Carlton Bragg is failing the eye test.
Whether we want to admit it or not, optics are important. Sometimes it’s not just how effective a player does something, but also how he good he looks doing it, that ends up influencing our overall thoughts.
So Bragg, a sophomore forward for Kansas, is struggling so far. At least that’s what we think we’re seeing.
But is it true?
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Well … maybe. Here’s the point with Bragg, and it’s an important one.
The eye test probably doesn’t give him enough credit — a fact that advanced stats have been screaming to us through the first month of the season.
So let’s be clear. Here are two areas where Bragg actually has been poor this year … and two areas in which he hasn’t.
Certain mistakes irk KU coach Bill Self more than others. And one non-negotiable for the coach is an inability to guard the man in front of you.
It’s part of the reason Cliff Alexander, despite some impressive scoring and rebounding stats, never seemed to fully gain the coach’s trust.
Bragg is going through a similar rough stretch now, and a good example came in the second half against Stanford.
Off a baseline out-of-bounds play, Bragg too easily allows Reid Travis to muscle him out of the lane. When Travis gets it, he’s so close to the basket that there’s not much Bragg can do other than foul.
Though Bragg gained 26 pounds in the offseason to raise his weight to 240, he’s not playing to that strength yet.
That’s also led to some issues with toughness, which is one of the most important traits when playing for Self.
Another example against Stanford: Bragg gets nearly identical post position to what Travis had, but instead of creating contact, he fades away to turn a 4-foot shot into an 8-foot one.
It’s not a good look for a player trying to show he can consistently be a low-post scoring threat for a team that’s still searching for one.
Not a struggle: Rebounding
This seems to be the popular narrative around Bragg: He just needs to focus on the glass. Once he does that, he’ll perform a lot better.
Except this myth isn’t true. Bragg has elevated his play here, even if you have to look at the right numbers to realize it.
The first number most people will look at is 5.4 rebounds per game, but that’s deceptive for one reason: He’s averaging just 17 minutes because of foul trouble.
Take that factor out, and we’re looking at one of the best rebounders around. Bragg ranks the top 150 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, a feat only six other players have accomplished under Self: Wayne Simien, Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Joel Embiid and Landen Lucas.
Also, when it comes to total rebound percentage, Bragg ranks third out of all Big 12 players, grabbing 18 percent of the available caroms when he’s in the game.
Bragg’s rebounding problem isn’t actually rebounds. It’s staying on the court. Once he does that, those numbers should shoot up quickly.
Struggle: Lineup changes
Part of Bragg’s slow start also can simply be attributed to this: KU’s small-ball lineup is working better than anyone would have guessed.
Self went into the season hoping the four-guard look could be a nice change of pace for his team while stealing 10-15 minutes per game. Instead — even without the Jayhawks practicing it much — this has become the team’s most effective way to play.
Lagerald Vick has emerged as one of the team’s best players, and Svi Mykhailiuk has turned into a consistent outside shooter. Self has liked the balance offensively that KU’s had with four players being able to drive and force help.
And there’s even more potential as well. When KU gets more time to work on it, Self believes there can be additional scheming added to get Josh Jackson in more offensive rebounding situations, which could lead to even better efficiency.
Why is this bad for Bragg? When Jackson’s playing the 4, Bragg can’t play his natural position.
With the small setup, Bragg is forced to the 5 spot, and while it can work, it doesn’t necessarily play to his strengths. He usually has to guard the opposing team’s best post player, which seems like more of a perfect role for Lucas.
That doesn’t mean Self’s not trying it. A lineup of Frank Mason-Devonté Graham-Mykhailiuk-Jackson-Bragg has been KU’s second-most-utilized lineup in the last five games according to KenPom.com, with Bragg getting a chance to show he can execute in the new spot.
Not a struggle: Offense
When SI.com listed Bragg as one of its top breakout scorers for this season, it projected him for an offensive rating of 114 and a usage percentage of 22 percent. Here’s where those numbers stand through eight games: 119 offensive rating and 21 percent usage.
Translated: Bragg, while taking on a significant offensive role when he’s in, has been an even more efficient offensive player than anticipated — and that’s when a publication picked him as one of the players to watch this season.
Bragg has been great on two-pointers (60 percent) while making the third-most on the team. He’s an above-average shooter at both the rim and in midrange, and he has the lowest turnover percentage of the Jayhawks’ top eight rotation players.
Again, the main issue has been staying on the court. Bragg’s 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes have often forced him to the bench, which also has kept him from extended good stretches offensively.
Yes, Bragg can still improve, a fact he admitted during a postgame radio interview Saturday.
“I think I could have played way better,” he said after scoring seven points with six rebounds in 16 minutes. “I could have defended the post better than what I did. Just a lot of little mental mistakes.”
The talented sophomore is not broken, though. He’s an away-from-the-basket scorer on a team that might not need an extra one, a finesse player suiting up for a coach that values toughness and a 4 man trying his best to adjust to another position where he might be needed most.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that Bragg might need a few more weeks to get all this right.