by Mallet James
The overarching trend in NBA shooting over the past 10 years has been the rise of the three pointer. In the 2011-12 NBA season 18.4 3-pointers were attempted by each team per game across the league. At this point in the 2021-22 NBA season, each team has taken an almost double, 35.2 3-pointers per game. Of course, many of the individual player shooting trends of the past 10 years have followed this same theme. Many players have had to shift their game drastically to keep up with the demands of a league dominated by the three ball. I created an RShiny app: https://malletjames.shinyapps.io/NBA_Shooting_Progression/ to not only explore the rise in 3-point shooting at a player level but also to examine the shooters that have bucked the trend. I set out hoping to find shooters that have thrived in the midrange (or deeper), changed their game to get to the rim, opted for more floaters, and even those that have taken more threes but have done something that makes them stand out in doing so. Here are the shooting trends that I have found most interesting from a deep dive into the app. Whether they are stars, fringe players, or just everyday guys these players have taken a unique approach to scoring in the league.
Before digging into Holmes’s shooting progression, one key note about the pages of the shooting progression app is that the line plot for each shot distance tab represents the season over season trend of the percentage of jump shots that each player has taken from that distance range. The table below it shows the shooter’s field goal percentage from that range for each season. This will give us an idea of shot-making and if any change in percentage of shots taken helped or hurt that player’s FG% from each distance.
In Holmes’s case, we see that he took very few shots from 10-16 feet in his early years. Only about 7% of all shots he took were from that range in his first four seasons in the league. He took a lot more 2s at the rim and 3s in those years relative to the production of his later years. In the 2019-20 season we begin to see an uptick in % of shots taken from 10-16 feet for Holmes, we then see the % rise again to almost 26% of all of Holmes’s shots taken coming from that range last year. This may seem like a small bump, an increase of 7% of shots to 26% of shots taken from that range over two years, and it does look like that on the plot. When compared to the rest of the league over that same time frame though Holmes has vaulted himself from 120th in the league in field goal attempt% from 10-16 feet up to taking the 4th most shots from 10-16 feet relative to the rest of his shots in the league. Last year Holmes ranked behind only known midrange assassins, Chris Paul, DeMar DeRozan, and Dejounte Murray. This year, Holmes clocks in right around 11th in the league in percentage of shots taken from that range, shooting 58 FG% from 10-16 feet, almost 15% above league average from that distance.
Ever since Holmes found his way to the Kings, he has not only taken more shots from 10-16 feet but seen his FG% increase drastically from that range, well over league average. The question that remains is what is it that has made him so effective from that spot on the court?
Before we get to that, it’s worth touching on why I chose to include Holmes here. This season Holmes has taken 6 threes, in his rookie season in 2015-16, over much fewer minutes played, he took 44 of them, the next year he took 77. A trend that looked like it would fit right in with the rest of the league shut down early on for Holmes. At 6’ 10” Holmes was not much of a 3-point shooter in his college days at Bowling Green, only taking about one three a game. With the process Sixers he was not afraid to fire from 3 in a much more fringe role. Holmes has taken on a steadier role since then, the threes have gone away, and his eFG% (gives the correct FG% weighting to 3-point shots compared to 2-point shots) has shot up.
You would have a hard time finding a player that fits in each of those categories over the last 5 years. Add in the fact that Holmes has done it as a 6’ 10” center with a 95th percentile league FG-attempt% from 10-16 feet and you have a one of a kind trend in shooting progression.
If you look at Holmes’s shot charts from the past three years 2019-20, 2020-21, 2021-22, compared to the shot chart from his 2nd year with the Sixers, 2016-17 you see a scorer that has recently taken command of the area in the deep paint right around the nail. Holmes has developed a rare 13-15 foot push shot that has been incredibly efficient and very hard for defenders to contain when a guard drives, draws the attention of two defenders, and dumps it back to him. Here is a video of 4-straight minutes of the patented push shot. The shot is almost exclusively of the catch and shoot variety, many times coming out of the pick and roll. This is his shot in the 10-16 foot range, it is not the isolation, break down your defender and pull up game that CP3 is known for and has propelled DeMar DeRozan to stardom this year but it is very effective. The degree of difficulty on his shots may not be as high as some of the pure midrange jump shooters but it has allowed Holmes to carve out a key offensive role in his own right.
Holmes’s shooting progression over the past few years is one that sets him apart from the rest of the league. Turning to the deep paint push shot is a welcomed surprise and one that has kept opposing defenses on their toes.
I know what you’re thinking… and nope this is not the wrong Lopez brother here. Brook’s adoption of the 3-pointer has been well documented ever since he stepped out and began shooting the 3 in his final year with the Nets. His rise from zero to 3-point hero is shown in the app here(just enter “Brook Lopez” in the search bar). It is not a jump that you see everyday from a 7-footer in the latter half of his career but we are not interested in that. Buried in his brother Robin’s 14-year career is a more unique shooting blip that although didn’t last long is definitely deserving of closer evaluation.
In Robin Lopez’s most productive season from a scoring perspective in 2012-13 with the New Orleans Hornets he averaged 23.6 points per 100 possessions on the second highest volume of his career, 719 field goal attempts. Those field goal attempts came almost exclusively from the rim and baseline short corner areas on either side of the court. As you can see in his shot chart from that season here he shot it at just above league average from those spots. His career continued on with that same shooting approach until his 2016-17 season with the Chicago Bulls which produced the abrupt rise in shots taken from deep 2-point range (16 feet to the 3-point line) that we see in the graph above.
Early in his brother Brook’s career, before he extended his range, he took a steady clip of his shots from deep 2-point range. In each of his first 8 or so years in the league he was shooting 15% of his shots from deep 2. In 2012-13 when Robin was shooting it from the short corner, Brook was shooting it in a similar area near the baseline but showed deeper range. Brook would progress to being comfortable shooting it from almost anywhere inside the arc. In his final two years before making the shift to beyond the arc Brook was most comfortable taking deep twos near the top of the key and down to near the elbows, the deep baseline shot was still in his game but rivaled by a new spot on the floor. Below is Brook’s trend in deep 2s taken over the course of his career.
Even though I told you I have the right Lopez brother here in Robin, somehow, I have included a lot of Brook in this evaluation. In Seth Partnow’s book The Midrange Theory, Seth explained that when evaluating Brook Lopez’s positive impact on team rebounding, looking at his brother Robin’s rebounding profile further cemented that his ability to impact team rebounding was a real skill. They both had very high scores for rebounding impact but much lower than expected DRB% rankings. The conclusion was that with a Lopez brother on the floor someone was going to be grabbing more rebounds on their team even if it wasn’t one of them. Who cares if it isn’t your center grabbing the ball, more team rebounds is better than less team rebounds and each Lopez brother has proven to be able to raise the floor on grabbing boards when they are on the court for their respective teams.
This is by no means an evaluation of rebounding but perhaps there is more than just rebounding similarity when it comes to areas of the game that each twin is capable of exceling at.
As it turns out, Brook’s deep two shooting from the top of the key served as a prelude to a season of top of key deep two shooting from Robin of his own and he was all in. Robin took 27% of all of his shots from between 16 feet and 3-point range in 2016-17, his first season with the Bulls. This year DeMar DeRozan leads the league in percentage of 2s from 16 feet to 3-point range with 28% of all his shots coming there (DeRozan has become the poster child of the midrange this year, more on that to come). In 2016-17 the deep 2 was a little more popular than it is currently but Robin’s 27% was still top 20 in the league with 271 qualifiers.
You can see in his shot chart from 2016-17 that Robin took a bunch of deep 2s from the top of the key and converted them at a well above league average clip of 45 FG%. It isn’t clear what prompted Robin to step out and take so many deep jumpers in his first year with the Bulls. Teams may have been daring him to shoot it and he knocked down a bunch of open looks or maybe it is something that he and Brook actively had been working on and it made its way into his game. Both could be true or neither.
One thing is clear though, the deep top of key 2 was not a lengthy visitor for Robin. His attempt% the following year from 16ft-3P fell to 19% of all his shots and now the shot has all but vanished from his game at this point in his veteran career. Something to note is that the 2016-17 season was Jimmy Butler’s final year with the Bulls. Butler’s sometimes tough to quantify, but certainly impactful role on his team’s offenses (also noted in The Midrange Theory) may have something to do with Lopez finding open space in the midrange. Butler is a known midrange operator that would have drawn a great deal of defensive attention, perhaps opening up the top of the key for Lopez to operate in. Lopez played 2038 of his 2271 minutes in 2016-17 with Jimmy Butler on the floor alongside him according to pbpstats.com. Lopez shot just 26 of 71 (37%) from the top of the key 2 without Butler on the roster in 2017-18. Not only was Butler missing from the Bulls’ 2017-18 roster but lots of other new additions made their way onto the team including Zach Lavine and Lauri Markkanen. All of these moves could have easily led to Lopez’s quick role change in the Bulls offense.
Even though it wasn’t around long for Robin the deep key 2 was an interesting feature of his game. Brook has shown the willingness to change his offensive game and this a clear indication that Robin has been able to do the same. There is always more than what meets the eye when it comes to the Lopez brothers.
This one will serve as an intermission from the quirkier shooting tendencies of our first two guys and provide a look at what might be the epitome of the greater NBA shooting evolution over the past 10 years at work in a single player.
In his days at Bucknell, Mike Muscala was a lanky 6’ 11” center with a smooth jumper and post game that dominated the Patriot League. Muscala was an above average shooter in college regardless of his stature but for a player his size he got off and converted jump shots outside of the paint with innate ease.
Muscala had the shooting tools to contribute at the NBA level long before he needed to use them. Even though he wasn’t a built 6’ 11” center he was still just shy of 7-foot and thoroughly skilled, with adept touch around the rim. In the Patriot League, even in a sort of golden era for the league that also produced CJ McCollum, that was more than enough for Muscala to positively impact the game at a very high usage rate. According to KenPom, Muscala was used on 31.6% of the possessions that he was on the floor in his senior season for the Bison, good for 17th highest in the nation. Muscala shot only 16 threes in his final season at Bucknell but there was really no reason for him to shoot it from three given his role at the time. He was big enough to work in the post and generated offense at the rim at a high clip with very capable shooters around him. Since there is a pretty sizeable gap (putting it nicely) between the skill level of true big man play in the Patriot League and NBA his role would need to evolve to survive at the next level. In turn, his shooting stroke has been what has allowed him to hold a contributing spot on NBA rosters for 8 seasons.
Muscala was the 44th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Needless to say, there aren’t many players drafted after pick 40 that make it two years in the league, let alone 8, only Raul Neto and James Ennis III in 2013 were drafted after pick 40 and have stuck around as long as Muscala has. If you look at the draft the year before in 2012, pick 40 was Will Barton who has had a nice career but the best you’ll find after him is Mike Scott who is not currently on an NBA roster. The year after, in 2014 some guy from Serbia named Nikola Jokic was drafted 41st, after him both Dwight Powell and Jordan Clarkson were drafted and they’ve both had nice careers but as you can see the success stories are few and far between.
That makes these type of deep draft outliers very interesting to me. What was missed by evaluators that allowed the player to drop so far or what is it about the player that has allowed him to succeed at the NBA level if his draft pick truly reflected what he was capable of contributing at that time? Playing in the Patriot League could have certainly caused some of the drop for Muscala, McCollum played in the same league and was a lottery pick but had a very different skill set. I think a lot of it was no fault of anyone doing the evaluating though, an abundance of question marks circled about how Muscala’s game would fit in the NBA even though he exceled in his role at the college level.
The key words there are “in his role”, there was a very low chance that Muscala would ever be used in the NBA as he was at Bucknell. Muscala’s size and shooting stroke weren’t the only reasons he was an NBA draft pick but they definitely didn’t hurt and Muscala arrived at just the right time for that specialist skillset to blossom. The league-wide three-point barrage hadn’t fully taken form in 2012-13, the season before Muscala was drafted, but there was a sign of the increase to come. After three-point shooting had pretty much flatlined at 18 3s attempted per game from 07-08 to 11-12, 3s attempted per game jumped to 20.4 in 12-13. Muscala likely wasn’t drafted with three-point shooting in mind but he has ended up being just about as good of a fit as anyone to move his shot back a few feet, beyond the arc.
As you can see in the progression chart, since entering the league in 2013-14 Muscala had increased his 3-point shooting output steadily to 75% of his shots in the 2019-20 NBA season. Since then, his 3-point shooting attempt% has leveled off and stayed closer to around 65%, obviously we can’t expect the steady increase to go on forever. For a guy that entered the league right around the time that the three pointer was taking off and shot almost no 3-point jumpers himself he is as good a candidate as anyone to point to as the 3-point evolution embodied in one player.
Some may wonder what Muscala, only averaging about 15 minutes per game over his career, has truly contibuted to the massive increase in league-wide three-point shooting. Okay… he’s only contributed about 2.5 threes taken per game over his career, a tiny splash of three-point water in the league’s ocean of offense. If you are making this claim you would be right but the key is that the number of threes Muscala has taken per game is 2.5, not 0. 20 years ago, if a player like Muscala would have made it in the league he would be taking very similar shots over his career to those that Muscala took right when he entered the league. You can see those shots in this shooting chart from the 2nd year of his career here. This shooting chart shows a paint splatter of shots taken inside the arc, with a few finding their way outside of it. With better knowledge of the relative value of a 3-pointer it made sense for Muscala to step out and it is the collective of players just like Muscala that have led this movement.
In an excerpt from The Midrange Theory when writing about the “art of the midrange” Seth Partnow penned, “While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I don’t think the painting envisioned by the Lost Arters is of a backup power forward spotting up at the top of the key for an in-rhythm 19 footer.” This sentiment is exactly what the midrange jumper for Muscala looked like in his past game. The beauty of the iso midrange game is alive and well for star players like KD, CP3, and DeRozan but for a guy like Muscala who was likely spotting up anyway why not take a few steps back where it is worth 3 instead of 2? For Muscala, the ability to step out and develop the shooting stroke that was there in his college days has buoyed his staying power in the league and allowed him to continue to prove his worth in today’s game. He is shooting a career best 43% from three this season.
A player who this post would be incomplete without and is the anti-Muscala, DeMar DeRozan has grabbed headlines all over the league for his scoring output this season.
His production is outstanding even without the context of where his shots have been taken from. He recently broke Wilt’s record of most games in a row with 35+ points on 50% shooting (7 games).
If that record is broken it almost has to be done by someone who is proficient at the rim, Giannis comes to mind right away as a possible candidate. He is likely getting easier looks at the rim, FG% will be higher, he just needs to get to 35 points which he is certainly capable of. The fact that that record (which granted is somewhat specific) can be beaten by a player that leads the league in % of shots taken from 16 feet to the 3-point line is bonkers.
It only took 7 games to beat the record, sure you could have a really hot few weeks and then fadeaway but that couldn’t be further from the truth in DeRozan’s case. You could pick almost any 7-game slice of his season and find scoring that has been achieved in volume at a FG% that almost seems unreal given the shots taken.
DeRozan’s midrange artistry has been conducted in the middle section of the court. The deep midrange that he utilizes is not anywhere below the break, his game is break you down, one on one, rise and pull, directly in front of or behind the foul line out to the elbows. DeRozan’s game this season is about as plug and play as it gets, he just needs a sliver of space to operate and sometimes not even that. He has put himself directly in the conversation of best isolation scorer in the game.
John Hollinger lays out all you need to know about his season in this article for The Athletic. If you have a game like DeRozan’s the analytics say take the midrange shot and continue shooting it. In a great piece of Hollinger’s article, he explained that sure 3 is always going to be greater than 2 but when it comes to creating threes in volume, especially clean looks, it becomes much tougher. DeRozan can get pull up jumpers off all day, and while the degree of difficulty looks to be incredibly high on most of them, they continue to find the bottom of the net.
When looking at DeRozan’s shooting progression from 16 feet-3P over his career it looks like a line that has actively fought off the influence of the three pointer. Starting in 15-16 and then again in 17-18 it appeared that his deep midrange game was about to take the plunge and concede to the 3 like so many others. In his final year with the Raptors in 17-18, DeRozan took the most three pointers of his career with 3.6 of them attempted a game. That year has ended up being one of his worst in eFG% of his last 5, since that season he has shot 48%, 48%, 54%, 51%, 53% in eFG. His % of deep midrange 2s taken this year is the highest it’s been since his 2016-17 season and there is no disputing that at least for now this is his sweet spot.
His scoring skillset confirms that the midrange is very much alive and that context is key when deciding the shooting approach that is right for a specific player. Not all 3’s are good and not all midrange shots are bad, there’s more to it than that and DeRozan has proven how to be successful playing his game in the midrange.
Our final player is Derrick Favors with the caveat that yes, over the last 3 NBA seasons he hasn’t taken all that many shots in general so this could be small sample size city but hopefully one that sheds some light on a player that was the former number 1 recruit in his high school class and the 3rd overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft.
Favors has spent most of his NBA career with the Utah Jazz where he began by taking almost all of his shots at the rim, as you see in this shot chart from his 2011-12 season. That trend slowly declined to the point that in 2015-16 Favors took almost 1 out of every 4 of his shots from 10-16 feet, his game had made its way out to taking jumpers from the foul line and short corners. He was shooting it near league average from those spots but it was a clear sign that his role in the Jazz offense had changed. In 2015-16 he saw his highest career usage rate at 23.9% of all possessions, along with it came his second highest career points per 100 possessions at 27. Things were clicking for Favors in both the 14-15 and 15-16 seasons when he began to take a key role on the Jazz offense alongside Gordon Hayward.
In the 2016-17 season when both Gordon Hayward and especially Rudy Gobert took a massive leap forward offensively (and defensively for Gobert), Favors only played 50 games due to injury while Gobert played in all regular season games but 1. Gobert began showing flashes of the all-star caliber player that he would become for the Jazz and slowly Favors responsibilities faded. In 2015-16 the Jazz were a 40 win team, no playoffs, in 2016-17 they won 51 games and were firmly in the NBA playoffs. I don’t think you can jump to the conclusion that Gobert’s rise totally changed Favor’s role or that the Jazz were an 11 win better team with Favors not as prevalent in the lineup but something changed for the Jazz and they didn’t look back.
Favors was still an important player on the Jazz roster in subsequent years, in a reduced offensive role he was not tasked with shooting as many shots away from the rim but he was very skilled at converting in close proximity to the hoop. In 2018-19 he converted 309/447 looks at the rim, this was a little over 11% better than league average 58% in that same area.
In 2019-20 Favors was traded to the Pelicans for two second round picks. His production with New Orleans was much reduced from a scoring perspective but he contributed the best offensive rating of his career to that point at 126 points per 100 possessions.
With the Pelicans, his scoring on offense took place exclusively at the rim which would be very similar to his scoring tendencies when he returned to the Jazz last year.
Now with the Thunder, in limited minutes, Favors scoring footprint has returned to what he built towards in the beginning of his career and achieved with the Jazz in his 23 and 24 year old seasons. As you can see in his shot chart this season signs of midrange life have returned. He is shooting almost 55 FG% albeit on limited attempts from 10-16 feet. Favors has very much been limited by injuries this year, possibly rest disguised as an injury designation to allow the Thunder to give younger guys some run, but when he has played signs of his game when it was at its best have returned.
Favors’ story in the league thus far may not be the most exciting one but through exploration of shooting trends in the app it was hard to find a player that matched the journey that Favors has been on to this point in his career. The rise and fall and rise again of Favors midrange jumper is something that would be pretty rare to find in an entire career let alone the career of a guy that is still just 30 years old.
Favors’ longevity projection above from the Darko app shows that based on his career to this point there is about a 50/50 chance he plays 2 more years in the league. His chances of sticking around further continue to decline from there. It is very hard to say what will happen when a player has a history of injuries but it would be really cool to see Favors channel some of his old game and find a regular role in the league again. We can’t be sure that his role on the Thunder, a team very much in trial mode, will be representative of what his role could look like on a more competitive team but even with the limited sample size it is nice to see the midrange flair back in his repertoire.
Data and Metrics used for this post from Basketball Reference, StatMuse, KenPom, and pbpstats.com
Longevity projection from Kostya Medvedovsky and Andrew Patton’s Darko Application
Excerpts and cited information from Seth Partnow’s The Midrange Theory
Excerpts and cited information from John Hollinger’s article for The Athletic on DeMar DeRozan