When a player like Natalie Novosel goes 0-for-11, there’s something more than just the standard “off night” at work.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s 80-61 loss to the Baylor Lady Bears on Tuesday was the first time that Novosel failed to connect on a field goal attempt in a game since her sophomore year, when it happened a number of times.
Although there was obviously no shortage of scoring opportunities for Notre Dame’s 5-foot-11 senior, the Lady Bears almost completely disallowed uncontested mid-range shots. With the 9-foot reach of Brittney Griner lurking in the paint, Baylor’s perimeter defense is stifling to the point where even a fine-tuned offense like Notre Dame’s can be slowed to a standstill or thrown into confusion with players either trying to take the ball to the basket 1-on-1 or setting up for three point shots.
If there was anyone that the Fighting Irish needed to step up against that type of defense, it was Novosel, a player whose ability to drive to the basket and draw contact to get to the free throw line is among the best of any shooting guard prospect for the 2012 WNBA Draft.
To Novosel’s credit, she did in fact get to the line 8 times against Baylor for an outstanding free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of 72.72%. Although she only hit 5, that still leaves her with a free throw production rate (FTM/FGA) of 45.45%.
FGA FTM FTA FT Rate FT Prod Novosel v Baylor 11 5 8 72.72% 45.45%
What that free throw rate does is to serve as a proxy for that aggression in driving to the basket, maybe moreso for guards than for post players – a guard that hangs around the perimeter shooting threes and thus avoiding situations that involve contact is less likely to draw a foul; a distributor or scorer that drives into traffic more often will almost uniformly have a higher free throw rate than one who doesn’t. With Novosel, the free throw rate still doesn’t necessarily fully reflect how aggressive her mentality is because as often as she gets to the line, she is also so adept at hitting angles that defenders can’t foul her before she’s found a hole to flip the ball through for a basket.
With Novosel leading the effort to find easy points at the free throw line, perhaps lost in a sub-par game overall is that Notre Dame actually had a 33.33% free throw rate as a team in the second half, almost three times the rate the Stanford Cardinal got to the line in Baylor’s previous game and not far from twice the average of Baylor opponents this season (19%). When put in the context of what Baylor opponents normally do, Novosel’s ability to find scoring opportunities from the line does stand out as noteworthy in an otherwise off game. That’s nothing new for people who watch her consistently; she’s extremely crafty around the basket, with exceptional balance combined with an excellent feel for angles and how to place a ball off the backboard with the perfect spin to put it through the basket from either side of the rim.
Novosel is not the type of player who stands out as a star, in part because of playing next to one of women’s basketball’s rising stars in Skylar Diggins and in part because there simply isn’t a whole lot of flash to her game; she normally picks her spots extremely well and is extremely efficient in converting the opportunities she finds into points. Nevertheless, what might catch your eye about Novosel is that on a finesse team like the Fighting Irish she’s almost the player most likely to break out of their rhythmic system of passes and cuts to attack when she finds the chance. And it’s that ability to find points around the basket that led me to follow her progress as a draft prospect throughout this season.
When looking at a player as a draft prospect, that free throw production rate – or the points a player actually produces from the free throw line as opposed to just getting attempts and missing- takes on heightened importance. Not only do we want to know that the player can get to the line, but to some extent we want to know how good they are at actually taking advantage of those opportunities. That’s particularly important for shooting guards.
There are a number of perimeter players in this year’s draft class that shot over 40% from the 3-point line this college season and were among the leading scorers in their conference. However, there are also a number of guards in the WNBA who are capable of shooting; a college guard that offers nothing but their shooting ability offensively is going to struggle to find a place in the WNBA.
Since the WNBA rosters were reduced to 11 players in 2009, 3-point specialists – players whose primary value on the court is to stand around the arc and shoot threes – have struggled to make rosters. Those that have hung around could hardly be considered significant contributors in the rotation. For scoring college guard prospects looking to make the WNBA, scoring versatility or the number of ways in which a player can score ends up mattering quite a bit.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of falling in love with college players who score a lot of points or seem to be accurate long-range shooters, but what’s far more important is how they get those points.
Shot creation is a valuable skill in the WNBA, yet there’s a thin line between looking a player and describing them as someone that can create their shot instead of slapping the “volume shooter” label on them. While the latter will shoot almost indiscriminately, scoring points simply due to firing up so many shots that something eventually goes down, the player that can both create shots and do so efficiently is arguably more valuable in most cases.
The ability to create shots alone is certainly indicative of some sort of skill, whether it be a quicker-than-average shot release, a wicked* crossover, or some other move that proves difficult to stop. If nothing else, the ability to get off a lot of shots for oneself demonstrates some sort of physical attribute, whether it be quick feet, jumping ability or strength.
But the ability to both create shots and knock them down efficiently, speaks to something that is even more appealing as a prospect; a player who’s able to create scoring opportunities efficiently is a little more savvy and selective in how they go about the business of scoring, whether that be knowing when to shoot and pass, moving intelligently without the ball to find gaps in the defense, or simply knowing how to create enough space between them and their defender to mitigate the need to take a lot of contested shots.
That ability to create shots is reflected in a player’s usage rate (usg%), percentage of the team’s field goal attempts they take while on the floor. A player’s efficiency can be accounted for by their true shooting percentage (TS%), a shooting percentage weighted with the added value of both 3-point shots and points from free throws. Novosel’s usage and efficiency numbers show that she is a scorer that does a little bit of all of the above.
Entering the Big East tournament, Novosel had a free throw production rate of 35.7%, demonstrating the ability to get to the line. But she also had a 3-point percentage of 42.9%, meaning she’s able to score from both the perimeter and off those aggressive drives to the basket. The combination of that ability to score from both beyond the arc and around the basket gives her a very strong 57.3% true shooting percentage (consider that 60%-plus is considered an elite shooter). Her usage rate only appears to add strength to her profile.
Novosel’s 27.35% usage rate** was the highest on the Fighting Irish this season, with Diggins actually trailing her. That doesn’t necessarily mean she was the definitive focus of their offense – and they’re so balanced that such an assertion wouldn’t really go anywhere – but when she was on the floor, she tended to shoot more often than anyone else and therefore drew attention from the defense. That she was that aggressive a scorer on an elite team and managed to remain so efficient is impressive and if you consider how her role might change at the next level it suggests that she could be a productive contributor to a team’s rotation as rookie.
What’s easily underestimated when looking at scoring guards is that the ability to score in a variety of ways is important not only because WNBA opponents will scout ways to stop her, but also because the team that drafts her might need her to fill a specific role. It’s easy to imagine Novosel in the role of spot up shooter
* I’ve never lived in Boston, so I only break this word out occasionally. For whatever reason, the crossover I envisioned when writing that was more wicked than anything else.
** This number is from just prior to the Final Four.