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Finding the Best 3-Point Specialist in the NBA

In the age of analytics, the NBA has looked to the three point shot more often every year. As of January 25th in the 2020-2021 season, teams are averaging a historical high of 35 3-point attempts a game, while also shooting them at the highest clip ever (36.5%).

Currently, among players who shoot three attempts from deep per game and have played more than 120 minutes, there are 86 NBA players averaging above 40% from long range. These astounding percentages got me thinking of who in the league is the best 3-point specialists at this moment. In order to figure this out, I established some criterion that the players must meet to be considered "specialists." The criteria goes as followed:

  • 120 minutes played
  • Shooting above 37% from three (slightly above league average)
  • More than three attempts per game
  • At least 50% of total points coming from three

These criteria condensed the pool of players involved down to 50 total players. Players like Stephen Curry and Paul George were left off the list, due to the majority of their points coming from shots inside the line.

It is important to make the distinction between a great 3-point shooter and a 3-point specialist. A 3-point specialist uses the long range shot to generate the majority of their offense where a great 3-point shooter has the ability to use the shot in their arsenal, but may be able to score effectively from all parts of the court and does not use the shot as often.

In order to graph the information, I decided to look at specific statistics.The statistics I decided to look at were:

  • 3-point attempt rate (3PAR)
  • 3P%
  • % of points off threess (%PO3)

Here is a look of how the data breaks down, and who the best three point specialist in the league is today.

The Process

Using Basketball-reference‘s player season finder database, I used the criteria listed above to narrow the list of players down to 50 (this was more luck than on purpose). I then used Microsoft Excel to help calculate the points off threes per game for each qualified player, as well as the percentage of their points that came from long range.

After finding these out, I then ranked the players based on the three statistics that were analyzed and converted the ranking to a percentile. After finding out their percentile, I averaged out the players" rankings in the three categories and reranked them based on their overall score. The math breakdown will be explained in further detail later.

The Data

Using Tableau, a data visualization software, I was able to graph out the 50 players, and compare different statistics.

The first graph displays the fifty qualifying players based on their 3P% and 3PAR. The players in the top right quadrant are players who are elite at both shooting the ball at a high volume and efficiency. These players are considered proficient shooters, shooting their most valuable shots at the highest rates. Those in the bottom right aren"t bad shooters, but just shoot from deep at a lower rate in both accuracy and volume. Wesley Matthews stands out here, as he shooting the three at a high volume despite shooting it with less accuracy.

This next graph shows how well players shoot from deep versus how much does the three-ball contribute to their overall offense. We see players like Isaiah Joe use the three for the majority of their offensive contribution despite it being at a lower clip, while Seth Curry uses the shot in moderation, while being highly efficient. This shows which players are “snipers" versus “chuckers." It can also can be beneficial to coaches to see who should be shooting from deep more or less often, and who has been most effective with their shot selection.

This last chart shows how much the 3-pointer attributes to the players" point totals, and how much they use it to produce offense in general. Some of these players may shoot from deep a lot and be highly effective elsewhere on the court, while some are exclusively looking to score from deep. Players like Buddy Hield and Duncan Robinson stand out here scoring the three effectively and almost exclusively, while CJ McCollum stands out for being able to score plenty from deep and elsewhere on the court.

These graphs help visualize who can be considered a true 3-point specialist. The players in the top right quadrant of each graph are some of the most effective 3-point specialists in the league, using the shot to generate the majority of their offense and doing so at a high rate in both volume and accuracy. Others on the outskirts may also be considered 3 point specialists, just are not in the upper echelon of their peers.

The Math

Now the graphs are great for visualizing the data, but the goal here is to figure out who has been the best 3-point specialist in the league so far. In order to do so, I ranked each of the 50 players based on the three statistics mentioned throughout the article and turned the ranking into a percentile. I then created an equation to weigh the percentiles of the three categories to create a new number which was then ranked again.

This new ranking shows the most effective shooters in the league. Before going into details on the equation, please remember that weighed equations are normally up to the creators interpretation, as all player ranking statistics are flawed one way or another (see PER for example). There is an argument to how everything should be weighed, this is simply what I felt best described the data.

Weighed most heavily is the three point percentage. This is because I believe accuracy is the most important part to being a 3-point specialist. If a player is not accurate from three, then they are simply just shooting from deep at a high rate. This is known as a “chucker" – someone who shoots from three a lot without regard for their accuracy from deep.

Next heavily weighed was the percentage of their points scored from deep. This, in my opinion, is more important than their attempt rate. If a player is scoring 80 percent of his points from long range while using the shot for 50 percent of their attempts, it shows that the player is not nearly as effective from inside the line, therefore making them a “3-point specialist."

On the contrary, if a player is scoring 60 percent of his points from deep and 60 percent of his attempts are from behind the line, then they are simply a player who is efficient from all around the court, but uses the three as their main line of attack. However, the attempt rate is still weighed in a sense that shooting more often from three is still beneficial to the players ranking.

The Ranking

#1 – Wayne Ellington
3P% – 50%
3PAR – 78.5%
%PO3 – 78.1%

#2 – Royce O"Neale
3P% – 46.2%
3PAR – 80%
%PO3 – 79.2%

#3 – Maxi Kleber
3P% – 47.1%
3PAR – 82.6%
%PO3 – 73%

#4 – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
3P% – 55.6%
3PAR – 61.8%
%PO3 – 65%

#5 – Joe Harris
3P% – 49.2%
3PAR – 61%
%PO3 – 66%

#6 Pat Connaughton
3P% – 45.2%
3PAR – 69.6%
%PO3 – 76%

#7 – Duncan Robinson
3P% – 44.4%
3PAR – 84.8%
%PO3 – 75.5%

#8 – Ben McLemore
3P% – 43.2%
3PAR – 69%
%PO3 – 75.9%

#9 – Marcus Morris
3P% – 47.4%
3PAR – 54.5%
%PO3 – 63.9%

#10 – Desmond Bane
3P% – 48.9%
3PAR – 53.7%
%PO3 – 62.8%

After applying the equation to all 50 players, I was then able to rank them to see who is the best 3-point specialist in the league. Among the 50 qualified players, Wayne Ellington came out on top as the best 3-point specialist in the league. In every iteration of the equation as I tinkered with it to find balance, Wayne Ellington continued to come out on top.

In last place (also in every iteration of the equation), was Lakers" forward Kyle Kuzma. What this has showed is certain players like Duncan Robinson (7th) and Buddy Hield (31st), albeit great shooters, are not as great as their other 3-point specialist counterparts.

Although both Robinson and Hield are arguably better players than Ellington, Ellington"s proficiency from three makes him stand out, ranking above the 90th percentile in 3P%, 3PAR, and %PO3 among the qualified players. Ellington is shooting 50% from three, for both 78% of his shot attempts and his points. While this goes against why I weighed the equation the way I did in the first place, Ellington"s accuracy and volume are so high that it makes him the best 3-point specialist in the league.

The 50 players came from 25 teams, led by Utah, Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Clippers. Teams like Utah and Milwaukee have found success surrounding their paint dominating big men with proficient shooters. By looking at theses statistics, teams can use the data to find other 3-point specialists, and be able to replace their high volume shooters with highly proficient shooters.

The 3-point specialist is becoming one of the most important roles in the NBA, as most teams have at least one, and four of the five teams that do not have a specialist are in the bottom 10 teams in Offensive Rating (Atlanta being the lone exception). Three of those teams – Cleveland, Minnesota and Orlando- are in the bottom four in offensive rating. Without a 3-point specialist to space the floor, offense does not come easy in the modern NBA.

Who is the best 3-point specialist in the NBA? Here is the number of specialists per team

For more information or to see the player rankings, please follow me on Twitter @FindingNeema23 and feel free to DM me for more information. Also, check out OvertimeHeroics.net for more information on your favorite teams!

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