Stat Talk: Talent evaluation in a changing league

Any NBA fan can attest to the evolution that the league has undergone in recent years. Basketball has transformed into a game centered around 3-point shooting and pace-and-space offense. Gone are the days of grind-it-out post play, as the defensive battles of the mid 2000s seem like a faraway memory. The average team today attempts 31.4 3-pointers per game — nearly double the 18.1 which the NBA averaged 10 years ago.

While this offensive revolution seems to have infiltrated all aspects of the game, it hasn’t had an equivalent influence on NBA talent scouts. Confusingly enough, the top draft picks each year often lack the skill most emphasized in today’s league: shooting the ball.

Ben Simmons, the consensus top prospect in the 2016 draft, has not let his complete lack of shooting ability (he’s never made a 3-pointer in an NBA game) hold him back from stardom. He fills up the box score with ease, evoking flashes of, dare I say it, a young LeBron James. However, Simmons’ magic faded in last year’s playoffs as Celtics coach Brad Stevens masterminded a plan which walled off the paint from Simmons, effectively forcing him out of his comfort zone. Simmons has regained his mojo this season and even showed the beginning signs of a turnaround jumper, but it remains unclear how his game will survive the focused game plans of playoff basketball.

The No. 1 selection of the 2017 NBA draft, Markelle Fultz, has experienced perhaps the strangest start to a career of any top pick, as he has seemingly forgotten how to shoot the basketball. Call it whatever you like — injury issues, the yips, etc. — but the dynamic guard’s once-smooth shooting stroke now appears shaky and inconsistent. Fultz has been cautious to attempt many 3-pointers in his young career, as he is currently shooting a meager 4–15 over 33 games played. However, Fultz is difficult to align with the trend of non-shooting top draft picks, as he was considered a solid shooter in college and is clearly struggling with deeper issues.

The selections of double-double machines Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III with the first two picks of the 2018 NBA draft have cast legitimate questions about the limitations of a low-post big man’s impact in today’s game. The third selection, European wunderkind Luka Doncic, has already shown himself to be the star of his draft class by displaying a game perfectly suited to the modern NBA. He capably plays both on and off the ball, and generates quality looks for others through a plethora of crafty moves. By valuing athleticism and inside scoring over Doncic’s sharpshooting and basketball savvy, scouts took an obsolete approach to a rapidly changing game.

Zion Williams, college basketball’s scintillating sensation, possesses — stop me if you’ve heard this before — shocking athleticism, but lacks a consistent jump shot. Williams’ superhuman physical profile has scouts and fans salivating, but his weaknesses are clear and familiar. They probably will not hurt him in college, but at some point he will face the issue which Simmons confronted against Boston. Whenever he faces that challenge, we will once again be forced to ponder how scouts evaluate basketball talent and the value of athleticism in comparison to shooting ability.