Ok, much has been made in the recent weeks (at least in Chatham Co) about the starting #4 position in the Tar Heels' lineup. So I decided to take a look at the early returns on the competition. Thanks to rate based stats, we needn't worry about silly playing time issues, though we will have to consider with whom the individuals shared the court. In the following figures and tables I've included the 2 main big men (behind Tyler) along with the shoes they're trying to fill.
I suppose the main question here is, do we need the offense? Overall, the constant from last year's team has been the impressive offense (top 5 in KP-land). The offensive slack has been taken up by Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson, and among the reserves Danny Green, which would explain the fact that the Heels have been able to keep the OE on par with last year's team. Between the current two options however, Thompson seems to be slightly better offensively (ORtg 93.4 to 87). If you scan down the table, this number might confuse, as Stepheson shoots better from the field, has higher OR%, (Oops, what is DR% doing on an offensive table?) and definitely gets to the line more often. That is one of the biggest reasons I've seen and heard for Stepheson's starting over Thompson, the simple fact that he gets to the line way more often, its hard to draw a foul when you're executing the baby hooks and turnaround jumpers that Deon is so fond of. However, Alex's turnovers look to be holding back his ORtg. I would imagine if he took better care of the ball his rating would be closer to (or higher than) Thompson's. However, the defensive end seems to be where Brandan Wright is missed most.
On this end of the court Brandan Wright always made his presence felt. It is also often said that individual defense is one of the hardest stats to measure in basketball. There are only 3 stats you have to go on (all listed above) anything else must be discerned from observation. I can say I watched a lot of UNC basketball games this year and last year, and Deon (or Alex) are no Brandan Wright. This is supported by the numbers above. In a recent BP article KenPom discussed the Renaldo Balkman Threshold of excellent defense (6.0 block & 2.5 steal rates). In 3 years only 2 players in power conferences met these criteria (Shelden Williams and Joakhim Noah). Brandan Wright came very close to meeting them his freshman year, providing defensive support that is sorely missed, considering the Heels current adjusted DE (92.1, 65th) and 2006-07 number (85.6, 4th). The two current Tar Heel big men seem to be roughly equivalent on defense, with Alex blocking more shots and Deon disrupting more passes. Alex Stepheson has always been a tremendous defensive rebounder (23.3 DR% last year), so it might be interesting to see if that continued with an increase in minutes, though as I mentioned above, I doubt the minutes will come unless the turnovers go down. As a side note, Brandan Wright's DR% is probably a little bit lower than his talent level. Last year he had to compete with Reyshawn Terry for defensive rebounds, and for all Terry's defensive faults, he loved to collect errant rebounds as the opponent scampered down the court to defend the fast break (DR% 20.1)
It isn't really a huge surprise that Thompson is starting and Stepheson is coming off the bench. They're incredibly similar except for in a few small areas (DR%, FTR, TO%), and Alex will likely have to take better care of the ball before he sees his minutes and touches go up.