Early in Malik Smith’s oh so short Golden Gopher career, a curious debate briefly waged on Twitter. The question at the center of the debate was its own answer. “Why is Malik Smith here besides shooting?” The answer was that Malik Smith was on the team almost entirely because of his shooting, and really, that should have been good enough.
Last season’s team, the best of the Tubby Smith era, was one player away from being one of the best in the Big Ten, and that player would have been anyone ready, willing, or able to shoot three-pointers. That season featured a lot of perimeter passing because just about everyone on the perimeter was too shy to shoot. Malik Smith may contain multitudes, but he certainly didn’t contain shyness when it came to shooting. In his one season at FIU, he accounted for a quarter of shots taken by his team when he was on the floor. He was a chucker.
Lost in the discussion over what Smith could do besides shoot was the more nuanced discussion of whether he would be able to shoot well in the Big Ten. Two schools of thought emerged. The first was that his shooting would get worse against the better defenses in the Big Ten. The opposing view was that Smith wouldn’t be the focal point of the offense, and would be able to choose his shots wisely. With better shot selection, his shooting percentages would be better. Everyone seemed to agree that chucking is a character trait that can’t be completely unlearned, and Smith would inevitably win and lose at least one game by himself. Thanks to one of the most bi-polar seasons in recent memory, everyone was right.
To appropriately reflect on Malik Smith season, one must acknowledge that there were really three Maliks.
Malik Smith’s best game came on the road at Nebraska. Without Andre Hollins to help carry the scoring load Malik Smith scored 29 points on 8-12 three-pointers, and none of those shots were safe ir easy either. Whether he was getting fouled, falling out-of-bounds, or well-defended, he seemingly couldn’t miss. He didn’t quite win the game by himself, mostly because the Gophers were letting Terren Petteway score 35 points. Without Smith, the Gophers would have been blown out early instead of barely losing in the final seconds.
A week later, the Gophers’ had what was thought to be one of the more winnable games on the Big Ten schedule at home against Northwestern. Smith took the same ridiculous and improbable shots, but his luck or skill had run out. He made 1 of 9 three-pointers. The Gophers would have their worst offensive game of the season to date, lose the game, and eventually finish the season one win short of making the NCAA tournament.
Good Malik was one of the best players on the team, tied a school record for three-pointers in a game, and would have been the Gophers’ most efficient offensive player had lasted an entire season. Bad Malik emerged right after Good Malik’s best game. This Malik couldn’t be trusted at the three-point line or free-throw line, and seemed much more interested in a post-shot home run trot than if that shot actually went in the basket. Complete Malik, the combination of the two Maliks, never existed in isolation but ended up a pretty decent player.
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I divided Malik Smith season into two parts. Good Malik was the first 16 games of his season. Bad Malik lasted the final 20 games of the season. You may notice a bit of inconsistency in some of the statistics in the table above. For the season as a whole, statistics were calculated on a per possession basis for the entire season. The good and bad Malik statistics, other than effective field goal percentage, are averages through that portion of the season. A few outliers, both in the good and bad parts of the season, artificially inflated the assist rate and free-throw rate. Two provide examples, in the first Purdue game he had assists on half of the made field goals while he was on the floor and there were three games when he had more free-throws than field goal attempts. This may skew the number a bit, but it still provides an interesting if not perfect comparison between the good and bad Maliks.
Effective field goal percentage (completely unskewed) and offensive rating (much less skewable), are the two most telling statistics. Good Malik was by far the most efficient player on the team, and one of the best shooters. If he had been that effieicient all season, he would have ranked just outside the top 100 offensive players in the country. Bad Malik was by far the least efficient player on the floor, and an unfathomably bad shooter. Daquein McNeil, the worst shooting Gopher throughout the season, managed an eFG% 42.7. To get to Bad Malik’s level of shooting difficultly, McNeil would have had to miss every three-pointer he attempted and an additional 8 two-point shots. If it seemed like Bad Malik couldn’t make anything, that is because he couldn’t.
It is said that shooters need to shoot through, and Malik certainly did that, actually shooting more often than when he was playing well. Too often that meant more bad shots that didn’t have much chance to go in. To his credit though, Smith didn’t let his poor shooting affect other parts of his game. He couldn’t rebound on the offensive end during the good or bad parts of the season (he somehow only had one offensive rebound all year). He was an underrated passer, and did a decent job getting his teammates involved. On a turnover prone team, he took decent care of the ball, and could force a turnover or two per game on defense.
It is unfortunate that the Complete Malik will likely be overshadowed by Bad Malik, since Bad Malik ended the season. Complete Malik wasn’t great, but he still accounted for more than one point per possession, had the lowest turnover rate on the team, was fifth on the team in assist rate. His one season with the Gophers was better than his one season with FIU, and that has to be considered a successes. His season is also a good reminder that no is as good as our best day, or as bad as or worst day. We’ll all eventually reach our average, even if it takes a while.