Examining the habits of the league’s most potent shooters
By Rob Mahoney
Spot-up shooters have long provided a release valve for when traditional basketball action breaks down, but the evolution of team defense and the league-wide concern for floor spacing has made the craft of shooting more important than ever before. As much as players who attack the basket with abandon are praised, shooting is what makes those kinds of drives possible and what facilitates the capacity for every superstar to get the touches and breathing room necessary to operate in his favorite spots on the floor.
In that light, Chris Ballard’s examination of Stephen Curry’s miraculous shooting isn’t just a focused assessment of a single skill, but a survey of what makes both Curry and the Warriors so potent. He’s a player whom defenses cannot afford to leave at any time, and within that gravitational draw lies the ability for Curry to lead a successful offense.
Curry is an extreme case in that he’s arguably the league’s best shooter and has the other skills needed to fill a wider role. But the NBA is littered with players who use their perimeter accuracy to similar advantage. Here’s a look at just a few of those case studies. (Note: This isn’t an explicit list of the best shooters in the league, per se, but merely a look at how some of the best shooters go about scoring points and stretching the defense.)
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Durant is one of Curry’s few credible challengers for the mantle of the NBA’s top shooter. No other player — including Curry — has topped Durant’s combination of shooting volume and accuracy. According to Basketball-Reference, just three players (Durant, Curry and Kobe Bryant) have attempted more than 1,000 jump shots this season, and Durant posts the highest field-goal percentage (44.1) on those shots. Even if we look beyond that 1,000-shot threshold, Curry (43.5 percent) is the only other high-volume shooter who even comes close to matching Durant’s shooting percentage on jumpers, as most of the preeminent marksmen are either incredibly selective or far less efficient.
Durant has maintained an impossibly high shooting percentages for a player with more shot attempts than all but two other players. To fully understand the quantity of attempts, take a look at the traffic on Durant’s shot chart (courtesy of Vorped):
Durant gets to the rim a ton — as evidenced by the solid glob around the basket in the middle of this Rorschach test of a shot chart — but it’s the rest of the court that interests us. The mid-range is littered with makes and attempts that come in all manner of plays, as Durant’s versatility affords the Thunder the opportunity to use him as an isolation scorer, a curl shooter, a pick-and-roll player or a spot-up option. His shot is quick and deadly regardless of cutting route or style, and in that alone Durant is a unique specimen. Even the shooters with the most idyllic shooting form don’t often see their success translate so perfectly across the field, but Durant’s combination of size, speed and handle allow him to manufacture points in just about any fashion.
It’s that smile at the bottom of Durant’s shot chart that really helps to buoy his efficiency, though. Durant ranks as one of the most skilled above-the-break three-point shooters in the league. On those shots, he’s contributing an average of 1.3 points per shot — a mark just slightly lower than than the return on a LeBron James trip to the rim (1.4). (The average return on a field goal is 0.9 points per shot; the average return on a three-pointer is 1.1 points per shot, according to Hoopdata.)
Martell Webster, Washington Wizards
Webster has proved to be one of this season’s most pleasant surprises. He’s rebounded wonderfully from a season of injury and underwhelming outside shooting in Minnesota to become one of Washington’s most important players. Nothing that Webster does may seem all that crucial to the casual observer, but his ability to space the floor has been essential for a team that often uses a range-less point guard (John Wall) alongside two conventional, basket-centric big men (Emeka Okafor and, to a lesser extent, Nene).
He accomplishes that feat largely by camping out in the right corner, a valuable piece of real estate for right-handed shooters to take advantage of the slightly shorter bend of the three-point arc. In a league with many skilled long-range threats, Webster ranks as the most accurate shooter from the right corner, according to Vorped, making an astounding 59.7 percent from that spot. Durant’s return on every attempted above-the-break three may have been impressive, but Webster in the right corner is so efficient that it’s batty. Set him up with a look from that tiny hardwood nook and Webster offers a jaw-dropping 1.8 points per shot in return — as sure a bet as you’re likely to find in the NBA this season.
Paired with Bradley Beal on the opposite wing (who, interestingly enough, leads the league in accuracy from the left corner), Webster opens up tons of room for Wall to work off the dribble. Coach Randy Wittman still has some spacing kinks to work out before these Wizards can climb above the league average on offense, but Webster helps contribute to a terrific foundation — provided that Washington can re-sign him as a free agent this summer.
Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
In comes the aberration of this list: a terrific shooter who nevertheless makes just 32.9 percent of his three-point attempts, a cut below the league average. Paul’s reputation and speed force opponents to respect him from out there, but his shot selection and general ineffectiveness from deep make him a less potent long-range option than his on-court authority might suggest.
Paul, however, earns the right of a closer examination by way of his outstanding accuracy from mid-range, where he shoots an astounding 48.4 percent, per Vorped. Paul isn’t a particularly good curl shooter and hasn’t even registered all that impressive a percentage on his spot-up opportunities. He’s just so damn good with the ball in his hands that most other elements of his shooting game are rendered irrelevant by his lethal pull-up jumper — a tool that manifests most readily through the pick-and-roll:
Unsurprisingly, just 23.5 percent of Paul’s made jumpers have been assisted, according to Basketball-Reference, the second-lowest mark in the league next to that of Russell Westbrook. Paul has both the speed and the touch to get to the rim to score, but more often he winds around his screener and makes a lateral sway through the defense en route to a mid-range jumper. This is a tricky action that both stresses out opposing big men and lengthens the time of recovery for Paul’s man, creating windows for one of the most dangerous intermediate shooters to settle into an open look. As a result, Paul shoots better than 50 percent on mid-range shots above the restricted area — looks in the lane, on both wings and above the foul line — giving him freedom to weave his way in any direction and through any coverage.
Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Hornets
The above-the-break stretch of the three-point line may rightfully belong to Curry and Durant, but Anderson has attempted more shots from that area than anyone this season. More than half of Anderson’s field-goal attempts come on three-pointers, and he coverts 39 percent from deep overall.
What’s most interesting about Anderson, though, is that he exhibits virtually no left-or-right tendency in his attempts. His shooting numbers show a marginal difference in the number of long-range shots he attempts from the right side versus the left, but his accuracy on all looks — including the very different angle from the top of the floor — is uncannily similar. His shooting from all three of those zones is just a breath away from a flat 40 percent — stellar numbers for a player known hoisting up threes at an incredible rate.
Beyond that expertise from beyond the arc, Anderson has proved to be one of the best step-in jump shooters in the league — provided he’s on the left side of the floor. Here’s a look — again, from Vorped — at Anderson’s points-per-shot efficiency in various zones:
When Anderson is chased off the three-point line on the left side of the floor (as is bound to happen, given his potency), he actually steps into a more efficient shot — an unexpected turn of the numbers, to say the least. The phenomenon doesn’t carry over to any other zone, but Anderson has been uncommonly good at making his jumpers from the free-throw line extended on the left side of the floor, both by those step-in threes and pick-and-pop jumpers.
Jason Terry, Boston Celtics
Terry’s overall season has been disappointing. But he’s nonetheless posting his best shooting season since 2007-08, based on his top-10 ranking in effective field-goal percentage on jumpers. Mid- and long-range shots still account for a majority of Terry’s attempts, though he has displayed a curious efficiency on one side of the floor:
Terry is a right-handed player who doesn’t have any trouble moving in either direction with the ball. There are two things I think may be in play here:
1. It’s no secret that Terry loves to take open three-pointers in transition, and he pretty clearly favors the left side of the floor when he settles into those uncontested looks against a scrambling defense. Those attempts won’t make a world of difference, but they could provide the slightest boost for Terry’s three-point shooting on the left side.
2. Terry has always been incredibly comfortable in executing pick-and-rolls from the left wing, and this season is no exception:
Now, neither of those factors really explains why Terry has been so terrible on the right side of the court, but they at least provide a baseline for understanding why he’s so effective on the left. This strange unbalance doesn’t seem to manifest itself in other season for which Vorped has shot location data, though, making me wonder if there’s some quirk in Boston’s offense — or some Celtics teammate throwing off the balance — that could be responsible for what otherwise seems to be a fluky turn.
Either way, Terry’s struggles going right haven’t kept him from producing a solid shooting season as a whole.