You wouldn’t know it by the proliferation of triple-doubles and other out-of-this-world performances, but the NBA’s shooters aren’t getting any better and haven’t for decades. The league’s average field goal percentage has oscillated between 44 and 46 percent the last 20 years, with three-point shooting keeping a similarly tight range (34 to 37 percent).
However, there is technology that wants to change that.
Traditionally, shooting a basketball had two outcomes — a make or a miss. But but studying the specific angles and trajectories of those makes and misses, shooters can come closer to the perfect shot, placing more balls in what some are calling “a guaranteed make zone.”
Rachel Marty, a bioinformatics doctoral student and data scientist at the University of California, San Diego, currently conducting research at the Ludwig Center for Cancer Research in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Simon Lucey, an associate research professor within the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, studied real-time practice data on 1.1 million three-point shots from over 160 players at the pro (NBA and WNBA), collegiate and high school level, allowing them to analyze not only where the shot originates, but also its entry angle, shot depth and left-right position of the ball.
Their paper, “A data-driven method for understanding and increasing 3-point shooting percentage,” was presented at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and focused on data collected by Noah Basketball via a sensor mounted 13 feet above the rim.
One of the paper’s most interesting conclusions was that a perfect three-point shot isn’t always a swish.
“A common misconception is that swishes are the only shots that are guaranteed to make,” said Marty, whose father founded Noah Basketball. “But if your ball hits the back of the rim and goes down, those shots are also guaranteed to make, which shifts the guaranteed make zone further back in the hoop than most people believe.”
Consistently hitting this “guaranteed make zone” — especially at the NBA level — plays a large role in a player’s success, which is why having immediate feedback in practice can help shooters develop a reliable shot.
“Being an excellent shooter is not just about the number of shots you can make on any given day — it’s more about your overall consistency,” Marty said. “It’s hard to judge a player by a single instance of shooting, but once you break it down to these factors it is much easier to encapsulate the quality of a shooter.”
Look no further than Steph Curry, the two-time reigning MVP who became one of the league’s best shooters by working on his mechanics and his ball transfer from different angles and different slots. The results have been staggering. As a rookie, Curry’s true shooting percentage was 56.8 percent, but he led the league in true shooting percentage last season (66.9 percent) and is among the league leaders this season (61.8 percent), consistently converting shots all over the hardwood; league average is 55.2 percent.
Brandon Payne, the owner of Accelerate Basketball and Steph Curry’s personal trainer since 2011, uses Noah Basketball’s sensor at both his training facilities. The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers are among NBA teams that have the system set up at their practice facilities as well.
“If there is one thing you have to be able to do in the NBA today it’s shoot the basketball,” Payne said. “As we have gotten more toward this pace-and-space model of playing there is a premium on shooting the basketball and being able to shoot it from a lot of different places.”
The system can also help shooters find the limits of their abilities, even when it comes to fatigue, by sensing changes in how the shot tracks to the hoop.
“We use it to determine how many shots a player can take and maintain good mechanics,” said Payne. “Our goal is to get that player in better condition and strong so he can shoot more shots with perfect mechanics.”
But Curry is already a pro and was a gifted shooter long before this new technology came along. The improvement it can provide him is relatively small compared to what it can do for a raw player conceptualizing and piecing together their shooting motion when first starting out with the game.
“In the NBA it is hard enough to make a shot, period. Whether [Curry] swishes it 11 inches or 12 inches as long as the ball goes in the basket I’m happy,” Payne said. “When we are using those numbers it is more for teaching purposes with youth basketball as players are coming up. Those kids, middle school and higher, have this info available to them their entire playing career, so it is easier for them to wrap their heads around this stuff.”
Perhaps exposing a younger generation of basketball players to improved data collection is the catalyst needed to improve shooting at the NBA level. If younger players can develop and maintain good mechanics earlier — focusing on more details of a shot attempt than merely in-or-out — their shooting talent figures to only increase. Spread that knowledge wide enough at an earlier age, including to youngsters capable of a collegiate or NBA career, and it only figures pro shooting percentages should, finally, trend upwards.