Wake Forest has gotten out to a nice 6-2 start on the season, taking care of business against lower tier teams, losing to an elite team in Villanova, and an NCAA Tournament contender on their home floor Northwestern. Most would say that things have gone well thus far with little to complain, or really speculate about.
One of those speculations that I have had, and I’m sure many other Wake fans have had, is why Keyshawn Woods is coming off of the bench, while Mitchell Wilbekin starts.
Immediately let me state that I am going to throw out any argument that includes “favoritism”, or any notion that Coach Manning is doing anything other than doing his best to maximize win expectancy. There could of course be some strains of favoritism in coaches to certain players, but that’s unfair for me to speculate on without innate knowledge of the relationships between the staff and current roster.
This does not necessarily exclude “loyalty” to Wilbekin, or “continuity” purposes from last year, as Manning may feel that starting Wilbekin is the best for the team for non-statistical reasons (“chemistry” is the cliche word that coaches talk about all the time but with really no way to quantify what that actually means).
Primarily I will focus on the respective skill-sets of Woods and Wilbekin, and assess why one should start, while the other comes off the bench. I also want to dismiss the theory that “it doesn’t matter who starts, it matters who finishes.”
While I agree that in certain cases this is true, I believe in this case it DOES matter who starts. Right now Keyshawn Woods is playing 71% of the minutes, while Mitchell Wilbekin is playing 66% of the minutes. Despite not starting, Woods is still playing more minutes than Wilbekin, so it’s not really a playing time question either.
A final point—-I don’t want this to come across as player-bashing on any level. Both guys are vital to the success of the team in their own way. The point of this article is to critically and statistically assess who should start based on what each player brings to the team.
First, let’s take a look at the relevant statistics from Woods and Wilbekin so far this season:
The chart above shows that Woods is statistically better this season than Wilbekin at nearly every single tangible skill, minus turnover rate, and free throw percentage (obviously Mitch won’t shoot 100% this season, but I assume he will still finish the year with higher percentage than Woods).
The sample size for this year is obviously still small, and there will be changes as it goes along, but it is worth assessing to see where they currently stand from a 3-pt shooting standpoint since Wilbekin’s strongest asset is without a doubt his shooting.
Mitchell Wilbekin is a 36% three-point shooter over his career at Wake Forest (306 attempts). Keyshawn Woods is currently a 49% three-point shooter in his career, but has only attempted 116 shots, and most came against lesser competition while he was a freshman at Charlotte.
As with anything statistically, the more data points the more likely it is to be statistically valid. I feel confident saying that the 36% shooting of Wilbekin is much more representative than the 49% shooting of Woods so far in their respective collegiate careers. On an aside, it is unclear as to what a good number of 3-pt attempts is to realistically project how a player will do moving forward. I don’t know that 300 is enough, and I’m nearly positive that the 116 attempts from Woods isn’t enough.
Although Woods has played much less competition against “ACC-caliber” teams (or A/B Tier teams as KenPom would identify 1-50 (A), and 51-100 (B) teams as), he has shot much better than Wilbekin.
|Woods||10/27 (37%)||17/34 (50%)||27/61 (44%)||30/55 (55%)||57/116 (49%)|
|Wilbekin||31/106 (29%)||23/79 (29%)||54/185 (29%)||57/121 (47%)||111/306 (36%)|
By looking at the shooting simply from a results standpoint, we can argue with high likelihood that Woods is a better shooter than Wilbekin. There is little doubt that Woods will regress from his 49% as he takes on more A+B Tier teams this season, but it would require a precipitous drop over his next 200 3-point attempts to drop to the 36% that Wilbekin is shooting now in over 300 attempts.
While there are always people who will argue over the legitimacy of statistics and what they represent, this shows me that, AT BEST, Wilbekin is likely a similar shooter to Woods, and Woods is probably a better shooter than Wilbekin. Given that is Wilbekin’s strongest attribute, this gives a pretty big boost to Woods as a player overall.
One argument that is likely the strongest for why Wilbekin starts, is the role that Wilbekin plays in the starting lineup vs. the role that Woods would play. Bryant Crawford, John Collins, and Dinos Mitoglou are all high usage players (30%, 25%, and 23% respectively). Usage rate demonstrates how many possessions end with a certain player’s action, whether that be: made field goal, missed field goal (leading to a defensive rebound), or turnover.
Wilbekin’s low turnover rate helps his usage rate tremendously, which comes in at 13%. Woods usage rate is up at 18%, which is not a huge gap at face value, but when 60% of your starting lineup is currently responsible for approximately 78% of all offensive possessions, that 5% difference is a lot. It also possibly limits what Woods can do when in the game on the offensive side.
This information supports the notion that Wilbekin is likely in the starting lineup because of his role as a spot-up shooter and low turnover player. He moves the ball well at the top of the key and usually shoots threes towards the end of the shot clock. When he does shoot two’s it is usually off of a pump fake into an open “3 to 2” type move.
This type of role player is useful in our current starting lineup for sure, but is it BETTER for helping the win expectancy of the team overall than having Woods in there to start?
I would argue that the rebounding and defense that Woods brings to the table would be much better than what Wilbekin offers, even if they are both relegated offensively to mere spot-up shooters.
Woods is not a typical college 6th man. He is not one-dimensional at all because he rebounds well, has a decent assist rate, can knock down 3’s at a high rate, and can create his own shot. I’m guessing a lot of Wilbekin’s deficiencies in shooting the three-ball against A-B Tier teams comes from lack of ability to get a clean look based on size and limited ability to make his own shot.
Manning’s deep NBA pedigree may provide some insight as to why Woods comes off the bench as well. While he certainly is nowhere near a 6th man like Manu Ginobili or James Harden (when he was in OKC), he is a collegiate “poor-man’s” comparison to those two. He is not around either of their usage rates, but he can be a catalyst on offense when the team around his is struggling. He creates his own shot, and when he gets going can score the ball consistently anywhere on the court.
After looking at the stats I realize I may be fighting a strawman here, as Manning probably simply prefers to have Wilbekin starting for non-statistical reasons. I dismissed this notion at the start because I wanted to have a statistical assessment of the situation, but the only stat that makes sense for him starting is the lower usage rate of Wilbekin and how the other guys play with him.
Perhaps Woods likes to start the game on the bench so he can see how the game is developing and attack once he gets in there. Maybe he told Manning that he preferred this and that is why Wilbekin starts.
There is also the fact that Woods plays a lot of his minutes at the 3 instead of the 2, so Manning does not want to start Woods at the 2, but rather sub him in at the 15 minutes mark for Arians/Crawford depending on the matchup.
Currently Woods gets approximately 55% in a three-guard lineup, while the rest of his 17% comes in a two-guard lineup. It may be that Manning sees Woods as more of a 3-4 sub instead of a 2-3 sub. Which is a different way to look at it given his skill-set, but one that could explain Wilbekin starting as well.
Overall, Woods is the better basketball player. That is not a slap in the face to Mitchell Wilbekin at all, as I believe he is a valuable role player on an NCAA team. I simply do not believe that the team is better off with Wilbekin starting over Woods. Getting Woods into the flow of the game earlier, more looks right off the bat, and a chance to limit the opposing two guard from a defensive standpoint is something that Wilbekin does not offer.
As mentioned earlier, I’m sure many people do not believe who starts the game matters, but in this case I think the difference in skill level between the two which is also backed up from a statistical standpoint demonstrates that Woods should be on the court with the other four starters.
Currently the most popular lineup percentage-wise is our starting line-up at 16% of the team’s . The next most popular is at 7% (with several different variations). Plugging Woods in to get those 6-8 minutes with the other four starters could very well make a big difference come ACC season as the opponent’s get tougher.
In my mind, it is not enough that Woods just gets more minutes, they need to come at the right time in the game, and the start of each half is very important if not solely for the fact that the other team is fielding their best five players to begin as well.