When the Gators have struggled in aspects of their game so far this season, many people have been quick to point to the absence of John Egbunu due to injury and how his return will help remedy the problem. Florida is struggling to rebound the basketball? Big John will help out. The Gators are giving up tons of points inside? Eggs will lock that down. Can’t get any scoring on the interior? Egbunu can finish with power. Though expecting all of these problems to be solved with the return of their starting center might be overly optimistic, there is certainly reason to believe Egbunu returning could plug a lot of the holes the Gators have had to start the year. At 6’11” and 260 with all the experience that a 5th year senior with 2184 career minutes can bring, Egbunu will certainly make an impact when he returns, but what exactly can we expect? I took a deep dive into the numbers to see how Egbunu’s return will help the Gators.
I’m still hearing mid to late January, which coincides with many reports and is also about the time he was expected to return when he initially got injured last season. Picking a return game is probably foolish, but it would certainly be nice if he was back on January 17 at home against Arkansas to get his legs under him before playing against Kentucky on January 20 (I reiterate, that is just me dreaming and is not based off any information). I can certainly understand why they wouldn’t want to rush him, as his game is so predicated on physicality and athleticism that bringing him back early could not only risk further injury, but mean he isn’t at full effectiveness on the court. On that note…
Reasons for Caution
I think it is really important to remember that Egbunu might not be the same athlete he was in the past for the Gators. His game is to bang down low, use his wide frame to carve out position, and elevate using a leaping ability that is simply unfair for someone who is 260 pounds. With so much of his style relying upon his athleticism, his effectiveness could be lessened coming off a knee injury. Yes, there is certainly a chance he comes back at 100% and is back to meeting guys a foot above the rim and swatting shots into the 4th row, but there is also a chance he needs to become more of a below-the-rim player and that he can’t be the same rim-running monster he was in the past. But hey, considering he was an above average athlete before, even if his athleticism in tempered by the injury he could still be an average athlete and for someone who is his size, that is more than alright.
Last season Egbunu averaged 7.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks. Those numbers aren’t glamorous, but a lot of what Egbunu does well doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. His ability to set great screens means space for the guards running off of them, and his presence in the paint means he forces a lot of misses at the rim from scared opponents, and that number doesn’t show up in the shot blocking category. One area you’d like to see him improve would be field goal percentage. He took a dip from 59.1% to 49.2% from his sophomore to junior seasons and though those percentages would be more then satisfactory for a lot of players Egbunu is a player who almost exclusively shoots around the rim, and those kinds of players need to be above 50%. He also struggled from the free throw line shooting 56.7% (a career high in his three seasons, surprisingly) and that’s another place you’d love to see him improve as he’s a player who will undoubtedly get fouled around the rim to prevent easy finishes.
Though the impact of Egbunu’s return will probably be felt more on the defensive side of the basketball, the effect of having a big bodied center who can set great screens and be available for dump down passes is huge. Coach Mike White has implored his frontcourt to have more of an impact offensively down low to start this season, and it hasn’t happened yet. Most of the minutes at center have been going to Kevarrius Hayes (4.4 points per game) and Keith Stone (5.9 points per game, and about half of them are coming from the three point line) so scoring down low really hasn’t been a strength of this team. The lack of interior scoring threats has also been evidenced by the fact the Gators have only used post ups on 3.8% of their possessions. That is nearly nothing, which means the Gators rely heavily on their perimeter players for scoring. Egbunu was actually a solid post up player last season averaging 43.5% on those shots and getting fouled a staggering 18.9% of the time. Though posting up isn’t popular in basketball right now in modern basketball and doesn’t necessarily fit into Mike White’s up-tempo offensive style, Egbunu’s ability to convert when given those opportunities gives the team another layer offensively that they currently do not have. Another area Egbunu will really help in the half court offense is in the pick and roll game. Egbunu’s wide hips and shoulders means he can set really good screens that guards like Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen can attack off of. After setting the screen, Egbunu does a great job of exploding towards to hoop. When he does that, defenses are forced to collapse towards to the paint to prevent the pass to him which leads to other teammates being open on the perimeter. If they don’t help and the pass is available, Egbunu is capable of catching and finishing. Last season when Egbunu caught the ball as the roll man he shot 56.3% from the field and was fouled, wait for it, 41.2% of the time. Seriously, 41.2% of the time! Having Egbunu in the lineup should really change the way the Gators play the pick and roll, and will give another element to the offense that the Gators have lacked this year. One of the criticisms of Florida’s offense has been that it isn’t diverse enough so having different looks when Egbunu comes will not only bring variety, but not allow defenses to stack up against players like Jalen Hudson on the perimeter which will allow them even more time and space to operate.
The Gators’ struggles on the defensive end have been one of the biggest storylines of the season, and it is the area where John Egbunu’s return has been most discussed. Last year’s Florida team was elite defensively, and though Kasey Hill, Justin Leon, and Devin Robinson were all considered strong defenders, Egbunu was seen as the anchor of that unit. Hopes are high Egbunu can elevate this year’s group to a higher defensive level, so let’s take a look at what to expect. We know defending inside has been the weakest point of the Gators’ defense. Over and over again opposing post players have put up career numbers in both scoring and rebounding, and fans had to continuously look on with futility as Florida got cooked inside. Though post ups are used an average of 7.9% of possessions in all of college basketball, teams are posting up the Gators on 13.5% of their possessions, a number that clearly shows opposing teams are aware of Florida’s deficiencies and are looking to exploit them. Luckily for the Gators, this is an area where John Egbunu is incredible. Now, I understand, like many sports writers I may be prone to hyperbole from time to time but in this instance when I say incredible let me assure you, I mean incredible.
Allow me to nerd out with some of John Egbunu’s defensive numbers in the post from last season.
Egbunu only allowed opponents to shot 30.4% in post ups, putting him in the 95th percentile. Not only did he allow opponents to shoot a percentage that low, but he only committed a foul on only 4.6% of those possessions. That is a miniscule amount of fouls committed, especially considering how physical the play is that close to the basket. Not only did opponents miss a lot of shots when trying to post up Egbunu, but they turned the ball over 24.6% of the time. That is a massive amount of turnovers. Most players are right handed, which for post players means they usually prefer the right block so that they can use their right hand to dribble while pushing towards the middle of the floor, giving themselves the opportunity for a right handed hook shot or the ability to pass out using their right hand. What I’m getting at is that most post players score better on the right block.
But not on Egbunu.
When posting up from the right block, players are shooting 16% against Egbunu. On hook shots over their left shoulder from that right block, possibly the most used post move in basketball, opponents shot 0%. That’s not a typo, there were seriously zero right handed hook shots from the right block made on Egbunu last season.
Though I could spout off a laundry list of stats that look good for Egbunu’s defense (he only allowed 28.6% on pick and roll, shooters only shot 35% on the perimeter when Egbunu contested, he only allowed 36.4% when switched onto a guard in isolation, etc.) it’s his length and muscle inside will be the biggest help to the team. Florida has allowed far too many easy buckets inside from post players and Egbunu has shown that he is one of the best post defenders in the country. Add in that he can block shots from the weak side and you can see why he is one of the best all around defenders in the country.
Florida’s most used lineup this year has been Chris Chiozza, KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov, and Kevarrius Hayes. When Egbunu went down last year Hayes was slid into his starting spot, so one could suspect Hayes will be the one to have his role reduced when Big John returns. Mike White has loved playing small and having either Egor Koulechov or Keith Stone at the power forward spot, but I think he should at least ponder using a big lineup for stretches with Egbunu at center and Kevarrius Hayes at power forward. Though this would sacrifice some shooting, if you had Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen at the wings you still have plenty of shooting and offensive creation. Defensively, that lineup could be Florida’s strongest as rebounding would be drastically improved, you have two shot blockers, and Hayes has the ability to switch out and guard a perimeter player if needed. However it works out, having Egbunu back will bring all kinds of versatility to the lineup.
With Egbunu’s return being talked about for so long, it was fun to take a look into the numbers to see what he could be tangibly expected from the big man. What do you think Egbunu’s return will do for the team? Leave a comment here or post on the Gator Country forums.