Out of the 11 main basketball drills during the NBA Draft Combine, seven were designed to judge players' shooting—be it in transition, in spot-up situations or off the dribble.
The results shed light on what increasingly has become arguably the biggest weakness of many of the prospects: mid-range shooting.
"[The] shooting was average and needs improvement," said one longtime league executive who was in attendance in Chicago.
There were jerky releases, delayed releases, unbalanced movement during shots, low arcs with many back-rim bricks and unstable dribbling leading into pull-up jumpers.
While mid-range shooting is usually a work in progress for prospects, it has become less of a concern for players entering the draft with each passing year. That's because the modern-day talent evaluation process has boiled down to two main abilities: Can a player shoot a three-pointer spotting up or off a screen, or can he contort his body in midair to evade defenders and finish at the rim?
"I think [mid-range shooting] is becoming de-emphasized," Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said. "I think for high-volume scorers, it will always be part of their package. I think that it's perhaps drilled more with those types of high-volume scorers than people coming in at certain levels who are really trying to work on a mid-range game as a common development part of their evolution."
The stats are telling: In the 2000-01 season, the most field-goal attempts from 10 to 14 feet by an NBA team was 1,399, held by the Milwaukee Bucks. That number has gradually decreased through the years, and this season, it was down to 740—yes, nearly half—by the Dallas Mavericks.
On the flip side, attempts have increased from 25 to 29 feet (800 by the Bucks in 2000-01 to 1,159 by the Golden State Warriors this season) and those less than five feet from the basket (2,668 by the Seattle SuperSonics in 2000-01 to 3,140 by the 76ers this season).
"The emphasis on the three-pointer goes hand in hand with more drives to the basket," said Chris Ekstrand, a longtime NBA consultant and the former editor of the draft media guide. "Because the three spaces the floor, there are more driving lanes, and in turn, because contact from defensive players is receiving greater scrutiny, more players are able to get all the way to the rim, or at least close enough for a floater or runner. So the mid-range game is a bit of a casualty."
Just compare 2001 to 2014. The 16 playoff teams in 2001 attempted 40,760 mid-range shots, while the 16 playoff teams this year attempted 28,929 mid-range shots—an incredible difference of 11,831.
Still, the evolution of the modern NBA demands a mid-range threat. The rise of jump-shooting power forwards (stretch-4s), harder close-outs on three-point shooters and an increasing number of height mismatches with the league going smaller opens up opportunities teams and players need to exploit. Ultimately, mid-range shooting is still drawing results, even though the attempts are way down.
"While [players] aren't going to the mid-range game as much, you still have to have it," Denver Nuggets assistant coach Chris Farr said. "Guys aren't taking it out of their workouts. LeBron [James] and Kevin Durant work on their mid-range games, and they're two of the best in the business. They have the height to shoot over people—the big guards. So having a mid-range game is a great advantage. It's just that, analytically, there are better opportunities behind the three-point line than off the dribble."
What happened to mid-range shooting?
Former New York Knicks coach and current ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy told Bleacher Report this season, "I think Mike D'Antoni had the greatest impact on how the game is played since I've been around the NBA."
D'Antoni's ingredients: more speed, more pick-and-rolls and ultimately more three-pointers. The mid-range shot was a last resort.
"Going smaller is now common, downsizing and playing four perimeter players with one big, and everything is quick-hitting pick-and-rolls," Van Gundy said. "It's not just playing faster, because I think it's also how they spread the floor. It's just a lot harder to guard four perimeter players with one big, whereas the floor was more constricted in the past."
In the 2000-01 season, four teams averaged more than 100 points per game, and only one team allowed more than 100 points per game. This season, 17 teams averaged more than 100 points per game, and 18 teams allowed more than 100 points per game. The NBA hadn't seen anything like it since 1994-95.
The evolution gained traction in 2004-05, when D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns finished with an NBA-best 110.4 points per game while giving up a league-worst 103.3 points per game, and they made it to the Western Conference Finals. Since then—except for the 2011-12 lockout season—the league has mostly seen a steady rise in offensive overloads and defensive deficiencies.
"The [advanced stats guys] tell the players, 'Why would you take [a mid-range shot] when you can take one step back and get three points for it?'" Farr said. "Plus, as big as the guys are in the NBA, everybody is spaced out, so you have to be outside of the three-point line. That's where everything begins. Once you come off that pick-and-roll, and if you help, then the guy is open for a three. And when you close out to that person, the team is swinging the ball for another three."
Discussing the drought in mid-range shooting, the league executive agreed with Van Gundy, saying, "I think we need to give Mike D'Antoni some credit. He actually did what the analytics say you should and was very successful."
In college, the attention tends to turn to what players do well, limiting what they don't do well and not spending a lot of time improving those things. That includes shot development from the mid-range area, especially because the college three-point line is shorter—20 feet, nine inches. As a result, many potential pull-up jumpers quickly become drives to the basket because a player is already about one dribble from the basket.
"Not enough young guys work on [mid-range shooting]," an NBA scout said. "When they come [into the league], coaches and scouts will tell them, 'Man, you've got to make three-pointers. They're going to leave you open.' So the guys spend all their time working on their long-range shots because most of them can get to the paint any time they want. But mid-range shooting is definitely worked on in practices and drills."
What has become the NBA's offensive staple, the pick-and-roll above the three-point line, which forces two defenders further away from the basket, still encourages a long-range shot—just not a mid-range jumper. In fact, as Ekstrand points out, "Sometimes even depending on how the defense reacts, they might even take a side dribble because they still want it to be a three, so they don't even fake and go in."
The high pick-and-roll has also opened up more space for drives deep into the paint. One reason for this is that when a big man's defender comes out to guard the pick-and-roll—almost in a double-team formation—sometimes there's a wider crease in the defense to go all the way to the basket. More often, though, when the big man's defender hedges out on the pick-and-roll, the point guard is likely to use his speed to get by him to the basket, rather than taking a two-pointer that will likely be contested.
Defensive switches are much more common due to the quickness of the NBA game and the increasing mobility of big men, and that's a constant opportunity of attack when today's faster point guards are on the prowl.
Iffy mid-range shooting also plays into the point guard's strategy.
"Once they get to within a certain area [about 10 to 15 feet from the basket], they're just going to go all the way," the scout said. "[Many] don't know what else to do because they're not confident enough in their mid-range shot or they're not confident enough in their float game, so they end up trying to get all the way to the paint."
And if they don't, most point guards will look to kick the ball out to a shooter in the baseline corner—the most desired outside shot in the NBA.
Steve Kyler, who runs the Basketball Insiders website and has covered the combine for the past nine years, said draft evaluators don't put a "premium" as much on mid-range shooting. Instead, they believe that part of a player's game will be developed during his career. Kyler referenced 6'6" Tony Wroten of the 76ers, who was a first-round pick in 2012 despite his poor outside shooting.
"It's 'Can you make that 23-foot three-pointer?' I think that's really where you start to separate guys," Kyler said. "It's either, 'Boy, he can shoot it' or 'Boy, he's athletic.' If he's athletic, there's the belief we can help him in the shooting department. That's where guys like [UCLA draft prospect] Zach LaVine fit in. You look at his athletic ability and teams are kind of overlooking the fact that he's not a great shooter. If you don't have dominant athletic ability, you almost have to be a knock-down three-point shooter."
That's a main reason why Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas is likely to be a first-round pick, and why Duke senior Andre Dawkins, who doesn't have as much game experience, could be a second-rounder the night of the draft on June 26.
What's next for mid-range shooting?
Even for standout shooting prospects like Stauskas, Dawkins, P.J. Hairston and Michigan State sophomore Gary Harris, who's rated among the top 15 prospects, there is still work to be done on their mid-range shooting. That's a big reason why shooters like J.J. Redick and Kyle Korver have become full-time starters.
"Players who are already feared for being able to shoot benefit the most from fine-tuning their mid-range game," Ekstrand said. "If they can get a defender up with a fake, take one dribble in or to the side and shoot comfortably, they are on their way to being reliable scorers who can attack defenses in multiple ways."
As for springy combo guards such as LaVine, there is still a lot of intrigue over his potential mid-range game. His athleticism, coupled with three-point shooting (he shot a respectable 37.5 percent from downtown at UCLA), gives NBA teams some confidence that he'll eventually be able to elevate well in the mid-range area and make that shot. Think Russell Westbrook.
Ekstrand shared his favorite mid-range shooters entering the draft: Rodney Hood, Doug McDermott and T.J. Warren—Hood for his one-dribble pull-up and ability to catch and shoot; McDermott because he's versatile off the dribble and can pull up confidently; and Warren for his shots on the move.
"I'm not trying to be cute, but every single player will have to develop some type of mid-range game, whether it is pull-ups, floaters or a step-back/fallaway," said Ekstrand. "The ones who develop this will become versatile scorers, and the ones who don't will be limited. It's just so important."
Even though the prospects recognize that mid-range shooting is overlooked—Hood and LaVine said they heard it's a "lost art"—everyone Bleacher Report spoke to said they still understand its value.
"I think it's one of my strengths, being a mid-range player to get into the teeth of the defense," Hood said. "A lot of people try to run me off the three-point line, but I can step up. That's the shot that most teams give up—the mid-range shot. They want you to take a three or get to the basket, so I think [the mid-range shot] is going to be my staple."
"That's one part of my game I've been working on for a long time," LaVine said. "In the 15-, 17-foot range, you just pull up and you can definitely create mismatches. It's definitely an ability you want."
Many of the prospects also noted that, in their opinions, the top scorers in the NBA are all great mid-range shooters. "I feel like the mid-range game is where most of the dynamic scorers in the league get their shots from," Clemson junior K.J. McDaniels said. "That's where they feel more comfortable."
McDaniels and the others are mostly right. This season, the best mid-range shooters from 10 to 14 feet (with a minimum of 150 attempts) were Dirk Nowitzki (48.4 percent), Rudy Gay (46.5), Durant (45.7), Marc Gasol (45.6), Chris Paul (45.5), Carmelo Anthony (44.2), Marcin Gortat (43.0) and Kyrie Irving (42.2).
The best from 15 to 19 feet (with a minimum of 250 attempts) were David West (52.2 percent), Nowitzki (52.1), Anthony (46.0), Serge Ibaka (44.9), LaMarcus Aldridge (43.4), Durant (42.7), Carlos Boozer (41.0) and Gerald Henderson (40.6).
"There's only a unique group of guys in the league that have a mid-range game," Farr said. "They either can go all the way to the rim and get fouled, or stop on the dime and pull up."
While players like Durant and Anthony have mid-range games that provide mismatches and give their teams different looks at times, players such as Ibaka and Aldridge represent another key element: the stretch-4. In fact, nine of the top 15 players with the most mid-range attempts this season were 6'8" and taller, and they averaged 43.5 percent accuracy from that range. There were fewer stretch-4s and lower shooting percentages from those players years ago.
With the pick-and-pop a prevalent part of NBA playbooks, prospects such as Indiana freshman Noah Vonleh and Michigan state senior Adreian Payne have become more attractive. It also means that lesser-known hopefuls such as Green Bay senior Alec Brown and Western Michigan's Shayne Whittington might get a shot in summer league if they go undrafted.
In particular, the mid-range game has become a necessity for point guards, who are the first players with the ball to get below the arc off a pick-and-roll.
"Because so many defenses now are designed to take away three-pointers or layups, it's really beneficial for players, specifically guards, to have the mid-range game," the scout said.
When All-Star point guards such as Irving, Paul, Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker and John Wall were in their rookie seasons, they all shot much better from 20 to 24 feet (a reflection of the college three-point line) than they did from 10 to 14 feet (not as many looks). But many of them—Irving, Parker and Paul—turned the corner in their mid-range performances in their third seasons, all improving to mid-40 percent. That's the typical trajectory for expected development.
Jahii Carson, a sophomore point guard out of Arizona State, has been paying attention.
"I think [mid-range shooting] should be the first step for a point guard to master, especially for a quick individual because then the defense can't guard you once you have a mid-range jump shot," he said. "That's why Tony Parker is so hard to guard. He mastered the mid-range jump shot and going to the basket, so he's dominant. Sometimes the Heat puts LeBron on him. So I've definitely been working on it—it's a huge emphasis."
A big part of that emphasis is the floater, and in Chicago, draft prospects were drilled on their proficiency with the shot. That wasn't the case several years ago at the combine.
"I remember when only a few players had the floater—Mark Jackson's teardrop comes to mind," Ekstrand said. "Now, that is a staple of every guard and small forward. I've seen more players come into the NBA with the floater/runner than before. ... Defenses are now being taught to close out so hard on three-point shooting because they don't want to give those shots up—look at how many four-point plays there have been in this year's playoffs—so the floater and mid-range shot will become more important."
While the high pick-and-roll in the NBA can occasionally lead to traps, some teams (like the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs) have their big man stand back in the paint to prevent a drive or potentially draw a charge above the restricted area. That can make it difficult sometimes for point guards to finish at the rim, especially facing the increasing number of athletic big men in the league, so the floater or jump hook (a la Dwyane Wade) can be effective in those situations.
"I work on my floater a lot," Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis said. "I used a lot of floaters in college. I think at the next level, that's something that will be really important because the athletes are much better."
No matter what form it takes, the mid-range game presents an opportunity to "switch it up a little bit and make you harder to guard," Arizona junior Nick Johnson said.
Johnson and the other prospects all know the deal: No matter their draft position, their success in the mid-range game likely will accompany their success—or failure—in the NBA.
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