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3 Underrated Analytical Metrics in the NBA

Ben Dowsett breaks down three underrated metrics that help us better understand the NBA.

Ben Dowsett

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Increased mathematical proficiency in basketball has given way to a plethora of different figures and statistics attempting to complement and often define our understanding of the game. All-in-one metrics like PER were a big part of this initial push, with their ability to combine many smaller statistics into one larger one that can broadly define a player or team’s value. Plus-minus statistics are more of a recent rage in the public sphere, which are useful in a whole different context, and there’s a vast world in between: everything from broad metrics to the most detailed and minute descriptors possible.

All these different figures vary wildly in terms of value, whether descriptive or predictive in nature. It’s easy to draw conclusions from a particular stat that it’s not designed to reach, an unfortunately common part of the statistical process among more casual fans and analysts. And while it’s less common, the other end of the stick is true also; there are metrics out there that still don’t get enough recognition for the value they provide.

Let’s take a look at three lesser-known stats, at least within the public consciousness, and see how they can help us gain a greater understanding of the game without reaching past their constraints.

Open Shooting Numbers

As the NBA has begun sharing small snippets of SportVU camera data with the public over the last few years, one of the simplest nuggets they’ve released is basic defender distance numbers for every shot taken on an NBA floor. We can tell how far away a player’s closest defender stood for any shot he’s taken since the 2013-14 season. NBA.com defines coverage as “very tight” for a defender within 0-2 feet, “tight” for 2-4 feet, “open” for 4-6 feet and “wide open” for anything beyond six feet. The consensus among those who use these numbers frequently is that these are generally reasonable proxies for how truly open or guarded a guy is on a given shot – particularly the four-foot mark, around which a legitimate jump is observed over large samples of shots that indicates it’s truly a close inflection point between “open” and “guarded.”

These metrics are imperfect, of course. They track only players’ torsos, meaning a guy with particularly long arms might be better at contesting shots than his raw SportVU data would indicate. They also say nothing regarding whether a defender’s hand was in the air or close to the ball, which can also be important. But over a huge sample during the last few seasons, they’ve proven to be the closest thing we have to a real indication of which players and teams are best shooting with certain levels of pressure.

The most easily applicable area here to our on-court understanding is likely within open and uncontested shots. The conditions for a wide open shot aren’t ripe to as many confounding factors – if the closest defender to a jump shot is seven feet away as the ball is released, it doesn’t matter how high he’s jumping or how long his arms are, making all shots of this nature at least relatively similar. In contrast, judging contested attempts in the same vein is much more difficult; such analysis might include layups, for instance, which frequently will feature a defender within a foot or two but not actually challenging the shot.

What this newer data allows us to do with far more specificity than ever before is answer the question of which teams or players are truly the most talented shooters in a vacuum. A very basic example: One would likely call the Warriors the best pure jump-shooting team in the league, right? Turns out one would be supported by the numbers – per NBASavant, the Dubs are head and shoulders above the rest of the league for “open” jump shots outside 10 feet. On the other end of the spectrum, as one would expect, the Philadelphia 76ers bring up the rear for this same category.

The broad implications of all the public SportVU data are vast, but open shooting is among the most reliable and easiest to track for even the casual fan.

Better Pace Metrics

When we discussed certain teams zigging where Golden State has zagged with regard to speed of play as a specific Warriors counter a few weeks back, one of the chief elements was a more detailed definition of “pace.” The typical figure cited for pace, housed on NBA.com and other major sites, is simply possessions per-48-minutes among both teams in a given game. As we noted, though, this can make it tough to highlight an individual team’s tempo preferences – the opponent at any given time may have very different goals or tendencies, making it an incomplete metric.

A website called inpredictable.com has solved that issue in one swoop. Using detailed scraped data, this site separates pace into offensive and defensive categories based on average time of possession. We can see that the Warriors are the fastest for isolated offensive pace, averaging just 13.4 seconds per possession, while the Jazz are the slowest at 16.1 seconds. The creators are also kind enough to separate these possessions by prior actions – time of possession (and efficiency) following a made opponent shot, following a team defensive rebound or following a forced turnover.

This isn’t an underrated metric as much as it’s a lesser-known improvement on a more common one. Raw pace stats can tell us something, but there are very few cases where this more isolated form won’t be more informative and valuable.

Rim Protection

Many areas of NBA.com’s SportVU tracking come with some amount of noise, and rim protection figures are no exception. As with shot defense data above, simply tracking whether a player was within five feet of the rim while defending a shot can be an incomplete exercise because the level to which they’re actually “contesting” the shot can vary wildly even within that small space.

In the case of interior defensive figures, though, a couple factors combine to make them among the most robust available of all SportVU metrics. First, the number of shots attempted at the rim with a defender nearby is so high that minor inconsistencies (say, guys who don’t put a hand up quite often enough) will be teased out over time and reflected in long term figures only if they’re truly detrimental factors in how well a given player defends the rim.

Second, and more importantly, work by smart and generous folks in the statistical community has even further increased the specificity with which we can understand these numbers. Nylon Calculus houses a rim protection section which, rather than focusing simply on percentage allowed at the rim, includes a couple other vital factors as well. They track the percentage of all shots taken at the rim while a given player is on the floor that said player contests, and also separate rim protectors based on the position they play – data over the years has shown that there’s a big difference in expectation for interior defenders even between centers and power forwards.

Combining all factors, they’re able to come up with a much more descriptive final statistic: position-adjusted points saved per-36-minutes. That is, how many points does a given rim protector “save” his team at the rim on a per-minute basis above or below the league average at his position?

There are always a few surprising outliers, but the lists tend to conform closely with who we’d expect to see among the league’s best and worst at this particular skill over larger samples. Guys like Rudy Gobert, Andrew Bogut and Serge Ibaka are virtually a constant atop these rankings, while known defensive liabilities like Al Jefferson and Andrea Bargnani are typically at the bottom. In a game where scoring at the rim is more important than ever before, accurately assessing which defenders are best at preventing opponents from doing so is a vital part of our analysis.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Tacko Fall Out To Prove He’s More Than Tall

Most of the attention centered around Tacko Fall stems from his height, but after an impressive combine outing, he’s out to prove that there’s so much more to him.

Matt John

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Tacko Fall was one of the many participants who attended the NBA Draft Combine this past week in Chicago.

By so doing, the combine retrieved all of his official measurements as a player such as his height, weight, and wingspan among others. After the combine was over, Fall had the following measurements.

Height (without shoes): 7’5 ¼’’
Height (with shoes): 7’7″
Weight: 289 pounds
Wingspan: 8’2 ¼’’
Standing Reach: 10’2 ½”
Vertical Leap: 26.5″

Those measurements set many records at the combine. So, in case you didn’t know it before, growing has never exactly been an issue for Tacko Fall. Even though the findings that measured how freakishly tall Fall is shocked the masses, none of them really fazed the man himself as long as that meant he wasn’t going to grow anymore.

“I kind of already knew so I wasn’t really surprised,” Fall said. “I don’t think I’m going to keep growing. I think it’s just going to stay there. Hopefully. We’ll see.”

Fall’s physical advantages made him look like a man among boys in his four years at the University of Central Florida. The Senegal native averaged 2.4 blocks and 7.7 rebounds – in only 23 minutes per game – and put up a scorching field goal percentage of 74 percent over the four-year span of his college career. Basically, Fall’s good stats mainly come from his unrivaled length.

During his time at the combine, Fall believes that sticking to his guns and not doing things out of his comfort zone made him look good to spectators.

“I think I’m doing pretty good,” Fall said. “I’m holding my own. I’m not going out there doing anything out of character. I’m staying true to myself. I’m playing hard. I’m talking. I’m running hard. I’m doing everything that I need to do.”

Despite his towering presence, Fall is not expected to be a high selection in this year’s NBA Draft, if he is selected at all. Not many mock drafts at the time being list his name among those who will be taken, and the ones that do have him among one the last selections in the draft.

Some of his primary critiques as a player include his low assist-to-turnover ratio and his faulty shooting mechanics. The biggest one of them all is his lack of mobility. Being as tall as he is would make it hard for anyone to move around well enough to compete with NBA offenses that rely more on quickness and spacing now than it did on mass.

The concerns surrounding Tacko’s mobility were made loud and clear to him. That’s why he believed he had something to prove to the skeptics at the combine.

“For people my size that’s the biggest thing that they’re looking for,” Fall said. “‘Can he move?’ ‘Can he keep up with the game?’ ‘Can he run the floor?’ ‘Can he step out and guard?’ I feel like I have the ability to do those things. So, coming in here and having the opportunity to play against great competition and showing my abilities have been a great blessing for me.”

Before the combine, Fall’s stock benefited from his final performance as a college basketball player. Tacko and the ninth-seeded Knights fought the first-seeded Blue Devils until the very end but ultimately lost 77-76. Fall had much to do with UCF’s near-upset over Duke, putting up 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes before fouling out.

That game did a lot for Tacko’s belief in himself as a player leading to the combine. Putting up that kind of stat line against one of the best college basketball programs with three top-10 prospects with so much on the line had to make him feel good about his chances. He said as much following his performance at the combine.

“That was definitely one of the best games in my college basketball career,” Fall said. “It helps build confidence. You go toe-to-toe with those people. You think, ‘Wow I can really do this.’ All you have to do is keep working and working and keep proving that you can step out there and compete every night.”

For some prospects, the NBA Combine is nothing more than just a formality. In fact, multiple prospects for this upcoming draft – including RJ Barrett, Rui Hachimura, and consensus No. 1 pick Zion Williamson – decided to skip out on it. For prospects who are on the bubble like Tacko, it’s a rare opportunity to show that there’s more to them than what they showed in college.

Fall recognized the importance of the occasion and voiced his appreciation for the chance he had to show everyone who attended what he can bring to a basketball court.

“It’s been a great experience,” Fall said. “I’m blessed to be here. I worked really hard. I thank God I’m in this position. I just got to take advantage of it.”

Tacko’s efforts impressed scouts and media members alike. There have been rumblings that his play at the combine has further increased his stock in the NBA Draft. Even with all the work he’s put in and the ambition he has to make it to the biggest stage, Fall is soaking it all in.

“I’m enjoying it because not a lot of people get the opportunity to come here,” Fall said. “I’ve worked really hard and God put me in this position. I’m just trying to enjoy it.”

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NBA Daily: Bruno Fernando Is Ready To Take On The NBA

After his sophomore season at Maryland, Bruno Fernando is confident that he is ready to take on the NBA, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery kicked off the draft season in a shocking way as numerous teams jumped into the top four due to the new draft structure. After the Lottery, it’s a bit easier to predict the order in which Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett will be selected. Who gets drafted after that, and in what order, is still very much unclear. There are some consensus players in the upper half of the first round. After that, things get very interesting.

Expect the mock draft boards to be all over the place as we move closer to this year’s draft, especially after going through the Combine. Many once less-heralded players show up to the Combine with eye-opening physical measurements, impress in workouts and scrimmages and demonstrate a level of professional polish, among other things.

Last year, after his Freshman season as Maryland, center Bruno Fernando participated in the draft process. Fernando did not sign with an agent and ultimately returned to Maryland where he continued to raise his profile. This year, Fernando again participated in the Combine and spoke with Basketball Insiders.

“I think what’s different this time around is just how much easier it’s gotten. For me, how much more comfortable I am. How much easier it is. Obviously, you know what to expect,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I think just really being here and being around the guys on the team has been a completely different experience than I had last year. This year I know a lot more of the guys. I’ve been working out with a lot of different guys. I think it’s just been a much, much better experience.”

Starting all but one game his sophomore year, Fernando averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and two assists per game. These averages were a significant jump over his freshman year. Fernando uses an aggressive, mobile game at and around the basket to do his damage. After solidifying his game on the court, he felt comfortable enough signing with an agent and letting Maryland know he wouldn’t be returning for his junior year. Fernando is now confident about his positioning in the draft, which played a factor in his decision to not play in five-on-five scrimmages.

“Last year I was in a position where I didn’t really know where I stand as much. Last year I had to find out a lot of things coming into the combine,” Fernando said. “And this year I think I am in a position just by talking to my agent and my coaches where I feel like I’m in a position where I’m a lot comfortable compared to last year, in a much better place. Having that that feedback from teams really, my agent really felt like that was the best decision for me not to play five-on-five.”

Fernando’s offensive prowess and athletic upside have him looking like a solid first-round pick. According to the Basketball Insiders version 3.0 mock draft, Fernando is projected to go anywhere from 14th- 29th overall. Tommy Beer projects him to go 25th. Being drafted in the first-round, in general, portends a better career as teams find themselves with a greater financial stake in the player and accordingly will be pinning higher hopes for that prospect.

At 6-foot-10, Fernando projects as a low post threat with excellent handwork who can score with a variety of moves down low as well as a lob threat. Fernando also occasionally takes advantage of steal and breakaway opportunities to run the floor and score easy points with his ferocious dunking ability. He didn’t do much damage from distance, although his shooting stroke and mechanics make that part of his game a potential future weapon in his arsenal. Fernando addressed that very point.

“The part of my game that is unseen so far is my ability to space the floor. My ability to dribble the ball and put the ball on the floor, take guys off the dribble and my shooting ability,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I really think my shooting ability is something that people don’t notice that I am able to shoot the ball. Just because of my situation in Maryland where I didn’t really take many shots. You know, I never really had to come outside and try to play outside. You know we had a lot of really good players on the perimeter. I think it’s really just a matter of me staying to true to myself, who I am and trying to win in the best way possible.”

Any team in need of a possible pick-and-roll threat who can score down low should keep an eye on Fernando. Whether a team believes that Fernando can also be successful as a stretch big is not as clear. Where Fernando ends up is still totally up in the air. Regardless, he’s grateful for the opportunity to be the first representative from his own home country of Angola to play in the NBA and made it clear that he has been hearing from other Angola natives.

“Sending a lot of love and positive energy, lot of words of encouragement for me and I think it is really special to get those text messages,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “Having people from home texting me every single day. Just knowing that a whole nation is behind me. I’m here fighting and sacrificing to make a dream come true, something that will not just benefit me but a whole nation.”

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NBA Daily: Who Is Cam Reddish?

An underwhelming season at Duke casts a shadow over Cam Reddish, who oozes talent and potential. Shane Rhodes looks to answer the question: Who is Cam Reddish?

Shane Rhodes

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“I’m Cam Reddish.”

Cam Reddish gave the tongue-in-cheek response Thursday at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine when asked “who he is” as a basketball player.
But who is Reddish?

A former high school phenom, five-star recruit and projected top pick, Reddish was expected to flourish at Duke University under the watch of Mike Krzyzewski. When R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson later followed him to Durham, North Carolina, the three were expected to take the NCAA by storm.

Things didn’t quite go as planned.

While he is still a projected lottery pick, the jury is out on just who Reddish is and how his game will translate to the NBA. A dominant force in high school, the reserved 19-year-old took a backseat to Barrett and Williamson as the three tried but failed to capture a National Championship in their lone season together at Duke.

When compared to the sky-high expectations that were set for him, Reddish underwhelmed mightily as a Blue Devil, and that played a major part in their failure. Relegated to the role of a spot-up shooter and the third option on offense, Reddish averaged an okay, not good 13.5 points on just 12 attempts across 36 games. He managed a meager 35.6% from the field (33.3% from three) and dished out just 1.9 assists per game. When he had the ball, he often deferred to Barrett and Williamson, too often for some.

The focal point of his high school team at Westtown School, Reddish was lauded for the ability that made him a top recruit. He oozed (and still oozes) athleticism – Reddish, who weighed in at 208 pounds, was measured as 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan at the Combine – and is as versatile as they come. At Westtown, Reddish ran the point, while he spent most of his time at the two-guard or in the front-court at Duke. He was an aggressive, efficient scorer that had no problem getting what he wanted on the floor with the ball in his hands.

But at Duke, that player that Reddish was, the aggressiveness and ease at which he operated, seemed to disappear for long stretches. Those struggles have cast a large shadow over someone that had the look of a future superstar, and Reddish’s draft stock has taken a hit as a result. While some still stand behind him and his talent, plenty of others have faded Reddish in favor of other prospects.

But, at the Combine, Reddish isn’t dwelling on what was or what could have been at Duke. He just trying to learn and get back to being that do-it-all force that he was.

“I’m just trying to learn about the NBA process,” Reddish said. “I’m just trying to get back to who I can be, who I am.”

But that begs the question: who, exactly, is Reddish, and what could he do at the NBA level?

“I feel like I can do everything,” Reddish said. “I was more of a shooter this year – I don’t want to classify myself as just a shooter. I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things.”

“Once I show that, I should definitely move up [draft boards].”

There were plenty of flashes of that player during his short stint at Duke. Reddish, at times, seemed to will the ball into the basket, while his shooting stroke appeared to be as good as advertised. He had a knack for performing in the clutch, with multiple shots to win or tie the game for Duke, or keep them in it down the stretch when the others started to fade. The wing managed double-digit points in 23 games, 15 of which he posted 15 or more points (with 20 or more points in eight of those). Reddish managed 18 multi-steal performances and recorded a block or more in 16 games as well.

Wrap all of that up with his plus-defensive ability, and Reddish could very well prove the type of player that could do a little bit of everything for an NBA squad. But he can bring more than that, not only on the court, but off the court as well.

While some may perceive his passiveness alongside Barrett and Williamson as a negative, a lack of “mamba-mentality” or killer instinct that many teams hope for in their top draft picks, Reddish could (and probably should) just as easily be applauded for his willingness to share the ball and step into an ancillary role on a team loaded with talent. As we saw this season with the Boston Celtics, who were projected by many to go challenge the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’Brien trophy but flamed out against the Milwaukee Bucks after a season fraught with discontent, that can be hard to do on the biggest stage.

And, while he is the quiet type, Reddish made it a point to say that evaluators shouldn’t confuse that for laziness or lack of effort.

“I’m kind of reserved – my personality is kind of reserved – some people might take that as lazy or too laid back. But that’s not just who I am, I’m just a naturally reserved, calm guy.”

There were certainly issues, however.

Despite flashes, Reddish wasn’t the player he could be on anywhere near a consistent basis, even in a smaller role. His time at Duke revealed some major deficiencies in his game and presented some serious causes for concern; a penchant for bad shots, struggles close to the basket and the inability to maximize his athletic gifts. On more than one occasion, he looked to have turned the corner, only to drop another underwhelming performance soon after.

All of that doesn’t exactly bode well for Reddish’s transition to the NBA, regardless of the team that picks him on draft night.

But, the potential is there for him to be great. Now it’s on Reddish to capitalize on that potential.

Reddish could very well prove the most polarizing prospect in the 2019 Draft Class. His ability to maximize his natural talent and recapture the aggressiveness that pushed him to the top of his recruiting class could prove the difference between him becoming the next Jeff Green or the next Paul George

Or, should he really find himself at the next level, he could become the first Cam Reddish.

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