The Truth About Transfers (HV Weekly: 4/17/2020)

A detailed look at how "up-transfers" fit and produce at their new programs.

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For those who were hanging around here last year, you know that we occasionally step back from X’s and O’s during the offseason and explore the data and backstory around some of the driving forces of college basketball. Last year, we did a series on transfers, a much-discussed look at “copycat” coaching, the ingredients of a “banner season” and even a mailbag column.

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Today we take another look at transfers, going deep on “up-transfers” and their impact on the court.


Transfer Market: Open For Business

For the majority of college coaching staffs, successful recruiting requires identifying a mode of player acquisition that optimally fits the program.

In other words: a recruiting philosophy.

Traditionally, that’s been geographic in nature. Georgia had seven players listed from the state of Georgia on their roster this season. UC Irvine had nine players from California.

Proximity to high school talent helps determine an average program’s ability to land relatively strong high school recruits, but there are other factors as well — mostly related to a coaching staff’s connections. Some staffs have strong international ties, while others may be heavily involved in the junior college world.

The ultimate example of landing a player above a program’s typical weight class is hiring a family member or coach; Oklahoma State did it just last year with Cade Cunningham, and junior college coaches are often hired to DI staffs with a similar motive.

The DI transfer market had traditionally been another way for programs to punch above their normal recruiting weight, largely due to the lack of participation from college basketball’s elite. But that’s changed.

In just the last two transfer cycles, the blue blood programs have been more active — potentially with more activity to come this week:

  • Kentucky: Davion Mintz (Creighton), Jacob Toppin (Rhode Island), Nate Sestina (Bucknell)

  • Louisville: Carlik Jones (Radford), Charles Minlend (San Francisco), Fresh Kimble (Saint Joseph's)

  • North Carolina: Justin Pierce (William & Mary), Christian Keeling (Charleston Southern)

  • Duke: Patrick Tape (Columbia)

  • Kansas: Isaiah Moss (Iowa)

As the nation’s top programs are now actively participating in the transfer market, a trickle-down effect emerges. Several years ago, a program like Iowa State could land a few of the best transfers available each year. Now, transfers are probably (if anything) getting over-recruited — particularly immediately eligible transfers.

Using Verbal Commits data stretching back to 2012, we are diving in (again) to transfer data. The following research attempts to answer four questions:

  1. How much playing time do transfers receive?

  2. When on the court, do transfers play a similar offensive role to the one at their previous school?

  3. If not: in what way(s) does that offensive role change?

  4. How do rebounding and shot blocking translate to different levels?


[1] Up-Transfers don’t play as much

When a player transfers from a small or mid-major conference to a high-major program, they typically join a roster with more talent. As a result, a decrease in minutes is the most predictable outcome.

In our sample size, there were 308 players that transferred to a program with an efficiency rating 10 points per 100 possessions higher than the player’s previous program. Still with us?

Of those “up-transfer” players, 82% of them saw a decrease in minutes per game after transferring. The average decrease was just over seven minutes per game.

To highlight a pair of the outliers above…

Nisre Zouzoua — Bryant (35.5 MPG) to Nevada (6.0 MPG)
Zouzoua transferred out of Bryant following a season where he averaged 36 minutes per game. After sitting out the 2017-18 season, he saw limited action in his first season in the Mountain West, averaging six minutes per game.

While that was the most severe minutes drop in our sample, Zouzoua did have something of a bounce-back senior season. He averaged 25 minutes per game and won Sixth Man of the Year honors in the Mountain West.

Elijah Hughes — East Carolina (20.5 MPG) to Syracuse (32.7 MPG)
Hughes is one the best up-transfer success stories. He came off the bench in his freshman season at ECU, but started in every game of his ACC career. In that additional playing time, his efficiency increased dramatically.

Hughes declared for the NBA Draft last month and is currently a projected second round pick.

[2] When on the court, up-transfers play a smaller offensive role

Now we know that up-transfer minutes decrease, but what happens when the up-transfer is actually on the court? In most cases, these mid-major stars played a high-usage role within their offense. Following an up-transfer, that usage rate changes.

In our sample of 308 players, 80% of them saw a decrease in usage rate after transferring. On average, usage dropped by over four percentage points.

Again, a quick look at two noted outliers…

Mark Alstork — Wright State (34.9% USG) to Illinois (16.3% USG)
In Alstork’s junior season, he finished top-10 nationally in usage rate for a Wright State team ranked #164 in the nation (kenpom).

Alstork moved to Illinois as a graduate transfer for his final season and started every game for Brad Underwood; his role was greatly reduced on an Illini team that finished the season ranked #102 (kenpom).

Trey Freeman — Campbell (22.1% USG) to Old Dominion (30.2% USG)
Freeman had two solid seasons as a starter at Campbell, but his extreme jump in usage rate after moving on to Old Dominion was an unexpected development.

His efficiency also increased while making the jump to a role as a high-volume scorer, all while playing in a tougher conference.

— — —

Speaking of efficiency, there is little-to-no correlation between change in program strength and change in offensive rating.

[3] Up-transfers take more threes and draw less fouls

As previously stated, 80% of up-transfers see a reduction in usage rate within their new programs. But what are the implications of that reduced role?

We identified the transfers whose usage rate dropped by five or more percentage points with their new team. Statistically, there were two main offensive categories most affected by usage drops.

First, a higher percentage of up-transfer’s shots become three-point attempts.

  • Season before transferring: 34% of shots were from three

  • First season after transferring: 41% of shots were from three

Second, up-transfers don’t draw as many fouls.

  • Season before transferring: 39% free throw rate (FTA/FGA)

  • First season after transferring: 34% free throw rate (FTA/FGA)

With a less ball-dominant role, up-transfers tend to morph into spot-up shooters. Each individual case is obviously different, but recruiting skillsets conducive to these role changes is something that should be considered when taking an up-transfer.

[4] Rebounding and shot blocking translate better to higher levels

Everything we have looked at thus far has been offensive — and in some ways guard — related. But the ability to maintain rebounding and defensive production is also important.

We identified “strong” rebounders (total rebound percentage above 10%) and shot blockers (block percentage above 3%) who chose to transfer.

In both cases, rebounding and shot blocking don’t have the correlation we saw from minutes and usage rate. In other words: when moving up a level, it’s more likely that a transfer will maintain shot-blocking ability than usage rate.

However, rebounding tends to decrease for the most dramatic up-transfers, albeit in a small sample size. The most recent example was Kentucky’s Nate Sestina, who grabbed 17% of all available rebounds at Bucknell, but just 11% at Kentucky.

Baylee Steele is a particularly intriguing transfer example. The 6-foot-11 big started his career at Eastern Michigan, where he finished with a total rebounding percentage of 11.6%. After transferring to Utah Valley, Steele’s rebounding percentage spiked to 21.0% — the highest increase in our sample. Finally, his rebound percentage fell back down 12.7% at Duquesne this season.

— — — —

In an area as competitive as college basketball recruiting, market inefficiencies don’t tend to last long. Top grad transfers now receive interest from dozens of programs within 24 hours of entering the portal. A trend that has been sped up even further with coaching staffs currently unable to travel.

For high-major programs, transfer targets are most likely going to undergo significant role changes after arriving on campus. The ability to evaluate the target within the context of those role changes is tricky — but a key for future success.


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