Bruin Sports Analytics
The Rise of Neo-Positions in Basketball
By: Ved Phadke and Ollie Pai
Basketball is a game of constant evolution. The sport itself has undergone so many changes since its inception that it’s unlikely that James Naismith would even recognize it from watching a March Madness game. This evolution is ever-present within the NBA, as each season teams attempt to implement novel strategies in order to win more games, whether it be forming a 3-headed offensive glass cannon like the current-day Brooklyn Nets, or a cohesive defensive titan like the ‘04 Pistons. In the modern NBA, the strategic arms race is only growing in intensity, as the very positional framework of basketball is being rewritten in front of our eyes. As the general talent level within the NBA increases by year, the traditional five positions (Point Guard, Shooting Guard, Small Forward, Power Forward, Center) are losing their hold on the sport in favor of a style known as positionless basketball. Multifaceted players who can adapt to fit the way the game is being played are being valued over players that fit the mold of a traditional position. The relative decline in adherence to the 5 traditional positions has given rise to a number of what we will refer to as “neo-positions”, including stretch bigs, point forwards, and score-first PG’s.
The purpose of this article is to define the three aforementioned neo-positions, to analyze their prevalence and effectiveness at the team level, and then to use that knowledge to provide perspective on how NBA basketball will change at large moving forward. To ensure that our overall analysis is truly about the neo-position and not any individual player, we will look at examples from three levels of players: stars, mid-level talents, and lower-level talents. Additionally, we will compare each example of said neo-position directly against a counterpart who plays in a more traditional style. The statistics we used to conduct our analysis include Win Shares/48, AST%, USG%, 3PA, and FGA. All data is from the 2020-21 NBA season and is provided by Basketball Reference.
The first of these neo-positions we would like to address, the “stretch big,” is also perhaps the most widely known and prevalent. Within the context of basketball, a stretch big is a player typically with the size of a traditional power forward or center, but whose role in a team’s offense is to “stretch the floor” by providing a three-point shooting threat. In their current NBA implementation, stretch bigs utilize the threat of their three-point shot to force the defense to open up the paint and make it easier to either get an outside shot or slash to the basket.
While the position is still relatively new, it has an established presence in the NBA, thanks to players like former MVP Dirk Nowitzki, a stretch big whose jump-shooting prowess led the Mavericks to a title in 2011. Players today have attempted to adopt Nowitzki’s floor-spacing prowess and this is visible no matter how big or small the player’s role is on a team.
In order to analyze the impact of stretch bigs on the NBA, we first need to define what exactly makes a stretch big in objective terms. To accomplish this, we filtered all the listed centers and power forward-centers in the NBA by their 3 point attempts as a share of their field goal attempts. This definition allows us to clearly see who is a stretch big and who isn’t, as big men who cannot stretch the floor will not be taking a large amount of three pointers relative to their overall field goal attempts.
For our star level of analysis, we only looked at centers getting above an average of 30 minutes per game:
As this is a star-level comparison, some of these players will have entire offensive systems built around them, wherein they have a unique role and as such do not sit nicely with the rest of their contemporaries. Due to that fact, there are distinct groups within the data, each representing a different archetype in a team’s offense. In the top right corner of the graph is where you will see the most prominent stretch bigs in the NBA, including Karl-Anthony Towns, who took 36% of his shots from three-point range. These players are the natural progression of Dirk Nowitzki, as they are required to carry a heavy offensive load and they take advantage of their three-point shot to leverage that. Slightly below them is Myles Turner, in a league of his own. Turner’s unique and focused role on the Pacers as a “3-and-D” big man might make him the most prime example of a modern stretch big there is, as he took a whopping 48% of his shots from deep. Below Turner we have offensive juggernauts Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, both of which have proven capabilities to stretch the floor but are relied upon by their team to do more than that. Jokic and Embiid’s roles as skilled paint finishers means that although their three point percentages are high (39% and 38% respectively), their attempts largely come at the rim, with only 18% of Jokic’s attempts and 17% of Embiid’s attempts coming from three. Finally, we have the most traditional group of star centers, headlined by Rudy Gobert. Gobert fits the mold of the traditional center on offense and defense, with only 1.2% of his field goal attempts coming from three. Gobert’s adherence to traditionalism has not impacted his value to his team, as he posted the highest defensive win shares in the entire NBA, and led the NBA in field goal percentage.
Clearly, at the game’s highest level, a number of big men are either stretch bigs or have the necessary abilities to become stretch bigs. The true test to see whether this is only representative of the league’s top players or is truly a positional change will be observations of similar patterns at lower levels of players.
As we filter the minutes to emphasize middle-level talents (25 to 30 minutes per game) the role of big men is more clearly defined, as players must be a complement to a larger system rather than define the offensive system themselves. This leads to a more distinct difference in traditional and stretch playstyles, allowing for a simpler and more straightforward comparison between the example players we have chosen. Brook Lopez’s role in the Bucks offense is simplified as compared to the star-level stretch bigs, but his play is guided by many of the same principles. Lopez took about 46% of his shots from three in the 2020-21 season, stretching the floor to provide room in the paint for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drive to the basket. On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Richaun Holmes from the Sacramento Kings, whose role in offense is more traditional. Holmes is known for his signature push shot, which is usually taken from within 10 feet on the court, and the stats reflect that.
As we scale minutes down, the distinction between what constitutes a stretch big versus a traditional big man is further solidified. To cement the position’s mainstay in the NBA, however, it must be visible at all three of our levels, to show that stretch bigs are still viable when given only a few minutes. When we look at the data, this is very much evident.
Here at the “lower-level” talent bracket (10 - 20 minutes per game), players are mainly coming off the bench, used in short bursts for matchup purposes or to spark the offense. These often are specialists, whose niches don’t necessarily fit the consistency required to obtain more minutes. Hence, we see more distinct groupings than we did when examining the previous corner. The most dramatic outlier in this group is Mike Muscala, who took nearly 70% of his shots from three in the 2020-21 season! In 35 games for the Thunder during this season, Muscala was able to put up about 19 points per 36 minutes, providing spacing and size in his role in the offense. NBA champion Marc Gasol provided spacing as well on the Lakers during this season, becoming one of the more notable bench stretch bigs in the league. To round out this list of players, Robin Lopez is the example of the traditional-style big man, shooting only 5% of his shots from three point range.
At all three levels, there are clearly identifiable instances of stretch bigs versus traditional big men. The neo-position and the old position are coexisting in today’s modern NBA, but change is being ushered in rapidly. Spacing the floor is only growing more common as the analytics revolution encourages all teams to take more three pointers, and this includes the biggest players on the floor as well.
When looking at the impact that each of these example players had on winning, the results prove slightly ambiguous. It is not definitively clear whether there is a distinct correlation between 3 point rate and win shares per 48 minutes, but by looking at individual data points, a conclusion can be drawn. Stretch big men are not altogether isolated from their more traditional counterparts, which is in itself an indication that this neo-position has carved out its own place within the NBA. Winning basketball can and is played in the modern NBA with shooting bigs; Jokic is the best indication of this. At the same time, the traditional center is not dead yet– Rudy Gobert’s contribution to team success is evidence of this. Stretch big men, while not replacing the traditional center just yet, have successfully given the identity of the modern NBA big man a new dimension.
Another neo-position which has seen a recent emergence within the NBA is the “point forward”. Point forwards are generally characterized as forwards who have a knack for playmaking. Point forwards in today’s NBA can be utilized in a heliocentric approach, with the offense revolving around their ability to create, or as a secondary or tertiary playmaker who complements a guard.
Draymond Green Initiating Warriors Offense | 2020-21 NBA Highlights
Draymond Green’s world-class playmaking ability opens up the offense for his teammates like a point guard.
Forwards who display a keen sense for playmaking are not entirely new; Larry Bird displayed high IQ playmaking from the forward position back in the 80s, and posted one of the highest assist per game averages of any forward in history. LeBron James took this mentality forward into the 21st century, leveraging his playmaking ability to create high value shots for his teammates while simultaneously being the main scoring threat. Today, point forwards are very much made in this mold.
Once again, in order to conduct a proper objective analysis, we must define a point forward using numerical means. We narrowed our scope to players listed as either small or power forwards, which removes Ben Simmons and LeBron James, listed PGs who are commonly labelled as “point forwards”. The statistics we chose to represent how much of a Point Forward any given player is are usage percentage and assist percentage. Usage percentage is an advanced statistic which effectively estimates what percentage of a team’s plays a player uses while they are on the floor, while assist percentage estimates the percentage of teammate field goals a player assists on while they are on the floor. Point forwards will have a relatively high ratio of AST% to USG%, simply because they are required to facilitate more playmaking than their traditional forward counterparts.
Once again, we filtered for players playing above 30 MPG to look at high level talents:
One data point that jumps out is Draymond Green’s ridiculous AST/USG ratio of nearly 2.93. Draymond’s relatively low usage percentage can be attributed to his role as a secondary playmaker; while he averages the most assists on the Warriors, Curry has the ball in his hands more and creates for his team through his gravity (as well as his passing). He posts the highest assist percentage of any forward, and sets the gold standard for being a point forward. Giannis Antetokounmpo is no Draymond Green, but he still posts a higher assist/usage ratio than most other forwards. The Bucks play a heliocentric style of offense, defined by Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball as “when role players orbit around the gravity of a supergiant star”, and this approach allows for Giannis to embrace his playmaking ability. A more traditional power forward, Anthony Davis is still capable of playmaking, but structures his game in a way much more reminiscent of historical power forwards such as Kevin Garnett.
Scalability of the point forward position is definitely not guaranteed, as unlike the stretch big, point forwards cannot simply slide into a lineup to improve one facet. The graph for mid-level talents is as shown:
While there is still a clear distinction between playmaking forwards and non-playmaking forwards, it is unclear whether the point forward label still applies here. While Joe Ingles does have a sizable Assist % when compared to his Usage %, he is not necessarily orchestrating the offense the way someone like Draymond Green is, and as such may not qualify as a point forward. In this MPG range, Carmelo Anthony is the example of the typical forward, as most of his game revolves around finishing plays, not initiating them. When looking at the final level of players, our idea of what makes a point forward a point forward is further muddied.
When filtering to just 10-20 MPG, a cohesive analysis becomes difficult; players in this group simply do not post the same AST% to USG% ratio as players in the higher levels (even though the two stats are adjusted for possession). A player relying more heavily on playmaking than the average forward at this minute range is Nemanja Bjelica, who was utilized in short bursts during this season by both Sacramento and Miami as a stretch big who could at times make timely passes. By contrast, Precious Achiuwa, who was a rookie this season in Toronto, did not have a playmaking arsenal by any stretch of the imagination.
A clear attribute of a basketball position is that it must be scalable no matter how many minutes a given player is playing; historically, bench players have still fit the 5 position mold just as star players have. This is not yet there with the point forward, as the primary examples of this position are usually enhanced by a system constructed around them, rather than in reverse. Teams engineer their roster to provide point forwards with space and room to operate, which presumes that the point forwards in question will be playing a lot of minutes. This is why the assist percentages of the players we looked at is generally higher as the player’s minutes increase. Due to the lack of scalability within the league, it is unclear whether the point forward is a true position yet. However it is still valuable to analyze whether playmaking forwards in general provide significantly more value than forwards who do not playmake.
While not perfect, the data would seem to demonstrate a correlation between playmaking forwards and team success. The playmakers on this chart have an average of 0.154 WS/48 between them, while the more traditional forwards have a 0.103 WS/48 average. The data would seem to suggest that playmaking forwards work better when given more minutes and appropriate roster construction, whereas traditional forwards are more consistent and easily slotted into an already existing roster, however more analysis is surely needed before solidifying that conclusion. What is clear is that the point forward has a clear place in the NBA, even if it may not be a true neo-position.
"Score-First" Point Guard
Perhaps the direct inverse of the point forward, the “score-first” point guard position in the NBA has seen a rise in recent years. Traditionally, point guards have excelled at taking teams apart through their elite passing ability, however in recent years, the point guard position has evolved to include players that playmake through their floor spacing and scoring threats. These “score-first” point guards are a product of increased spacing on NBA courts: as teams stretch out their offense and shoot more threes, the value of having an established paint presence to score has relatively diminished. Now, quicker players who can shoot threes have an increased value, which perfectly describes the typical score-first point guard. Score-first PGs have less of a passing load to carry than more traditional, “floor general” PGs, so they make that offense up with high value scoring.
The origins of this position can be attributed to what older basketball players recognize as “combo guards”: a loosely defined position simply describing any guard who did not fit the traditional mold of a point or shooting guard. In its modern form, a direct line can be traced from the score-first point guards of today to none other than Stephen Curry, a point guard who revolutionized the game of basketball by leveraging his one-of-a-kind three point shooting ability. With his historic scoring, along with the institution of new hand-checking rules, Curry was able to flip the point guard position on its head, making it a legitimate strategy to have a point guard have a major offensive impact 25 feet away from the basket. While still being a listed PG and having the passing skills necessary to facilitate the offense like a traditional point guard, the focus with Curry and players like him is undeniably on scoring output.
To define what a score-first PG is through objective means, we can use a very similar method to how we established what point forwards are. In comparison to traditional point guards, a score-first point guard will have less of an impact on their team’s total assist output as compared to their usage overall. We can translate this information into yet another series of AST%/ USG% graphs, beginning with players which are at the star level:
No two players exemplify the difference between the more traditional PG and the score-first PG more than Chris Paul and Stephen Curry. Widely considered one of the best playmakers of all time, Chris Paul posts a higher assist percentage, but a lower usage percentage than Curry, suggesting that Curry carries a lower playmaking load but a much higher scoring load. This is very much true, as Curry is not even the primary playmaker on his own team (Draymond Green has a higher AST%), and is instead required to take apart teams through his distance shooting. Additional score-first PGs according to this graph include Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and Donovan Mitchell, all of whom have a relatively high usage percentage with a relatively low assist percentage for point guards. More traditional examples include Kyle Lowry and Ben Simmons. As the prototypical score-first point guard, it is obvious that Curry would display these traits, but to truly measure whether the impact he has had has created a new position entirely, it is necessary to see whether or not his archetype is carried out at other levels.
A similar distinction between PGs can be found in players who play between 20 and 30 minutes per game. Ricky Rubio is a prime example of the traditional point guard, and his impact on the game through his scoring is minimal (he shot a woeful 39% from the field this season on just 7 attempts per game). In direct contrast is Lou Williams, who has a higher usage percentage than assist percentage, but is still a listed point guard. Williams has been a microwave bench scorer primarily for almost his entire career, winning Sixth Man of the Year 3 times, and his assist numbers pale in comparison to Rubio’s. These two players have such different playstyles that they are effectively playing different positions altogether, a pattern which is repeated even when examining the lowest tier of point guards in the league.
The prevalence of score-first point guards is even more magnified at this level. Our two examples, Rajon Rondo and Immanuel Quickley, really only have one thing in common as far as their playstyles go: they are both listed point guards. While Rondo’s AST/USG ratio is consistent with the other traditional point guards we have looked at (around 2.05), Immanuel Quickley’s AST%/USG% ratio is only 0.63, much smaller than the other score-first PGs in our examples (0.88 for Curry and 0.92 for Williams). This fact as well as the overall trend line would suggest that at lower levels of minutes, point guards are required to contribute to a team’s scoring output more so than their supposed intended purpose, playmaking.
The standard for scalability that we have previously mentioned is clearly set when examining score-first point guards. PGs that prioritize scoring are clearly valuable at all levels of playing, but are they more valuable than their more traditional counterparts? Once again, we can examine this by comparing average Win Shares/48 for these positions and seeing if we can determine a distinct difference between the two.
Much like our other Win Shares graphs, there is nothing obviously distinguishing the neo-position from the traditional one. In our examples, score-first point guards posted an average of 0.125 WS/48, while the more traditional PGs had an average of 0.123, nearly identical figures. This suggests that teams can win with either of these two options if utilized correctly, and that the neo-position has just as much of an impact on the game as the more traditional PG.
To conclude, basketball has clearly exhibited positional change in recent years. Due to the three-point revolution, along with the rise in analytics, teams have fundamentally changed the way that they approach the game, and as a result, neo-positions have been born. Our overall findings are that two of the neo-positions we looked at, the stretch big and score-first PG, are legitimate, while the point forward is more of a situational usage of a power forward, evidenced through its lack of scalability. While it is unlikely that the NBA will officially change positional listings, the average viewer can expect to see the role of unofficial neo-positions in basketball expand in the future. Some of the best players in basketball are prime examples of neo-positions, and this fact will not change moving forward. Eventually, the best players will be primarily all-around talents, who have multidimensional games and can adapt to fit a team’s needs.