Nylon Calculus: An early look at rookie shot charts

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 21: Lauri Markkanen
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 21: Lauri Markkanen /

My recent Moreyball article featured a scatterplot showing that roughly four out of five shots taken by Blake Griffin have been in the restricted area or beyond the arc. This chart also highlighted a rookie who has similarly occupied high-value zones. Lauri Markkanen has attempted 28 percent of his shots at the rim and 58 percent of his shots from 3-point range, combining for a top-ten Moreyball rate among players with at least 75 field goal attempts. On average usage, he has posted a 55 effective field goal and 59 true shooting percentage — decent marks for a first-year player.

The Chicago Bulls’ game against the New Orleans Pelicans this past weekend illustrated the way that Markkanen has built his shot profile. He spent a great deal of time spotting up beyond the arc, with 11 of his 16 field goal attempts from 3-point range. When he saw an open lane, he put the ball on the floor and attacked the rim. In one notable play to start the third quarter, he received a pass above the break and promptly drove around Anthony Davis for a two-handed dunk. Markkanen’s overall shot volume and marksmanship were out of the norm that day, but the manner in which he generated offensive opportunities was reflective of his tendencies.

In many respects, Markkanen’s early-season efficiency stands in contrast to the shooting woes of numerous other rookies. Lonzo Ball, for example, has a 34 effective field goal and 35 true shooting percentage (both of which are the lowest in the NBA among players with at least 100 field goal attempts) on 19 percent usage. Donovan Mitchell’s percentages are at 41 and 45 on 30 percent usage, while De’Aaron Fox and Dennis Smith Jr. are around comparable levels. Of course, these players have different roles, responsibilities, opportunities and team contexts, and the sample sizes remain small. But the preliminary numbers are still worth noting — even if they are bound to change for better or for worse as the season progresses — given the hype around the 2017 draft class.

To help contextualize the data, I’ve compiled shot charts for every rookie between the first and 45th picks. I’ve sorted them by draft order and presented them in scatterplot form to distinguish between made and missed baskets. Here are Ben Simmons and the first 11 players selected this past June:

Here are picks 12 through 45 (note that players without field goal attempts have been excluded):

A few observations:

Simmons has prowled around the key, with approximately 85 percent of his shots in the restricted area or the paint. He’s made close to half of his shots on 25 percent usage. He only has six 3-point attempts, and since they’ve all been heaves, they’re not visible in the chart. Markelle Fultz’s shots were in comparable locations before a shoulder injury sidelined him.

Ball, Smith, Mitchell and Malik Monk have had their share of 3-pointers, but with varying degrees of success in their first 10 games. While Mitchell and Monk have put together 3-point percentages in the low-30s, Ball and Smith have been at 23 and 29 percent, respectively. Ball’s performance has been particularly noteworthy. Based on a quick Basketball-Reference search, among rookies with 25 or more 3-point attempts in the same time frame, his 3-point percentage ranks in the bottom 10.

I’d caution against putting too much stock in this ranking, given how noisy the data are. Ball’s 3-point shooting in his first 10 games has certainly been poor, but we forget that Kristaps Porzingis, Chandler Parsons, Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Paul George, Manu Ginobili and Kevin Durant, among many others, also started their careers hitting below 30 percent. Perhaps we have other reasons to worry about his long-term potential, but the current numbers on their own should be taken with a grain of salt. The same goes for players on the opposite end of the spectrum, like Jayson Tatum, who has made 18 of his first 34 jumpers beyond the arc.

Next: 25-under-25 -- The best young players in the NBA

Lastly, Fox has resided in the mid-range for the most part, taking over a third of his shots in this zone. That’s the highest mid-range rate among the top rookies (Monk comes next at 25 percent). It remains to be seen whether Fox can ultimately stretch out further, but his 10 percent 3-point attempt rate is something to monitor moving forward.