WBB: Emily Kiser's Return is More Important Than You Think
The best frontcourt defender in the Big Ten is back for a fifth year.
SITE STUFF: I’m settling back in after my time off. I’ll get to Michigan’s NBA draft departures and probably get mad about Warde Manuel’s latest comments on Bo Schembechler in the near future. The podcast will return this week, too. My gratitude goes out to Dan, Patrick Mayhorn, and Taylor Fulton for contributing posts in my absence.
In the biggest news out of Michigan athletics over the last two weeks, forward Emily Kiser announced her return for a fifth year in the women’s basketball program, withdrawing her name from the transfer portal.
In 2021-22, Kiser stepped into a starting role for the first time and was a stalwart during U-M’s Best Season Ever (Again). She became a more assertive and effective offensive player while anchoring the team’s stout interior defense.
Her box score stats skyrocketed and were often cited on broadcasts. That’ll happen when you double to quadruple your per-game numbers in most every statistical category:
Kiser finished as the team’s third-leading scorer, second-best rebounder, and top shot-blocker.
And yet, all of the above dramatically undersells her impact and importance.
The Box Score Tells a Fraction of the Story
Kiser’s omission from the 2021-22 Big Ten All-Defensive team was criminal. When she played, Michigan was one of the elite defensive squads in the country — and one of the best teams, period. When she sat on the bench, the Wolverines couldn’t get stops against good teams and were deeply negative on the whole.
Michigan was 26.2 (TWENTY-SIX POINT TWO) points per 100 possessions better against competitive teams with Kiser on the court than without her. 21.3 points of that gap came on defense, comparable to the difference in Michigan’s offensive efficiency when Naz Hillmon took a breather (26.3 points). Understandably, Kim Barnes Arico did her best to limit Kiser’s time on the bench.
The only player in the conference whose presence had as great an impact on her team’s defense was Northwestern guard Veronica Burton, who earned her third straight B1G defensive player of the year award and third-team All-American honors. Purdue guard Madison Layden was the only other player in the same zip code.
Burton is now playing 12 minutes a game for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings. Layden, a former top-50 recruit, is one of the most underrated players in the conference.
While on/off metrics are flawed when used without context — a big factor, after all, is the ability of one’s teammates, especially at their particular position — they weren’t alone in denoting Kiser as the Big Ten’s best frontcourt defender. From Wyatt Crosher’s excellent Hoopla newsletter:
Kiser was a key cog in what made Michigan one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten. Her 2.4 defensive win shares ranked fourth in the conference, coming behind three elite defensive guards in Veronica Burton, Nicole Cardano-Hillary and Grace Berger.
By the numbers, she was the best defensive forward in the conference, and she often was tasked with covering dominant paint presences to keep Hillmon out of foul trouble.
Top-100 opponents shot 10.9 percentage points worse at the rim when Kiser was on the floor, 13.1 worse from midrange, and 6.8 on three-pointers; their offensive rebound rate dropped 5.4 points; their turnover rate increased by 1.5.
Kiser is an excellent defender whether she’s guarding the ball or away from it. She holds strong at the rim and times her block attempts well. She organizes the defense from the back end, making a visible impact on the team’s rotations and ball screen coverage. Her anticipation and quick hands help her compensate for not possessing overwhelming positional size or athleticism.
While those on/offs partially reflect the need for improvement from last year’s backups, anyone who watched Michigan enough last year could see Kiser playing elite defense.
It Can Work Without Naz
The most remarkable aspect of diving into Michigan’s 2021-22 lineup data is that Kiser made a hugely positive impact on nearly every individual teammate. No matter how Barnes Arico configured the frontcourt, the defense was elite as long as Kiser was out there and below average when she wasn’t.
Importantly, many of the possessions Kiser played with Elise Stuck, Cameron Williams, or Izabel Varejão came with Hillmon on the bench. Unfortunately, very few of those possessions were against quality competition in non-garbage time, so it’s hard to get a read on how Michigan’s Hillmon-less frontcourt will hold up through a full season. We can be sure it’ll be better with Kiser back, though.
While Kiser’s impact on the offense isn’t as big, she’s still an effective and useful player on that end of the floor. When posting up, she’s an above-average scorer and great passer.
Her passing vision and solid screen-setting allow her to operate in the paint or at the top of the key, critical versatility given she’s usually one of two true post players on the court.
A career 25% three-point shooter, Kiser can make the occasional perimeter shot. Already a productive offensive rebounder, she should get more second-chance opportunities without Hillmon gobbling up so may of them. With Leigha Brown and Laila Phelia expected to carry the scoring load, Kiser should continue to be an excellent role player.
How Kiser’s Return Impacts U-M’s 2022-23 Outlook
Michigan would’ve been hard-pressed to replace Kiser with any returning player, freshman, or incoming transfer. Don’t just take my word for it:
The starting lineup is a lot easier to project. Instead of two starting frontcourt positions up for grabs, there’s only one. Maddie Nolan, Laila Phelia, Leigha Brown, and Kiser should all be locked into starting roles — the only way I could see that changing is if there’s a breakout from Ari Wiggins or Greta Kampschroeder that allows Barnes Arico to use Nolan as an elite bench scorer.
The last battle for a starting spot should come down to junior forwards Elise Stuck and Cameron Williams. The two played nearly identical minutes last year and were both entrusted as role players in big games. Handicapping which player has the inside track is a difficult task, so I’ve thrown up my hands and used an “OR” in the updated projected depth chart.
The potential curveball: 6’4 center Izabel Varejão delivers on the potential she showed as a freshman in 2019-20 and bumps Kiser down to power forward. Michigan could also hit the transfer portal for another contributor — they have one scholarship opened up by sophomore forward Taylor Gibson’s transfer to UCF.
I don’t see a glaring need to use that last scholarship. Barnes Arico should feel comfortable with that starting lineup and the depth behind it. Getting every deserving player on the court will be difficult if the likes of Wiggins and 6’3 wing Jordan Hobbs take sophomore leaps.
Of course, there’s no one-for-one replacement for Naz Hillmon. Whether Michigan can replicate their unprecedented run of success the past four seasons will come down to finding ways to make up for her production, likely by reshaping the offense to be more guard-oriented as Phelia hopefully develops into a true star.
I’m optimistic Michigan will at least be a tournament team and it’s not a stretch to expect they’ll again compete for their first Big Ten championship. While the former was within reach without Kiser’s presence, I don’t believe the latter was on the table before her return.
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