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 his most valuable player archetype: the shotmaking wing.
If you missed "The Blueprint: Introduction," check it out here.
Kawhi Leonard. LeBron James. Kevin Durant. Arguably three of the top-five players in the world right now. Eight of the last nine Finals MVPs.
It’s nothing groundbreaking to announce that shotmaking wings run the NBA. This past regular season, 10 of the top-15 offenses (according to offensive rating) had a wing or wing adjacent player carrying the team’s highest usage.
At the end of the day, you need someone who can produce points in an efficient manner. Whether the baskets come from the ball handler, movement, or using defensive attention to make offense easier for teammates, the goal is to find the easiest pathway to capitalizing on as many offensive possessions as possible.
In a modern NBA where advantage creation is the name of the game, increasing the size of your primary initiator often solves this problem easier than traditional lead guards. The sheer physical tools present in these wings provides advantages in finishing, shot making, and even offers benefits reading the floor as a play/decision-maker. The ideal outcome is to have a player that can score from all three levels (usually from ball screens or isolation scenarios), while also having the court awareness to recognize help patterns and start the sequence of a scrambling defense by finding open teammates.
Due to their likely high usage, it is unfair to expect these all-important players to expend more energy by guarding others who play a similar role. But obviously they still need to contribute in some form, and the best way to do this is through team defense. Often, the wing initiators are successful due to their decision-making ability, and that can translate extremely well to being a great rover and/or help defender (see James, LeBron or Tatum, Jayson). This allows them to be a bit more selective and affords the opportunity to take a few possessions off throughout the course of the game.
Unfortunately, this type of player is much easier to talk about in theory. Finding wings who check all (or even most) of these boxes is amongst the most difficult archetypes to develop in the NBA, and the ones that do fit the category are almost impossible to obtain. The combination of skill, physical tools, and decision-making all being in a top tier is so difficult, which is why the teams that possess these players are often at the top of the championship contender list.
I’ve also added an addendum to this category, essentially stating that unless you’re a generational combination of physical tools and decision-making (hello again LeBron and KD, welcome Luka Doncic), I wouldn’t draft a wing with the expectation of him turning into a shotmaker/creator. Every non-outlier transformative prospect started out in a heavily-scaled down role on a solid team, and slowly worked their way up the offensive pecking order. We’ll go over many of these examples below, but to me, it seems clear that the best two-way wings are developed in structured environments where expectations are not set at an outlandish level.
*Disclaimer: I know it might seem weird to include future seasons in the searches, but it allowed me to expand my sample size to a level I felt comfortable with
Arguably two of the best recent examples of my last paragraph (Kawhi, PG, and Jimmy are not in my database because downloading back to their college years might destroy my computer), Tatum and Siakam were in dramatically different pre-draft situations, but both had the benefit of developing in a structured environment on very good teams.
With Tatum, eight of the 10 comps having a shooting/shotmaking role is the first big indicator for me, and two of those names being Brad Beal and Buddy Hield does not hurt, either. Looking at his Duke tape, he showcased high-level to elite shooting and shot making, and his limited early role in Boston allowed him to get comfortable expanding his shooting range and make necessary physical improvements to give him the high-level shotmaking base. Tatum’s combination of physical tools and decision-making flashes that were showcased before the NBA were allowed to get brought up to speed in a smaller role and expand once he got his feet under him and his higher-caliber teammates left.
Siakam’s role comps are a bit more all over the place, but I would have been intrigued by his comps while essentially playing as a big in college (Murray, BI, Jabari) in addition to his outlier movement ability. I understand he was one of the crazier developmental improvements in NBA history, and by no means suggesting I would have thought he would reach All-Star status, but the benefit of revisionist history shows his defensive playmaking combined with guard/wing role indicators should have been given more attention.
Very rarely are scoring wings coming into the NBA with confident shooting numbers (although it is becoming more common), so we often have to forecast with many of these projections. Warren is known for having one of the worst pre-draft jumpers in terms of aesthetics/mechanics, but the touch and ability to get buckets was always clear at NC State. While most of these comparisons are after he got drafted, six (seven if you count Ben Bentil) of his 10 comps being legit shooters provides a high level of confidence.
Now onto identifying potential misses. It wouldn’t be realistic or believable to only show the examples where I was right, so we’ll look at Josh Jackson for a case study that the program seems to have missed. I don’t think his ball handler comps inspired confidence, but all of his shooter comps succeeded in the NBA. In hindsight, I probably would have taken Jackson out of this category after looking at his free throw vs. three-point sample as well as his pre-college numbers, where his shooting was not great.
2021 NBA Draft
Chandler Vaudrin is an intriguing fringe draft prospect, first brought to my attention by Henry Ward’s 5-Point Play column. Obviously the number that stands out when looking at his statistical profile is the assist rate. Basically any player with size who had a similar percentage stuck in the NBA at some level, and for a late 2nd round pick or UDFA candidate, that is really good value.
Sometimes, there are examples where a player’s context distorts their stats and consequently, their comparisons within this program. Every NBA player on this list (and seven out of 10 is a pretty good mark!) is not only a rotation contributor, but also a productive creator on some level, but none of them come even close to screaming number-one pick upside like Cade Cunningham. It is important to realize how hard it was to construct a semi-optimal system around him, roster-wise. In this case I trust the film but it furthers my confidence that Cunningham will at worst have a lengthy career.
Ziaire Williams had one of the toughest college seasons imaginable. From multiple deaths in the family, injuries, and all the COVID-related weirdness with Stanford’s program, it is no surprise that he was not able to make a consistent impact with the Cardinal. However, his main calling card in the NBA will be his shooting, and the shooter/shot creator roles in this image all have had excellent careers in the NBA, thus far. If you trust Williams’ shooting (which I do), this search might inspire a bit more confidence in selecting him.
Hopefully now, you have a good/better understanding of what I look for in shotmaking wings and the numbers that help formulate my opinions. Next up, we’ll be looking at the dynamic potential of guard creators.