Wild shot charts and what they reveal
The shot chart is one of the niftiest and most useful tools in basketball analysis.
Invented by ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, a former professor of geography at MIT and San Antonio Spurs analyst, the shot chart is a concise visualization showing where players like to shoot from and how effective they are at individual spots on the court. The concept has been riffed upon and improved dramatically over the years, but the fundamental conceit remains unchanged.
*Data note: the shot charts I use below are from Statmuse and only portray this season’s data. It can be a fun exercise to see how a player’s shot chart evolves over time, but we’ll only be looking at current data today.
For those who aren’t familiar with the format, here is LeBron’s shot chart as an example:
The size of the hexagons indicates how often a player shoots from an area, and the color indicates whether they shoot better (dark blue) or worse (light blue) than the league average from that spot.
LeBron’s shot chart shows that he is very prolific and far more accurate than league average around the rim (hence the dark hexagons), but he’s average-ish to below average from deep on middling volume. He shoots a few midrange jumpers from all over the court, but they aren’t particularly concentrated in any one spot.
Shot charts lack context (are shots assisted or unassisted?) and precision (most players have more shots at the rim than anywhere else, which shot charts can’t always highlight), but they do a good job of portraying how a player scores at a glance.
So that’s the gist! I’ve compiled a list of the most exciting and informative shot charts from this season, and we’ll use them as a jumping-off point for a few discussions.
FUN ALERT: For paying subscribers, I’ll show a selection of shot charts in a separate post, some with multiple choice and some without, for you to test your expertise! I’m not clever enough to make it interactive, but if that sounds like a mildly enjoyable intellectual exercise, you can find the link here. If you don’t want spoilers, play the game first and then come back here, since I’ll be using the shot charts below (and more!) in the game.
*Become a paid subscriber now to unlock access to the shot chart questionnaire!*
Ok, if you don’t care to try guessing the shot charts, or you’re already taken a gander, let’s get into it!
Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Bam really, really wants to shoot from straight on. After struggling for years with some of the biggest and best defensive centers in the East, namely Brook Lopez, he’s worked hard on developing a little eight-foot jumper that he can loft over hulking bigs. Not only does he shoot it a lot, but he shoots well from virtually everywhere in the paint.
Bam’s dabbled with short jumpers in the past but often lost confidence in them during the playoffs. To his credit, he’s put in a massive amount of time and effort into forging this shallow jumper into a sharper weapon:
Bam’s shot chart also highlights a greater trend among centers: most prefer their shots in a straight line from the rim to the top of the three-point arc. You don’t see many big men shooting wing or corner jumpers, and there are a few reasons for that (comfort levels at different spots on the floor, most pick-and-rolls have the center rolling down the middle, etc.). The most important consideration, however, is that centers are usually the slowest guys on the court and the last line of defense. So if they’re stationed in the corners and miss a shot, they may not be able to get back to their defensive post in time to prevent a transition attack.
Most shot charts for bigs look similar to Bam’s. However, true stretch-fives, like Al Horford, are an exception. Their three-point shooting can be weaponized from different areas, and they are often mobile enough to scamper back with haste so as not to compromise the defense.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
This has less to do with any league-wide trends and more with Zach’s tendencies: the man hates floaters, as evidenced by the lack of shot attempts in the 6-10 foot range.
The one-armed floater is a weapon for many guards. It’s a helpful tool when probing the paint; a player can’t always get off a layup over a lurking center, but the floater is explicitly designed to avoid the outstretched arms of the world’s biggest humans.
Instead, LaVine is far more likely to take a long pull-up jumper or a short fadeaway:
Zach is unusual in his proclivity for traditional jumpers at the expense of a running teardrop. Still, it’s worked for him, and he remains an efficient three-level scorer even without the typical floater.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, OKC Thunder
SGA is the runaway favorite for Most Improved Player this season, and he’s averaging more than 30 points per game despite being a low-volume marksman from deep.
Instead, he works his way into the paint for an absurd number of contortionist layups and teardrops that kiss the sky before gently alighting through the net. In marked contrast to LaVine, Shai lives for his one-handed floaters, which he often frees up with his uncanny footwork. He’ll even bank them from straight-on, a trick rarely used by other players:
SGA has improved every year by leaning into his strengths and developing his weaknesses. For example, he used to shoot more threes, but he shot them less accurately. Now, he’s leading the league in drives for the third year in a row and is shooting almost exclusively within 12 feet of the basket. This is what it looks like when a player self-optimizes to the highest degree.
Reggie Bullock, Dallas Mavericks
Reggie’s not a star, but he’s a star in his role: a genuine 3-and-D guy. Bullock ably defends the opposing team’s best guard on defense, protecting Luka Doncic (and now Kyrie Irving) from the dirty work, and happily mans his spot in the right angles, where Reggie’s a deadly marksman. Bullock shoots more than 80% of his shot attempts from deep, the third-highest rate in the league (after only deep reserves Sam Hauser and Garrison Matthews).
Bullock is a prototypical role-playing wing in today’s NBA. Players who aren’t big men or primary offensive engines will spend much of their time prowling the three-point line, hunting catch-and-shoot opportunities like an impatient cat patrolling for mice. Of course, Bullock is extreme, but his shot chart is an illuminating example of what role players are expected to do on offense.
It’s not all waiting in corners. Bullock is sneaky, finding open space by preying on inattentive defenders whose eyes get stuck to Luka like a tongue on an icy flagpole:
One final note on Bullock: The NBA is moving away from the Harden Rockets-era tactic of truly stationary off-ball shooters. Even corner specialists like Bullock are more likely to move around and set/accept off-ball screens to give the defense something to think about. A good example to watch is the Indiana Pacers. Under coach Rick Carlisle, they have as much off-ball movement as any offense in the league.
Kevin Durant, Phoenix Suns (still weird)
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen something as beautiful as Kevin Durant’s shot chart (uh, besides Mrs. Poetry, of course). Durant can get buckets from anywhere on the court, making him an impossible cover.
There are some illuminating nuggets to glean from his map, however.
First, Durant is stronger on the right side (your left) of the court, which is slightly unusual. Many right-handed players actually shoot better and more frequently from the left side of the court. Durant’s volume this season is similar from everywhere, and he’s hardly lackluster from the left side, but there’s a clear improvement when he goes to the right. (Interestingly, for his career, Durant is more prolific on his right side but slightly more accurate on his left. So this year’s trend is likely just small sample size noise.)
Second, even Durant knows better than to take super-long twos. You’ll see very few hexagons just inside the three-point line. The 23-foot jumper is dead, except in the direst circumstances (or, perhaps, when a toe is accidentally on the line, as Durant well knows).
Finally, you’ll notice that for a guy comfortable launching from anywhere, there aren’t many shots from the corners. This is true for almost all star players (notice the similarity with LeBron’s chart at the start). With some exceptions, star players like to operate from the middle, with more options open to them. Corners are for shooting, not dribbling and playmaking.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Look at how far Trae has been shooting from! Only a handful of players, like Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, and Jordan Poole, launch from the parking lot with as much regularity. I didn’t do a poor job cropping; Trae is just firing from so far away that his attempts are off the standard map. Here there be dragons!
Trae, like SGA above, is another master of the floater. He’s a small, unathletic guard who struggles badly to finish at the rim, but he’s money from the in-between areas. Young shoots 57.5% from floater range and just 50% at the hoop; those are, respectively, one of the best and one of the worst marks in the entire league, and he might be the only player better off shooting from ten feet away than two.
Young’s deadly teardrops look the same mechanically as the lobs he throws with regularity to Clint Capela, Onyeka Okongwu, John Collins, and the Hawks’ other high-flyers:
Young can even throw the oop or hit the floater with his left hand!
With the pick-and-roll-centric tendencies of many modern NBA offenses (although they are diversifying, slowly but surely), it’s almost impossible to stop an elite ballhandler like Trae from getting into the paint. The midrange game isn’t as important as it used to be for role players, who are expected to space the floor, but it’s just as crucial as it’s always been for star players who need to manufacture offense independently.
Jayson Tatum/Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Tatum (top) and Brown (bottom) have nearly identical shot charts.
I don’t really have much to say about this, but the symmetry between the two tightly-linked wings is awesome to see.