Celebrating Michael Jordan's 50th: Analyzing the college years
In the 29 years since Michael Jordan left North Carolina, college basketball has failed to serve up a second coming of His Airness to the NBA. Anyone who's ever been called Jordan-esque has been a weak approximation of M.J. in the pros. Yet it is worth recalling that Jordan himself, as a Tar Heel, was not so obviously legendary that the Houston Rockets or Portland Trailblazers saw fit to draft him No. 1 or 2 overall after his junior season, and let him fall to the Chicago Bulls at No. 3. The college version of Jordan was in a state of pre-peerlessness. He was still able to be compared.
In honor of Jordan's 50th birthday, I decided to play a game of sorts with his North Carolina numbers. Although he played prior to the advanced-stats era, it was possible to create estimations from existing data. I obtained the Tar Heels' season box scores from the Jordan years (1981-82, '82-83 and '83-84) and then worked with John Ezekowitz of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective to estimate Jordan's efficiency ratings and advanced statistics for each of those seasons.
Because I was a pre-kindergartner during the early '80s, and Ezekowitz was not yet born, we were surprised by the varied circumstances of Jordan's college days. As a freshman shooting guard on a national title team, he was the Tar Heels' No. 2 scoring option behind James Worthy, and they played with no shot clock or three-point line. That team moved at a slow pace by modern Carolina standards, averaging an estimated 62.2 possessions per game.
For Jordan's sophomore season, the NCAA allowed widespread rule experimentation on a conference-by-conference basis, and the ACC adopted not only a 30-second shot clock but also an absurdly short, 17'9" three-point line. (When the NCAA-wide three-point line was officially introduced, in 1986, it was 19'9", and it's now 20'9".) Carolina's pace skyrocketed to 72.3 possessions per game and Jordan, now the Heels' go-to-guy, shot 44.7 percent from beyond the (small) arc, but threes only accounted for 14.4 percent of his attempts. Teams had yet to figure out how to capitalize on three-pointers -- and the three-point line disappeared again for Jordan's final campaign, anyway. The fact that he was still able to post a career-high offensive rating as a junior was impressive:
That table provides a college profile of Jordan as (surprise!) a high-efficiency, high-usage scorer who barely racked up any assists. He was far from the defensive monster he'd become as a Bull, but he made decent per-40-minute contributions in rebounds and steals, and his athleticism already set him apart on both ends of the floor. Here's a YouTube of Jordan scoring 25 points against Maryland as a junior, punishing the Terps' zone with basket-attacks and medium-range jumpers:
As graceful as Jordan was, his stat lines were not otherworldly, leaving open the possibility that comparisons could be found in the pool of elite shooting guards in the advanced-stats era. And that brought me to the next step in the game: Digging through Statsheet.com's database of players from 2001-present to find who had the most Jordan-like college careers.
The comparisons included offensive (ORating, Usage%, TrueShooting%, TO%, Free Throw Rate, Assist Rate) and defensive (Rebounds/40, Steals/40, Blocks/40) stats, and the pool of players was limited to shooting guards who have either appeared in the NBA or are current NBA prospects. Four players stood out, and they're listed here in order of most to least Jordan-like:
Martin is one of the biggest diamond-in-the-rough prospects of the past decade, going from the Southern Conference to the first round of the NBA draft, where he was taken No. 26 by the Kings in 2004. He was a scoring machine at Western Carolina, ranking in the top 11 nationally in points per game all three seasons, and finishing second (behind only St. Peter's guard Keydren Clark) in the country as a junior. Martin made extensive use of the three-pointer, taking 41.1 percent of his attempts from long range.
Thornton was the Juco Jordan: He spent two years at Kilgore College in Texas before transferring to LSU and lighting up the SEC. As a senior he was the SEC Player of the Year and the country's premier, high-usage, high-efficiency scoring guard. He led the Tigers to an SEC title that season, which was coach Trent Johnson's first in Baton Rouge. Johnson, now toiling in semi-exile at TCU, has yet to find his second coming of Thornton.
McCants is now a rapper/actor who goes by King Suni Blac -- he even has a LinkedIn profile under that name -- and plays with the NBDL's Texas Legends, although he has stated that ballin' is only a hobby. He flopped in the NBA, but had a legit college career for Jordan's alma mater as a slick two-guard, and he left Chapel Hill with as many national titles as M.J. did.
Brooks' senior stats were Airness-esque, but his career comparison gets hurt by the fact that he wasn't the Friars' No. 1 scoring option until his final season. The late bloomer had to wait behind Weyinmi Efejuku for the first two years, then Jamine Peterson the third -- then blew up and became a better NBA prospect than either of them. Brooks modeled his game after Kobe Bryant but bristled at being actually compared to Bryant, saying before the 2011 NBA draft: "I don't like that. The respect I have for Kobe is out of this world. I look up to him. I don't think anyone that hasn't scored a point in the NBA should be compared to him."
I suspect that Brooks won't like his stats being compared to Jordan's, either, but the numbers don't lie.
There isn't an excellent Jordan-stats comp in college basketball this season. Strictly from an offensive-numbers standpoint, one could consider Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson, whose 115.3 ORating, 26.3% usage and 57.2% true shooting are very much in the junior-year Jordan range. But it does not seem wise to compare a guy who takes 10-plus treys a game with someone who didn't even have the option. Among actual NBA draft prospects, UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad's offense might be the closest; his 108.9 ORating, 28.5% usage and 55.0% true shooting are in the general area, and he has a much bigger role in UCLA's attack than Jordan did as a frosh at Carolina. Jordan had to share the floor with James Worthy that season, though, while the next-closest NBA prospect on Muhammad's roster is a glue guy, forward Kyle Anderson.
There's also one guard who occasionally makes gravity-defying plays around the rim that look like a college Jordan: Indiana junior Victor Oladipo. He is not a great statistical comp, though, because his offense is of a different nature -- he's high-efficiency (128.9 ORating) but lower-usage (22.3% of possessions) -- and his defense is, well ... take a look at the numbers:
Oladipo gets 8.4 rebounds per 40 minutes, as well as 3.3 steals, 1.1 blocks and a very high number of deflections, and he's the frontrunner for Big Ten defensive player of the year. He will be drafted not because anyone thinks he's the next Jordan -- no one will ever be -- but because the stats say he D'd up harder than Jordan did in college. I suspect that is a compliment Oladipo would willingly accept.