard’s, but it’s also singularly distinct — one in a hundred, to be exact.