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Semaj Christon and Making the Adjustment

It's no secret that Semaj came out like gangbusters this season, nor is it anything but evident that he has struggled a bit of late. Here's what's going on inside the numbers and what Xavier's freshman guard needs to do to get right.

Semaj Christon may well be the key for Xavier going forward.
Semaj Christon may well be the key for Xavier going forward.

While it's true that every position on the basketball court is important, it's widely accepted that having a viable point guard is one of the key building blocks to any successful team. That was no doubt one of the foremost thoughts in Coach Mack's mind when he recruited Semaj Christon, who you may recognize as one of the vital cogs in this year's suddenly misfiring Xavier machine.

Semaj, like any guard, spends a lot of time with the ball in his hands. The main question that any ball handler has to ask himself is some form of "What action that I can take gives the team the greatest chance of getting something out of this possession?" Christon is asked to take in the information around him, compile it into some sort of workable form, and then decide if he's best served to shoot, drive, or pass based on the current situation. As the circumstances around him change, so does the correct answer to this question.

To help discern how well a player is answering that question, we put him through the PPR machine that we first devised for an article on Mark Lyons a couple of years ago. There are some moving parts to the formula that you can check out in full if you click through that link, but the long and short of it is that it takes a player's results-oriented numbers [FGM and FGA, FTM and FTA (weighted to reflect the fact that a single FT doesn't represent an entire possession), A, TO] and uses them to determine whether or not a possession put in his hands is likely to turn into something positive or negative for the team. The resulting number is a player's personal possession ratio, or PPR. A positive number indicates that he is making more positive results than empty ones, and a negative number indicates the exact opposite. Obviously, this is a rough metric, not an overarching referendum on the player's worth. Still, it has a value in reflecting how well someone who spends a lot of time with the ball in his hands is using those opportunities.

At the start of the season, things were looking very good indeed for Semaj. He wasted no time getting involved, using 23 possessions per game. He was using the possessions to good effect, too. His PPR during that time was an eye-popping +5.19 per game. For comparison's sake, Tu's PPR his senior year was +3.26 per game. Unfortunately, we can't judge Semaj's hot streak against the totality of Holloway's senior year. The reason for that is that seasons go up and down, especially when the level of competition changes and the league begins making adjustments.

That is exactly what happened to Christon. After he led the team to a 5-1 record during his first six games in a Xavier uniform, things got a lot tougher for the freshman point guard. In his next six games - coinciding with the 1-5 slide upon which the team currently finds itself - Christon was much less effective. As teams sat back and dared him to make jumpers, his PPR fell to -3.44 per game during that stretch. After finding a good result in 85 of the first 140 possessions of his college career, he created a negative one in 75 of the next 129.

Why is this? Well, there are a couple of things involved. First of all, Christon's shooting has been less effective. After going 34-63 from the floor in his first six games, Semaj has gone 24-64 in his last six. His burst to the hole is so explosive that teams have been hanging off of him and making him shoot jumpers, which is not a strength of his. He has also had some trouble finishing at the rim. Christon's finishing troubles are likely just the ups and downs of the season, though I would like to see him show a left hand a little more often. The jumper is something that is going to take some work to improve.

Turnovers aren't up for Semaj, but his assists are way down. After averaging more than six in his first six games, he has averaged 3.5 in his most recent six. With the driving lanes not there for him like they were early in the year, fewer opponents have been forced to step up as a help defender. This in turn offers Semaj fewer open teammates to whom he can lay the ball off for an easy basket. The general down turn of Xavier's shooting over the past month also hasn't done Christon any favors in this department.

The most direct and immediate fix for Semaj, however, comes at the free throw line. Even teams adjusting to his elite athleticism, he hasn't had trouble getting to the charity stripe at any point this season. Once he has gotten there, though, results have been a mixed bag. He started the season 26-32, for a sensational 81.3% success rate from the line. Anyone who watched Tu Holloway play knows that (a) there are points to be had at the line and (b) having a point guard who can turn any shooting foul into an almost guaranteed two points is a huge bonus for a team. Semaj didn't enter college with the same savvy Tu had when he left, but he has used his raw physical ability to get to the line with aplomb.

In the last six games, however, Semaj has been an abysmal 17-37 (45.9%) from the line, including one particularly abject four-game stretch when he hit just 6 of 23 attempts. That stretch included an overtime loss and a one-point loss, which only served to draw more attention to the value of converting from the line and Semaj's failure to do so during those games. Christon was still getting to the line more than six times per game - which is basically what Holloway's career rate was - he was just not cashing in on his opportunities.

There is, of course, always hope. Semaj is 11 of his last 14 from the line over his last two outings, though a cynic might note that Xavier has lost both of those games. If we accept that he has to get to the line and convert to be successful right now - and he has a +23.46 total PPR in games in which he hits at least 4 FT and at least half of his FTA as opposed to a -13 total PPR in games when he doesn't - his recent performance is encouraging.

To me, the bottom line is this: Semaj is a player whose game is geared to the full-court game right now on a team that is not able to run for long stretches of time right now. Despite the limitations he has in the half court (questionable left hand, not a good shooter), he has the athletic ability to beat a defender so hard that the opposition has no choice but to foul him from time to time during the course of the game. The two biggest immediate plays for Semaj are to learn when to retreat in the face of too many defenders or someone ready to take a clear charge and to continue to put the work in on his free throws. If he does those two things, he always has a chance of sending Xavier back to the defensive end with something to show for their possession. If he struggles with either or both of them, this could be a difficult conference season for the Muskies.