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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ty Lawson: Straw or Drink?

Posted by on Tue, Mar 24, 2009 at 8:35 AM

click to enlarge The ACC POY, seen earlier this season in a game against Kentucky (photo by Jeremy M. Lange)
  • The ACC POY, seen earlier this season in a game against Kentucky (photo by Jeremy M. Lange)

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You don't have to watch a North Carolina basketball game on television long to hear an announcer opine that Tywon Lawson is "the straw that stirs the drink," "the gas pedal" or some other descriptive metaphor for the role that Lawson plays in the speedy, efficient Tar Heel offense.

However, Ty Lawson is much more than that. 

Though he has often been overshadowed by Tyler Hansbrough, both this year and last Ty Lawson has put up numbers comparable to the last great point guard to come through the ACC, Wake Forest's Chris Paul.  Yet somehow it took Lawson two years to receive much, if any, acclaim.

Only recently has Lawson received his due, earning the 2009 ACC Player of the Year award.  He was the first point guard to receive the award since UNC's Phil Ford in 1978.

Another recent event that has proven Lawson's value to the Tar Heels is his toe injury.  It was blatantly obvious even to casual observers during the ACC Tournament that the UNC offense was severely lacking without Lawson.

Unfortunately, many still see Lawson as simply the one who initiates the offense but not the final product, the straw but not the drink.

That couldn't be further from the truth.  The metaphor is apt, Ty Lawson does change the offense.  Without him in the ACC Tournament the Tar Heels' games averaged 65.5 possessions, a decline of nearly ten possessions from their season average.  However, Lawson uses more possessions that Danny Green or Wayne Ellington and is the most efficient offensive player on the most efficient offense in the country.

The last time a point guard with such stellar numbers led an ACC offense, it was Chris Paul leading the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.  It isn't a stretch to say that Lawson's sophomore numbers are comparable to Paul's.  This year Lawson has taken the next step and improved his game in nearly every category.

Though Paul and Lawson had similar statistics their sophomore years the recognition each received could hardly have been more different.  While Paul's performance earned him a first team all conference nod, in Lawson's sophomore year the media members failed to place him on any all conference teams.

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Lawson uses nearly as many possessions (%Poss) as Paul did and uses them far more efficiently (ORtg).  This is mainly due to his large advantage in 2-point field goal shooting, nearly as accurate 3-point shooting and turning the ball over less frequently.  He also dishes out more assists, and since the stat is rate and not a raw number the fact that Lawson plays more possessions per game is already accounted for.  Free throw shooting and steals are roughly equivalent between the two players.

Some may say that these numbers are skewed by the system that Lawson plays in.  Being a point guard on Roy Williams' team is like playing quarterback at Hawaii, whoever it is will rack up absurdly inflated statistics.  To answer such criticisms, the same comparison can be made between Lawson and Raymond Felton, Coach Williams' last great point guard.  Like Lawson, Felton ran an up-tempo offense with numerous offensive weapons, including a sweet-shooting guard (Ellington/Rashad McCants) and an offensive post threat (Hansbrough/Sean May).

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Lawson is head and shoulders above Felton in every category except steals and assists.  The assist numbers are interestingly similar and may denote some effect of Roy Williams' system and tempo; however, the rest of the numbers speak for themselves.  Felton may have been every bit the assist man that Lawson is but as an offensive weapon there should be no question to Lawson's abilities.  He shoots better, gets to the free throw line more often and doesn't turn the ball over as often as Felton did, making him a far more efficient offensive option.

Ty Lawson not only makes the Heels go through fast break alley oops but as an integral part of the offense himself, able to create his own shot at the drop of a hat.  Lawson is undoubtedly not simply the straw that stirs the drink for the Tar Heels, but is a large part of the drink itself.

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