Making the transition to professional basketball is a complicated learning process for any younger player. From defensive rotations to the nuances of offensive execution there is an incredible amount of information that needs to be processed, internalized and acted upon. One of the early indicators of how well a young player is doing in picking up those lessons is their shot selection.
As a rookie most players are tasked with filling a very different offensive role than the one they played in college. They also have to deal with defensive systems of increasing complexity and individual defenders of superior size and quickness. Identifying exactly what makes a good shot for them and for their team is a lesson that needs to be learned quickly.
Over the course of last season I developed a metric for evaluating the shot selection of players and teams called Expected Points Per Shot (XPPS). Here are the basics:
Shots from different locations, on average, provide different values. For example, a layup has higher chance of being made than a long two-pointer, and a three-pointer earns an extra point. We refer to these different values as the expected value of a shot. XPPS looks at all the shots a player or team takes and boils that down to one average expected value per shot. Free throw attempts are included as well, so from here on out when I refer to shot attempts, I’m referring to true shot attempts (field goals and trips to the free-throw line). In the end, more shots at the rim, free throws and three-pointers means a higher XPPS. More long two-pointers sends the number in the other direction.
The average this past season, across the entire league, was an expected value of 1.047 points per shot.
As this year's rookie class puts summer league in their rearview mirror and prepares for the first training camp, I wanted to use XPPS to look back at a few of last year's rookies and see how they managed the challenges of shot selection in their first season.
Waiters finished the season with an XPPS of 1.058, which is well above the league average. It would be easy to look at that final number and assume he was one who picked up the lessons of shot selection early on, but that single number disguises a considerable amount of development over the course of the season.
Waiters played in 61 games for the Cavaliers last season. I divided his season into four 15-game chunks and the graph below shows his XPPS for each of those segments.
Through the first half of his rookie season Waiter's shot selection vacillated between slightly above average and slightly below average. The biggest obstacle for him was a love affair with the mid-range jump shot, the shot with the lowest expected value of anywhere on the floor.
As a secondary ball-handler, Waiters was often tasked with creating offense off the dribble. Early on the result was a lot of pull-up jumpers. But after the All-Star break he made a drastic turnaround with a major focus on getting all the way to the basket. Over his last 15 games he posted an XPPS of 1.073, which is a fairly remarkable number. To put that that in context, just two players with a Usage Rate over 26.0 percent sustained an XPPS that high across the entire season—LeBron James and James Harden.
Having a player capable of using such a large percentage of their offensive possessions and produce such high quality shots for himself is a huge boon for the Cavaliers. It appears that Waiters is entering this next season with an advanced understanding of where his spots are in their offense. The next step is actually knocking down some of those three-pointers he's finding.
Kidd-Gilchrist finished the season with an XPPS of 1.074, a number that represents restraint more than anything else. Outside shooting was definitely not a strength in his game as a rookie, but that hasn't stopped countless other players in his situation from shooting until their arms were too tired to lift.
Across the entire season more than twice as many of his offensive possessions ended with a shot at the rim or trip to the free-throw line as ended with a mid-range jump shot. He attempted just nine three-pointers across the entire season. In a tough situation, where he could have repeatedly broken off plays to indulge in whatever offensive possessions he fancied, there is something incredibly admirable about the way he played within himself and stuck with his strengths.
The unfortunate issue is that Kidd-Gilchrist's ceiling will ultimately be set by his ability to become a consistent outside shooter. Development in this area will require reps and that means at some point he will have to start taking more outside shots. Initially that probably means he'll be missing a lot more outside shots as well.
Unlike Waiters, who built towards a really efficient shot selection over the course of his rookie season, Kidd-Gilchrist is in a place where he may have to stretch his definition of what makes a good shot in order to fully stretch his potential.
Rivers struggled mightily as a rookie but the one thing that was difficult to criticize was his shot selection. He finished the season with an XPPS of 1.061, well above average. Mid-range jumpers only made up less than 15 percent of his total shot attempts. Meanwhile, shots at the rim and trips to the free-throw line made up just over 45 percent of his total shot attempts.
The problem was that he just couldn't make shots, from anywhere. He shot just 43.8 percent at the rim and just 54.6 percent from the free-throw line, unacceptable numbers for an NBA rotation player.
The good news is that Rivers has shown an ability that not many players have—the ability to break down a defense and get into the lane. While the results as a rookie were pretty frustrating, it has to be encouraging that he recognized this as the foundation of an efficient offensive game and kept attacking even though shots weren't falling. One of the hardest things in the world is to repeatedly do the right thing, even when you keep failing.
Lillard had a significantly different rookie experience than any of the other three, in that he played huge minutes and was an offensive focal point anytime he was on the floor. Despite that responsibility he was able to keep his XPPS slightly above average at 1.052. Lillard showed a nice balance to his shot selection, using the mid-range shot to set up his drives to the basket. It also really helped that he was such an accurate shooter on those long two pointers.
But the thing that really set Lillard's shot selection apart was his use of the above-the-break three-pointers. Only Ryan Anderson and Stephen Curry attempted more shots from this area last season. Obviously three-pointers are a high-value shot, but they aren't all created equal. Corner three-pointers are much more likely to be catch-and-shoot opportunities and consequently are made at a much higher rate.
The vast majority of Lillard's above-the-break three-pointers were unassisted and off the dribble, some of the most difficult shots in basketball. But he made them at more than a respectable rate and the Trail Blazers offense often needed his outside accuracy to keep them afloat.
Heading into next season defenses will be playing Lillard more closely and the high pick-and-rolls he runs are going to be played tighter, resulting in fewer openings. It may be important for Lillard to put even more energy into getting to the basket next season and taking advantage of a tighter perimeter defense. While the shot selection pattern he settled into this past season worked for him, it may not be sustainable moving forward.
For more information and analysis on XPPS, check out Hickory-High.com
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com