The Opportunity Cost of Georgetown’s Josh SmithPosted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 9th, 2013
The last time I wrote about Georgetown, I described Josh Smith as slow and uninterested on defense against Wright State. Nearly a month later, when I watched the Hoyas blow out High Point late last week, Smith was much more energetic on both ends of the floor. He was forceful in the paint, putting down a rim-shaking dunk early in the game, finishing the night with 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting. He made a couple of standout defensive plays too – registering a steal by intercepting a lob pass in the paint, and putting a nasty block on a High Point player’s attempted layup. The problem was that Smith was also in foul trouble the entire night and played a total of only 18 minutes. It was a similar story on Saturday in a win against Colgate — 14 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes of action. The opportunity cost of Smith unable to play starter’s minutes remains the narrative for the talented but enigmatic junior — not just for this pair of games, but for his entire playing career.
By all accounts, the transfer big man is having his best start to a season so far and might be the best offensive player for the Hoyas. He is averaging a career-high 13.6 PPG while shooting 70 percent from the field, easily the best such mark on the team. If we look at the more advanced statistics, his numbers are just as impressive. Smith has an offensive player efficiency rating of 121.9 — second on the team only to D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera at 125.1 — and an average plus-minus of +10.8 points per game – trailing Smith-Rivera by only 0.2 points with significantly less time. But as previously mentioned, the issue is not Smith’s effectiveness for the minutes that he’s on the court; it’s getting him on the court and keeping him there. Whether the issue is foul trouble (he averages 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes, and has fouled out of two games) or his stamina, Smith has only managed to average 19.4 MPG through the Hoya’s first eight contests. This begs the obvious question: How much is Georgetown missing in production by not having Smith play starter’s minutes?
The table below compares the “regular” Josh Smith to a projection of “super” Joshua Smith. Super Smith is just as effective on offense as Regular Smith but plays 30 minutes a game (near the average for a Big East featured frontcourt player). He also defies the rule of diminishing returns given more minutes played, but what do you expect? He’s Super. The bottom row of the table calculates the difference between Regular Smith and Super Smith, which represents the opportunity cost to Smith of not playing that extra 10.6 MPG. If he had played those extra minutes and producing at a level near his current rates, he would be averaging 7.4 more PPG and 2.2 more RPG. To gauge the opportunity cost to the team, we can use the plus-minus metric to take in the full impact of Smith — offense and defense, good and bad. According to the data, the Hoyas lose out on an additional 5.9 points per game by not having Smith playing starter’s minutes.
This analysis isn’t an argument to play Smith 30 minutes a game. We’ve seen enough of him in the past several years to understand his limitations; this is something John Thompson III fully understood when he sought Smith’s transfer to Georgetown. Instead, this analysis should highlight just how effective Smith is offensively when he is on the court. Therefore, it’s important for Thompson to allocate his minutes during the most important moments of the game to maximize his usefulness. When he is arguably one of the better offensive players in the Big East but can only be counted on to play for one of every two minutes in the game, developing a clear strategy to keep him on the floor for the most important offensive possessions of the game is probably a good idea.