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The Blueprint: Low-Usage Scorers

Welcome to “The Blueprint,” a series about roster philosophy and data science in the NBA. This collection of pieces explores Aneesh Namburi’s personal ideology in modern team building while incorporating a custom Python dash app to provide statistical backing, as well as a tool for future player/role identification.

In the latest edition of 'P.I. Pulse,' as part of "The Blueprint" series, Aneesh Namburi provides an overview of another valuable player archetype: low-usage scorers.

If you missed "The Blueprint: Big Archetypes," check it out here.

Modern NBA offenses are heavily dependent on multiple high usage creators. While a majority of in-game possessions will be run by the offense’s primary options, it’s tough to expect them to carry such a high workload through a full regular season. Moreover, it is much easier for defenses to key on two major players, often having a help rover whenever one of those big time players has the ball (the Clippers in the 2021 first round or the Suns in the recently-concluded Finals). Jumping to three capable creators in your lineup adds another dimension to offenses, one that almost eliminates any real help defense without significant consequences.

We’ve seen when teams have a “Big 3,” the third player often takes a major step back in offensive workload, and usually ends up showing their value through some other facet of his game (ex. Chris Bosh, Kevin Love). While the aforementioned players were on championship teams, the third members of modern super teams often end up in a heavily-discounted role, one that might not match their contractual obligations. Instead of making that player a star, why not assign that spot to someone at a lower usage, one who provides that scoring punch on a smaller scale in a variety of settings?

If a team makes its third creator a lower usage player rather than a star, they can use the player in a variety of ways, removing a lot of the expectations/pressure set to keep the low-usage scorer in the same tier as the top options. Instead, a coach can utilize the player as a primary bench scorer, allowing the stars to get some time off the ball and keeping the bench lineups above water without massively staggering the main cogs. Additionally, due to a lower usage, this type of player should have the ability for some off-ball equity, turning into a dribble/pass/shoot facsimile alongside the two other stars. The ability to close games alongside the higher usage players gives defenses that additional threat to deal with on the court. The concept of having as many creators on the court as possible is nothing new, but finding the balance between individual potency and overall synergy can be tough at times. Finding and utilizing the right sixth man-type player (and there are many players who deceivingly seem to fit this role) is a great way to maximize cap space and on court performance.

Historical Context

Huerter clearly could shoot in college and while his combine drills in this area were one of the main reasons he shot up draft boards, I was always more intrigued with his secondary abilities. Not only did he have the scoring potency, but Huerter’s proficiency putting the ball on the deck (DiVincenzo, Bullock) as well as passing flashes (Thomas, Shamet) gave him potential to be that well-rounded wing. As we obviously saw in the playoffs, those off-ball skills were on display in addition to the ability to catch and get buckets, and the pre-draft concern of whether he could get to the rim was assuaged playing on a more spaced court next to a primary like Trae Young.

Barton has been a bucket his whole career, relying on his rim pressure and athleticism rather than shooting potency, but like how Huerter makes due with his finishing, Barton leverages his scoring gravity with a passable jumper to keep defenses honest and flashed those tools his sophomore year before adding onto his touch indicators with player development and NBA spacing. Looking at his comp list, having a number of secondary college playmakers should have given hope for Barton to eventually be able to get some teammates involved (Nowell, Cunningham, Adams, Johnson). What has been really key to Barton’s NBA success has been his off-ball utility as a cutter. While playing next to Nikola Jokic certainly doesn’t hurt, Barton is a premier operator without the ball in his hands for a wing, allowing for lineups next to multiple scorers around him and given the idea of multiple threats that the defense has to focus on.

2021 NBA Draft

Hyland shares a list with some of the most potent/dynamic high usage shooters in semi-recent college basketball history, namely Thornton, Clemons, and Lee. Film over his multiple years at VCU showed the versatility both on and off the ball as well as variety in each of those areas. Hyland’s skinny frame gives some evaluators concern, but his natural instincts (especially last year when his creation burden was less, career 3.0% steal rate) combined with comparisons to positive NBA defenders in Lee, Caldwell-Pope and Craig potentially might sink some detractors’ concerns.

Nah'Shon "Bones" Hyland. Credit: VCU Basketball

I wanted to take this moment to highlight the drawbacks of the primary passing numbers used in evaluation, explained by Spencer Pearlman in a recent article and why I believe strongly in Hyland’s future as a scalable low-usage scorer. In summary, these types of stats highlight only the result, rather than the more important part of the play which is the process. A player could make the best pass in the world but doesn’t get credit for an assist because a teammate might miss the shot. Hyland is an interesting case study for this ideology. His offensive burden limited the number of off-ball looks he got this past year, but “Bones” has always been a positive and quick decision maker and comfortable with the ball in his hands. Translate that from an advantage creator and pure shot maker to someone working off primary options, and it seems likely Hyland will make defenses pay for helping off him.


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