Point guards are leading the NBA’s scoring boom

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports /

There has been a lot of virtual ink spilled this season about the NBA’s nearly unprecedented scoring explosion. The league as a whole is averaging 105.5 points per 100 possessions as of Thursday afternoon, per NBA.com, up from 103.9 last year and 103.0 the year before. The boom has of course been driven by a massive increase in 3-point shooting volume — an all-time high 31.4 percent of shots leaguewide have come from behind the arc, up a mile from 28.5 percent last season 26.8 percent the year before that. That particular factor has been discussed ad nauseam.

There is, however, another under-discussed factor driving the points through the roof — NBA point guards are shouldering more and more responsibility in the orchestration offenses, and they, in turn, have started looking for their own offense more than over before. (Rare is the point guard these days that brings the ball up the floor, passes off to a teammate, and gets out of the way for the rest of the possession.) While the so-called “pure” point guard is still fetishized in some circles, the actual guys at the controls for most NBA teams are scoring like crazy.

Take a look at the following chart. It shows (a) how many point guards ranked among the top-20 scorers leaguewide; (b) how many point guards averaged at least 20 points per game; (c) the scoring average of the player that led all point guards in scoring; (d) the scoring average of the player that was 10th among point guards in scoring; and (e) the collective scoring average of the top-10 point guards in scoring for each year since the turn of the century.

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The lowest number in each category is highlighted in red, while the highest is highlighted in green. See if anything jumps out at you.

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So, yeah. That green line across the bottom of the chart is probably pretty damn noticeable.

An incredible nine point guards rank among the top-20 scorers in the NBA this season. (There are also three point guards among the league’s top five scorers, which is utterly ridiculous and would have been unthinkable at the start of the 2000’s.) That number, which had not been higher than four as recently as four years ago, actually reaches 10 if you count Giannis Antetokounmpo as a point guard rather than a small forward. Ten point guards are scoring 20 points or more per game, equal to the number that did it in the last two years combined — and that number hadn’t been higher than three before the 2013-14 season.

Russell Westbrook is leading not just all point guards, but the entire league in scoring at 30.6 points per game. That’s the highest scoring average for a point guard this century. Eric Bledsoe, the 10th-highest scoring point guard at 20.3 points per game, is in the top-30 in the whole league. His scoring average would have been nearly enough to lead all point guards as recently as seven years ago.

The collective scoring average of the top-10 point guards in points per game is 4.3 points higher than the previous high, which was achieved just last season. It’s also 7.7 points higher than it was a decade ago. An entirely different species of player cropped up right in front of our eyes, only we’re still referring to it with the same nomenclature we always have.

The point has traditionally sat closer to the lower end of the usage scale among the five positions on the floor, yet 10 teams are currently led in usage rate by their starting point guard (11 if you include Giannis and Milwaukee). Westbrook, the leader amongst this crazy group of lead-guard scorers, is on track to shatter Kobe Bryant’s all-time usage rate record. The distance between Westbrook and Kobe is equal to the distance between Kobe’s current record and the 13th-highest usage rate in NBA history (DeMarcus Cousins last season, when it didn’t even seem like he shouldered all that crazy of a burden).

Some of this is surely due to the proliferation of pick-and-roll heavy offenses, which cropped up over the last decade or so as the NBA cracked down on the amount of contact defenders can make with ball-handlers at the point of attack. More freedom of movement off the dribble means it’s become easier for players to get to a particular spot on the floor.

While at first point guards exploited that freedom of movement to create opportunities for others (think Steve Nash), many more of the players currently populating the position have taken it upon themselves to do the scoring. They’re leveraging the amount of space they have — some if it created by the rules, and some of it created through the increased attention teams are now devoting to shooters on the perimeter, so afraid are they of giving up open 3s — to create better looks for themselves. A point guard taking a pull-up jumper, whether from the area around the elbows or beyond the arc, is a much more common sight than it was even five years ago.

The crazy amount of athleticism at the position — whether of the explode out of the building variety (Westbrook, John Wall), the ridiculous balance and craftiness variety (James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas), or the short-area, side-to-side, I-can-create-whatever-space-I-want-for-a-jumper variety (Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker) — also factors in. The lead guard spot has never seen a better group of athletes than it has right now. It makes sense that teams would want those players to act as their primary options and trust them to have the ball in their hands all the time in order to find the best possible shot for themselves or someone else.

It was a few years ago when everyone picked up on the beginning of the Point Guard Era, and we’re living in it right now. The center spot has had a resurgence and should be strong for a long time as the unicorn kids grow into their skill sets, but there’s another crop of point guards on the way in the 2017 draft that could take the position to another level.

Washington’s Markelle Fultz is like if the Kentucky version of John Wall didn’t play with any other All-Americans and had an NBA-ready jumper. Lonzo Ball is basically running UCLA like a 6-foot-6 Steve Nash (or Jason Kidd with an ugly jumper that somehow manages to go in anyway). Dennis Smith of NC State can’t shoot but he might actually be able to jump out of a gym and he can get anywhere he wants on the floor. John Calipari straight up compared De’Aaron Fox to Wall, and the comparison wasn’t ridiculous on its face. Frank Nkilitina is this year’s international man of mystery, and while he’s not a very good shooter and he’s not of the score-first variety, his skill set lends itself extremely well to the kind of offensive orchestrator role today’s point guards simply have to play.

All of these guys are going to be lottery picks and they all seem like they can just be handed to keys to an offense and be counted on to just make things happen, whether right away (Fultz, Ball) or within a few years (the rest). In other words, the crazy production at the point isn’t likely to drop off anytime soon.

The word revolution can be thrown around haphazardly when it comes to style of play in the NBA, but when it comes to the point guard position, we truly are living in revolutionary times.