How will Zion Williamson’s game translate to the NBA? Deandre Ayton’s rookie season offers some clues

Basketball Analytics 101 says shot location matters. By extension, so does an athlete’s propensity to be in the right place at the right time during games.

Yet as the NBA draft approaches, consider the qualities we use to evaluate prospects. We discuss their height, weight, length, speed — there’s even a set of complete anthropometric rankings, including body-fat percentages, on — plus the big plays we’ve seen them make in big games. Tools and highlights are fine for appreciating potential draftees as physical specimens. But we generally don’t assess court presence, largely because there hasn’t been any way to see how it translates from college to the pro ranks.

Until now. Last year Google uploaded a huge cache of statistics for NCAA games, including play-by-play info going back to 2009, to BigQuery, its online data warehouse. Ever since, researchers have been mining that mother lode and scraping the web for further info. By comparing their findings with data from the NBA (which has been tracking players since 2013), we can draw crucial lessons for draft night and beyond.

Start with this: 38.8 percent of field goal attempts in college games last season were 3-point shots. That’s more than in the NBA (35.9 percent). And it’s significantly higher than the proportion taken by former college players with fewer than five years in the NBA (30.4 percent), according to Tim Chartier, professor of mathematics at Davidson College, and George Baldini and Jason Feldman, former Davidson students, who recently collected and studied nearly 700,000 shots taken by athletes who played in both NCAA and NBA games since 2013.

Of course, this isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, because the NCAA and NBA have different 3-point lines. And long-range shooting has grown more popular at all levels of the game. But college players have been outbombing the pros for years, probably because pro defenders are faster and better in transition. When NCAA players move on to the NBA, they’re entering an environment where 3-point shooting is actually somewhat less important.

Where do they shoot from instead? Overall, NBA players take about 41 percent of attempts at or close to the rim, slightly more than in college games (37.7 percent), according to the Davidson research team. But among players dominating inside, not too many are rookies. Blogger Todd Schneider, studying his own massive database of NCAA and NBA shots, found in 2018 that “as a player goes from his last year in college to his first year in the NBA, his field goal percentage will decline by around 4 [percentage points] on shots over 6 feet [away from the basket], and as much as 15 [percentage points] on shorter shots.”

Pro defenders try to force newbies into the middle. The Davidson team, for example, found that college players who make it to the NBA end up taking more long 2-pointers there (14.1 percent of all field goal attempts, compared with 12.9 percent in college). Buddy Hield is a classic example. A prolific long-range shooter at Oklahoma, Hield hasn’t been able to take as many 3s or get to the rim as often as a pro. As a result, 22.6 percent of his NBA shots have been long 2s, up from just 8.7 percent in college. But Hield has hit on 41.4 percent of those attempts — not great but above average, far better than his college rate and enough to make him a valuable player overall. Among prominent prospects, Coby White has the most similar shot map to Hield’s college chart, according to the Davidson researchers. I think we can say the UNC guard will be productive in the NBA too, if he meets the same challenge as successfully as Hield has.

And that’s really the only concern anybody has about Zion Williamson, writ large. The best comp for Williamson’s shot map is Deandre Ayton, one of the exceptional players who has shot nearly as often and effectively near the basket in the NBA as he did in college. And Ayton does represent a potential path for Zion: Keep banging away inside. But given Williamson’s size, speed and smarts, it would almost certainly be better for his body and his game if New Orleans surrounds him with shooters, gives him space and lets him create shots for everybody. If that happens and he hits midrange jumpers, watch out.

Paradoxically enough in this day and age, young players have to prove they can hit the worst shots in the NBA in order to earn the chance to be more efficient. For Zion, passing that test could make the difference between being an All-Star and a Hall of Famer. Turns out it’s pretty important for everyone else too.

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