Rasheed Sulaimon vs. Austin Rivers


Streeter Lekka/Getty Images

In the process of examining Rasheed Sulaimon’s defensive contribution to the 2012-13 Duke Basketball team, I stumbled upon something that most Duke fans knew intuitively but likely did not confirm. According to sports-reference.com (a wonderful, wonderful site), Sulaimon earned 3.9 Win Shares last season. Win Shares are “an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to his offense and defense.”

Although Win Shares are slightly more than just a simple extension of a player’s offensive and defensive ratings, those ratings should be enough to make general comparisons across players and seasons. Sulaimon’s offensive rating of 1.13 PPP  and defensive rating of 1.00 PPP lead to .147 WS/40 (the number of “wins” contributed per 40 min), a successful freshman season. For the sake of context, John Wall, in his only season in college, earned .196 WS/40 (30% more production per game than Sulaimon).

Obviously, freshmen cannot be held to the standard set by the first pick in the draft. That intuition I mentioned earlier has to do with a standard set by Duke’s previous freshman star Austin Rivers. In Rivers’s only season in college, he earned 3.6 WS. His offensive rating of 1.08 PPP and defensive rating of 1.04 PPP led to .127 WS/40. Based on these numbers alone, Sulaimon was better on both ends of the court.

It is here that I feel compelled to offer the disclaimer that efficiency statistics are rarely accurate enough to differentiate between tiny differences. It might be a stretch to say that Sulaimon provided more value to his Duke team than Rivers did to his. However, I feel comfortable concluding that Sulaimon and Rivers had similar freshman  seasons in terms of overall value.

A more nuanced analysis reveals that Rivers and Sulaimon were relatively similar players, at least on offense. Although Rivers player 80 more minutes over the course of the season, the two players had very similar PERs (Player Efficiency Ratings).

Additionally, their individual points scored were similarly distributed across 2 PT field goals, 3 PT field goals, and free throws (the three furthers columns to the right). Surprisingly, River’s had a higher assist percentage than Sulaimon did but this might be explained by the fact that Rivers was more often in a position to create offense for his teammates, despite his reputation. Unsurprisingly, Rivers’s usage rate (“percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor”) far surpassed Sulaimon’s.

On the other hand, Sulaimon had a superior offensive rating, rebounded more, and turned the ball over substantially less. Even though Rivers played more minutes than Sulaimon did and controlled the ball a lot more, Sulaimon’s greater efficiency made him at least as valuable an offensive player as Rivers.

On defense, both statistically and by sight, it certainly seems like Sulaimon was the superior player. In a previous article, I made the claim that Sulaimon was not as successful on defense as everybody seemed to think. However, Rivers was as bad on defense as everybody seemed to think. A defensive rating of 1.04 PPP puts him well behind the definitively subpar Seth Curry.

Based on the data I’ve provided, you might wonder why Sulaimon’s WS exceeded byRivers’s by only .3. As I stated earlier, these stats are inaccurate enough that a difference of .3 might as well be 0 or -.3. If Sulaimon was more efficient on both ends of the floor, he must have played a smaller role for the team for their respective Win Shares to be so close. As every Duke fan should remember, this was exactly the case. Rivers played more minutes and controlled the ball more often when on the court.

Although Sulaimon started most of the season, he was mostly a 3rd option on offense. The point is that Sulaimon and Rivers provided similar overall value to their respective Duke squads. However, freshman expectations cloud how we remember their freshmen seasons.