The Whiteboard: Which NBA players are shooting better and who is just more open?

Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images
Photo by Soobum Im/Getty Images /

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P.J. Tucker’s NBA niche has always been about 3-and-D but his defensive impact and versatility have long been the more reliable half of that equation. For his career, he’s made 36.5 percent of his 3-pointers but he’s also had three career seasons with at least 100 attempts where he’s made less than 35.0 percent. During last year’s championship run with the Bucks, he made just 32.2 percent of his 3s across the postseason.

That’s why it’s more than a little surprising to see Tucker currently leading the league in 3-point percentage this season, at 46.2. It’s not a sample size fluke either — he’s averaging 3.0 attempts per game and by the end of next week will likely have surpassed his 3-point attempt total for all of last season.

There’s almost certainly some random variance at play here but, in moving from the Bucks and Rockets last season to the Heat this year, he’s also seen a crucial difference in his shot profile. This year, 97.4 percent of Tucker’s 3-point attempts have been classified as open (no defender within four feet) or wide-open (no defender within six feet). That’s a jump of 5.8 percentage points from last season — the 11th-biggest increase among the 172 players who attempted at least 100 3-pointers both this season and last.

Some NBA players are shooting better this season, some have just been more open

Ben McLemore is another player who looks like he may be benefiting from more open space. A career 36.5 percent 3-point shooter, McLemore is hitting 39.1 percent of his 3s this season (up from 34.6 percent last year) because he’s seen an 11.6 point increase in the percent of his attempts that are open or wide open. It’s easy to pinpoint Marcus Morris at the other end of the spectrum, suffering through a huge drop-off in his 3-point percentage perhaps in large part because just 66.2 percent of his attempts have been open or wide-open this season, down from 84.8 percent last year. He’s clearly missing the gravity and creation of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

However, at least for this single, two-season sample, there isn’t any meaningful correlation between an increase in open percentage and an increase in 3-point percentage. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has seen his 3-point percentage drop by more than 14 points even though essentially the same share of his shots have been open or wide-open. LeBron James has seen a 28.8-percentage-point increase (yes, you read that right) in the share of his 3s that are open or wide open and he’s making essentially the exact same percentage as last season.

Svi Mykhailiuk and Wayne Ellington stand out as players who have been way more open this season but are shooting slightly worse. Kelly Oubre Jr., Gary Trent Jr. and Cam Reddish have been open way less but all three are shooting 3-pointers much better than they did last season.

It’s possible that some of these outliers may regress or progress and we’ll see a clearer pattern by the time the season is over. But if you’re looking at a player with a dramatic increase or decrease in their shooting percentages, it’s at least worth looking to see if they’re getting a lot more or lot less space to shoot than they have in the past.

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