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Nancy Lieberman Award Finalist Haley Steed's Expertise In Maximizing Simple Opportunities

Brigham Young Cougars guard Haley Steed's comeback from three knee surgeries over the course of her first three years of school might be the most courageous comeback athletic director Tom Holmoe has ever seen.

But as one of eight finalists for the 2012 Nancy Lieberman Award, the 6'4" senior's comeback is more than just a feel good story.

In her first two years back from injury, Steed played off the ball more next to point guard Jazmine Foreman. Nevertheless, Steed led the team in steal percentage and finished the 2010-11 season fourth in the nation in assist to turnover ratio, not far behind last year's Lieberman award winner Courtney Vandersloot.

Now playing her more natural position of point guard during BYU's first season in the WCC, Steed has blossomed into one of the nation's top point guards and emerged as the top distributor on the west coast this season, despite little more national press than the Lieberman Award nomination to show for it.

Tonight, Steed enters her final weekend of regular season collegiate play with a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since her freshman year still a realistic possibility if they overcome the Gonzaga Bulldogs, Vandersloot's alma mater that has won the conference's automatic bid in four of the last five seasons. As you can guess, one advantage BYU has over any team in the conference is Steed's veteran leadership on the court.

Unlike some of the other nominees for the Lieberman Award, Steed rarely picks up an assist on the spectacular pass or ankle breaking misdirection; she has absolutely mastered the mundane play that could very easily be overlooked by the casual basketball fan.

A lob to 6'7" teammate Jennifer Hamson is not exactly going to make anyone's highlight reel. A swing pass to 47% 3-point shooters Dani Peterson or Stephanie Vermunt is rarely going to be lauded by commentators. A soft bounce pass to complete a fast break against a disadvantaged defender is effective, but becomes routine for a BYU team that likes to get out in the open court. Even more often, you might see Steed sprint the ball up court and just pass to the first player open on the wing, who may be open for a three and might just simply make the next pass to run the offense.

Yet Steed quietly goes about her business of distributing the ball and racking up almost 7 assists per game, usually doing absolutely nothing spectacular. So if it's not spectacular, what exactly is she doing so well?

Haley Steed and coach Jeff Judkins comment on her career-high 14 assists against Pepperdine.

Brian McCormick has written extensively about point guard play and in an article last year he wrote about the cognitive processing that allows expert point guards to make the great pass, which I'll quote at length (emphasis mine):

For the most part, experts and non-experts engage in the same scan and search pattern and see the same things. However, experts fixate longer at more information-rich locations and glean more information from the scanning process...Great point guards maintain their broad-external focus under pressure or when dribbling at a high speed and scan the environment. However, through experience, they know where to look to find the most relevant cues, and they ignore irrelevant information. They do not see into the future; however, they recognize patterns quicker than non-experts and use this recognition to predict the correct decision. The recognition and prediction enable a quicker decision which often makes the decision more accurate...The genius of players like Steve Nash is their ability to shift from broad to narrow focus so often, so quickly and so accurately.

McCormick goes on to describe how this processing operates for an "expert" point guard like Steve Nash - who people often say has "eyes in the back of his head" or some other such hyperbole - as he drives, draws the defense, and makes what most of us would consider spectacular plays.

To extend or elaborate on McCormick's point loosely, what distinguishes experts and non-experts is refined perception, not necessarily superhuman perception, through a process of pattern recognition; the spectacular play is "there" for any point guard, but great point guards possess an ability to identify angles and spaces - not to mention a superior sense of timing and touch developed over time as well - that allows them to make the spectacular play. It's that disciplined judgment in the face of a messy and constantly changing environment combined with the patience to wait for the play to develop - whether that be actively deceiving the defense with a hesitation or ball fake or simply slowing down to wait for a play to unfold - is a large part of what allows great point guards to make great plays.

However, what really stands out is this idea that great point guards exhibit rapid shifts in mindset. Certainly part of that is the ability to alternate between distributor and scorer, as many great WNBA point guards do. McCormick describes the alternation between broad and narrow focus. And yet another shift - that probably best explains how a highly efficient point guard averages the sixth-most assists in the nation without a whole lot of spectacular plays - the ability is to recognize when to take the routine opportunity instead of "creating" the most spectacular play.

In Steed's last three games - an interesting set because they include a blowout win, an upset loss, and a comfortable win - she has put up 21 assists and just 4 turnovers, which is impressive even for a player that only averages two turnovers to begin with. That was good enough for a pure point rating of 8.75, which is still short of the number Vandersloot put up in her senior season, but impressive nonetheless when compared to even the best point guards over any period of time. Part of what actually stood out is the number of potential assists that Steed set up.

As described previously, we'll define potential assists conservatively as a pass that leads directly to a shot or free throws, meaning had a ball gone through the hoop the passer would have credited with an assist.. So that does not include passes that could have been assists had a violation not occurred or passes that could have been assists if the receiver had taken the shot instead of doing something else.

What you begin to notice with Steed - even compared to elite WNBA point guards - is that she's constantly setting up her teammates for scoring opportunities that don't make it into the box score.

Game Actual Potential Total Scoring Opportunities Created
2/9/12 v Gonzaga 10 10 20
2/16/12 v USF 6 16 22
2/18/12 v USD 5 12 17
Total 21 38 49

"Scoring opportunities created" by Haley Steed from 2/9 - 2/18 in terms of actual and potential assists.

What might stand out there is the number of scoring opportunities Steed created against USF in a losing effort in which BYU only shot 32% - BYU's loss wasn't necessarily for lack of Steed setting them up for scoring opportunities. She actually set up teammates at about the same rate as that Gonzaga blowout. Moreover, seven of those lost assists were passes Steed made to teammates either right at the rim or going to the rim without needing to dribble. BYU blew that game primarily because they missed layups that they make more often than not.

Steed picks up assists simply because she puts her teammates in position to score almost twice as often as she gets credit for in the box score and, more importantly, does all that while hardly turning the ball over at all. But here's the most interesting part after watching those three games: only two of those assists came on even as much as a drive and kick play:

Swing 8

Fast break 6

Lob 4

Drive & kick 2

Post up entry 1

I began watching BYU consistently because they were a) televised and b) a new team in the WCC, but I continued to make a point of it because of just how almost effortlessly Steed orchestrates the BYU offense.

Although Steed's recovery from injury early on in her career might have been difficult off the court - both emotionally and physically - perhaps more so than any other point guard in the nation, she simply does an outstanding job on the court of identifying and maximizing the simplest of opportunities rather than making the difficult play