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  • Writer's pictureBruin Sports Analytics

How Is the Shot Selection of NBA Centers Changing?

By: Jeffrey Liu


Source: Scott Strazzante / Associated Press

Introduction


On March 6, 2000, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers matched up in the Staples Center for what seemed to be any other regular season game.  However, it was Shaquille O’Neal’s 28th birthday that day.  To celebrate, Shaq proceeded to drop a career-high 61 points on the Clippers.  Fast forward 24 years, and on January 22, 2024, Karl Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves dropped a career-high 62 points on the Charlotte Hornets.  Both outstanding players, both centers, but what’s the difference?  KAT scored 10 three-pointers in his game, while Shaq didn’t attempt a single one.  


As the game of basketball evolved, different roles on the court have evolved with it.  As teams have started to opt for a fast-paced and high-scoring offense, three-pointers have become more viable.  The different positions in the NBA have adjusted to meet these changes, with centers being impacted the most.  With three-point trailblazers like Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love, and Steph Curry, coaches have started to allow centers to expand their potential on the court. Once a position where shooting from the three meant getting benched, now we regularly see 7 footers like Victor Wembanyama shooting frequently and efficiently from beyond the arc.  In this article, we take a deep dive into the evolution of shot selection of centers in the NBA over the years and how that is impacting the modern game.


Data Methodology


To dive into the mystery of NBA players' shot selection trends, we acquired a dataset documenting every shot taken in the NBA from the 2003-2004 season to the 2022-2023 season, which came out to about 4 million total shots.  We then filter the dataset by centers, and are then left with a total of 634,352 shots attempted by centers from 2003 to 2023.  Each shot included varying data regarding the shot, such as the player, the shot type, the shot’s X and Y coordinates, and whether the shot was made or not.  For the sake of simplicity, we look at 6 different years, spaced out between 2003 and 2023.  These years will be 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, 2019, and 2023.


Analysis


Shot Distribution


By calculating the Euclidean distance of each shot from the basket, we are able to plot every single shot attempted on a graph, with the hoop at LOC_X=0, and LOC_Y=4 (in feet).  For each year, we plot a scatterplot and a heatmap to visualize the shots taken and analyze any trends.  In each scatterplot and heatmap, we know that the overwhelming majority of shots are concentrated within a 4x6 feet area in front of the goal, since the majority of shots are dunks and layups, occurring in this region.  Note that to better focus on the rest of the shots, we remove the shots from this area in the heatmap.




Note that in the scatterplot, the distribution of shots at the three-point line becomes more and more concentrated over the years, representing an increase in three-pointers attempted.  When we look at both the scatterplots and the heatmaps, we can notice a trend of moving away from the mid-range either to go closer to the rim or farther for a three-pointer.  This makes logical sense, as players would rather opt for an easier, higher percentage two-pointer or a higher value three-pointer than a difficult mid-range jumper.


Shot Distance



Taking a look at how the distribution of distance to the basket of shots taken by centers has changed, we note that there is a steady increase of attempted shots from around the 30-foot range, which roughly corresponds to the three-point line.  We can also note that the histogram starts to “curve out,” becoming roughly concave up over time.  This is in agreement with our observation that centers are attempting fewer shots from the mid-range, either to move closer to the rim or beyond the three-point line.


Two-Point vs Three-Point Shots



Above is a comparison between the two-point and three-point attempts from 2004 and 2023.  We notice that centers are shooting on average 6000 more three-point field goals, and around 3500 more two-point field goals, twenty years later.  This is a sign of the growing focus on offense and prioritization of a fast-paced style of scoring over a slower, more tedious defensive playstyle.  Additionally, note that the field goal percentage of centers has been growing over the years.  The average three-point percentage of centers has grown almost 10% since 2004.  Since centers are getting better at scoring from beyond the arc, they would naturally take more shots in that area as it is worth more.


Different Shot Types


Our dataset provided in-depth information on the different shot types of each shot taken.  Every shot had a descriptor associated with it, which ranged from “Driving Reverse Layup Shot” to “Floating Hook Shot.”  A quick look at the data shows some expected results.  For example, different types of Dunk Shots were the most efficient shots in terms of percentage made and more difficult shots like Fadeaway Jump Shots had a much lower percentage made.  

Shot Type

Percentage Made

Attempts

Dunk Shot

97.71%

127,484

Layup Shot

51.53%

108,760

Tip Shot

47.43%

19,315

Hook Shot

45.44%

38,062

Jump Shot

34.64%

207,760

To make the data easier to scrutinize, we cluster similar types of shots together, resulting in the five categories of shot types above.  For example, Reverse Layup Shots, Alley Oop, and Finger Roll Layup Shot would all be clustered in the Layup Shot shot type.  The results displayed in the column are not notably unexpected.  The average weight and height of an NBA center are about 250 pounds and 6 foot 11 inches, allowing for dominance in the paint, which would explain the high dunk attempts and percentage.  On the other hand, since centers spend less of their time working on their jumper, they are among the lowest percentage shooters, which explains their low percentage of Jump Shots made.


Top-Scoring Center


Finally, we take a look at the highest-scoring center in each of the selected years and the average distance of their shots in that year.  



The data shows a trend of top centers shooting from farther and farther away from the rim.  Despite both being top scorers, Shaq and Embiid, having played in different eras of the NBAs, developed very similar yet different skill sets.  Though they are both physical and dominant in the post, Embiid developed a solid three-pointer to also pose an even greater threat on offense.   While all the centers on this list are athletic and explosive, Shaq and Amar’e Stoudemire focused mainly on footwork and strength in the paint, while centers like DeMarcus Cousins and Karl Anthony Towns also added a competent three-point shot to their arsenal.


Conclusion


Our analysis has unveiled the trend of centers shooting more frequently and efficiently from the three-point line, in response to a league that is prioritizing offense and three-pointers more.  Midrange jumpers are becoming less and less common, and centers like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, who are dominant in the paint but also a threat from the three-point line, are becoming more and more common.  I think this trend is bound to keep growing, with the rise of more versatile centers like Victor Wembanyama.  With the rise of combo guards and the dominance of centers in the current league (as shown by the past couple MVP winners), it is interesting to see how the NBA is more often becoming a “positionless” game, and it is exciting to see how the league continues to evolve.




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