Pull-up shooting is one of the most important skills in basketball, and the 2019 NBA Draft’s two best point guard prospects thrive at it. But who is better, Coby White or Darius Garland?
Few skills are as important in the NBA as pull-up shooting. While tools like rim protection, spot-up shooting, and finishing are getting their efficiency-driven love in today’s NBA, the ability to create a shot for yourself is still the ultimate deciding factor in the league today. At the team level, offenses can’t thrive without it bending defenses and bailing out possessions at the end of the shot clock. And on the individual level, it can be the difference between a good role player and a great role player, and between a great role player and a star. Steph Curry has revolutionized the game by being the best pull-up shooter we’ve ever seen. Kawhi Leonard became a star by adding it to his game. Even the current big man revolution is headlined by the importance of Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis’s ability to put the ball on the deck and shoot off the bounce.
It’s especially important for point guards, who need the threat of stopping and rising up for an open jumper to initiate a majority of offensive sets at the NBA level. Without it, defenses can sag off the point guard, cutting off passing lanes and packing the paint to disturb the flow of the offense. If you need a clear example, watch how the Jazz and Warriors defend Steph Curry and Ricky Rubio, respectively.
It’s no surprise, then, that two of the top point guard prospects for the 2019 NBA Draft are held in that esteem due to their potential as pull-up shooters. Darius Garland of Vanderbilt and Coby White of North Carolina have both set themselves apart with their ability to create their own offense. Garland set the standard early in the season with great shooting performances against Liberty and USC, and while White struggled early on, he finally found his form with a 33-point effort against Texas that was built on his pull-up shooting.
Both players are rated pretty similarly as prospects (Our preseason big board had both in the same tier — White 10th, Garland 12th), and this important skill is arguably what both are best at. That’s led to a lot of discussion about whether Garland or White is the better pull-up shooter – and the better choice for teams looking for point guards next June. To make that decision, I looked at every pull-up shot from both players through UNC’s loss to Texas and Garland’s meniscus injury, to try to figure out whose shot is more projectible to success at the NBA level.
(H/T to Spencer Pearlman of Knicks Film School for help with video for this post)
Garland and White are both skilled at shooting off the dribble, but their methods of getting the space to take those shots are fairly different. Garland is more in the Kyrie Irving throwback mold of pull-up shooter, relying heavily on his footwork and handle to create separation. He bobs and weaves back and forth against his defender, and using finesse to cover for his physical disadvantages to get separation from longer defenders.
White, meanwhile, doesn’t have the handle of Garland — he actually has a pretty loose, high handle, and that can give him challenges when trying to shake a defender one on one. But that’s okay because he’s off the Russell Westbrook tree of pull-up shooter. White’s taller, bigger, and can accelerate and decelerate at a much higher level, and he uses this to play off momentum. Get the defender backpedaling, stop, and pull-up before he can react.
Now, neither style is inherently better than the other. Irving may be a more efficient pull-up shooter than Westbrook, but that’s not to say that you can’t have inefficient dribbling wizards (Iverson), or efficient physical space creators (Lowry). How the rest of the player’s game compliments that style plays a big role in overall effectiveness too, although that’s a deeper dive for another day. The important takeaway here is that this is going to inform the areas where each player is strong in their pull-up profile, and also helps us look at where improvements will be likely to come from.
Arguably the most important aspect of pull-up shooting in today’s game, the ability to pull-up and hit from 3 naturally bends the defense to the point of breaking, if done correctly. Last year, this was Trae Young’s forte, and Luka Doncic has shown an ability to do it too. Because it is the Curry-led hot trend in basketball, that’s what has given Garland what seems to be a slight edge in the consensus. He’s much better at creating pull-up 3s than White is, and his mechanics look a lot more sound from range.
There’s nothing particularly special about this shot — just a quick recognition of the defender going under the screen, and then an efficient, low-energy shot before the defender can recover. Routine makes like this are great, especially when you add in the separation creation we saw above. His range is also firmly in the NBA range, as we can see here.
White, meanwhile, doesn’t show the comfort that Garland does from NBA range. Where Garland has consistent mechanics moving further away from the basket, it seems that White tries deliberately to generate more lift from his lower body. That creates more of a two-motion release, demonstrated on this shot against Elon.
You can also see above that White’s handle isn’t as functional as Garland’s in this setting. This behind-the-back dribble looks nice, but doesn’t actually create any added space.
Here, the handle is tighter, but you can see all of the mechanical inconsistencies with White’s shot. He gets a clean, NBA range 3 here, but hops into his plant to begin the shot, and the rotation on the ball is at an angle.
Right now, Garland looks better at creating space with his handle, and his mechanics are much more sound and quick than White’s is right now. Of course, White isn’t hopeless — he has shown strides over UNC’s last few games in his comfort with his handle, and while his mechanics aren’t consistent, they aren’t consistently bad, either.
This area is clearly in Garland’s favor for now, but there are things to build on for White in the future.
One area where that can happen in is on step back shots, where White’s mechanics look much more fluid. While the hop into his shot is a problem in general, it allows him to create space for the step back, where he can jump back, plant, and square into a shot with good aesthetic form.
This is where White’s control of momentum comes in — he does a great job of dipping his shoulder forward on drives, only to pull back and square against an off-balance defender on a step back jumper.
White’s balance on step-backs is one reason to be optimistic that his pull-up shooting might pull ahead of Garland’s when they translate to the NBA. As he gets more comfortable with the decision-making of pull-up shooting, the hope is that the hopping and off-balance looks will go away, and his balance that we see when he steps back will become the norm for his jumper.
Garland, meanwhile, doesn’t have the explosiveness of White to clear that space, but he still does a good job of quickly gathering into a jumper after driving towards the basket.
Garland doesn’t have the same balance on step-backs that White does, and that makes his shot a little less effective at this point. His momentum can end up keeping him leaning forward on the shot after he gathers, as we see here:
No man’s land shots
One of the most underrated factors of pull-up shooting is what happens when a player commits to driving and gets stopped prior to getting to the rim. Mid-post jumpers, floaters, and scoop shots are important supplements to the pull-up toolbox, and this is probably the most decisive advantage we see in this discussion. As we saw in the first clip of White, he is good at getting lift off the dribble, and shooting over a defender that rides him to the rim. But if White catches a firm denial, things get a little dicey.
Contrast that with Garland, who shows a very advanced set of pump fakes and moves to contort around defenders in the paint. He’s much more likely to use floaters and scoop shots on drives, and he has much better technique on these shots.
Garland is much better here, and he needs to be because he has much larger concerns about his ability to get to the rim than White does. White’s discomfort may come from a simple lack of need for this type of shot — he was much better at getting to the rim in high school, and his explosiveness and size mean that he should continue to have an easier time getting to the rim than Garland. But both will need this skill set at the NBA level, so it’s a good sign that Garland has performed this well on these junk shots at the college level.
The final pillar of pull-up shooting we will discuss is decision-making, specifically decisiveness about when to go to their pull-up skill set. This is what makes Curry, Damian Lillard, and the rest of the league’s elite pull-up shooters so dangerous — the combination of their abilities as shooters, and their decision-making with regards to when to go to that skill set. This is the little stuff along the margins — when to pull up on a drive, when to capitalize on an off-balance defender, and when to avoid shooting and move the ball.
White struggles most with that latter aspect, as was very visible on this jumper that stuck in people’s memory during the Texas game.
He’s pretty solid at going to his pull-up on drives, rarely throwing up garbage in crowded spaces. But his biggest issue at this point is his tunnel vision. He plays at a million miles per hour, and when he commits to going to the rim, he struggles to recognize when it’s time to dump the ball off and reset the offense. This is an area where things can improve for him with more maturity and comfort, but also could lend to him struggling early on in his NBA career, in the mold of Dennis Smith and Collin Sexton the past two years.
Garland is a little better at recognizing when he has a better play available, but he has his own decision-making issues. In particular, he struggles with deciding when to go to his pull-up against an off-balance defender. He’ll over-dribble at times, and while he still is eventually able to work himself into good shots, like he does below, he spends a lot of time dribbling into nowhere against defenders he should be able to take to the rim.
Both players have the tools to be good pull-up shooters at the NBA level but will need to become better at the decision-making aspects of pull-up shooting to become good at it in the NBA. In a way, the two need to come to the center from opposite ends of the spectrum. For Garland, being more assertive with his shooting — for White, sensing when he has more options than just himself.
Garland appears to be the better pull-up shooter of the two right now, thanks to his comfort from 3-point range and the diversity of his overall shooting profile. His skill set probably has an easier chance of becoming a better outside shooter at the NBA level. But thanks to his athleticism, balance, and understanding of his own control of momentum when driving, I wouldn’t be surprised to see White continue developing into a better shooter in the long term. White’s ability to transition into his pull-up on a dime seems that it will translate well to the NBA against quicker defenders, and his mechanics from NBA range and shot selection are both improvable.
Garland’s physical limitations do hang over all of this — his lower release point, projected finishing difficulty, and the small chance of aftereffects from meniscus surgery could all be limiting in ways that we can’t truly predict right now. But at the same time, White’s tunnel vision and mechanics may not reach the level they need to hit either. It’s a shame we won’t get to continue to watch Garland’s shooting develop alongside White’s this season — but for now, Garland has the slight edge as a pull-up shooter, and coupled with his other strengths as a passer and spot-up shooter, pushes him ahead of White as the better prospect.