Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Evans is shooting just 36.5 percent from the free throw line, a big reason the Badgers have looked awful offensively to begin the Big Ten slate. Can the Badgers do something, or do they just have to let the senior shoot his way out of it?
From the play-by-play of Thursday's game against Penn State, a microcosm of Ryan Evans's season to date:
FOUL by Travis, Ross (P2T5) (Evans, Ryan draws)MISSED FT SHOT by Evans, Ryan 12:40MISSED FT SHOT by Evans, Ryan 12:40REBOUND (OFF) by Evans, Ryan 12:40FOUL by Graham, Jon (P2T6) (Evans, Ryan draws)MISSED FT SHOT by Evans, Ryan 12:33MISSED FT SHOT by Evans, Ryan 12:33
In dissecting this sequence, the focus has to fall on the missed free throws, but this is something of a remarkable achievement, and not just because of its rarity*. Evans had to do some great things to make it happen. He drew a foul at the rim to earn the first trip to the line. He tracked down the offensive board, drove hard to the rim a second time and drew yet another foul.
*Its rarity is quite remarkable, though -- see the bottom of the post for the gory details.
Evans has been doing these great things all season. He ranks in the top 500 nationally in seven statistical categories -- offensive rebound rate (8.8 percent, 490th), defensive rebound rate (23.7 percent, 71st), turnover rate (10.6 percent, 74th lowest), block rate (3.8 percent, 347th), fouls committed per 40 minutes (1.7, 108th), fouls drawn per 40 minutes (5.6, 159th) and free throws per field goal attempted (0.425, 402nd). All of this is to say Evans has been tremendously active and has managed to inject himself into the game on both the offensive and defensive ends, mostly in good ways.
Mostly, of course, means omitting those pesky free throws. Wisconsin has scored just 107 points in 116 Big Ten possessions. Its 91.9 points per 100 possessions ranks ninth of 12 in the conference's early play. Evans is 3-for-14 from the free throw line. The problem is apparent.
However, Evans's role on the team is not to be the engine of efficiency -- that role belongs to Jared Berggren and, to a lesser extent, Ben Brust, Sam Dekker and Mike Bruesewitz. The shots entrusted to Evans are difficult ones. Only 31 percent of his shots have come at the rim, whereas 60 percent have been two-point jumpers, mostly of the 16-20 foot variety.
Given the tendency of Wisconsin's offense to stall from a lack of penetration, the team needs somebody who can shoot an 18-foot jumper. Evans is shooting 41 percent on non-layup/dunk two-point shots; the national average is 33 percent. Wisconsin ranks ninth in the country in field goal percentage on two-point jumpers according to Hoop-Math.com at 43 percent, and Evans takes the bulk of these shots. His ability to take the burden off of Berggren and the guards by hitting that shot with regularity bails the offense out of a bunch of otherwise dead possessions.
Then there's the free throws. The Kohl Center's typical free throw silence takes on a deathly air when Evans toes the line. The cheers for his makes are loud but mocking. Evans has missed 47 times from the line this season already, 15 times more than he did in 21 more games last season. He's missing over three per game. If he were making these shots at last season's rate, he'd be scoring 1.6 more points per game. Even at his dragged-through-the-muck career 61.3 percent rate he'd be scoring a full point more than his current 11.5 average per game (a career best).
But what's the solution? If you're not willing to wait for Evans to resolve his free throw issues, then the only option is to wrest possessions away from him. Can you see the offense significantly changing its shape? Dominated by Jared Berggren post ups? He struggled to get active against Penn State and Nebraska, featuring some of the worst bigs the center will face in conference play. More shots for Ben Brust? He can't finish at the rim (47 percent this season, 54 percent last season, both well below the 61 percent national average), and he already maxes out his three-point attempts and isn't big enough to consistently find mid-range jumpers. More shots for the point guards? Traevon Jackson is shooting far worse than Evans and Marshall, who has shown solid ability from three, hasn't shown any ability to create his own shot inside (5-for-17 from two).
So maybe Evans spends more time on the bench, probably in favor of Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. Both have been fantastic offensively. Dekker's 114.8 offensive rating (an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions) ranks 306th in the nation and Kaminsky's 133.0 is the highest on the team (he hasn't logged enough minutes to qualify for national ranks). But there are issues.
Of Kaminsky's 147 minutes, 101 have come against competition in the bottom half of the national KenPom.com ranks, including most of his top games -- 37 of his 73 points came against Cornell (250th), Presbyterian (344th) and Samford (313th). Kaminsky is also committing 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes -- 2.8 more than Evans -- and a big part of Wisconsin's defensive effectiveness is in allowing just 25.6 free throws per 100 field goal attempts, the 15th-best rate in the country.
Dekker, meanwhile, isn't anywhere near the defender Evans is -- his 91.0 defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) is better only than George Marshall's among Badgers with at least 100 minutes; Evans's 84.4 is the team's best. Perhaps most importantly, neither Dekker nor Kaminsky has shown Evans's effectiveness on the glass. Each pulls in roughly 10 percent of defensive rebounds, not even half of Evans's mark. Wisconsin's defensive rebounding is a big reason why the team can win games like Sunday's 47-41 clunker against Nebraska -- the team rebounded 90.9 percent of Nebraska's misses, and the Badgers' 74.9 percent defensive rebound rate ranks ninth in the nation.
As mentioned above, if Evans can figure out what ails him at the line, he'll add about a point to a point-and-a-half per game to his scoring. It doesn't sound like much, but he uses just over 12 possessions a game. Improving his free throw percentage to a paltry 60 percent the rest of the season -- just below his career average -- would raise his offensive rating to 104. It's still not great, nor even ideal, but Evans would be an above-average offensive player while making huge impacts in so many other facets of the game -- defense, rebounding, keeping the team out of foul trouble. The offensive burden on the rest of the team would stay low -- as it has to, with this group -- allowing players like Berggren, Dekker, Brust and Bruesewitz to thrive when the defense opens up for them.
As I see it, there are two ways out of the conundrum Ryan Evans's early-season shooting has put the Badgers in. Either you can believe in him and let him shoot his way out, or you can fundamentally alter the team in a way that sacrifices some of its biggest strengths in the process.
What I'm saying is I believe in Ryan Evans. And I don't think we have much of a choice.
* * * * *
How improbable is missing four free throws in one possession, even for a guy like Ryan Evans? Consider the following odds: of drawing a two-shot shooting foul (Evans draws one on roughly 4.4 percent of Badger possessions), of the team pulling in the offensive board on a free throw (roughly 14 percent), of Evans drawing another two-shot shooting foul (again, 4.4 percent) and, of course, of all four free throws missing (2.2 percent if we use his 61.3 percent career average; 16.3 percent if we use his brutal 36.5 percent season mark). Multiply all those tiny percentages together and you get just a 1 in 164,484 chance using his career mark; even if his horrific run this season is his true talent, there's still just a 1 in 21,695 chance of four missed free throws on one possession.
Wisconsin plays slow. Over 34 games (assuming at least one postseason win between the conference tournament and the NCAA or NIT) the team will see about 2,145 possessions (63.1 per game). Evans will be on the court for 1,963 of them if he continues playing 37 minutes per game. So, using math, there was about a 0.4 percent probability it would happen this season if he keeps shooting 36.5% from the line and a 0.007 percent if he gets back to his career mark.
The real answer is probably somewhere in between, but the point is if you were watching between 12:40 and 12:33 in the second half of Thursday's game, you saw a unicorn (or perhaps some less pleasant but likely still horned and very mythical creature).