Some early statistical trends worth monitoring

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Michael Nania looks at the early sample size of data to find some individual trends that are still worth monitoring.


GOOD: Tim Hardaway Jr.’s Free Throw Attempt Rate and Transition Frequency

Since returning to New York, Hardaway Jr. has been a frustrating player. Every night, there are at least a couple of moments where you see exactly why the Knicks front office was so confident in putting him at the forefront of this transitional period. Athletically, he’s special. His speed and acrobatic ability flash constantly. He has a quick trigger and has shown he can make clutch contested shots from any spot on the court. Underneath the rim, he’s capable of some really eye-popping finishes – the type that make you wonder: why doesn’t he do that more often?

Over the previous three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Hardaway Jr. shot 52.8% from two-point range. That ranked third best among the 68 guards to play at least 4000 minutes over that span, behind only Gary Harris and Stephen Curry.

The key for Hardaway Jr. in reaching such an efficient level inside of the arc has been his willingness to attack the basket.

Forty-eight percent of his two-point attempts during that span came within three feet of the basket, and he connected on 66% of those. Comparatively, Curry shot 67% in that range with 48% of his two-point attempts near the rim, and Harris shot 66%, with 55% of his two-point attempts coming near the rim.

Hardaway Jr. is only a 34.5% career three-point shooter. Relative to his position, it hasn’t been nearly as effective a weapon as his inside game. Yet, the Michigan product has been over-reliant on the outside shot. Among that same group of 68 guards over the past three seasons, he has attempted three point shots at the 13th highest frequency, with a .477 3PAr, in spite of shooting the 3 at an efficiency ranked 54th/68. Marcus Smart was the only other player to take over 40% of his shots from deep in spite of shooting below 35% on those shots.

This season, in as featured of a scoring role as he has ever seen in the NBA, Hardaway Jr. has taken promising steps towards maximizing the weapons he has proven most efficient at using.

Demonstrating his increased willingness to attack the basket are two trends in particular – his increase in free throw attempts and fastbreak possessions. In the free throw department, he currently owns a FTr (free throw attempt rate – free throws relative to field goal attempts) of .238 – a career high. It’s barely edging out the .235 he posted as a Hawk in 2016-17 – not coincidentally, that was the year in which Hardaway Jr. posted his career highs (through last season) in win shares, true shooting percentage (TS%), and minutes, earning the trust of coach Mike Budenholzer and an ensuing $70M+ deal the following summer.

Hardaway Jr. has always been a solid free throw shooter, entering this season shooting 81% for his career, but he is on a red-hot start from the line, connecting on 92% of his looks from the stripe so far. His 5.0 makes per 36 minutes this season beats out the career high of 2.8 he set last season by nearly double.

In addition, Hardaway has led the charge of a young Knicks team that is embracing their collective speed and looking for more fastbreak opportunities. With 5.3 transition possessions per game, Hardaway is currently tied for 8th in the league in that category, an increase of 4.0 over his average of last season.

Of course, it is extremely early into the season, and it’s going to be hard for Hardaway Jr. to maintain all of these numbers. However, it’s very promising to see him working towards a scoring approach that better fits his skillset and will help him be the most positive impact player he can be.

BAD: Frank Ntilikina’s Shooting Efficiency

Don’t get me wrong – I’m on Team Frank all the way. His defense is tremendous, his IQ is off the charts, and the kid is as raw as they come. Certainly, he should be expected to have more growing pains and a longer growth curve than just about any other prospect who starts out in the pros from the jump.

Now, is it a bad thing if Ntilikina simply settles into the role of an elite defender and superior passing point guard whose scoring and ball-handling limitations restrict him to a key reserve role? Certainly not. As Knicks fans know well, you can do way worse than getting a key reserve out of a draft pick, even if it is a high one. Any draft pick that gets you a long-term contributor is a win.

With all of that said, with Frank still only 20 years old and possessing the mold of a guy who looks like he can be shaped into a superstar, we are all holding out hope he can become more than just a good glue guy. All of the tools are there, and the flashes have been there.

Perhaps the most important facet of Ntilikina’s game that needs to grow, if he is to provide legitimate hope of becoming a star, is his shooting efficiency. While the eye test shows a player who has smooth fundamentals in his jump shot, the production hasn’t measured up yet. So far this season, Frank has not progressed much in that area.

From the outside, there have been small slivers of growth. Frank shot 31.8% from deep last year. He’s up to 35.3% this year – a solid number – but the sample size is so small to this point that it doesn’t tell us very much. At 6 for 17, his percentage would drop to a ghastly 29% if he had missed just one of those makes.

While it’s too early to be harsh on the efficiency posted in a 17-shot sample size, the positive trend for Ntilikina in this department is his increased 3PAr. The NBA is becoming a layup-or-3 league; mid-range shots be damned. Frank has upped his 3PAr from .314 last year to .472 this year. That’s a positive trend to work from. While the sample size is minuscule, if Ntilikina can maintain a .353 3P% and .472 3PAr over this entire year, that would be awesome.

Here’s where the downside has been: Ntilikina’s offense inside of the arc. Frank shot only 38.5% on two-pointers last year and is down to 36.8% this year. He’s in a less-than-ideal clique with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova, and Malik Monk as the only guards on pace to shoot below 40% from two-point range for the second consecutive season.

Worse is Ntilikina’s inability to get to the line. After posting a .136 FTr last season, he’s dipped to a paltry .056 so far this year. To put into perspective how poor that is, the worst FTr posted by a PG last season (with at least 1000 minutes played) was a .080 – by Raymond Felton. Frank has only attempted 2 free throws in 149 minutes this year. That’s a rate of 0.5 per 36 minutes – Pablo Prigioni-esque.

Frank’s lack of free throw attempts is what really hampers his overall offensive efficiency. He posted a TS% of only .437 last year and is only up a tad to .447 this year.

The odds have been extremely rude to modern NBA guards who have tried to carve out a career after posting a TS% below .450 in each of their first two seasons. Here’s a look at the group of guards over the past decade Ntilikina would join if he can’t puff his TS% up beyond its current point by the end of the year:

It’s an ugly list.

There have been players who have struggled shooting from the floor as youngsters who have gone on to have great careers – neither John Wall nor Russell Westbrook posted eFG% rates over their first two years as high as Ntilikina’s .444 so far this year – but those guys made up for poor floor shooting with free throws.

It’s become a major, major part of efficient NBA offense, especially at the point guard position. Ntilikina really needs to see some growth in this area especially. You want to see him take more pick-and-rolls straight to the hoop without hesitancy rather than always having a pass-first mentality.

Whether or not Frank can finally bring out the aggressiveness inside of him at some point this year is one of the biggest question marks on the team. Does he need to score 20, even 15 points a game? Certainly not! You just need him to be at least an adequate scorer to compliment his outstanding defense and maximize the potential of his unique passing ability.

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All stats via Basketball-Reference and NBA.Com