The Lessons Every NBA Volume Scorer Must Learn

Last week, a few games I watched left me simultaneously impressed by young talent and worried about their development. I shouldn’t be surprised.

Teenagers with immense skill don’t get enough credit for their maturity, growth and the difficulty of their tasks. These are guys a few years removed from high school social studies that are already among the best in the world at what they do.

No businessmen, politicians or physicists can stake that claim.

It’s fine to praise these young men that cannot legally purchase alcohol for how incredible their accomplishments are. But there are indeed times when their youth, inexperience and lack of savvy show through.

Some immensely talented players—that have long dominated lesser competition with their skill and/or athleticism—lack the nuances to accomplish their goals consistently against similarly-gifted athletes.

That’s where shot selection comes in.

The margin for error on an offensive possession is minimal. There are enough possessions throughout the game that perfection is not required, but the best teams are the ones that waste the fewest opportunities. There’s an imbalance that naturally occurs between coaches preaching the value of each opportunity and a young player trying to figure out just which shots benefit their team.

Even highest-enshrined Hall of Famers have struggled with this before.

There’s a game we play with the players on the basketball team I coach. We call it “good shot, bad shot.” We watch a possession from our prior games and try to determine if this was the appropriate attempt for the group. Context plays an important role in our answers. Who is taking the shot? What are we trying to run, and how are they guarding it? How much time is on the clock? Is this a shot we practice? Are there other avenues open? Has the shooter made a few on prior possessions? Can we rule this a “momentum situation”, where a make would provide a large emotional lift?

Feb 1, 2019; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) tries to dribble around Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) during the second quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Shot selection is complex. There is a chess match hidden within, where taking one shot can open up another. A team that shoots no threes will likely see defenses collapse near the rim, daring them to shoot. That’s why Rajon Rondo—a notoriously poor shooter from three when with the Boston Celtics—would take some: he had to force his defender to at least pay attention.

Youngsters that shoulder a large load within their offenses have an even more difficult role. They are given the green light and are depended on to score. Yet, that does not mean they get to shoot whenever they want.

Finding the rhythm and balance between forcing the issue and carrying the burden is difficult.

Take Donovan Mitchell, the second-year scoring guard for the Utah Jazz. During Friday night’s double overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Mitchell experienced the highs of his natural talent and the lows of immature shot selection. Without his scoring and creation, there’s no way the Jazz are in that game.

There’s also a counterargument that Mitchell forced too much and may have shot them out of the game.

Mitchell started the game five-for-five from the field with twelve points. From that point forward, he had 26 points on 30 shots. As the game wore on, the Thunder devoted more attention to him, collapsing on drives, forcing him into contested shots and crowding him on the perimeter.

Without fail, Mitchell would put his head down and drive one-on-one when pressured. Instead of looking for teammates, he was in hunting mode. Particularly late in the clock, the ball was often in his hands as the Jazz left the sophomore to fend for himself:

An important aspect of evaluating shot selection is understanding alternatives. Late in the clock, there weren’t many for Mitchell or the team. But three pull-up threes without putting pressure on the rim?

Well, Mitchell wasn’t successful with head-down drives to the rim, either. The Thunder would send two to the tin while a guard bumped the ball handler wide on his drives. Instead of kicking, Mitchell would try to shoot over the supreme length of the Thunder back-line.

The degree of difficulty on some of his attempts—and the amount of touch required while going full-speed—make them highly questionable:

Seeing this, you would think the Jazz would adjust. They surely knew Mitchell was drawing a great deal of attention on his drives. He got into the lane when he wanted and forced defenders to commit to him. The Thunder were selling out on Mitchell.

The appropriate adjustment would be to have the star be a creator for others.

So late in the fourth, with the Jazz holding for one shot to give them the lead, you could imagine my surprise to see Mitchell try and jam it down the Thunder’s throat once more while guarded by perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Paul George:

Great individual scorers need a longer leash, which adds an even more difficult layer to shot evaluation.

The creativity and offense they produce often defies conventional wisdom. Yanking them from the game, or discouraging them from being who they are (as a response to an ill-advised shot), can be detrimental. To make matters more difficult, many individual clips in hindsight do not provide opportunity to say “this was a bad shot”. It’s a good scorer taking an aggressive attempt.

Those tend to be okay.

But it’s the volume of too many “okay” shots that kill a team’s momentum. Elite players understand this balance and have confidence that, if they pass the ball, they will get it back.

How many of Mitchell’s thirty-five attempts are actually bad shots? Two? Those hurt, but it’s the volume of difficult ones that sting the most.

What’s frustrating is how much potential Donovan Mitchell has flashed as a passer. His vision and raw passing ability are proof that he’s a capable creator. Friday night, he even read the defense perfectly and delivered a cross-court dime to Joe Ingles:

Passes like this make Mitchell’s shot selection that much more frustrating. He had absolutely the perfect read, catching the Thunder mid-rotation as Paul George stunts at the rolling Rudy Gobert.

Even Atlanta Hawks rookie Trae Young—one of the league’s most intriguing young stars—struggles with knowing when to pull. A horribly inefficient start to his rookie campaign was mired by those flaws. When Young put together an impressive run in January, a large part of his effectiveness was due to improved choices.

Hawks first-year head coach Lloyd Pierce gave an awesome answer when asked about the relationship between Young’s shot selection and his uptick in production:

Indeed, Young’s numbers have been outstanding since January 1st. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 8.1 assists and shooting 43 percent from the field (37 from deep). His ability to stretch defenses and take Pierce’s advice to heart are a lethal combination. Moving from “How do I score?” to “How do I manipulate the defense?” is a mature and important shift for any star to make.

Young still is not immune from bad days and forcing down the stretch, of course. In Friday’s three-point loss to the Detroit Pistons, he took 23 attempts, 11 of which came from downtown. That’s the most treys he’s taken since October, while his lack of pressure on the rim was frustrating. One possession late in the fourth quarter particularly irks me, when you examine the lack of those principles that Pierce mentioned:

No moving of the defense, a lot of one-on-one-dribbling, and no downhill attack from Young. It’s easy to look at his raw stat line: 30 points and 10 assists while shooting close to 50 percent. But these are those shots where you could look the other way just because of the magic Young has and excuse the force. Is it a shot he’s capable of making? Most definitely.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the shot his team needs him to take.

Young and Mitchell both feel the pressure to create on for teams that lack other one-on-one talents. Late in the clock, and late in games, they have a greater onus to create a quality look. Young had a strong game against the Pistons, and down three with only seventeen seconds to go, coach Pierce drew up a set to force a switch. Young would get Pistons center Andre Drummond as the primary defender and look to attack.

Instead of getting north-south on his drive, this is what happened:

A shot from the half-court logo after seven seconds go by and zero initiative to get a paint touch?

Again, a player of Young’s special nature has proven the ability to hit that shot. But given time and score, the way he is defended, and the lack of necessity to launch a three, this is not the shot you want your best player defaulting to. The Hawks need Young and need the ball in his hands, but he needs to generate something greater in a crunch-time situation.

Settling for a shot like that is a mental choice, not a physical limitation.

The most polarizing instance of poor shot selection last week came in a collegiate contest that made headlines on Wednesday, February 20th. The number-one ranked Duke Blue Devils hosted the rival North Carolina Tar Heels, with all eyes on Duke’s freshman core. Zion Williamson, the leader of that core and presumed top draft pick in June, hurt his knee in the opening minutes, changing the game plan on the fly for the Blue Devils.

So it was “other” high-lottery prospect R.J. Barrett that picked up the scoring mantle and finished with a game-high 33 points.

Barrett was wildly inefficient and routinely ineffective, however. The Devils lost by 16 and could not get in a rhythm on either end. He took 22 shots, many of which were difficult and guarded attempts. Sometimes he had teammates standing alone in the corners one pass away, yet he chose to neglect them:

The two shooters Barrett refused to kick to? Alex O’Connell (38 percent from three) and Tre Jones (25 percent).

Does the low percentage of Jones mean Barrett should neglect the open man? To me, a kick to the corner might not lead to a direct shot, but it will continue to scramble the defense, or at least allow a higher-percentage look than Barrett trying to score through two defenders. As opposed to some of the contested one-on-one drives from Donovan Mitchell, clear alternatives existed for Barrett.

When defenses collapse on him, he often fails to adjust and find the open teammate. Instead, Barrett forces in traffic with off-balance, low percentage looks. These are very different than late-clock one-on-one drives:

Both clips show difficult, contested attempts with more than ten seconds on the clock. Are there clear passing lanes? Perhaps, and it is plausible they don’t lead to a high-quality look.

But young scorers that play at the highest of levels tend to underestimate the abilities of their teammates.

In the pros, every guy on the court has a go-to move they can use if they must. Barrett’s willingness to make those extra passes and not default to his insane talent is what will transition him from being a great college player to a winning NBA player.

That is, perhaps, the biggest distinction to make. All of these players are fantastically talented and will likely be great for a long time to come. Winning players make winning plays, and the feel for the game that comes over time teaches elite talent to recognize when such plays arise. Mitchell, Young and Barrett all have the talent to be elite. They just need to learn how to win.

Nothing about their struggles with their shot selection is insanely alarming or unique, given their age or circumstance. Taking the next step in their development does not necessarily mean adding new tools to their arsenal, new ways to score, or vast improvements to their skill sets. Instead, guys that have the rock in their hands need to win the mental chess game: moving around defenders, learning to feel their spots and dictating the game.

We can simultaneously hope elite talents, like the three I profiled here, will get there, even if we’re occasionally alarmed at the ugly process of watching them figure it out.

Truly amazing basketball players emerge every time they do.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of basketball-reference, stats, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of February 24, 2019.