Is Michigan better off with Trey Burke running the point than Darius Morris?

Trey Burke could be one of the best point guards in Big Ten by the time he is done in Ann Arbor.

Darius Morris’ decision to head to the NBA came as a surprise for the Wolverine nation. Few expected them to pick up where they left off last year without their Junior guard. But Trey Burke seems to have filled his shoes well. Is he a better fit for this Michigan team than Morris?


Big Ten conference’s final four hopes took a major hit when Darius Morris declared for the NBA draft during the spring of 2011. Morris’ return combined with Tim Hardaway Jr.’ s improvement during the offseason implied that Michigan was a lock to be in the pre-season top 10 for the 2012 season and a contender for the conference title. But Morris declared for the NBA and was very lucky to get drafted by a Laker team that is desperately in need of youth at the point guard position. Ok, that’s history but where did that leave Michigan?

Enter Trey Burke who was supposed to be a solid freshman point guard but definitely no match to Darius Morris, at least as a freshman. The point guard swap on the outset may seem to indicate a letdown to Michigan this season but after 16 games this season, the Wolverines seem to be doing just fine.

A deeper look into the numbers indicates that Beilein’s squad might actually be better off with Trey Burke running point instead of Darius Morris. Let’s understand how Burke’s style of play is different from Morris’ and the impact on the team’s performance. This analysis isn’t about which point guard is better head to head but which one is better for this Michigan offense!!

Trey Burke (16 games in 2011) vs. Darius Morris (entire 2011 season)

From an individual scoring standpoint, there is one major difference between the two players – Burke seems to have a better 3 point shot than Morris. He already hit more three pointers after just 16 games and shoots 37% from beyond the arc compared to Morris’ 25%. Morris however was more physical and made it to the foul line more often. Morris has a much higher free throw rate (36.7) than Burke (29.5) and this supports their style of play – Burke doesn’t drive the lane as much as Morris. But this isn’t necessarily because Burke just settles for the 3 point shot … it is because how Beilien runs his offense. The offense primarily revolves around quick cuts, constant screens and open jump shots. Ball movement is extremely important for his offense to have an impact and Burke’s presence has improved that facet … more on that in a little bit. has a nice post that shows the differences in the shot selection between the two point guards.

When examining their passing abilities … Morris has slightly better numbers. He averaged approximately 6.7 assists per game and Burke sets up his teammates about 5 times a game. Their ball handling skills are about the same – Morris turned the ball over about 18% and Burke about 19% of the possessions. Does that mean Morris is a better point guard?? The absolute statistics indicate a slight edge but this needs to be evaluated with regards to John Beilein’s offense.

Better point guard for Beilein’s offensive schemes

Beilein’s offense flourishes when there is constant ball movement. All five players on the court need to be involved and the ball shouldn’t stagnate. The schemes thrive on all the players’ ability to shoot AND pass the ball. Traditional point guards run the plays and contribute to a majority of assists on the offensive side … but that’s not the case in his system. West Virginia had consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in 2005 and 2006. This was the pinnacle of Beilein’s offensive sets in the Big East. Let’s examine the assist rate of the three main contributors on the 2005 and 2006 teams.

(The “assist rate” metric is defined as total assists divided by the field goals made by the player’s teammates while he is on the court … courtesy of

2005 West Virginia Assist Rate

Kevin Pittsnogle (8.2), Mike Gansey (guard, 20.2), Patrick Beilein (guard, 16.4)

2006 West Virginia Assist Rate

Kevin Pittsnogle (7.7), Mike Gansey (guard, 12.9), Johannes Herber (guard, 26.7)

Pittsnogle was a big guy so you don’t expect him to hold onto the ball and initiate plays. But Gansey and Patrick Beilein were the guards during the 2005 Elite 8 run. They worked together rather than one of them playing a TRUE POINT GUARD role. Now, let’s see the 2011 Michigan team and the 2012 squad with Burke running the point.

2011 Michigan Assist Rate

Darius Morris (44.2), Tim Hardaway (12.1), Evan Smotrycz (8.1)

2012 Michigan Assist Rate

Trey Burke (30.5), Tim Hardaway (18.6), Evan Smotrycz (10.3)

Before moving further to summarize what this means, let’s make something clear. The assist rate metric is not necessarily adjusted for the total minutes played. So a player who is on the floor for 2 minutes could potentially have a really high assist rate if the two possessions he plays were a result of assists. The players listed above are also amongst the top 3 to 4 in terms of usage rate … so the # of minutes on the floor ought to be fairly consistent for this analysis.

Back to the assist rate comparison between the two point guards … Morris’ assist rate of 44.2 signifies that his teammates on the court passed the ball more resulting in successful field goals. HOWEVER, the lower assist rate of Hardaway and Smotrycz is concerning. Look at the WVA teams – none of them have an inflated assist rate. Consistency is key for this offense to survive. Morris didn’t work well with the other guards on the team … not because he was selfish but he didn’t quite fit into this system. As a result the other players weren’t getting involved as much and the rhythm of the game was just different. Obviously, Hardaway has a more polished offensive game this year b/c he is after all one year older … but in order for Michigan to be better, he also needs to get involved in the passing game and this is reflected in this year’s numbers.

Last year Morris was the “go to guy” and Beilien’s offenses don’t really need that. That’s not how they are designed. Manny Harris posed a similar issue b/c he liked the ball in his hands to make the play. That slows down the tempo and as a result the team functions less efficiently as a whole.

Burke has been used in 25.3% of the possessions compared to Morris’ 29.3!! Off the back, one can see that Burke’s numbers are just as good but he does it by having the ball in his hands fewer times than his predecessor. Once again, this leads to his teammates getting better implicitly!!

Burke might be better fit to play with Hardaway than Morris.

Pace of the game and offensive efficiency

Here is a summary of the statistical differences in the tempo and efficiency of Michigan over the last year and half …

# of possessions per game – 62.7 (2011) 64.7 (2012)
# of points per 100 possessions – 112.8 (2011) 111.4 (2012)
2 Pt FG% – 51.7% (2011) 57.4% (2012)
3 Pt FG% – 35.3% (2011) 37.3% (2012)

Because Morris had the ball in his hands 5% of the possessions more than Burke, the offense didn’t necessarily stall per se … but it didn’t move at the pace that it was designed to.

The Wolverines are averaging 64.7 possessions per game … compared to 62.7 last season. That’s 2 additional possessions per game! But does that mean the offense is MORE EFFICIENT this year?? Not necessarily. Both teams are putting up about the same point per 100 possessions – 2011 (112.8) and 2012 (111.4). However, the shooting percentages are better this season … 57.4% in 2012 compared to 51.7% last season. It is tough to measure the “quality” of shots between the two seasons but the higher 2 PT FG% implies that under Burke’s guard play, this team takes better shots. Morris on the other hand was slightly notorious for forcing shots or putting teammates in a tougher position to shoot which resulted in a little worse FG% for the entire team.

Three point gunners are a staple in this offensive scheme. Zach Novak and Stu Douglass play that role for the Wolverines. The 3 point shooting percentage in 2012 is slightly better than 2011 and this is because the ball is being shot by the guys who shoot better!!! Novak, Douglass AND Smortycz.

Ok … that was a lot of #s. What’s the summary?

Morris was a great guard but he held the ball longer than the offense was designed for. This resulted in a lesser role of the other players around him. Burke is the opposite as shown by the % of possessions usage rate and this can be seen in an improved play by his teammates – specifically Evan Smortycz. Everybody expected Hardaway to improve so that should come as no surprise but this year’s team is playing “John Beilein Ball” and that has been traditionally successful at West Virginia.

Does this mean that Morris leaving is good for Michigan?? Not so sure about that one. His experience would have still helped but this Michigan program is building for the future and this year is just another stepping stone. The results might have been similar to last season if he had come back but where does that leave the system? All we know for now is that Trey Burke is going to be a stud and this Michigan program is only going to get better … especially with Mitch McGary coming to Ann Arbor next season.

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