By Will Chamblee | Sports Writer
On Monday, the Big 12 set social media alight when it announced Oklahoma State’s freshman phenom Cade Cunningham was the Big 12 Player of the Year over Baylor’s star guard Jared Butler. It’s an interesting debate between two players that should be All-Americans when all is said and done.
A quick glance at the stat lines of both players may point towards the two players being equal. Cunningham averaged an impressive 19.7 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game and 3.5 assists per game, while Butler averaged 17.1 points per game, 3.2 rebounds per game and five assists per game. But a dive into advanced analytics reveals that Butler is the more deserving of the two for the Big 12’s Player of the Year award.
Three specific advanced statistics indicate this, but first Cunningham and Butler’s role on their respective teams should be mentioned. Despite Cunningham being five inches taller, both Cunningham and Butler play similar roles. They are both the primary ball-handlers and playmakers for their team, with the one major difference being Cunningham is relied upon by Oklahoma State to score.
The reliance on Cunningham on the offensive side partially explains the turnover woes that have plagued Cunningham during his freshman season, but it doesn’t fully account for Cunningham’s 4.3 turnovers per game, which is fourth-worst in the nation. For someone who is a team’s primary playmaker, a .81 assist to turnover ratio is bad.
Butler, on the other hand, has excelled this season as a playmaker and has been exceptional in improving his assist to turnover ratio from last season, a note he received from NBA scouts. Butler only averages 2.8 turnovers per game and has a stellar 2.3 assist to turnover rating. Simply put, Butler is wildly more efficient than Cunningham is on the offensive side of the ball.
The second advanced statistic focuses on the defensive side of the ball, specifically with steals. Both Baylor and Oklahoma State sport top-40 defenses according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating, but Cunningham and Butler’s contribution to these defenses are not equal.
While Cunningham has a respectable 2.2 steal percentage, Butler’s 4.1 steal percentage is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Butler’s defensive impact is further illustrated by his 4.4 defensive box plus/minus rating, compared to Cunningham’s 2.9. While Cunningham is a good defender in his own right, Butler’s defense is on another level.
The final and most important advanced statistic to look at is player efficiency rating (PER). Created by John Hollinger, former Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, PER is a statistic that looks to boil a player’s performance into one number. PER is incredibly effective for accurately comparing players’ performances during a single season.
Butler’s PER is an impressive 27.1, up from 21.0 last year. Cunningham, on the other hand, has a 21.7 PER, which, while not bad, illustrates Cunningham’s occasional inefficiency.
Cunningham is a great talent, but his base stats are inflated due to Oklahoma State’s reliance on him on the offensive end. Butler has to compete with two other potential All-Americans at the guard position in Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague for touches. Despite this competition, Butler still posted a similar stat line to Cunningham.
Advanced statistics aren’t the end all be all for comparing players. It’s difficult to find a group of statistics that accurately represent a player’s contribution to their team and takes into account every circumstance. Both Butler and Cunningham deserve praise and recognition for their stellar play this season and for leading their teams to incredible results, but any person looking beyond the basic stat lines can see that Jared Butler was the clear choice for Big 12 Player of the Year.
Regardless, I’m sure Butler isn’t worried about missing out on the award. His and Baylor’s eyes are set higher, to a national championship.