As Nebraska basketball’s only returning rotation player, junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson was expected to carry a significant responsibility in the lineup for the new-look Huskers. As a starter down the stretch last season, Thorbjarnarson had a legitimate case to be one of the starting guards in head coach Fred Hoiberg’s new system.
It came as a moderate surprise when Thorbjarnarson was left out of the starting lineup for both the exhibition against Doane and the loss to UC Riverside. However, as the year has progressed, Hoiberg has proved it was a shrewd decision to use Thorbjarnarson as one of the first men off the bench.
Scoring 4.8 points, grabbing 3.3 rebounds and 0.5 assists in 19.5 minutes per game is far from an awe-inspiring stat line, but in limited minutes, Thorbjarnarson has proven to be a spark plug for the Huskers when they need it. His contributions have been both solid and impactful despite the appearance on the stat line.
Impactful is the best word to describe Thorbjarnarson’s current role in the team. Box plus/minus has him tied for second-most impactful Nebraska player and is one of only three to be considered above average in the metric.
Hoiberg generally deploys him about eight minutes into the first half and six minutes into the second. This is accompanied by an early shot for Thorbjarnarson, almost always a 3-pointer, which is meant to spur the offense into an early run.
When Thorbjarnarson has come on the court this season, 31% of the time he will shoot a 3-pointer before subbing off again. Furthermore, he will be on the court for an average of one minute and 23 seconds before attempting a 3-pointer. This role is a seemingly small one, but by no means insignificant. Thorbjarnarson, despite being on the court the second-lowest amount of time among the players in the standard rotation, has the second-highest offensive box plus/minus on the team, only behind sophomore guard Cam Mack.
His reliable shooting and understanding of his role help contribute to this. He has the highest effective field goal percentage of any player on the team and is shooting 50% from the 3-point line. 67% of his shots are 3-pointers, only behind senior guard Matej Kavas in attempt distribution. He’s a valuable floor spacer for the time he’s on the court and can either extend leads or equalize games that start to get out of hand.
Thorbjarnarson is a rhythm shooter who is best on the wings, with his highest 3-point percentage coming from these areas. You can see him become nearly lost in the shuffle after going off of his screen before hitting the 3-pointer here:
Then, in the next play, he hits the same right-wing 3-pointer, with his feet landing in the exact same way as they did before:
Thorbjarnarson is an active defender but that does not necessarily mean great. Box plus/minus has the guard as a slightly above-average defender but not fantastic.
Much like his role in the offense, Thorbjarnarson is meant to be a defender who can come in clutch in crunch-time situations. A good example comes in the game against Southern, where he has a great block while Nebraska leads by five:
In all, Thorbjarnarson is not a poor defender, but he may not leverage his physicality enough to truly fulfill his potential on that end. His feet are quick enough, and he has the wherewithal to compete against both quick guards and smaller forwards.
His rebounding rate has also increased from last year, up to 16.5% from 15.6%, invaluable considering Nebraska’s poor rebounding acumen so far.
If Thorbjarnarson has proven himself to be one of the most impactful players on the team, then why hasn’t he been given a greater role yet? This brings into question a grander idea of the relationship between usage and efficiency in scoring. Basically, the data shows that usage and efficiency are not inverse, if usage goes up, efficiency doesn’t necessarily go down and vice-versa.
Rather, there are some players who can increase their usage and retain the same level of efficiency. And there are some players who can increase their efficiency while retaining their usage. Thorbjarnarson, it seems to Hoiberg, is a player whose role is at equilibrium, the point where both usage and efficiency are maximized at their greatest point with neither being sacrificed. This would be the most favorable at this point because much of Nebraska’s other usages are set.
This isn’t saying that basketball is finding the correct usages for each player to be as efficient as possible, sometimes players must be asked to do more than their efficiency would imply. However, in Thorbjarnarson’s case, it seems like his usage is acceptable for Nebraska’s future prospects.
It should be noted the box plus/minus ratings were significantly more favorable to Thorbjarnarson’s defense last year, while this year his offense is improved according to the metric. The metric implies Thorbjarnarson has regressed as a defender. However, this generally falls in line with what we understand Nebraska’s team to be right now and Thorbjarnarson’s role in it. He’s taken a significant step forward offensively, but the team as a whole is worse defensively and he’s negatively impacted as a result.
Hoiberg may test Thorbjarnarson with more usage to see if his early-season efficiency continues, and he may even be snuck into the starting lineup with or without an injury to the current starting core. Thorbjarnarson continues to be an effective cog in the Nebraska machine, vindicating his decision to stay in spite of the post-Tim Miles exodus.