After historic season, Megan Gustafson somehow got even better

COLLEGE PARK, MD - JANUARY 04: Megan Gustafson
COLLEGE PARK, MD - JANUARY 04: Megan Gustafson /

Building on her own historic greatness.

Heading into the 2018-19 women’s basketball season, Iowa senior Megan Gustafson faced the same challenge as every other college player: how could she improve upon last season? But Gustafson’s challenge was also unique: no other player in the past ten years had averaged over 25 points and 12 rebounds per game and returned to college the following year. (The one other player who put up those numbers in the past decade, Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike, did so as a senior and was promptly selected first in the 2014 WNBA Draft.)

When I previewed the Hawkeyes in October, I wrote that it was “fair to ask whether Gustafson can repeat last year’s dominance.” Even her head coach, Lisa Bluder, admitted that it would be “really difficult” for Gustafson to match her historic junior season. Last year, the 6’3” forward was named Big Ten Player of the Year after leading the country in points per game (25.7), field goal percentage (67.1), and field goals made (320) and ranking in the top five in four other categories tracked by the NCAA. She broke seven Iowa single-season records and earned all-America honors from seven media outlets, including a first-team nod from Sports Illustrated.

To put into perspective how much Gustafson stood apart from her peers last season, take a look at the graph below. Her combination of prolific and efficient scoring was simply unlike that of any other player.

Data from Her Hoop Stats; graph by Daniel Logan of Her Hoop Stats.
Data from Her Hoop Stats; graph by Daniel Logan of Her Hoop Stats. /

Yet, somehow, Gustafson has improved many of her numbers through her team’s first 14 games this season, including in each of the categories in which she led the nation a year ago. She is averaging 26.4 points per game on 70.0% shooting from the field, and she is on pace to make more field goals than she did last season if her team plays as many games. Incredibly, her efficiency has also slightly increased, from a national-best 1.41 points per scoring attempt last season to 1.44 this season. Here is the same chart updated for the 2018-19 season:

Data from Her Hoop Stats; graph by Daniel Logan of Her Hoop Stats.
Data from Her Hoop Stats; graph by Daniel Logan of Her Hoop Stats. /

Gustafson isn’t pulling this off by playing more minutes. She’s averaging 32.2 minutes this season, 0.5 fewer than last year. Nor is she feasting on weaker competition. On the contrary: this season, the Hawkeyes’ opponents are winning 60.1 percent of their games and outscoring teams by 9.2 points per 100 possessions. Last season, Iowa’s opponents won 57.5 percent of their games and outscored teams by 5.1 points per 100 possessions. And Gustafson has had big scoring nights against her team’s toughest foes, including 26 points against Notre Dame, 44 against Drake, and 30 against Michigan State.

Scoring is not even the only area in which Gustafson has improved from a year ago. She has increased her total rebounding rate – the percentage of available rebounds she gets while on the floor – from 20.4% to 21.7%. That has helped her average 12.9 rebounds per game, which ranks fifth nationally and is a shade above last season’s 12.8 rebounds per game.

More significantly, she has cut her turnovers in half this season, from 1.9 to 0.9 per game. She now turns the ball over on only 4.5% of possessions, compared to 9.6% a season ago, and her assist-to-turnover rate has skyrocketed from 0.71 to 1.83, which ranks in the top 10 percent of all players in the country. Simply put, she is getting more possessions for her team with her rebounding and giving away fewer possessions with turnovers.

Another way of looking at Gustafson’s all-around capabilities also supports the idea that Gustafson has stepped up her game as a senior. If you add up her points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game for a rough measure of “positive contributions,” she averaged 42.6 positive contributions per game last season. Fouls and turnovers per game represent her “negative contributions,” of which she averaged 3.9 a season ago. This season, her positive contributions are up (43.4) and her negative contributions are down (2.9).

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Megan Gustafson is clearly the class of the Big Ten, already winning the conference’s Player of the Week award seven times this season after earning it nine times a season ago. Even though Iowa has only played three Big Ten games, it feels like the conference player of the year race is a one-woman show. Gustafson is also a contender for national player of the year and a potential first-round pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft.

Women’s basketball fans, make sure you watch and appreciate what Megan Gustafson is doing this season. We may not see a season like this for another decade.

(All statistics are courtesy of Her Hoop Stats and represent games through January 8.)