Jimmer Fredette takes a lot of horrendous shots— just ask his coach. In every game, and almost every minute, the BYU guard jacks up a step-back, 28-foot jumper or a double-clutch runner off the glass around and between a pair of taller defenders. It’s hard to say what’s more amazing—that this backyard ridiculousness so often works, or that the Cougars win almost all of their games despite functioning less as a team than as a venue for performance art. Fredette takes a higher proportion of his team’s shots (38 percent) than any player in the country, and that figure has soared still higher since Brandon Davies was dismissed from the BYU roster for scoring off the court. As SI.com’s Luke Winn explained recently, the most comparable recent player—ball hog, successful team—is Stephen Curry, who rained three-pointers ad infinitum during Davidson’s 2008 run to the Elite Eight.
Fredette, like Curry—and like his closest peer in this year’s NCAA Tournament, Connecticut’s Kemba Walker—knows how to play well with others. But as BYU’s lone standout player, Fredette must try to overwhelm a team game with his individual brilliance. This obligatory self-reliance is what makes him so fascinating to watch. He’s a mountaineer scaling Everest solo, a guy with a pocket knife staring down a firing squad.
This is the real glory of the college game, which basketball moralists are always holding up as a place where unformed athletes—the products of the feckless AAU circuit—learn to play the right way. The NBA is “at times utterly unwatchable,” claimed Michael Sokolove in a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Baylor freshman (and likely 2011 lottery pick) Perry Jones, “because the rosters are stocked with too many players who were never fully taught the game and are learning on the job.”
Leaving aside the dubious claim that the NBA is worse off now than in 1994 and 1995—the stultifying seasons that preceded Kevin Garnett’s groundbreaking prep-to-pro move—this still gives college basketball too much credit as an incubator of talent. Derrick Rose didn’t need to stay in school to learn how to be a point guard, and Tim Duncan still would’ve been the best power forward in NBA history if he left Wake Forest after his sophomore season. Teenage basketball players don’t develop their skills because they’re in college. Rather, they improve their games while they happen to be in college. There wouldn’t be so much confusion on this point if the NBA had a robust minor-league system—nobody argues that baseball players should attend four-year universities to learn how to bunt, turn the double play, and scratch themselves.
But the college-as-finishing-school argument also overlooks the very thing that makes players like Jimmer Fredette and Stephen Curry so captivating. They have to shoot relentlessly, over triple teams, because there’s simply no one else on their teams to share the burden. In order to win, they have to play basketball the “wrong” way.
When Fredette goes to the NBA, his game will be reined in. Instead of eyeing the rim as soon as he crosses half-court, he will spot up in the corner, waiting for a pass out of a double team. I’m reminded of my favorite college player, LSU’s Glen Davis. The 340-pound center led his team to the Final Four by taking 35 percent of the Tigers’ shots in the tournament, even canning the occasional three pointer. As a Boston Celtic, he rotates the ball, sets screens, and knocks down open mid-range jumpers. College basketball taught Big Baby how to be a star. In the NBA, he learned to be a cog.
The relative shallowness of the college talent pool makes it possible for an overweight center, or a Maravich-ian Mormon, to control a game. Basketball-stats maven Ken Pomeroy has a figure, “percentage of possessions used,” that tracks how often (on account of a made shot, a missed shot rebounded by the other team, or a turnover) a player is the last man on his team to touch the ball. At 36.3 percent in 2010-11, Fredette uses the second-most possessions in college basketball—slightly fewer than 2009 Stephen Curry and slightly more than 2009 Luke Harangody. The biggest ball hog in recent NCAA history: Northeastern’s tiny point guard J.J. Barea. Now a backup for the Dallas Mavericks, Barea used more than 38 percent of his team’s possessions in both 2005 and 2006. By comparison, Kobe Bryant leads the NBA this season in an analogous (but not exactly identical) stat, with a “usage percentage” of 34.6. The barriers to stardom, it seems, are a bit lower in the NCAA.
The thin, uneven distribution of talent in college basketball requires the best players to shoot more than their NBA counterparts. In pro basketball, where everyone (except Kwame Brown) knows how to play, guys who refuse to pass are less morally justified and less fun to watch. The single-season NBA record for usage percentage—Basketball Reference has data going back to the late 1970s—is Bryant’s 38.7 in 2005-06. That was the year he scored 81 points in a game against the Raptors, the Lakers’ triangle offense collapsing into a black hole.
For Jimmer Fredette, by contrast, the only way to be a team player is to transcend his teammates. Fredette’s second banana, Jackson Emery, is a defensive specialist, and his third, fourth, and fifth bananas are hardly bananas at all. Kemba Walker’s UConn Huskies, a more balanced team led by a single dominant scorer, have a structure more conducive to NCAA success. Better still are the Ohio State Buckeyes, a team that works together masterfully to create open looks for everyone on the court.
Sharing makes a lot of sense when you have talent at all five positions—when your team is Jimmer and the Fredette-ettes, it’s a luxury you can’t afford. Fredette, the great scorer and sporadic distributor, will shoot BYU into the next round or straight out of the tournament. A crossover, a jab step, a jump shot from in front of the other team’s bench, 30 feet away from the hoop. Man, isn’t it a beautiful travesty?