Keldon Johnson and the art of spot-up

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One of the most pleasant surprises of this rebuilding season was Keldon Johnson’s incredible shot. Keldon has become one of the most effective outside shooters in the league. Of the 154 players in the league who have made at least 200 attempts, he is second in the league in accuracy with 43.2%. This is great news for the Year 3 player and deserves further investigation. So grab your protractor and your old TI-81 and join me in this episode from Professor’s Corner as we examine Keldon Johnson and a specific type of offensive play: Square in place.

Synergy Sports, through player movement tracking data, categorizes offensive possessions into play types such as pick up and roll, isolation, catch and shoot, and many others. Spot up is one of the most diverse categories since it includes the 4 potential outcomes (no pass) that can occur when a player receives the ball on the perimeter. These include: a jump shot without a dribble, a dribble to a pull jump shot, a runner and drives to the basket.

Current Spurs players who have a high frequency of spot ups possessions are Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell. Spot players from Spurs’ past include Matt Bonner and Bruce Bowen. Players of this genre shoot open shots or move to create a shot without using screens. The lack of a screen is very important since Synergy has another type of game, shockingly named off-screen, because they are involved. Spurs have great examples of both types. Doug McDermott is a prototypical motion shooter who weaves around screens before receiving the ball and shooting. Keldon Johnson embodies the spot up player.

High Spot-Up NBA players

This graph displays those in the NBA with more than 150 point possessions who have played at least 40 games. Keldon is averaging 5.4 point possessions per game and averaging 6.5 points per game from those possessions (which works out to an extremely impressive 1.2 points per possession (PPP)). There are very few players better than Keldon at this type of game. For reference, others who excel as “spot up” shooters are Patty Mills, Norman Powell ($90 million 5-year contract – please note for future), Cameron Johnson, Desmond Bane and All-Star starter Andrew Wiggins. It’s a solid company, but what’s really impressive is that it’s actually Keldon Johnson who is leads the league in total points scored in point possessions!(1)

How did we get here?

Yes, you read that right. I’m willing to guess that most NBA fans, including Spurs fans, would be very surprised to learn that Keldon Johnson leads the league in points of possession. One of the main reasons for this surprise is recency. Literally, it just happened. Last season, Keldon was a low-volume, moderately accurate outside shooter who was best known for his head-down, devoid of passing, and rim drives. But wow, according to the chart below, times have changed!

The chart below shows Keldon’s 3-point attempts (in “cooler” colors) and accuracy (“warmer” colors) since the start of his career (5-game rolling average). You can see that at -95 play mark begins a meteoric rise in attempts per game from 2.5 attempts to >7.0 attempts currently (blue line).

Keldon Johnson’s 3pt career accuracy and volume (data from Synergy Sports)

A substantial increase in volume is what I call a “stress test” and clearly Keldon passed. After his initial slump at the start of the season, he gradually tripled his 3-point attempts per game while maintaining a 5-game moving average accuracy ranging from an atomic 54% to a strong 38% (league average is ‘about 35.5%). As a result, Keldon received more hits and he became more comfortable and accurate with the increased volume. It is important to understand that the trend displayed on this chart is way beyond normal. Most shooters fail the “stress test” and shoot significantly worse when given a massive boost in volume. In contrast, this data suggests that Keldon is able to shoot around 6 shots from behind the arc per game while still staying above league average in accuracy. NBA teams pay big bucks to get players with this skill set and Spurs were able to develop one in their backyard.

A section of the chart above is a pie chart that divides Keldon’s holdings into their respective playtype distributions and it’s clear that Keldon’s feast is centered around the no-dribble jumper entry. Patty Mills and Keldon lead the league in points per possession in point shots that don’t involve moving via a dribble. Also, when factoring in 3-point value, Johnson & Johnson (Keldon and Cameron) lead the league in Synergy’s adjusted 3-point shooting percentage. In fact, via total points, only five players have scored more and all of them use no-dribble shots for over 75% of their scouting attempts, meaning that’s the main thing they do. In contrast, Keldon’s cast involves 53% static shots and the rest of his spot-ups involve him putting the ball on the ground and creating a better shot via pull-ups, floats and drives.

Going forward: outside shooting across the league.

To get the big picture, this scatter plot shows moderate to high volume 3-point shooters across the league. There are currently approximately 110 NBA players who have averaged >4 3-point attempts per game and have played in 40 games (this chart shows the top 70 win splits). Spurs have 5 of those 110 players: Keldon, Doug McDermott, Devin Vassell, Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker (unfortunately, 3 of those 5 are shooting below league average). Spurs lead the league in having the most players in this group of 110 and that can be attributed to having few high-volume shooters. Doug McDermott averages the most attempts per game (5.3). Seems like a lot for someone old enough to remember Robert Horry playing for Spurs, but please consider that Fred VanVleet takes more 3-point shots per game (~10.0) than Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell COMBINED . Having multiple moderate-volume shooters is the best approach for a developing team like San Antonio, but a team further down the development path might take a different approach.

Moderate to high 3-point shooters in the NBA.

Throw more?

When a player hits 40% of their 6 long range attempts per game, it’s tempting to hope for more. But it’s obviously not that simple otherwise Tony Snell and Steve Novak would be heading for the Hall of Fame. There is a limited number of open shots in a game. Currently, only 6% of Keldon’s 3-point shots (15 of 240) have been “tightly” contested – thus, 94% are open shots. This means that Keldon does exactly what he should: he takes open shots that come in during a game and hits a very high percentage of them. Other players have to attack this differently. For example, 19% of Doug McDermott’s 3-point shots (42 of 216) are highly contested. McDermott is a classic motion shooter. He is constantly weaving, using screens and moving around to take pictures. Could Doug dodge all that galloping and take some open shots? Sure, but there would be less for others and that wouldn’t be good for Spurs.

Shooting on the move is a premium skill in the NBA. Motion shooters are the tough shooters on the team. They use their momentum and that of others to create open/easier shots for their teammates. Therefore, spotting shooters (especially, without movement) finding open areas in the field established by the gravity of others. Spurs have open opportunities when players like Dejounte, Jakob and Doug force defenses to change. Therefore, Keldon uses others to generate his open shots. And to give you the details you’d expect from the Professor’s Corner: Keldon is averaging 62.5 offensive possessions per game and has averaged about 4.5 open 3-point attempts over the past 20 games. It’s possible he could increase to 6 attempts per game, but that would likely keep open shots away from his teammates.

good days ahead

Excluding passes, there are 4 ways a place possession ends. (I’ve included Keldon’s frequency percentages) (2)

  1. No movement hits (53.6%)
  2. Dribbling/relocating (8.3%)
  3. Runner (11.5%)
  4. Driven to cart. (23.0%)

A very positive aspect of Keldon’s game is that he is not primarily dependent on number 1. Thus, options 2-4 are on the table as he is able to put the ball on the ground. Considering Keldon uses the 1 option ~50% of the time, defenders MUST approach him as if he were a threat to drive OR fire. Compare that with players like Reggie Bullock and Lonzo Ball in which >75% of their possessions end without a dribble shot. With Keldon putting him on the floor in 50% of his opportunities, it forces hesitation in the minds of defenders and gives Keldon more autonomy.

It’s a mark of miss league and Keldon can apparently make his own. Over the past 40 games, he’s exploded onto the scene as a player who can shoot accurately at high volume. I expect Keldon’s accuracy to drop slightly over the next season as scouting reports evolve around the league. It will be good for Spurs. Defenders will be forced to “stay at home” on Keldon and that will open up other areas for his teammates. Us Spurs fans love to brag about how the organization excels in developing their talent. Well, via data visualization, this is an exact example of what it looks like.

Remarks

  1. Keldon is 4 years oldand in aimed shot attempts (244). Lou Dort leads the league with 266 point shots
  2. ~4% of Keldon’s one-time possessions are turnovers/fouls
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