Although Joel Berry’s been great this year, his season still pales in comparison to Ty Lawson’s sublime 2009 campaign—the G.O.A.T. point-guard statline in Carolina history (with apologies to a couple of Phil Ford seasons, Kenny Smith in ’87, Raymond Felton in ’05, etc.). He does stack up quite favorably to Lawson in some key categories, while falling well short in some others.
Let’s break it down with a series of side-by-side comparisons for: I.) Shooting/Scoring; II.) Passing/Turnovers; III.) Defense; and IV.) On-Court Impact.
I. Shooting/Scoring Comparison
- From a pure scoring volume and efficiency standpoint, Berry ’17 and Lawson ’09 are nearly indistinguishable. It’s how they get their points where the differences lie.
- Lawson was a better and (significantly more) frequent close finisher than Berry. He attempted nearly 50% more shots / 40 minutes at the rim than Berry (5.66 vs. 3.95), and also made a higher percentage (62.4% vs. 58.8%). For each point guard, most of that close offense was created off the bounce. Factoring in Lawson’s FTA Rate in ’09—over twice as high as Berry’s this season (a little closer if you look at FTMade Rate since Berry’s at 91.2% vs. “only” 79.8% for Lawson)— and his ability to finish through contact (nearly quadruple the number of “and-1s” / 40), and it’s clear that he was the vastly superior scorer at the rim.
- While Lawson’s better at the rim, the edge at the other two scoring levels (mid-range and behind the arc) would probably go to Berry ’17. Though Lawson made a higher percentage of his 3s in ’09 (47.2% vs. 42.6%), Berry’s attempting nearly twice as many from behind the arc per-40. Each point guard was super-efficient from the top of the key, and most prolific from the right wing. Lawson, in very limited attempts, was also money from the corners. ’09 Lawson was a more dangerous transition threat from behind the arc (though, again, Berry’s shoots transition 3s much more frequently), and both were deadly off the dribble and in the half-court.
- While neither point guard made his living with the floater (each was more comfortable pulling up for a jumper or (especially in Lawson’s case) getting the whole way to rim), Berry was more efficient with that shot. Both point guards were lethal on mid-range (10-20′) pull-up jumpers.
II. Passing/Turnover Comparison
- The biggest differentiator between Lawson ’09 and Berry ’17 was in the passing metrics. Lawson’s assist and potential close assist rates were significantly higher than Berry’s this year. He also created a higher percentage (relative to all potential assists) of open shots for his teammates. Despite creating more and better opportunities for others, Lawson was able to maintain a lower rate of turnovers / 40 than Berry. Combining those two factors, Lawson ’09 had more than double the A:TO (factoring in FT assists) of Berry ’17. For a point guard, that’s obviously a huge, glaring advantage.
- Each point guard had a very similar turnover distribution. Berry commits passing turnovers at a higher rate (by over a half-turnover / 40), but all other turnover categories look nearly identical.
- Lawson also created drive-and-kick 3-pointers at nearly triple the rate of Berry. Having wing snipers like Wayne Ellington and Danny Green waiting to catch and fire helped here. But Lawson was also better at getting into the paint to create for others (in addition to himself).
- Although I didn’t include this data in the table, each point guard had a similar post-entry passing profile. Lawson threw 10.6 post entries / 40 with a Success:Failure (made FGs + fouls / missed FGs + TOs) of 0.90 in ’09. Berry’s currently at 8.6 and 0.79 in those categories. Slight advantage Lawson, but having Tyler Hansbrough in the post is certainly a nice luxury for an entry passer.
III. Defensive Comparison
- In the early part of the season (through Maui), this is the one area in which I would have given the clear advantage to Berry. His Stop% was up in the low 70s through the first half-dozen games, and he was applying consistent ball pressure to fuel Carolina’s 22 defense (and set up its preferred wing overplays/denials). But, post-ankle injury and illness, Berry has been a significantly less disruptive defensive force. Fatigue’s been an issue, too, as the Heels demand so much of Berry on both ends in big games.
- The two point guards have been equally disruptive (as measured by forced turnovers and deflections), but Lawson was better at denying opponents scoring opportunities (in large part due to keeping them out of the paint a little better than Berry does). ’09 Lawson allowed a couple fewer FGAs and points per-40 compared to ’17 Berry.
- Though Lawson’s defensive consistency was vastly improved by his junior season, it was still somewhat sporadic. But, when engaged and motivated (see the ’09 national championship game), it’s hard to deny that he could be a disruptive defensive force and lockdown on-ball defender. This category’s close (with plenty of time for Berry to rewrite the script), but I’d give the slight edge to Lawson.
IV. Plus/Minus/On-Court Impact Comparison
- Each point guard had a huge and profound offensive on-court impact in his respective season. The ’09 Heels were also slightly better on defense with Lawson on the court, while the ’17 Heels (especially in ACC play) have been significantly worse on that end in Berry’s minutes. This is partially a tribute to how well and hard the Carolina bench units (generally some combo of Woods/Britt/Robinson/Maye/Bradley, plus a starter or two) have defended. It’s also probably an artifact of the noisiness and general unreliability of +/- data—especially in a smaller (half-season) sample in Berry’s case.
- Suffice it to say, each point guard made his team better. Though, again, I’d give ’09 Lawson the advantage for on-court impact (assuming that quality of back-up PGs—SR Frasor/FR Drew II in ’09 vs. SR Britt/FR Woods in ’17—was roughly equal between the seasons).
In terms of pure scoring ability/efficiency, Berry has been downright Lawsonian this season. He does it a bit differently (more from behind the arc, less at the rim), but just as effectively. It’s the other areas of point guard play (play-making and ball protection, primarily), however, that made Lawson’s 2009 campaign such a historically great one, and have separated it from what Berry’s accomplished so far in 2017.