Paul Shirley Was Good At Basketball (Sometimes!)
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Gradelo Staff
3 weeks ago
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(AP Photo/Rodney White)

Paul Shirley doing something good in a college basketball game!
(AP Photo/Rodney White)

Ten years ago Paul Shirley wrote "Can I Keep My Jersey?" — a delightful book detailing Shirley’s less-than-successful career as a professional basketball player. Now Shirley has once again put together a book with stories from his life. In the excellent "Stories I Tell on Dates," Shirley touches upon much more than just basketball. But when he does touch upon his life as an athlete, he again fails to argue he was great at basketball.

Shirley is not the only to question his skills on the court. This YouTube video argues that Shirley may have been the worst player in NBA history. It even argues that Shirley – who was paid to play basketball (although not much by Iowa State – as we will note) – was only an “average college player.”

The video’s take on Shirley is certainly harsh. However, the interest we have in Shirley’s books depends at least partially on the notion that he was not great at basketball. After all, virtually all of his readers are not great basketball players so most of his readers can relate to being unsuccessful athletes. But although his readers (including myself) are not great at basketball, is that really a fair assessment of Shirley’s skills? And if I argue that Shirley was good at basketball, does it make it difficult for his audience to relate to his stories?

I don’t know the answer to that second question. But in reading Shirley’s stories I wondered exactly how good he was at playing the game of basketball.

That story begins at Iowa State University. Men’s basketball at Iowa State has not been known as a powerhouse in the sport. The team has never won an NCAA title. In fact, it only reached the Final Four once (where the team lost), and that was in 1944 when the NCAA tournament wasn’t quite what it is today.

But for two seasons 1999-2000 and 2000-01 Iowa State sort of resembled a powerhouse. Across those two years, the Cyclones won 84% of their games, something the program as a member of the Big 8 or Big 12 had ever done before (and they have never done this since). In addition, in 2000 the Cyclones advanced all the way to the Midwest Regional Final in the NCAA tournament (where they lost to Michigan State  the eventual champion). This was the farthest Iowa State had advanced since 1944 (and again, the farthest it has advanced since). Yes, the next season as a #2 seed the Cyclones were upset by the mighty Hampton Pirates in the first round. Nevertheless, for two seasons the Cyclones were a very good team.

Not surprisingly, a few players from these teams earned a living in the NBA. Marcus Fizer was selected 4th overall in the 2000 draft by the Chicago Bulls and went on to have a not-so-productive six-year NBA career. Jamaal Tinsley was traded twice on the same day he was the 27th pick in the 2001 draft and then went on to play eleven seasons in the NBA (where he was more productive than Fizer).

And then there was Paul Shirley. Yes, Shirley was part of two of the best teams in Cyclone history. Like Fizer and Tinsley, Shirley also went on to a career in the NBA.  Of course again, according to the aforementioned video Shirley was supposedly the worst player in NBA history and only an "average" college player.

An analysis of the data, though, isn’t quite that harsh. Yes, Shirley only played 121 minutes in his NBA career. He also finished his NBA career with only -0.4 Wins Produced and his career Wins Produced per 48 minutes of -0.183 was not exactly great. But Shirley was not the least productive player in NBA history. Maurice Ager played five NBA seasons and finished with a career Wins Produced per 48 minutes of -0.248.

Sure, it took me quite some time to find a player that was less productive than Shirley. But I think one can argue Shirley was not the worst player to ever play in the NBA. And if you are a fan of Ager you could probably argue he wasn’t the worst either. At least, if you tried hard enough!

What about Shirley as a college player?

Shirley played four seasons at Iowa State. Sports-reference, though, only reports Shirley’s minutes played for his last two seasons. Those two seasons, though, may have been the most successful in Cyclone history. How much of that success was about Shirley?

As is done with NBA data, box score data from college basketball can be translated into how many wins each player produced. When we do this for Shirley we see that in 1999-00 he produced 2.7 wins mostly coming off the bench for the Cyclones. Since Shirley logged 512 minutes, he produced 0.214 wins per 40 minutes played.

An average team would produce 0.500 wins per 40 minutes played. So, an average player would produce 0.100 wins per 40 minutes. Therefore, we can see that Shirley was not average in 1999-00. In fact, the numbers suggest he was more than twice as productive as an average player.  Yes, Shirley was "good" at basketball!

This was also true the next season. In 2000-01 Shirley started for the Cyclones and played 838 minutes. His stats indicate he produced 4.0 wins in that time; so, he produced 0.190 wins per 40 minutes. Again, Shirley was close to twice as good as average.

Shirley did more than just produce wins for Iowa State. He also generated revenue. As I explained in this article for the Marquette Law Review, one can measure the revenue a college player generates by imagining a world where college teams allocate revenue to players just as we see in the NBA. The NBA gives 50% of its revenue to its players. The Department of Education reports how much revenue each college team generated from 2002-03 to 2015-16. Across these years, Iowa State saw their men’s college basketball team’s revenue increase on average 8% each year. If we assume that trend existed back to 1999-00, then Iowa State’s men’s team earned $3.48 million that season (and $3.76 million the next year).

So if the Cyclones gave 50% of its revenue to its players and these players were paid for wins, then each win was worth $54,384 in 1990-00 and $75,180 in 2000-01. As noted, Shirley produced 2.7 wins in 1999-00 and 4.0 wins the next season. So therefore, I would estimate Shirley was worth $448,744 his last two years at Iowa State.

I reached out to Shirley and he told me he earned about $750,000 as a professional player. So as a professional he was paid a bit more than he was worth to Iowa State. Of course, Iowa State didn’t pay him anything close to the amount noted above. In fact, Shirley notes he was on a National Merit Scholarship initially and only switched to an athletic scholarship his last two years when he learned that athletic scholarship was worth about $1,000 more per year. Hence, athletics for Shirley only paid him about $2,000 more than he was going to receive as a student anyway.

All of this analysis paints a fairly clear picture of Shirley’s value to Iowa State. Not only did he generate wins and revenue, he also relative to other athletes came at a lower cost. And that suggests Shirley was not just an “average” college player.

So why do we think Shirley was awful at basketball? Our perceptions often depend on our reference group. I once asked Shirley how good he was relative to an average player at a pick-up game in a gym. He argued he was immensely better. This is a completely reasonable assessment.  After all, Shirley is 6-10 and he can shoot. But what about Shirley relative to LeBron James? According to Shirley, LeBron is immensely better than him. Again, that seems like an immensely reasonable assessment.

Unfortunately for Shirley, his professional career consisted of playing players who were closer to LeBron than they are to the average guy at a gym. But it seems clear that when we compare Shirley to an average guy at a gym or even an average college player, he was quite good.

Hopefully that doesn’t ruin the story in the books. The stories are still quite good, even when we realize that Shirley as an athlete really wasn’t like most of  his readers; who would truly look like the worst person to ever play basketball if they had to compete against NBA athletes.

“>

(AP Photo/Rodney White)

Paul Shirley doing something good in a college basketball game!
(AP Photo/Rodney White)

Ten years ago Paul Shirley wrote “Can I Keep My Jersey?” — a delightful book detailing Shirley’s less-than-successful career as a professional basketball player. Now Shirley has once again put together a book with stories from his life. In the excellent “Stories I Tell on Dates,” Shirley touches upon much more than just basketball. But when he does touch upon his life as an athlete, he again fails to argue he was great at basketball.

Shirley is not the only to question his skills on the court. This YouTube video argues that Shirley may have been the worst player in NBA history. It even argues that Shirley – who was paid to play basketball (although not much by Iowa State – as we will note) – was only an “average college player.”

The video’s take on Shirley is certainly harsh. However, the interest we have in Shirley’s books depends at least partially on the notion that he was not great at basketball. After all, virtually all of his readers are not great basketball players so most of his readers can relate to being unsuccessful athletes. But although his readers (including myself) are not great at basketball, is that really a fair assessment of Shirley’s skills? And if I argue that Shirley was good at basketball, does it make it difficult for his audience to relate to his stories?

I don’t know the answer to that second question. But in reading Shirley’s stories I wondered exactly how good he was at playing the game of basketball.

That story begins at Iowa State University. Men’s basketball at Iowa State has not been known as a powerhouse in the sport. The team has never won an NCAA title. In fact, it only reached the Final Four once (where the team lost), and that was in 1944 when the NCAA tournament wasn’t quite what it is today.

But for two seasons 1999-2000 and 2000-01 Iowa State sort of resembled a powerhouse. Across those two years, the Cyclones won 84% of their games, something the program as a member of the Big 8 or Big 12 had ever done before (and they have never done this since). In addition, in 2000 the Cyclones advanced all the way to the Midwest Regional Final in the NCAA tournament (where they lost to Michigan State  the eventual champion). This was the farthest Iowa State had advanced since 1944 (and again, the farthest it has advanced since). Yes, the next season as a #2 seed the Cyclones were upset by the mighty Hampton Pirates in the first round. Nevertheless, for two seasons the Cyclones were a very good team.

Not surprisingly, a few players from these teams earned a living in the NBA. Marcus Fizer was selected 4th overall in the 2000 draft by the Chicago Bulls and went on to have a not-so-productive six-year NBA career. Jamaal Tinsley was traded twice on the same day he was the 27th pick in the 2001 draft and then went on to play eleven seasons in the NBA (where he was more productive than Fizer).

And then there was Paul Shirley. Yes, Shirley was part of two of the best teams in Cyclone history. Like Fizer and Tinsley, Shirley also went on to a career in the NBA.  Of course again, according to the aforementioned video Shirley was supposedly the worst player in NBA history and only an “average” college player.

An analysis of the data, though, isn’t quite that harsh. Yes, Shirley only played 121 minutes in his NBA career. He also finished his NBA career with only -0.4 Wins Produced and his career Wins Produced per 48 minutes of -0.183 was not exactly great. But Shirley was not the least productive player in NBA history. Maurice Ager played five NBA seasons and finished with a career Wins Produced per 48 minutes of -0.248.

Sure, it took me quite some time to find a player that was less productive than Shirley. But I think one can argue Shirley was not the worst player to ever play in the NBA. And if you are a fan of Ager you could probably argue he wasn’t the worst either. At least, if you tried hard enough!

What about Shirley as a college player?

Shirley played four seasons at Iowa State. Sports-reference, though, only reports Shirley’s minutes played for his last two seasons. Those two seasons, though, may have been the most successful in Cyclone history. How much of that success was about Shirley?

As is done with NBA data, box score data from college basketball can be translated into how many wins each player produced. When we do this for Shirley we see that in 1999-00 he produced 2.7 wins mostly coming off the bench for the Cyclones. Since Shirley logged 512 minutes, he produced 0.214 wins per 40 minutes played.

An average team would produce 0.500 wins per 40 minutes played. So, an average player would produce 0.100 wins per 40 minutes. Therefore, we can see that Shirley was not average in 1999-00. In fact, the numbers suggest he was more than twice as productive as an average player.  Yes, Shirley was “good” at basketball!

This was also true the next season. In 2000-01 Shirley started for the Cyclones and played 838 minutes. His stats indicate he produced 4.0 wins in that time; so, he produced 0.190 wins per 40 minutes. Again, Shirley was close to twice as good as average.

Shirley did more than just produce wins for Iowa State. He also generated revenue. As I explained in this article for the Marquette Law Review, one can measure the revenue a college player generates by imagining a world where college teams allocate revenue to players just as we see in the NBA. The NBA gives 50% of its revenue to its players. The Department of Education reports how much revenue each college team generated from 2002-03 to 2015-16. Across these years, Iowa State saw their men’s college basketball team’s revenue increase on average 8% each year. If we assume that trend existed back to 1999-00, then Iowa State’s men’s team earned $3.48 million that season (and $3.76 million the next year).

So if the Cyclones gave 50% of its revenue to its players and these players were paid for wins, then each win was worth $54,384 in 1990-00 and $75,180 in 2000-01. As noted, Shirley produced 2.7 wins in 1999-00 and 4.0 wins the next season. So therefore, I would estimate Shirley was worth $448,744 his last two years at Iowa State.

I reached out to Shirley and he told me he earned about $750,000 as a professional player. So as a professional he was paid a bit more than he was worth to Iowa State. Of course, Iowa State didn’t pay him anything close to the amount noted above. In fact, Shirley notes he was on a National Merit Scholarship initially and only switched to an athletic scholarship his last two years when he learned that athletic scholarship was worth about $1,000 more per year. Hence, athletics for Shirley only paid him about $2,000 more than he was going to receive as a student anyway.

All of this analysis paints a fairly clear picture of Shirley’s value to Iowa State. Not only did he generate wins and revenue, he also relative to other athletes came at a lower cost. And that suggests Shirley was not just an “average” college player.

So why do we think Shirley was awful at basketball? Our perceptions often depend on our reference group. I once asked Shirley how good he was relative to an average player at a pick-up game in a gym. He argued he was immensely better. This is a completely reasonable assessment.  After all, Shirley is 6-10 and he can shoot. But what about Shirley relative to LeBron James? According to Shirley, LeBron is immensely better than him. Again, that seems like an immensely reasonable assessment.

Unfortunately for Shirley, his professional career consisted of playing players who were closer to LeBron than they are to the average guy at a gym. But it seems clear that when we compare Shirley to an average guy at a gym or even an average college player, he was quite good.

Hopefully that doesn’t ruin the story in the books. The stories are still quite good, even when we realize that Shirley as an athlete really wasn’t like most of  his readers; who would truly look like the worst person to ever play basketball if they had to compete against NBA athletes.

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