During the 2019-20 NBA season, the league-average team took 33.8 3-point attempts per game and hit 35.8 percent of them. That equates to 36.3 points from beyond the arc.
Those numbers looked a little different ten years ago during the 2009-10 campaign. The league-average team took only 17.7 treys and shot 35.1 percent—accounting for 18.6 points total.
In every sense, the value of the 3-pointer has increased, and therefore challenged the way we look for skills in players and prospects. This especially holds true in the NBA Draft.
Eight of the fourteen lottery picks in last year’s draft shot above 35 percent from deep as rookies. The 2009 draft only had two: James Harden and Stephen Curry. Shooting at a proficient level is a prerequisite for seeing NBA minutes and is also becoming the way for earning a coveted draft selection.
When evaluating prospects, we have to take these stylistic differences into account. It’s one of the reasons non-shooting bigs tend to fall on my draft board and why I’ve often made the case not to draft them in the top-ten unless a truly transcendent talent. It’s why fringe roster guys like Garrison Matthews, Kyle Guy and Matt Thomas find their ways onto NBA rosters.
The game has changed, and now we have to change how we look at players. The evaluation hasn’t changed, but the valuation has.
So who are some of the specialists this year who, although not transcendent, “alpha dog” guys, could see their names called earlier than they would a decade ago? We’ve got three names: Saddiq Bey from Villanova; Aaron Nesmith of Vanderbilt; and Isaiah Joe from Arkansas to discuss as the top flamethrowers. We’ll breeze through the written portions of these evaluations and let the videos do a lot of the talking.
Bey shot 45.1 percent from 3-point range on 5.6 attempts a night. Over his two years at Villanova, he was a 41.8 percent shooter from deep.
With a 6’10” wingspan, point guard skills from before his growth spurt and high-level defense so he can guard 2 thru 4, Bey checks a lot of boxes for scouts looking towards the modern NBA:
Of the three players on this list, Bey’s form is also the most unorthodox. He’s not a fluid athlete by any means, but his shot is consistent and there’s enough of a sample size to feel confident in what we’ve seen.
His range is deep and he was trusted as a top threat at Villanova.
Another huge part of the college evaluation process is the trust that’s given to a college coach to effectively develop a player for success in the pros. Any data in that regard is more about trends than proof, but one trend is clear: Jay Wright’s players at Villanova all leave there fundamentally sound and historically outperform their draft spot.
He doesn’t produce many stars (Kyle Lowry may be the lone exception), but guys like Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Eric Paschall have all carved out important roles early in their careers.
Most importantly, none in that group are defensive liabilities. Bridges, the best defender of the group, is most similar to Bey, both in body type and developmental progression. Mikal did three years at Villanova and was a lottery pick. Bey should be on the same trajectory, with an extra year for NBA teams to reap what they sow.
The biggest red flag with Bey’s game is how simple his drives are and how little change of speed he possesses.
Most guys of his length have a long enough first step to get around their man, even if their first step isn’t quick. Bey doesn’t seem to unlock either, making most of his drives the back-down, patient, controlled variety. That lack of speed limits his upside as more than a specialty wing player who knocks down shots and defends.
Like most 20-year-olds, Bey has to get stronger and figure out how to best use his frame. But I’d be a fool not to bet on a Villanova guy with his track record of shooting success. He’s a good pick in the lottery with a relevant fit in today’s game.
There’s a clear difference between college and pro systems. Most guys who become NBA role players can carry an offense for a good college program. Aaron Nesmith is no exception.
During the 14 games he played at Vanderbilt this year, Nesmith averaged 23.0 points on a whopping 52.2 percent shooting and a strong 50 percent inside the arc.
Those numbers are bloated and likely unsustainable for a full season, however. Nesmith barely scratched the surface of SEC play before his season ended with a right foot injury.
While the sample size is low, the eye test saw dozens of clear glimpses of how his role at Vanderbilt fits into an NBA offense. Why? His head coach there is Jerry Stackhouse, a former NBA All-Star and G-League Coach of the Year. All the shooting actions built around Nesmith were packages found across the league, giving him a leg up in evaluation when scouts know he can make those types of shots.
Those shooting packages are what NBA teams will hope Nesmith provides at the next level.
He’s not bad as a standstill threat, but the ability to use him on the move is a great bonus for squads who want to leverage his strengths with their playbook: Spain pick-and-roll, hammer sets out of timeouts, elevators for late-clock looks, you name it.
Unlike the other guys on this list, Nesmith hasn’t struggled with shot selection and taken too-bold attempts, particularly from inside the arc. Perhaps Stackhouse gets some credit, and some likely belongs to Nesmith’s point guard Saben Lee.
Regardless, when looking for specialists and the right fit, there’s little concern that what Nesmith does well fits perfectly into how pro teams envision a specialty shooter.
While Nesmith has ideal NBA size, I worry about his athleticism holding up on the other end of the floor. His on-ball defense is subpar.
He takes poor angles on closeouts, he doesn’t have great lateral quickness and the angles he uses when he closes out leave him at a frequent disadvantage. The closeouts can be fixed from a technique standpoint, but the other two issues can only change via dedicated work with a speed coach.
Nesmith isn’t really a multi-positional defender. He’s most easily protected at the 3, and his sturdy frame could guard some 4s. Because he’s pegged in a hole on that end, he strikes me as a relatively low-ceiling prospect.
He can make shots, but don’t expect too much else.
If the aesthetics of a jumper matter to you, Isaiah Joe will be your top prospect in this class. Nobody has a smoother, more beautiful stroke. He’s also incredibly long.
Unfortunately, no official measurements are available for his wingspan, but he’s likely upwards of 6’7″. Joe had an up-and-down season at Arkansas under former NBA head coach Eric Mussleman. Joe started the season 35.8 percent from deep over their first 16 games, and his team started 14-2.
But the Razorbacks finished 5-5, and Joe went 31.3 percent over that span.
The drop may not seem that drastic, but when you take eleven treys a game, it’s the difference between three points per game.
Joe is solid in most facets, and his skill level doesn’t have many glaring holes. That said, there’s one major weakness with his value as a prospect: he’s 6’5″ and barely 165 pounds. That rail-thin frame, one that didn’t improve over two years at Arkansas, will scare off plenty of teams who doesn’t see the well-rounded shooter he could turn into.
I mean, look at that stroke.
The shooting ability jumps out at you, but there’s more to like about Joe’s defense than one might think for someone his size.
Joe is really quick laterally, a key for guarding at the 2. He’s also great at using his length and squaring contact to his chest. He’s a reliable help defender who’s rarely out of position, knows when to gamble and showed some real competitive streaks in close, late-game situations. He’s not going to be a lock-down guy, but there’s hope that he’s at least above average.
It’s hard to know whether Joe’s shooting numbers dipped this year because he was asked to do too much or if his body wilted over the course of that much workload. If it’s the latter, there’s probably some merit to keeping him out of the first-round and snatching him up early in the second.
Everything other than the strength profile is easily fixable if put in the right role. Joe’s shot selection was rough at Arkansas, again likely due to carrying a load his prototype isn’t meant for. He also weirdly struggled to shoot off screens, despite few flaws to his mechanics existing there.
It may take some imagination, but try to envision Joe as the fourth cog in an offense or as a reserve floor spacer at the 2. He fits perfectly next to a ball-dominant guard, is a fine defender with his rotations and form, and has more upside as a secondary pick-and-roll creator than he flashed.
I think he’s primed to explode with the right situation.
Bey has the most to offer of the group from a well-rounded standpoint. He’s the longest, the best defender, the most switchable player and undoubtedly the best passer. I have a hard time leaving Bey out of the top ten on my draft board because he’s so good at the things that every team covets and has a relatively high floor. His draft range is likely anywhere from 8 to 20.
The other two are flipped in terms of their valuation. A lot of this comes down to anticipation of data misnomers, expected regression to the mean and a view of improvement areas that are coachable/ fixable to a more controllable degree.
There’s a generally accepted principle that a bell curve exists for the relationship of efficiency and volume. A shooter with zero attempts has no efficiency, and one with very few attempts struggles to find a rhythm, so their effectiveness is limited.
Too many attempts can lead to fatigue and defenses keying in on the shooter to make that look overly difficult, which also harms efficiency. But there’s a sweet spot in the middle, where the curve is at its highest point and peak efficiency is found. For role-playing shooters, this is a key mark to hit.
We also have to take single-season statistics with a grain of salt, especially at the college level.
Nesmith, for example, played only 14 games at Vanderbilt this season. His 52.2 percent shooting from deep is great over a 14-game sample, but he’s 41 percent over his 46-game college career.
— Tobias Berger (@tberger_gtg) May 1, 2020
Isaiah Joe, who had an incredibly high volume as the lone sniper at Arkansas this year, saw his effectiveness dip to 34.2 percent. But for the 60 games of his collegiate career, he’s 37.8 percent.
The point is, both players were either under or below their expected efficiency. We can expect a regression to the mean.
So if the shooting effectiveness actually levels out, what is it that Nesmith or Joe has that the other doesn’t?
Nesmith’s flaws are related to his lack of creation off the bounce and the slow-footed nature of his defense. Joe’s conversation revolves around his physical bulk and the shot selection he displayed at Arkansas.
Call me crazy, but Joe’s deficiencies seem much easier to fix from a coaching perspective. NBA strength programs can fix his bulk issues (more often than not), and operating as a third or fourth option would blend well with Joe’s strengths. The dip in volume should bring him to peak efficiency.
With Nesmith, I’m less optimistic about those issues working out. He may be a good enough shooter to overcome the defensive deficiencies, but it won’t make them go away. Joe, on the other hand, sees his strength at the root of all his struggles on that end.
I’d rather bet on a guy becoming stronger than becoming more balanced and athletic. Some things are just easier to teach.
The current draft climate centers around Nesmith being a mid-first prospect, perhaps even a late-lottery guy. Due to concerns around his strength, Joe rarely flirts with first-round status. Don’t be shocked to see Joe become a riser late in this process, perhaps making all three from this list among the first thirty names off the board.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.