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Andy Wittry | NCAA.com | December 16, 2021

Men's basketball shot selections are becoming more uniform and that means fewer midrange 2s

The biggest men's basketball surprises from the first month

A decade ago, during the 2011-12 college basketball season, the average DI men's basketball team's shot selection was nearly uniform in its distribution between layups and dunks (34.1 percent of all attempts, on average), 2-point jumpers (33.2 percent) and 3-pointers (32.7 percent), based on an NCAA.com analysis of historical data, courtesy of hoop-math.com.

On average, roughly a third of a team's shots came at the rim, roughly a third came from behind the arc and the other third were taken somewhere in between. The two teams that played for the national championship that season didn't embrace the 3 as much as their peers, with Kentucky (26.5 percent of its shot attempts were 3-pointers) defeating Kansas (29.6 percent) in New Orleans.

While college basketball teams have embraced more efficient shots in the decade since — read: fewer 2-point jumpers — the data suggests that, today, an efficient shot selection correlates even less to offensive efficiency than it did previously.

Petre Thomas | USA TODAY Sports Images Alabama almost exclusively shoots 3-pointers and layups.

A (crimson) tide of layups and 3-pointers

Take a look at No. 6 Alabama's shot chart from almost any game the Crimson Tide plays and you'll likely see the vague outline of a semicircle. Here's Alabama's shot chart from its most recent game, courtesy of ESPN, from the Crimson Tide's 92-78 loss to Memphis.

ESPN Alabama's shot chart from its loss to Memphis.

Alabama sprayed 3-pointers — 33 of them, to be exact — from around the 3-point arc, with almost all of its other shots coming from inside or just outside the restricted arc in the lane. Sure, there's a long 2-point jumper near the right corner that looks like a stray compared to the rest of the team's shots, and there several mid-range shots a few steps in from the free throw line, but Alabama's shot attempts generally fall in one of those two aforementioned categories: 3-pointers or shots at the rim.

Through its first 10 games, 84 percent of Alabama's shots have come from one of those two locations, according to hoop-math.com. A decade ago, that would've ranked second nationally, behind only Hartford, which in the 2011-12 season took 84.8 percent of its attempts from 3-point range or at the rim.

But today — meaning the modern era of college basketball — that level a proclivity to a 3s-or-layups shot selection may not even rank in the top 10 nationally.

In order to examine and quantify changes in shot selection over the last decade, NCAA.com analyzed data from hoop-math.com from the 2012 season (the oldest season in the site's archives) and the 2019-20 season (the last complete regular season with typical levels of fan attendance). Data isn't available for every school for every season, so the analysis of the 2012 season includes 317 of the 345 schools, and 348 of the 353 schools that competed at the DI level in 2020.

The table below shows how men's basketball shot selection has changed in the last decade, based on the combined percent of shots that were attempted at the rim or from 3-point range.

I examined the national high, low and average; the percent of DI schools whose 3-point plus rim percentage was above 80 percent, or below 60 percent; and, the percent of schools that attempted more than 40 percent of their shots from 3s and more than 40 percent of their shots at the rim.

Season 2011-12 2019-20
Average % of shots
from three
33.2% 37.5%
Average % of shots
at the rim
34.1% 36.3%
3pt + Rim AVERage 67.3% 73.8%
national high 84.8% (Hartford) 89.0% (Western Carolina)
national low 45.5% (North Carolina) 51.6% (Southern Miss)
Schools above 80% 1.6% 16.1%
Schools below 60% 14.8% 1.7%
40/40 schools 0.6% 2.6%

As you can see in the table above, the floor and ceiling of the percent of a team's shots that come at the rim or from 3 were each been raised by roughly five percentage points from 2012 to 2020.

In 2012, almost 55 percent (!) of North Carolina's shot attempts were 2-point jumpers, as the Tar Heels were the team that least embraced 3s and layups, among the 317 teams examined. Eight years later, Southern Miss was the team most inclined to take 2-point jumpers, which accounted for 48.4 percent of their attempts — roughly six percentage points lower than that North Carolina team.

What could be described as an old-school shot selection didn't hurt the 2012 version of the Tar Heels, however. All North Carolina did that season was go 32-6, finish atop the ACC standings, earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and finish the spring with the 12th-most efficient offense in the country, per kenpom.com. (Not only did North Carolina not attempt a lot of 3s or layups, but it wasn't even a great shooting team. The Tar Heels' efficiency was based on shot volume — meaning taking more shots than its opponents — thanks to their 10th-best offensive rebounding rate and 10th-best offensive turnover rate, per Ken Pomeroy. Their 65.1 field goal attempts per game ranked second nationally.)

Do you want to see some cool graphs?

The scatter plot below shows DI men's basketball teams from the 2012 season, with their adjusted offensive efficiency (courtesy of Ken Pomeroy) on the x-axis and their combined percent of shot attempts at the rim or from three (courtesy of hoop-math.com) on the y-axis.

Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency metric is the average number of points a team scores per 100 offensive possessions, adjusted for a team's opponents, the locations of its games and when games were played, such that recent games are weighted more heavily. For context, the national average was 102.8 in 2012, 102.4 in 2020 and it's 100.8 so far this season.

For three of the 15 most efficient offenses in the 2012 season — Ohio State, Purdue and North Carolina — 2-point jumpers made up at least 40 percent of their shot attempts. For context, none of the 76 most efficient offenses in the 2020 season had such a shot selection. You'd have to go all the way down the list to — wait for it — North Carolina, ranked No. 77 in offensive efficiency, to find a team that attempted at least 40 percent of its shots from that range.

Andy Wittry | NCAA.com The 2011-12 season.

When plotted with the same boundaries as above — with offensive efficiency starting at 80 points per 100 possessions and capped at 130, and the percent of shots going from 40 to 100 percent — here's how teams from the 2019-20 season look. You can see that the sport has collectively de-emphasized mid-range jumpers, with their points on the scatter plot coming closer together, when compared to the 2011-12 season.

Andy Wittry | NCAA.com The 2019-20 season.

Now, when you combined the two years' worth of data onto the same scatter plot, you can really get a sense of how much the entire sport has collectively embraced more efficient shots in recent seasons.

Andy Wittry | NCAA.com A Flourish chart.

I investigated whether shot selection — from a sort of 10,000-foot view — correlated to offensive efficiency in men's basketball. For the purposes of this exercise, I defined "shot selection" simplistically as the percent of a team's shot attempts that are 3-pointers or layups/dunks, wondering if teams that attempted a higher combined percentage of those shots were inherently more efficient.

Not only is there no statistical relationship of note in this specific study — in the 2012 season, there was an r-squared value of 0.021; a value of 0 means the model doesn't explain any of the variability within the data, while a value of 1 explains all of the variability — but there has actually since been a regression. Even though men's basketball teams, on average, focused on more efficient shots (layups, dunks and 3-pointers) in the 2020 season, the r-squared value dropped to 0.01.

Take a team such as Merrimack, for example. Eighty-six percent of Merrimack's attempts in the 2020 season were 3s, layups or dunks, per hoop-math.com, which put the Warriors in the second percentile nationally, yet they were ranked 325th in offensive efficiency. It's a potentially extreme, but explanatory, example of how taking lots of 3-pointers and high-percentage 2s isn't enough alone to produce a great offense.

This season's No. 1 offense, that of No. 3 Purdue, is taking only 74.4 percent of its shots at the rim or from 3 — a percentage that would've ranked in the 14th percentile a decade ago, but that shot distribution just would've cracked the 50th percentile in 2020.

The Boilermakers' approach to shot selection isn't as 3-point, layup or bust as a team like Alabama, and Purdue's elite efficiency is largely a product of its personnel, which features three potential All-American candidates and which has a group of rotation players who have almost exclusively seen year-over-year shooting improvements.

More men's basketball teams are more uniformly shooting more-efficient shots, which means the differences in efficiency will arguably more often come down to the Michaels and Matthews who are shooting the ball, and their individual makes and misses.

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