Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen running Chin Iso, as described/diagrammed by Fast Model Sports.
Whenever people try to suggest that point guard play doesn’t matter that much, I immediately think of the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team’s beat down of the LSU Tigers in 1996.
That’s extreme, so perhaps Nikki Caldwell’s UCLA Bruins are a better example: if you can’t get the ball upcourt, you can’t score baskets. It’s really not a whole lot more complex than that.
Sometimes the impact of a good ball handler – or multiple ball handlers to beat the aforementioned whirlwind presses – isn’t easily measured by box score statistics either. One of the things that made Tia Jackson’s Washington Huskies’ defense effective at times is that their goal wasn’t to fly around and force turnovers but simply to force teams into eating up time on the shot clock to rush their offense.
So really, collecting assists are sort of the next level up after withstanding pressure; creating assists efficiently is like Graduate Point Guard Seminar. But as you move up the ladder – getting the ball upcourt without turning it over, collecting assists, manipulating the defense to create high percentage scoring opportunities for teammates – it takes increasing skill to perform well.
So for all the emphasis on scoring points, being able to perform that function of a ball handler well has value that is easily overlooked. So just how valuable are point guards?
SB Nation’s Tom Ziller helped provide insight into what makes a point guard valuable by offering a metric for NBA players called “Creation Ratio”, which is essentially the rate at which a player creates shots for oneself or other as compared to how many shots others create for them. He wrote an initial piece centered around Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook – a “perfect storm of creation” – and then later wrote another about Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, but it’s his piece On The Importance of Point Guards In Shot Creation that is most relevant to this discussion of point guard value.
To summarize the details of all three of those articles, creation ratio is the ratio of assists to others and unassisted shots made compared to assisted shots made. An estimated assist percentage for free throws is also included. He goes through the ins and outs of that metric over the course of those three posts, but what’s ultimately most important is this: point guards created three times as many shots as other players. Of the top 20 players in terms of total shots created for the season last season in the NBA, 16 were point guards.
Basketball is a simple game that comes down to scoring more points per possession than the opposition. That NBA point guards – even average point guards – create more shots than anyone else in the league speaks volumes about their value that is often overlooked because it’s neither captured fully by assists or points (what people normally look at) but the combination of how they get both.
The ability to a) recognize scoring opportunities for others, b) set up those scoring opportunities, and c) make the pass that leads to the score is what distinguishes good from serviceable point guards. And that’s exactly what you see in the video above in a play created by Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen to set up Jessica Adair for an easy layup.
Obviously, they were running a play so Whalen knew what was coming and it was a screen that freed her to make the play. But her ability to drive on her smaller defender, recognize that the defense had been disoriented, and put the ball in the right place is what made that play beautiful. Simple, yes, but beautiful. And that is the type of play that a point guard – as a player who typically possesses superior ball handling, court vision, game awareness, and passing skill than other players – will make that others can’t and/or aren’t required to, hence why it makes sense that point guards have higher creation ratios than anyone else.
However, as Ziller notes, what’s still missing from that analysis is something else still not recorded in box scores: potential assists, which I described previously after Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen’s 20 point, 10 assist performance during this regular season. Potential assists are best described as a pass that leads directly to a shot or free throws, meaning had a ball gone through the hoop someone would have picked up an assist for it.
There’s obviously a lot of subjectivity in counting potential assists – and really, the act of counting assists at all – but it’s not unreasonable to just make a mark every time a shot goes up after a pass. Nevertheless, although we don’t have the necessary data (assisted field goals) to offer you a look at creation ratios in the WNBA, I did continue to track potential assists in games that the top point guards played after Whalen’s big performance just to see if there was any further insight to be gained about the difference between good and great point guards.
As it turns out, potential assists are arguably what separate elite point guards from the rest of the pack for the reasons above – as described about Whalen’s 20-10 performance, she had eight additional potential assists. That comes from the ability we see above in that video to not just lackadaisically swing a ball to an already open teammate, but set up and literally lead a teammate to a score.
But we’ve spent enough time raving about Whalen (and Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird…and San Antonio Silver Stars “combo guard” Becky Hammon) on this site; as a change of pace, I’m going to highlight her 2011 WNBA Finals counterpart, Lindsey Harding.
Harding’s outstanding WNBA Finals performance
Statistically, Harding thoroughly outperformed Whalen in the Finals, and I’m going to start with the raw stats: Harding had 19 assists to 3 turnovers in three Finals games; Whalen had 11 assists to 8 turnovers. In addition, Harding’s defense was no small part of Whalen’s poor performance in the Finals – she can stay with nearly any point guard in the league defensively and make that process of creating shots for others difficult just by making it hard to advance the ball. But where she really distinguished herself was in potential assists, particularly in Game 3 in which she had about as efficient a point guard performance as anyone could hope for.
PAsts + Asts / Turnovers
Passing numbers for starting point guards in Game 3 of the 2011 WNBA Finals.
Needless to say, that was an outstanding game for Harding even without the potential assists. Stats aside, what made the performance so impressive was her poise in creating all those shots – she never made a terribly reckless play, although she did take a few risks in terms of driving to the basket. She was just extremely decisive in quickly getting the ball to teammates**. But Whalen wasn’t exactly bad either, relative to non-point guards.
With Whalen unproductive assist-wise in Game 3, teammates Seimone Augustus and Taj McWilliams-Franklin helped pick up the slack with 4 apiece, a team-high. But they did so without even as many potential assists combined as Whalen.
PAsts + Asts / Turnovers
Passing numbers for Lynx assist leaders in Game 3 of the 2011 WNBA Finals.
The reason for this is probably obvious: in leading the team with 16 points in Game 3, Augustus was obviously looked to for scoring. Many of her assists – and potential assists – come in situations where she was in attack mode and gives up the ball when the defense adjusts. McWilliams-Franklin’s assists often come from a stationary position, standing at the top of the painted area and passing to cutters or fellow post players in high-low situations.