2013-14 Season In Review
Evan Smotrycz had to wait a long time for his chance to step onto the basketball court. After transferring from Michigan and sitting out all of the 2012-2013 season, Smotrycz was finally able to continue his promising basketball career with the University of Maryland. And boy did he ever start it off right.
Double figures in eight of his first ten games, two double-doubles in that same span, a 20-point performance against Norther Iowa, four three pointers against Morgan State; Smotrycz started the season untouchable for the Terps and was arguably their best player. His averages would suggest he was: almost 14 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2 assists and nearly 1 steal per game were good for the most valuable player on the team.
But being the best (or even second-best) player on the court is hard work. Smotrycz started December off well (15 points and 7 rebounds in a loss to Ohio State), but chinks in the armor started to appear as the competition got tougher (2-of-9 from the floor against George Washington, 1-of-12 against Florida Atlantic). Smotrycz was still scoring his points, but as was the case for most of the season, he was doing it far less efficiently than before.
Out of conference Smotrycz shot 41% from the floor, but during ACC play against some elite athletes he shot 38% overall. For a sharp-shooting stretch 4, that wasn’t going to cut it. Smotrycz was still taking the same amount of shots, but as the going got tougher, the quality of shots Smotryz started taking were considerably worse. More deep threes, more contested layups leading to altered shots, less space to get that beautiful jumper off and more rushed shots early in the clock just because you’re open.
Smotrycz eventually got relegated to the bench following a December in which he made only 35% of his shots and a February where he hit a very low 32% from the floor and 19% from deep. It was also not a coincidence that Smotrycz’ poor shooting happened right around the time he started having back problems. For a jump shooting big man, that’s more than enough to derail your season season, and it did. Smotryz ended up sitting out the Terps ACC game against Florida State, and the Terps lost out on a lot of playmaking as a result.
Occasionally in basketball you run into an issue where someone’s statistical output doesn’t match what you’re seeing on the court. Sometimes, on paper, players can look like a net negative yet you’re convinced what they’re doing on the court is helping the team. It also swings both ways; other times, you expect the stats of a good player to be positive, but they’re terrible. Evan Smotrycz is a case of both.
On one hand last season, Smotrycz had a low field goal percentage, he never blocked anyone, and his conference stats were pretty bad as well. But my eyes were telling me that despite his so-so defense, Maryland wasn’t winning games unless Smotrycz was on the court. I held onto that believe with even more conviction after I watched Florida State manhandle what Maryland’s other big men had to offer in the ACC tournament. Here was everyone suggesting that Smotrycz was a terrible defender, and yet the last game of the season was the worst interior defensive display I’d seen all year, and it came without the worst defender.
Something wasn’t right.
I’m of the opinion that Smotrycz did a whole lot of things well that Maryland would have otherwise gotten obliterated without. You got a pretty good idea of it during that Florida State game, too. Maryland was a very good rebounding team last year, and it was a major reason they were able to play against some teams they otherwise shouldn’t have. Charles Mitchell was the king of offensive rebounding, sure, and Jonathan Graham was aggressive as hell everywhere. But who was the next best option; the steady and reliable beater that doesn’t get much acclaim? Smotrycz.
Smotrycz grabbed 12.1% of available rebounds while he was on the floor, second on the team among Terps who played more than 400 minutes. He grabbed 17% of Maryland’s total rebounds and there wasn’t a close third after he and Chuck. He converted putbacks (and drew fouls on a ton of those), was a consistent defensive rebounder, and typically battle down low despite a lack of elite athleticism. Smotrycz was great at positioning himself at the exact angle the ball was going to head toward right after the shot was taken. It wasn’t Kevin Love, but it was a Kevin Love-esque testament that you don’t need to be a monster athlete to have a nose for the ball.
Without Smo, the Terps were merely average on the boards. With him, they tended to be excellent (second in the conference in total rebounds).
Another thing Smotrycz did well that will undoubtedly go overlooked was that he hit his free throws (a stat I feel may have been ultimately the reason the Terps lost so many games). Maryland had a Kentucky-like problem with hitting free throws; the Terps were 244th nationally in free throw percentage. The Terps weren’t great at getting to the line, and even when they got there it was miss after miss. Smotrycz was one of the exceptions.
Smotrycz was fourth on the team in total free throws at 71, but he was second on the team in percentage just behind the king, Dez Wells. Smotrycz had one move that he fooled defenders with over and over and over again: the pump fake drive from the perimeter. Because he was a deep threat, Smotrycz was able to get loose defenders to bite when he threatened to shoot from deep, then draw contact inside every time. It’s a rec league move that works to perfection when employed correctly; more often than not, Smo did that.
It’s one thing to get to the line; it’s another entirely to make your shots. Maryland was 266th nationally in free throws made per 100 possessions and in case you were wondering, yes that’s horrible. It’s literally the pits. The fact that, for the second year in a row, one of Maryland’s big men was top three on the team in free throw percentage is pitiful. It doesn’t even happen on most other teams, and yet it’s happened for the second straight time at Maryland (first with Len, then with Smotrycz).
The fact that Smotrycz wasn’t a part of the problem, and that he got to the line at a reasonable rate, is a positive in my eyes.
But one of the best thing Smotrycz did in my eyes was continually move the ball around. He wasn’t the best passer on the team, but he was quite adept at making outlet passes and finding open shooters for a big man. Normally, you can get a big man who is capable of passing effectively, but he’s going to turn it over a ton. Julius Randle of UK, for example, was solid at finding open players, averaging almost two assists per game, but he turned it over more than three times per contest. Smotrycz averaged similar assist numbers and similar usage rates, but he turned the ball over at a 1 to 1 ratio. The difference when we’re talking about big men is huge.
Smotrycz led the team in assists numerous times, and while you didn’t want him moving the ball up the court as he was wont to do so often early on, he wasn’t bad. His turnovers got smaller and smaller as the season went on, and that’s why it can be viewed as a positive for Smo.
Oh yeah, and he hit 54 three pointers for the Terps this year. Getting that production out of a big man at Maryland is, well, I’m not sure it’s ever happened.
For Smotrycz, there was a definite sense that the player we were getting sometimes wasn’t what we expected, or that he wasn’t really performing at optimal efficiency. Smotrycz came into the season with some people anticipating that he might be the best Terp on the team, given his sophomore season at Michigan that drew comparisons to Big Ten baller John Shurna. But as we got to watch him play more and more, we realized that Smotrycz was either still shaking off some rust to his game, or he was slightly over hyped to begin with.
For one, Smotrycz was largely viewed as a terrible defender by most analysts. A little too slow for ACC athletes, and unplayable against certain man-to-man opponents, Smotrycz was in foul trouble a lot during ACC play; he picked up four or more fouls 13 times last season. It felt like Smotrycz was a step behind on rotations and a bit too slow laterally, and as a result he had to compensate with blocking fouls and hacks against someone who blew by him on the drive.
That shouldn’t have really come as a surprise to anyone; the last time Smo was on the court before Maryland, he was 4th in personal fouls in the Big Ten. This year, he finished sixth in the ACC. That propensity to pick up fouls only exacerbated his other issues on the defensive end. Soft on-ball defense only became more timid after one or two fouls, and Smotrycz was forced to let some guys have their way with him down low.
Another issue with Smotrycz was that the Terps absolutely could not play him with certain guys. This isn’t really a fault of his, but it is rather disappointing that an inside-outside presence like Smotrycz and Charles Mitchell could never be put on court at the same time. Offensively, the two were an unrealistically efficient offensive tandem. Defensively, they were traffic cones on the Autobahn. Charles Mitchell wasn’t actually such a bad defender, but Smotrycz tended to make a lot of guys look a bit…rougher.
The issue is that these problems are hard to fix, because physical limitations don’t just go away. Smotrycz is going to need to work with a strength and conditioning coach on his explosiveness hard this offseason to see even menial progress. Anything is better than what it was.
The other problem with Smotrycz was that he suddenly became a terrible shooter from inside the arc when he got to Maryland. At Michigan, Smotrycz was hitting 46% of his 2PT FG attempts (both seasons); at Maryland he hit 41% of those same shots. Smotrycz wasn’t taking different shots, he just wasn’t making them anymore. I’m inclined to believe it was rust; a product of trying to do too much and prove your worth to the program while at the same time becoming acclimated to game speed. Whatever it was, it destroyed his efficiency as a player.
Had Smotrycz converted more of those shots, he might have been more valuable to the team because, in other areas, he was as effective as they come. But Smo took some wildly unpopular mid-range jumpers that never went in, and it killed his stats. Long two point shots are some of the least-efficient shots in basketball, and only Layman took more (and also hit more).
For Evan, it was a dialing back of what might have been somewhat high expectations. As the season progressed, it seemed more and more like Smotrycz had lost his way both offensively and defensively as a part of the team. More and more he was being taken off the court, and more and more he seemed less confident in his shot. You could tell that mentally Smotrycz was very frustrated with how things were going. That’s unfortunate.
Overall Grade: B+
I think Smotrycz was a lot more valuable to the team than most people realize, and for a guy who hadn’t played hoops in a year I was impressed. Next year we should see Smotrycz return to statistical norms and a watch him hit shots a lot better in his second stint in the Big Ten.