There’s a lot of well-earned reasons for the rise of Tennessee basketball in 2017-18: Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, James Daniel, and a finally-solidified rotation among them that features seven legitimately good players. You know these guys for some pretty obvious work: Williams is Tennessee’s soul, an undersized bucket-getting forward that reminds some of Baby Barkley. Schofield looks like Gronk and has range out to 25 feet. James Daniel has reformed himself entirely from a shoot-first scorer to the best passer on the Tennessee roster.
Via some metrics, however, they’re all beaten out for stardom by a gawky Canadian center named Kyle who, as recently as last year, made it feel like an accident when his shots went in.
Per College Basketball Reference, no player who is on the floor at least 16 minutes per game for Tennessee has improved himself more from 2016-17 to 2017-18 than Kyle Alexander. Alexander’s Box-Plus Minus (a measure of how many points a player contributes per 100 possessions above a league-average player) is an astounding +12.3, which ranks third in the SEC. He ranks first in the conference in KenPom’s Offensive Rating measurement at 134.5 (generally, anything above 110 is considered pretty good in CBB), third in effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and third in offensive rebounding percentage — all while quietly possessing the lowest turnover rate on Tennessee’s roster.
He does all of this while remaining relatively invisible to the naked eye.
That’s Alexander, battling a player four inches taller and 30 pounds heavier for one of his five offensive rebounds against Purdue. Without that toughness on a play where he doesn’t score, the final margin in regulation is 63-61, Purdue. Without any of Alexander’s work on the boards that game, Tennessee loses:
Alexander gets away with a subtle push on Vincent Edwards of Purdue, but credit’s due here — he outworks Isaac Haas, one of the three best forwards/centers in the nation, to the boards. In fact, Alexander held Haas to season lows (since tied in a 82-67 win over Butler) in both rebounding (three total, zero offensive) and turnovers (four). This isn’t a fluke. Here are some of the best forwards/centers Tennessee has played to date and the performances they’ve racked up when squaring off with Alexander:
- Isaac Haas (Purdue, 14.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.7 TOs): 13 points, 3 rebounds, 4 turnovers, 3 fouls
- Omari Spellman (Villanova, 10.1 PPG, 7.6 RPG): 3 points, 1 rebound
- Luke Maye (North Carolina, 18.2 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 3.9 FTA): 15 points, 8 rebounds, 1 free throw attempt
- Doral Moore (Wake Forest, 9.6 PPG, 8.1 RPG): 4 points, 4 rebounds
- Daniel Gafford (Arkansas, 11.6 PPG, 6.1 RPG): 15 points, 8 rebounds
- Wenyen Gabriel (Kentucky, 6.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG): 11 points, 1 rebound, fouled out with 12 minutes to play
- Djery Baptiste (Vanderbilt, 4.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG): 1 point, 4 rebounds, fouled out
About the only true forward/center to outplay Alexander over any meaningful stretch of a game was potential 2018 lottery pick Gafford, and even then, he was held to a 2-point first half with just two rebounds while Alexander racked up four boards and a block of Gafford’s first shot attempt. More routinely, we’ve seen either some nice blocks:
Or great shot defense extending to the three-point line (!):
But, most frequently, a lot of boring, high-quality boxouts. Alexander’s positioning on most rebound opportunities is far better than the other bigs on the roster – he knows how to feel out an opponent’s moves, quickness, and body. In several instances, he seems to be thinking a couple seconds ahead of his opposition:
It’s this innate ability to find the hole on the court or get one’s hands up a half-second early that gives Alexander a giant advantage down low. As previously mentioned, Alexander ranks third in the SEC in offensive rebounding percentage. He’s played some of his best games against high-end competition: against the five current KenPom Top 25 teams Tennessee has played, Alexander has racked up 17 offensive rebounds (3.4 per game) and has made 13 of 17 field goal attempts.
Let’s talk about that invisibility a little. It may be funny to some to think Tennessee’s secret star has as many offensive rebounds as he does field goal attempts in big games. And you wouldn’t be wrong! Alexander’s possession usage rate of 11.9% (called “nearly invisible” on KenPom) is the third-lowest in the last ten years for a Tennessee player who plays more than 16 minutes per game (2012-13 Skylar McBee, 2015-16 Derek Reese).
But! That usage rate means little when 70% of Alexander’s attempts are high-percentage opportunities at the rim.
Alexander’s 81.3% efficiency at the rim (26 of 32 made) ranks first by a mile on Tennessee’s roster and fifth in the SEC among players with 30 attempts or more. Scroll casually through any Tennessee game and you’re bound to catch one of these:
Alexander still takes about 30% of his shots on the rest of the court – including a hilarious made three-pointer against Purdue that proved to be the final difference in Tennessee winning versus a second overtime – but his ruthless efficiency on high-percentage shots almost guarantees that a Kyle Alexander shot inside no longer feels like an accidental make.
Plus, it’s worth noting his mobility on the court, as evidenced in the shot-block at the three-point line. Alexander isn’t a true deep threat (or a reliable threat past five feet), but he’s able to constantly move and force his defender to follow him or switch off. With a replacement-level player in his place on the court, Tennessee’s offense drops from 23rd to 52nd on KenPom. Against Kentucky, Tennessee shot 10 of 18 (4 of 8 from three) when Alexander was on the court in the second half. Even in the Auburn game where everything seemingly went wrong for Tennessee, Alexander was +12 in 20 minutes (an On/Off rating of +22!) and Tennessee shot 50% (12-24); no other player playing 20 or more minutes topped +3.
When Alexander takes the court to stave off bigs, he shaves about 3.6 points per 100 possessions off of Tennessee’s defensive rating, taking them from fine to exceptional. Why? Well, 6’11” dudes with long arms block shots, and sometimes they play on a team with Grant Williams.
If neither played for Tennessee and replacement-level players played in their stead, they’d go from the #27 defense (94.6 Adjusted Defensive Rating) on KenPom to #85 (99.3).
It’s funny: Williams deservedly gets the pub for possibly being the SEC Player of the Year. Jordan Bowden might be the best shooter in the conference. Schofield has upped his game in a big way on both offense and defense. James Daniel has become an above-average defender after being an albatross at Howard. Yet it’s Alexander that continues to impress me, quietly plugging away in the background: give his minutes to a combo of John Fulkerson and Derrick Walker and Tennessee would lose a solid 4.89 points off of their KenPom Adjusted Margin, per Value Add Basketball. A translation: they’d fall from 14th to 40th. That level of drop-off in production happens at no other position on the Tennessee roster.
So here we are: the guy who makes Tennessee work is a quiet kid from Ontario that attempts three shots a game and frequently struggles with fouls. And yet! No player’s got a higher Box Plus-Minus on the team, no player adds more value per defensive possession, no player getting more than 16 minutes a game tops his Defensive Rating, none come close to approaching his rim efficiency, no one blocks more shots, no player has improved more from 2016-17 to 2017-18, and none provide a bigger punch in terms of points per possession offensively.
If Tennessee continues this surprising level of play as a Top 15 level team, they’re gonna grab a 4 or 5 seed with Sweet Sixteen expectations. Without Alexander, it’s probably still a Tournament team, but they don’t beat Purdue and they probably drop a game somewhere else along the line – let’s just say Georgia Tech or Kentucky. Alexander is a giant reason why this team isn’t a 9 or 10 seed praying for the chance to lose to a 1 or 2 seed on a Sunday afternoon. Even better, you get another year of him and another year of improvement. Perhaps we’ll get more than just one of these weirdo threes by March 2019.
I mean, it’s a pretty shot. Shoot ’em, Kyle!