On a Saturday afternoon last December, the Ohio Bobcats were engaged in a friendly out-of-conference basketball game with the St. Bonaventure Bonnies. While both teams would end the 2010-11 season with rather ordinary records, this particular game was anything but. Though the Bonnies had a ten point lead with about seven minutes left, the Bobcats chipped away at the lead. That effort proved strong enough to force an overtime, and then another and another and another. All told, the two squads battled into a fourth overtime, sixty minutes of basketball, and the homestanding Bonnies eventually pulled away 112-107. Check the box score and it's not the score nor the overtimes that stick out, however. It's D.J. Cooper's stat line.
The sophomore point guard scored 43 points in this outing, but it took him a whopping 41 shot attempts to do so. He went 17-of-41 from the field. No other player in Division I topped Cooper for the honor of Most Field Goals Attempted in a Game on the season; in fact, the only player to come close was BYU's Jimmer Fredette (37). Though Cooper's shooting output on that afternoon can only be described as inefficient, his stat line stands out for other reasons, too. The 5-foot-11 guard collected 13 assists, 8 rebounds, and 8 steals, and he had just 5 turnovers in 55 minutes of play. At the beginning of the season, I had thought Cooper would be a shoe-in for at least one triple-double in 2010-11, but he darn near attained a quadruple-double. Sure, he needed four overtimes to come close, but in a sense, Cooper's production against St. Bonaventure served as a microcosm of his second year as a whole: brilliant in many ways, but inefficient in many others.
Through two seasons in Athens, Cooper has accomplished a lot. He's won a MAC Tournament, an NCAA Tournament game, and a Freshman of the Year trophy. Though his team had its up and downs this year, Ohio was a player down the stretch in the MAC again thanks to a late season winning streak. For his part, Cooper was named to the MAC's First Team. Presumably, Cooper should be a staple on that First Team for his remaining two seasons under John Groce, but what exactly is his ceiling? And what must he improve on to get to that point?
To aid in this discussion, let's take a statistical look at a distinct group of players who largely operate in a similar role as Cooper. The following table presents stats for what we'll call "scoring distributors," narrowly defined as point guards who score at least 15 points and dish out at least 6 assists per game. Xavier's Tu Holloway is also included to help make a later point. The columns are sorted by PPR, or pure point rating, which is a metric developed by John Hollinger to overcome some of the weaknesses inherent in an assist-to-turnover ratio. Historically, a PPR above 4.0 in college is an indication that a particular player is a strong distributor with great ball control. (Click image to enlarge).
Measured by PPR, we can see that D.J. Cooper ranks among the best scoring distributors. This is a useful classification because it means that he not only serves as his team's chief distributor, but also as the lead playmaker. So the opportunities for him to commit a turnover are much greater than those for a pass-only point guard, for example. South Dakota State's Nate Wolters is a bit of a beast by this measure, but the metric is not adjusted for quality of competition, and it is true Wolters plays in one of the weaker leagues among those in this chart. So moving on, the players directly above Cooper include the West Coast Conference's Player of the Year in Mickey McConnell and a player currently testing the NBA Draft waters in Michigan's Darius Morris. Below Cooper, Washington's Isaiah Thomas just recently declared for the draft, Tu Holloway certainly projects to be in that discussion next season, and Diante Garrett is currently playing in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, an event showcasing graduating seniors that is attended by NBA scouts. It's safe to say that Cooper is in good company. When you consider that he averaged almost a full assist more than the next closest player, one must be giddy about Cooper's future.
Though he has demonstrated himself to be a great enough ball-handler to stand among the best scoring distributors by PPR, the Chicago native still has room to improve, particularly shooting from the field. Through two seasons, Cooper's three-point shooting percentage is hovering right around 30%, and in 2010-11, a full 41% of his field goal attempts were from beyond the arc. That's a lot of attempts for a guy who has shown he's fairly unreliable from downtown. Cooper fares better on two-point shots, though at 44% he still lags behind all of his counterparts save Chris De La Rosa, a point guard from hapless UMBC. Admittedly, I haven't seen enough of Ohio to say definitively whether this is a result of struggles to finish near the basket or a propensity to take long-twos, or a combination of both. Whatever the case, Cooper must improve on his two-pointers while limiting his threes in order to continue to improve as a player.
Statistically, there are not many differences between Cooper and Michigan's Darius Morris. They each account for roughly 28-29% of their respective team's possessions, get to the free throw line at a similar rate (as measured by FTR), and score at an admirable clip. Morris is an even more atrocious three-point shooter than Cooper, but at least he knows it - only 15% of his attempts were from three-point land. The main difference, then, is that Morris finishes from close range. He hit 53.2% of his two-point attempts this season, largely because of his ability to get close shots through dribble penetration. Though that's not the only reason Morris is loved by NBA scouts - his 6-foot-4 frame definitely helps - it is certainly one component that helps distinguish him from the rest of the pack.
Ohio's star player still has a lot of time left to improve his own playmaking ability. While he's unlikely to be as desired as Morris because of his smaller stature, there's no reason he can't progress to become a player in the same vein as Isaiah Thomas or Tu Holloway. Both are small, strong guards who should find themselves on an NBA roster at some point in the future. They aren't the strongest three-point shooters, but they get it done when needed, and they finish around the rim. They each use about the same percentage of possessions as Cooper does now as a sophomore, but the biggest difference is that they're able to draw fouls at a much higher rate. Cooper's no slouch in this department, but in order to get looks for the next level, he's likely going to have to increase his free throw rate. Tu Holloway had a ridiculous FTR this season at 68.2%, a figure so high that it's probably unattainable. But a rate close to Thomas would certainly impress.
On the other hand, Cooper could follow the lead of a fellow short dude in St. Mary's Mickey McConnell. The stud point guard had a phenomenal senior year marked by extreme efficiency. His efforts were enough to earn him at an invite to the aforementioned Portsmouth Invitational, even if the NBA is a far-off endeavor for him. Either way, the data here suggests that at the end of his playing career, D.J. Cooper should at the very least earn a spot in the PIT, and at the very most a spot on the draft boards of a few NBA teams.
While there are surely other factors that will impact his trajectory - like winning and postseason runs - Cooper is already among some select company as a scoring distributor. He needs to put nights with 41 shot attempts behind him in order to become a bit more efficient as a scorer, which might in turn make his team better. Coach John Groce will need to continue to put solid pieces around him, and it wouldn't hurt if Nick Kellogg continues to improve on a freshman season that earned him a spot on the MAC's All-Freshman team (some of Cooper's three-point attempts would surely be more useful for Kellogg, who knocks them down at a 44% clip). Whatever the case, Cooper is an exciting individual to watch and has a chance to be the kind of player who can shine a national light on the MAC. Let's hope he maximizes his talents during his remaining two years as a Bobcat.