I want to start off by telling you something you already know: Semaj Christon is a fairly special player. The difference between the Xavier team you see right now and a program with a .500 or worse record largely can be attributed to his brilliance on the basketball court. As Brad and I discussed just over a week ago, Christon is unquestionably the best player on the team, and the rest of the roster is a matter of trying to fill in the right pieces around him.
Just in case you like to back up your gut feeling with statistics, Christon brings plenty of those to the table, too. He is averaging 15.8/2.4/5.4 per game on .517/.222/.696 shooting; despite missing the first game of the season and not being able to extend his shooting arm in his college debut, he leads Xavier in points and assists.
The most remarkable number on Christon's stat line right now, though, is his usage rate. Usage rate simply assigns credit or blame to a player when his actions end a possession, either by making a shot, missing a shot that isn’t rebounded by the offense, or committing a turnover. Roughly, it shows how much of the offensive burden a player is shouldering, and Semaj's usage rate is 29.4%. That's 72nd in the nation overall and 5th nationally among freshman. That got me to thinking, what does it say about a team that a freshman is taking on that much of the load? And what does it say about that freshman?
Over the course of the past five full seasons, 47 teams have placed a freshman in the top 100 in usage rate. These teams come in all shapes and sizes, from the 2011-2012 Binghamton squad that went 2-29 while allowing Ben Dickinson to use 30% of their possessions to the 2009-2010 Kentucky team for whom DeMarcus Cousins used 31.3% of the possessions available to him. On the whole, though, it has generally been detrimental to have a freshman taking on that much responsibility. If you assume the average college team finishes .500 (which, mathematically, it has to), having a freshman in the top 100 in the country in usage rate costs you 1.6 wins per 30-game season. If you're into tempo-free numbers, consider that the teams in question have an average KenPom ranking of 180th.
This is being borne out in gruesome fashion this season. Discounting for a moment the subject of our study, there are four other freshmen in the top 100 in the nation in usage rate. These players - John Brown of High Point, Patrick Cole of Coppin State, Jordan Reed of Binghamton, and Stefan Moody of Florida Atlantic - have led their teams to a combined 12-24 record so far this season. Clearly, this is quite poor. Having a freshman (who isn't Semaj Christon) in the top 100 in usage rate is on pace to be worth about negative five wins compared to the average team this year. Those four teams also combine to rank 290th on KenPom.com. Xavier, for what it's worth, was hanging in the low 80s as of this writing.
So it's fairly clear at this point that having a freshman gobbling down possessions is detrimental to your team's cause, but - being the savvy basketball fan that you are - you can probably think of at least one good, prolific freshman in the past five years who wasn't an anchor to his team. If you find a freshman running a team that is fairly competent (a description that fits Semaj Christon and Xavier fairly well this year), what does that tell you about that player? I'm so glad you asked.
Of the 47 freshmen who had usage rates in the top 100 in the past five seasons, 12 of them were on teams that landed in the top 100 in the Pomeroy ratings at the end of the year. Of those 12, 7 (Michael Beasley, OJ Mayo, Eric Gordon, Jerryd Bayless, Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, and Tony Wroten) left school after their freshman seasons. All seven of those players ended up in the NBA. Of the remaining 5, 2 (Le'Bryan Nash - projected by draftexpress.com to go in the first round this year - and Blake Griffin) left school after their sophomore years. The three who are left are probably going to spend all four years in college before hitting Europe or the D-League (Louisiana State's Johnny O'Bryant), are repairing their draft stock after some off the court issues (Joe Jackson of Memphis), or transferred to a D2 school for reasons not readily apparent (Creighton's superfluously apostrophed P'Allen Stinnett). Those top 12 players spent an average of 1.9 years in school, and 9 or 10 of them already are or will end up playing in the NBA.
So what have we learned? This (I think): there are two circumstances in which a freshman ends up with a usage rate in the top 100. One is that the team is so miserable when he arrives that the coach sees his talent and tells him, in effect, "Here are the keys, son; go to town." The 35 teams with a freshman in question that finished outside of the KenPom top 100 averaged 10 wins per 30-game season and a KenPom ranking of 226th. Two of those players ended up in the NBA (Kenneth Faried and Courtney Fortson) and one more likely will (Arkansas' BJ Young). Mostly, they benefitted from being the least bad player on a very bad team.
The other situation is that a freshman is so good that he can either drag a team to success by himself or show up on a team with the established talent to achieve KenPom greatness and still be the go-to guy. This is the situation in which we find Christon. Looking at recent history, I don't think he quite has the talent level of the five guards (Mayo, Gordon, Bayless, Evans, Wroten) who went one-and-done. Each of those players had either exceptional height for the guard position or the ability to knock down jumpers from range. At 6'3" and with an outside shot that is a work in progress, Christon doesn't match that profile.
Both of the players who went or are projected to go after their second year were raw, athletic forwards who could have left after one but stood to gain obvious benefits from another year of polish on their games. This, obviously, does not apply to Christon either. I think Memphis' Joe Jackson is probably the closest thing to a comparison to Christon in the players we've discussed here. Jackson is three inches shorter but has a better outside shot. If he hadn't gotten himself in a bit of trouble last year, he may be getting paid to play right now.
Christon is in the same basic boat. Barring a miracle, he's not going after this year. His future from that point forward will depend on his sophomore season. If he has a huge year or gains widespread notoriety due to a deep tournament run, he'll likely capitalize by entering the draft. If that doesn't happen, I still don't see him being at Xavier for four years. His junior year - if it happens - will be his fourth year out of high school thanks to a year in prep school, and I don't think his talent will require a fourth season in college to get him noticed.
All that to get us back around to where we started: Semaj Christon is a special player. But then, you already knew that.