Uncovering the Hidden Contributions of 5 NBA Stats Darlings
More than halfway through the initial season in which player tracking data is available publicly, we can see which players the new metrics shed positive light on.
When the NBA made the decision to have STATS LLC SportVU cameras installed in every arena before the 2013-14 season, it was a big-time coup for anybody with an interest in basketball statistics The new technology offers brand-new insights into the contributions that players make during games.
The six cameras in each arena track the movements of the basketball and all 10 players on the court 25 times per second and allow teams to gauge the efficiency of every action made during a game. The league has made some of this player tracking data available to fans for free on NBA.com.
In the data available, some statistics—like distance traveled per game and average speed—are interesting but not particularly effective for evaluating players. But there are also very useful statistics for helping to assess player contributions—statistics on defensive impact and breakdowns of shot type that weren't previously available to the casual fan.
Those statistics allow us to look at which players may be undervalued without advanced statistics through the first 50 or so games that these data have been available.
Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets
Ty Lawson—Assist Opportunities
The Denver Nuggets' .471 winning percentage would be the lowest of Ty Lawson's five-year career, but the speedy point guard is still having arguably his best season to date. And the player tracking data make a case for him being one of the top point guards in the NBA.
Chris Paul is better than anybody in the game at setting up his teammates, and that's reflected in the advanced statistics, as he's generating 20.6 assist opportunities per game. But No. 2 is Lawson, who's generating 18.3 such chances. He's also doing it with 14.2 fewer passes per contest and with an inferior supporting cast.
And when he's looking for his own shot, he has been among the league's best at attacking the rim despite standing below 6'0". He's scoring nearly one-third of his total points—5.9 per game—on drives, which ranks him No. 6 among all players. He's shooting 53.7 percent on those chances—good for No. 8 in the league and No. 4 among players who average at least five shots on drives.
Lawson is seen by most as not-quite-an-All-Star point guard, but the SportVU cameras offer extra insight into the kind of dynamic offensive talent that he is.
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Andre Drummond—Contested Rebounds
Andre Drummond has been in the midst of a breakout season for the Detroit Pistons, and player tracking data shows the kind of impact he's made on the court.
While he trails both Kevin Love and DeAndre Jordan in rebounding average, he's grabbing more contested rebounds than either of them—Drummond's 5.9 per game leads the NBA. Nearly half, or 45.9 percent, of his rebounds are contested, placing him at No. 7 in the league in that rate. He has the same rank in percentage of rebounds per chance, grabbing 70.1 percent of his possible boards.
He has been a difference-maker in defending the rim as well for Detroit. Opponents are attempting 8.4 field goals at the rim per game with him defending, and he's holding them to 49 percent shooting. That puts him in the top third of players who defend at least three such shots per game.
Offensively, Drummond is beginning to take a bigger role in the offense, averaging 16.1 points in February, but he's done a good job of taking efficient shots the entire season. His 61.1 effective field-goal percentage—which adjusts for three-pointers being worth 1.5 times that of a two-pointer—ranks No. 6 in the NBA. He also ranks No. 3 in points per half-court touch at .77.
While his raw statistics may look inflated, the SportVU cameras show that he is already one of the game's best rebounders and finishers at the rim.
Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
Eric Bledsoe—Driving to the Basket
It won't come as a surprise to many that Brook Lopez, Roy Hibbert, Paul George and Larry Sanders rank in the top five in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim among players averaging 25 minutes per game. They rank No. 2 through 5, respectively.
But how many people would guess that a 6'1" point guard would be tops in the NBA in that category? That would be Eric Bledsoe.
He has missed a portion of the season with a knee injury, but when he's played, he's held opponents to 33.8 percent shooting at the rim—6.5 percent better than Lopez. He has had a much smaller volume of shots taken against him than the big men on the list, but at three per game, he's defended more than George has.
On the other end of the court, Bledsoe has been great when driving to the basket. He's making 57.1 percent of his drives, which makes him No. 7 among players who attempt at least one per game. And at 7.5 drives per game, he attempts more shots on drives than any of the players who shot a better percentage than him.
Bledsoe has been great in his first season with the Phoenix Suns. He has proved that he's among the best guards in the NBA at playing near the basket—on both ends of the court.
Robin Lopez, Portland Trail BLazers
Robin Lopez—Protecting the Rim
After finishing No. 11 in the Western Conference during 2012-13, the Portland Trail Blazers are No. 5 in the conference and, at 36-17, have already surpassed their win total from a year ago.
Several players can take some credit for that improvement, but the biggest (literally and figuratively) is center Robin Lopez.
The 7-footer is averaging a solid 10.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in his first season with the Trail Blazers, but those statistics don't show how big of a contribution he's made.
According to the SportVU data, Lopez holds opponents to 43.6 percent shooting at the rim, the seventh-lowest percentage in the league among players who average 25 minutes per game. That's been especially important with Portland's mediocre perimeter defense, as opponents are taking 10 shots per game at the rim with Lopez contesting, which are third-most of any player in the NBA.
His rebounding average places him at only No. 25 overall, but the player tracking data shows that he is grabbing 4.2 contested rebounds per game—which are eighth-highest in the league. The Trail Blazers have jumped from No. 21 in rebound percentage in 2012-13 up to No. 4 this season, per NBA.com.
The addition of Lopez has had a major hand in that.
Offensively, he is averaging only 12.4 points per 36 minutes, down from 15.7 in 2012-13, per Basketball Reference.com. But on a great offensive team like the Trail Blazers, he is almost always the fifth option offensively, and he's taking advantage when he gets opportunities.
On close shots—those taken by a player who starts on any touch within 12 feet of the basket, excluding drives—he's shooting 59.7 percent or No. 13 in the NBA.
The Trail Blazers have been among the most surprising teams in the NBA this season. While Lopez hasn't put up gaudy traditional numbers and is the opposite of flashy, advanced metrics show just how much of an impact he's made for them on the interior.
Kendall Marshall, Los Angeles Lakers
Kendall Marshall—Catch-and-Shoot Situations
Kendall Marshall was playing in the D-League at the beginning of the season, but through 25 games with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2013-14, he's near the top of the NBA in a number of player tracking categories.
It makes sense that Chris Paul leads the league in points created by assist per game and per 48 minutes, but he's the only player who is ahead of Marshall, who's creating 21.9 points per game. Marshall also ranks fourth in assist opportunities per game, which factors in misses as well, and he plays fewer minutes than the three players ahead of him.
He is not just setting things up for teammates—he's also knocking down his own shots. He ranks No. 25 in effective field-goal percentage, which takes into account the value of three-pointers. He's been especially devastating in catch-and-shoot situations, ranking No. 3 in effective field-goal percentage on such plays and No. 7 in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage.
Those two areas are impressive but may not be surprising based on his shooting and assists numbers this season. But this one is: Marshall ranks No. 3 in percentage of rebounds per chance, trailing only Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
That doesn't mean that he is one of the top rebounders in the league—he's grabbing 3.1 boards per game. And he's definitely not better than DeAndre Jordan, who ranks No. 5 on the list.
But Marshall is grabbing rebounds when he's getting the chance—his entire season seems to be about taking advantage of opportunities. It's just one of the many things he's done well since getting back to the NBA. And without player tracking data, it would have gone unnoticed.