Nylon Calculus

The rarest statistical combinations of NBA player traits

Shooting is perhaps the NBA’s most prized skill right now. But what are the rarest combinations of skills to find in an NBA player?

To hear some tell it, the NBA has been migrating towards uniformity with every team trying to outdo each other in a 3-point shooting contest. Outside shooting is clearly at an all-time level of importance but the ways in which teams go about trying to leverage pace and space are dramatically different and the diversity of player archetypes is as high as it’s ever been.

As I meandered through this period of NBA-less isolation I’ve been casting about for some thought exercises to explore and I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of the relative uniqueness of different player archetypes. For our purposes here, I’m eschewing the larger work on defining complex archetypes and roles and that others like Todd Whitehead have done and focusing in specifically on the relative scarcity of different skill combinations.

Who are the NBA’s real unicorns?

I identified 11 different player skills (or in some cases, better defined as traits), calculated each player’s percentile rank in each skill across the past four seasons combined and then ran the correlations between each. Volume scoring, ball protection, playmaking, rebounding, shot-blocking and disruption were measured with points/turnovers/assists/rebounds/blocks/steals per 100 possessions. Shooting efficiency was measured with true shooting percentage. Self-creation was unassisted percentage. 3-point shooting was an average of a player’s percentile rank in 3-point percentage and 3-point attempts per 100 possessions. Defensive versatility comes from the work of Krishna Narsu. There are certainly more granular measures of these skills but simplicity works fine here.

As you would expect, there are strong negative correlations between ball protection and things like volume scoring, playmaking and self-creation. Statistically, those are among the strongest correlations in the dataset and although they are heavily role dependent, there is a real and extremely rare archetype embedded there — the low-turnover playmaker.

Over the three-year sample, just one player ranked in the top quartile in ball-protection, play-making and self-creation — Tyus Jones. Between his time with the Timberwolves and Grizzlies, Jones averaged 9.6 assists and 1.8 turnovers per 100 possessions, with 56 percent of his made-baskets being unassisted. Only three other players were in the top quartile in ball-protection and at least in the 60th percentile or better in play-making and self-creation.

While this archetype may be extremely rare, it’s not inherently valuable. Jones and Rivers both had solidly positive estimates in Offensive Real Plus-Minus, but Ferrell and Morris were well into negative territory. Shooting efficiency is obviously the missing piece of the puzzle and this archetype really only seems valuable if they can also make shots — it’s not enough to just be a game-manager.

The other obviously rare archetype that shows up from the chart above is the big-man who can play outside on offense and inside on defense. This is the fabled “unicorn” and over the time period I looked at, only three players ranked in the top quartile in 3-point shooting, rim-protection and defensive rebounding — Kristaps Porzingis (the original unicorn), Kevin Durant and Nikola Mirotic.

Included in the table are four other players who ranked in the 60th percentile or better in all three skill categories. In addition to this group, you have the extremely strange ancillary group of Kevin Love and Jaren Jackson Jr. Love rates as an elite 3-point shooter (90th percentile) and defensive rebounder (98th) but is a terrible shot-blocker (39th). Jackson Jr. is the opposite — a solid shooter (77th) and shot-blocker (96th) who doesn’t hold up at the same level on the glass (51st).

The other element to consider here is physical traits as well as skill. For example, having Robert Covington and Kevin Durant, two combo forwards, show up here is perhaps more unique than having a big man fall into this group. Kristaps Porzingis standing 7-foot-3 makes him an outlier no matter what skills he exhibits.

This archetype also seems more reliably valuable and useful than the low-volume playmaker. The defensive upside is a mixed bag but it gives the big men a defined defensive role to play that can be accommodated by the roster around them and the combination of shooting and size is a clear-cut positive on offense.

If you’re interested in seeing who might be coming into the NBA that could eventually become one of these two rarities, check out our latest NBA Draft Big Board.

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