Ranking the NBA's Best 1-on-1 Players Right Now

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured Columnist IVDecember 17, 2022

Ranking the NBA's Best 1-on-1 Players Right Now

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    DALLAS, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 07: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks smiles at Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets during the second half of the game at American Airlines Center on November 07, 2022 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images)
    Tim Heitman/Getty Images

    Who has been the most valuable one-on-one scorer in the NBA this season? Let's crack open a big, frothy bottle of #Data and find out.

    Just as we did when ranking the best shooters and rim protectors, we'll be looking to award players for both volume and efficiency relative to the league average. Though there isn't necessarily a perfect, to-the-letter one-on-one metric, we'll lean on the isolation numbers from Synergy over NBA.com.

    Entering games on Dec. 16, the average iso touch is yielding a little over 0.94 points per possession. We will subtract this number from every player's own points per possession. Then, to account for volume, we'll multiply the difference by the total number of possessions they have used.

    Example time: Jayson Tatum is averaging 1.01 points per isolation. Subtract the league average (roughly 0.94) from that number, multiply it by the possessions he's finished (113), and he ends up with a total iso value added of 7.81.

    Is that enough to crack the league's top 10? Let's go ahead and see.

10. Caleb Martin, Miami Heat

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    ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 27: Caleb Martin #16 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket during the game against the Atlanta Hawks on November 27, 2022 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

    Total Iso Value Added: 12.04

    Just like we all predicted.

    Caleb Martin's cameo does not prove there's an overwhelming flaw in this system. Pretty much all of the names to follow validate what we're doing here.

    Instead, this is a case of low-volume colliding with near-perfection.

    Martin has taken just 16 shots out of isos this year. And he's made 11 of them. And the majority have been threes, so his 11-of-16 clip overall translates to an effective field goal percentage of 81.3.

    Alperen Sengun is the only player with better marks in either category, but he's attempted half as many shots as Martin (eight). It turns out clearing 15 field-goal attempts is a huge deal for this exercise.

    This shouldn't be interpreted as "Caleb Martin is one of the best iso scorers alive." Relative to volume and efficiency, though, his teensy-tiny sample size (18 possessions) is providing plenty of bang for its buck.

9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - DECEMBER 13: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers shots over Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings during the first quarter at Wells Fargo Center on December 13, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
    Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

    Total Iso Value Added: 13.48

    Volume trounces efficiency for Joel Embiid...who is actually still pretty efficient.

    Though he has yet to appear in 20 games, he's already fourth in total isolations. His points per possession (1.04) and effective field goal percentage (48.1) both place in the bottom two among this top-10 list, but they still creep past the league averages of 0.94 and 44.6, respectively.

    Meaningful free-throw volume helps Embiid offset shakier percentages relative to his peers. About 18.4 percent of his isos end in shooting fouls—a top-10 mark among 94 players who have finished at least 20 possessions.

    Any qualms about his efficiency during live balls is overblown. It shouldn't even exist. Embiid is generating more points on his isos than last year, and his body of works comes while facing a unique amount of defensive pressure. Nobody you'll see here, for instance, encounters double-teams on a larger share of their possessions.

8. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

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    WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 12: Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets dribbles the ball during the game against the Washington Wizards on December 12, 2022 at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

    Total Iso Value Added: 13.72

    Ranking among the 10 most effective one-on-one scorers should be cause for celebration, no matter the methodology used to get there. Yet, for Kevin Durant, this seems like an insult.

    Eighth place feels low.

    Pinpointing the root cause is difficult. He's averaging 1.03 points per iso possession, down from 1.10 last year and 1.18 in 2020-21. His free-throw frequency now is lower than in 2020-21 but not exactly an outlier. Ditto for his volume at the rim.

    A declining three-point-attempt rate and percentage may be the primary culprits. Durant is, somehow, drilling nearly 60 percent of his mid-range looks, but triples are worth more per possession and his efficiency on those has slipped amid lower volume.

    Counterpoint: Big whoop. Durant remains a preternatural scorer—someone on the ultra-mega-super short list of players you'd want taking not just the final shot, or an iso shot, but any shot, literally, at all.

7. Spencer Dinwiddie, Dallas Mavericks

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    DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 12: Spencer Dinwiddie #26 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball while guarded by Josh Giddey #3 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game on December 12, 2022 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

    Total Iso Value Added: 15.23

    Jalen Brunson who, am I right?

    No, I'm not.

    This appearance from Spencer Dinwiddie is equal parts flattering and concerning. He deserves a round of applause for shooting at an above-board clip out of isos. His 53.1 effective field goal percentage comes against a league average of 44.6. And really, he's just generally outperformed expectations from the perimeter since joining the Dallas Mavericks last season.

    However!

    There is no world in which Spencer Dinwiddie should rank fifth in total iso possessions on the season. And it's not his fault. He is one of two Mavericks who can reliably put the ball on the floor.

    That doesn't make any of this OK. Dallas has injected some offensive variety into their possessions more recently, but it's still nowhere near enough. Good job, though, Spence. For real.

6. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

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    SALT LAKE CITY, UT - DECEMBER 15: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans goes to the basket against the Utah Jazz on DECEMBER 15, 2022 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

    Total Iso Value Added: 15.88

    Would Zion Williamson have enjoyed the volume necessary to crack this list before absences from Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum accelerated hierarchal changes to the New Orleans Pelicans offense?

    Who's to say? Not me, that's for sure. I genuinely have no idea.

    Either way, this appearance reinforces just how valuable on-ball Zion is to the Pelicans. The answer is: immeasurably.

    Others who appear here are averaging more points per possession (1.13), and Zion's turnover rate is the highest of anyone (14.3). But it's easy to leapfrog those (not actual) shortcomings when 25 percent of your isos end in free throws and you're spitting out successful and-1s more than seven percent of the time.

    Oh, yeah, Zion is also scoring on 56 percent of these touches. Among the 94 players who have finished at least 20 isos this season, that mark ranks fifth. And it comes while having attempted more heavily contested shots than anyone else. It doesn't matter that most of them are coming at the rim. The attention he draws and the sheer breadth of bodies he faces significantly drums up the difficulty of his finishes.

5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 14: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers handles the ball during the game against the San Antonio Spurs on December 14, 2022 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

    Total Iso Value Added: 20.73

    Did you know that if you take the word "isolation," rearrange the letters, subtract a couple, then add a few more, that it spells "Dame Time."

    Wild stuff, right?

    Damian Lillard ranks among the least surprising inclusions. Unless, of course, you were worried and losing sleep over the prospect that his missing 12 games would cost him. That's fair. And it definitely cost him in the volume department.

    Yet, here he is, still inside the top five.

    Posting an effective field-goal percentage of 62.1 on 62 total shots will do that. That isn't just the highest mark of anyone on this list either.

    Among 59 players who have attempted at least 30 shots out of isos this season, only Bojan Bogdanović (!!!!) owns a higher effective field-goal rate.

4. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

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    WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 12: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets shoots the ball during the game against the Washington Wizards on December 12, 2022 at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

    Total Iso Value Added: 24.28

    Successfully creating for himself is Kyrie Irving's most bankable and impressive NBA skill set, and he carries it out with such flair and deliberate difficulty that each one-on-one possession is an event unto itself. His combination of ball-handling, change of direction and overall half-court maneuverability is an eye test's cornucopia.

    If, for some reason, you were wondering whether the data matches up with said eye test, here's your answer.

    Kyrie is churning out 1.23 points per iso possession, which means his one-on-ones are currently more efficient than the Boston Celtics' league-best offense.

    Just so we're clear: That's ridiculously good.

    No single element of Kyrie's isos skew the numbers in his favor. His volume is far from the highest on this list, since he's played in only 20 games. He does, however, receive a boost for a relatively low turnover rate (6.0), rock-solid free-throw frequency (16.7) and higher-end/filthy and-1 percentage (7.1).

3. James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers

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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 13: James Harden #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers handles the ball during the game against the Sacramento Kings on December 13, 2022 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)
    David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

    Total Iso Value Added: 27.44

    Uh, well, so much for James Harden being cooked.

    Let's be real: The Philadelphia 76ers are not a pleasant watch. Their offense runs at a groggy pace by design and is teeming with repetition. Harden himself is a noticeably different player. His uptick in mid-range frequency isn't evidence of his realizing those shots exist. He's spitting out more of those attempts because his burst is waning.

    Still, in the aggregate, Harden isos remain an efficient proposition.

    His 1.26 points per possession are the second-highest in the top 10. (Shout-out, once again, to Caleb Martin.) And while his effective field-goal percentage in these situations isn't especially high, it's hardly low (55.9).

    Indeed, Harden is generating this value in the exact way you'd expect. Over 20 percent of his isos end in free throws, the second-best mark on this list. Predictability is one hell of a drug.

    Then again, is it?

    With his volume at the rim dipping, Harden's free-throw rate is almost surprisingly high—and, thus, extra commendable and less satisfying to watch all at once. And he continues to never cough up these touches. His 4.7 turnover rate is second only to LeBron James among players to finish at least 50 iso possessions.

    Harden's offensive armory may not be as pretty as it used to be, but it sure as hell still works.

2. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

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    CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 14: DeMar DeRozan #11 of the Chicago Bulls looks to pass the ball during the game against the New York Knicks on December 14, 2022 at United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

    Total Iso Value Added: 28.04

    DeMar DeRozan posts one of the lower effective field-goal percentages in isolation relative to the rest of this list (52.4). Buuuuuut that doesn't quite matter when 1) it's still decidedly above the league average (44.6) and 2) he gets to the charity strip so damn much.

    About 34 percent of DeRozan's iso possessions end in free throws. That's a breaks-the-brain level of frequency.

    Ninety-four players have finished at least 20 isos this season. DeRozan's free-throw-attempt rate, not surprisingly, ranks first. The chasm between him and second place is a different story.

    Aaron Gordon (seriously) checks in at second. His isos end in free throws 28.6 percent of the time.

    The words you're looking for here are "holy hell."

    Free-throw machines are seldom so ceaselessly dependable. DeRozan's amalgam of guile, cadence variability and to-infinity-and-beyond hang time render him an ultra-difficult cover.

    In fact, as you're reading this, someone somewhere is leaving their feet at the mere idea of a DeRozan pump-fake.

1. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks

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    DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 14: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on December 14, 2022 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

    Total Iso Value Added: 38.69

    Surprise!

    But not really.

    Luka Dončić has burned through 216 isolation possessions so far. That is 58 more than the second-place Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (158). It is also more than the number of isolations finished by 16 entire teams.

    Unchecked volume was always going to beef up Dončić's total value added—provided he generated more points per iso than the league average. And he does.

    Sure, his 1.12 points per iso possession are middle-of-the-rung compared to the rest of this list. But hovering so far above the Association's mean (0.94) when one-on-one situations represent, approximately, his entire existence is pretty darn hard to do.

    Regardless of how grating or unideal you might find his play style, maintaining this level of efficiency on this brand of volume is flat-out valuable.

    Dončić's numbers are made all the more impressive by his isos spanning every level—step-back threes, mid-range artistry and bruising finishes at the bucket. The scale of difficulty on these looks, mind you, is through the roof. Doncic has attempted the fourth-most heavily contested shots in the league and sees double-teams on 31.1 percent of his possessions, the largest share of anyone on this list other than Joel Embiid.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Friday's games. Salary information via Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.

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