First overall pick Anthony Bennett has had an up and down preseason for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He's still working into game shape and figuring out how he fits in with his new teammates. For the first couple of games, he couldn't get anything to go in the hoop and now he goes through stretches when he simply cannot miss. Preseason stats are mostly irrelevant, but there is one process-oriented stat that does interest me: three-point attempts.
After a few of the Cavaliers' preseason games, I saw some hand-wringing about how many three-pointers Bennett has been taking. Sometimes he takes them too early in the shot-clock and some people would argue that a man his size (roughly the size of a Mack truck) shouldn't be shooting threes at all. Power forwards are supposed to be doing dirty work down in the paint -- grabbing rebounds and dunking on people. My immediate reaction to this conversation was that it was nonsense. Three-pointers are very valuable shots and are usually preferable to other jump shots in terms of efficiency. But there's certainly a limit on how many threes you want your monstrous 6-foot-8 rookie power forward to take. I cannot tell you for sure what that limit is, but we can look at the numbers and try to come up with some sort of estimate. At the very least, we can advance this conversation and think more critically about how Bennett should play during his rookie season.
After some searching, I was able to find Anthony Bennett's preseason stats. This was actually the first time that I had looked at them because, you know, preseason stats are not very important. But I was impressed to see that Bennett was connecting on 35% of his shots from behind the arc. That's a perfectly passable percentage from distance and definitely makes his three-point attempts fairly efficient shots, at least in this small sample size. But this conversation is about process, not results. I don't want to know how many threes Bennett is making, I want to know how many he's taking. Of course these two numbers ought to be related -- if he makes a higher percentage of them, then he should continue taking them at a higher clip. After six preseason games, Bennett is averaging 9.0 field goal attempts per game (in 22.6 minutes per game). Of those 9.0 field goal attempts, 3.33 of them are from distance. That means 37% of his shot attempts are three-pointers. Is that too many? Should he be taking more? We can't make that call without some further context.
If we assume that Bennett will regress a little bit during the regular season, we can give him a rough estimation of shooting 33% from three-point range. He shot 38.3% on such shots during his one year in college, but the three-point line is further away in the NBA and rookies tend to struggle with this adjustment. Even if he shoots 33% on three-pointers, the numbers seem to indicate that his three-pointers are still relatively efficient. We already know that the Bennett will be taking some jump shots. A huge part of his appeal to NBA scouts was that he can score from anywhere on the court. He's a big body that can punish defenders in the paint, but also has the ability to step out and score from the perimeter. According to Hoopdata.com, the league average for power forwards shooting midrange jump shots (16-23 feet from the hoop) in 2013 was 39.5%. Since those shots are worth just two points, that's an expected value of 0.79 points per shot. Working off our estimate, Bennett's three point shots would have an expected value of 0.99 points per shot when adjusting for the fact that a three-pointer is worth more than a two-pointer. But that still doesn't answer the question of if Bennett is taking too many of these shots.
Basketball-reference.com recently updated their stats and provided the ability to see what percentage of a player's shot attempts comes from three-point range. It won't solve all of our problems, but looking at how Bennett compares to some successful NBA power forwards in this regard may be helpful. Kevin Love, for example, is widely considered one of the elite power forwards in the league. And while a lot of that has to do with his unbelievable rebounding, his ability to score from anywhere and stretch the floor for his teammates is a big part of it. Every season since he's been in the league, Love has increased his percentage of three-pointers taken. In 2011-12, he shot 26.6% of his shots from distance. He made those at a 37.2% clip and had an extremely productive season. Dirk Nowitzki is another elite power forward with an ability to shoot the ball. In 2012-13, just 21.6% of Nowitzki's shots were threes. And he made an incredible 41.4% of his three-pointers.
What do those stats mean for Anthony Bennett? They mean that those who have been critical of his preseason shot selection may be onto something. That is not to say that Bennett needs to play exactly like Love or Nowitzki, but their shot distribution seems to indicate that Bennett is getting a little too eager with his threes. Both of those players are more accurate from that range and the highest three-point attempt rate that either of them ever had was 31.3% by Nowitzki early in his career. Bennett's current rate of 37% is typically reserved for power forwards that are mainly three-point specialists.
Perhaps there's an argument to be made that Love and Nowitzki aren't shooting enough threes. We know from various studies that three-point attempts are highly correlated with efficient offense, but do you necessarily want one of your biggest players and strongest rebounders to take such a staggering number of his shots that far away from the hoop? If the alternative is that Bennett is pulling up from 18-feet, then the answer is yes. Simple arithmetic shows that you'd rather have him taking a few steps back and getting an extra point. But if he can be even more effective by playing down low and scoring under the basket, then it seems reasonable to ask Bennett to cut down on his three-pointers just a little bit.
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