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Mark Lyons and the Value of Possession

When boiled down to its essence, the decision-making process of the player with the ball can be summed up in the question, "Do I give our team the best chance of getting something out of this possession where I am now?" The answer to this question dictates whether the player shoots, works himself into better position, or gives the ball up entirely. As the player implements his initial answer to that question, the situation around him continually changes. The player who can come up with - and act on - an answer to that question as quickly as the changing situation demands is going to give his team effective possessions on a regular basis; a player who can't is going to spend a lot of time on the bench.

Cheek has loads of swagger.
Nowhere is this more evident than the guard position. Guards handle the ball more than any other player, and one who consistently makes bone-headed decisions is going to give his team a lot of wasted possessions. While classmate Tu Holloway was learning on the fly as a freshman, Musketeers guard Mark Lyons was sitting out his first season on the Xavier campus. When he finally got onto the floor the next year, "Cheekz" distinguished himself as a player with incredible athleticism and an unflinching estimation of his own abilities. He also frustrated the Xavier faithful with forced shot attempts, questionable decisions, and a general inability or unwillingness to recognize the difference between a game when he's on and one when he isn't. If players learn through mistakes, the lessons were coming in bunches early.

Lately though, Lyons seems to have be coming around. Since the beginning of conference play, Lyons has looked like a player who is coming to grips with the value of having hold of the ball. To evaluate how Cheek had improved, I put together a simple formula to rate a possession as empty (EP) or fruitful (FP). A made bucket or an assist equals a fruitful possession; a missed field goal or a turnover makes a possession empty. Finally, since there is value to getting to the free throw line, I weighted in FT as worth .556 of a possession (this number thanks to the wonderful Ken Pomeroy) and put missed ones on the empty side and made ones on the fruitful side. For ease of use, we'll plot the whole thing on a +/- scale (with a positive number meaning the player had more fruitful possessions than empty ones) and call it PPR for Personal Possession Ratio.

If you felt like Lyons was underperforming in non-conference play, the numbers back up what your gut was telling you. During that span of time, he was averaging just over eleven empty possessions per game while coming up productive on just under nine possessions per game. In those 13 games, he was a miserable -30 in PPR. His 52 made buckets, 39 made free throws, and 38 assists came at the cost of 94 missed shots, 18 missed free throws, and 38 turnovers. Cheek was gobbling up possessions (19.5 per game) and not giving X much production for them (12.5 PPG, .356/.345/.684, 1:1 A/TO). Not surprisingly, Xavier staggered out of the gate to an 8-5 record as Tu Holloway (+42 PPR in that time) tried to carry the load alone.

Defenders are forced to respect Lyon's quickness.
Since Cinci lit Xavier up and A-10 play began, Lyons has been a different player. His PPR has been +24 in those 14 games, meaning his good possessions have outweighed his bad by about the same measure as his bad ones outweighed his good prior to that point. Not only has he cut down on his empty possessions by about three per game, he has also added a positive possession every time out. His 74 made buckets, 45 made free throws, and 44 assists have more than countered the 78 missed shots, 14 missed free throws, and 33 turnovers he has accumulated in that period of time. He has cut back on his possession use (18.7 per game) and increased his production (15.4 PPG, .487/.370/.762, 1.33:1 A/TO), and X has gone 13-1.

Part of Cheek's turn around can be attributed to his increased attention to ball security; his assist numbers have seen an insignificant bump, but he has cut back on turnovers by more than half a TO per game. It is Lyons' shot selection that seems to have been the most integral part of his recent increase in production. To exposit what exactly this looks like, I went back through Lyons' shot charts and play-by-play data for the season, breaking down his field goal attempts into layups (this includes all near-rim events such as dunks, layups, and tips), two-point jumpers, and three-point shots.

The difference has not been in his selection of two-point versus three-point baskets; three-point attempts accounted for 37.6% of his shots before the calendar turned and 40.7% of them after. His slightly increased effectiveness from behind the arc also helps each attempt less likely to turn into an empty possession. The most dramatic difference has been in the value of his two-point shots. Before conference play began, 47% of his two-point attempts were jump shots despite the fact that he was hitting 16.3% of them. Since conference began, only 26.7% of Cheek's two-point attempts have been jumpers, and he has hit 25% of them. Layups have jumped from accounting for 53% of his shots inside the arc to 73.3% of them, and he has gone from hitting 54% of them to 68%.

Simply put, Lyons has committed to getting all the way to the rim rather than settling for jump shots, and the results have been spectacular. As he has been more explosive getting to the basket, the respect he garners from opponents has opened up more clean looks from behind the arc. When we were in touch with Mark, he told us that it was his desire to be a "consistent impact player" that has helped him make progress. He also told us he has been getting more and more confident, and with the numbers he has been putting up lately it's no wonder.

Lyons serves up the spuds.
It would appear that Lyons is progressing much like Tu did his sophomore year; turnovers and bad decisions are down, scoring and savvy play are creeping up. To top it all off, Lyons has an athletic burst that few players in the country can match and a more consistent stroke from outside. From 1/23 to the end of A-10 play his sophomore year, Tu posted a PPR of +38 in 14 games. In ten games since 1/22 this year, Cheek is +21. Just keep that in mind when Lyons is a go-to scorer next season and people are trying to figure out where it came from. Another great Xavier guard is coming of age right before your eyes.