Fun With SportVU: Passes Per Touch

SportVU data has gone mainstream! During their team’s game against the Chicago Bulls on Monday night, the Orlando Magic broadcast team referenced the fact that Carlos Boozer allowed opponents to shoot nearly 60% on attempts at the rim that he was defending. It seemed a specifically rigorous definition, and a quick glance at the Player Tracking database on NBA.com/stats confirmed that this was in fact the number being used. It’s an application of analytics that makes sense for a television broadcast attempting to reach a fairly broad audience, the type of statistical note that fits seamlessly into the on-court narrative. The key to much of the data that’s been released from the tracking cameras is that it’s not advanced statistics, really, just advanced data-gathering.

And that’s one of the biggest upsides to all this data — it allows us to tell better, more informed stories. Over a series of posts this week, I’ll be taking a look at several related topics gleaned from a recent perusal of the Player Tracking data, tracking black holes and ball stoppers; guys who can’t wait to get rid of the ball and guys who can’t wait to share it; and just how often players touch the ball during a possession. All of the data for this series is for games played through 12/15, and it includes 116 players who on that day had played a minimum of 16 games this year (roughly 2/3 of most team’s games played so far) and 27.9 minutes per game (or the Tim Duncan line).

Today’s Fun With SportVU takes a look at just how often these players pass the ball when they gain possession, on both extremes, with some positional analysis thrown in for good measure. To the numbers! (The complete spreadsheet for the numbers used today can be found here in a multi-sortable view. Enjoy!)

Top 25 in Pass Percentage


I hope you took one look at the first person on this list and had the same reaction I did. Your king of unselfish play: Josh McRoberts! Considering the Bobcats offense and personnel, though, it makes sense. McRoberts and Kemba Walker (who also appears in the top 25) are the only players on that team who can actually pass the ball, and much of the offense gets run through him. Another interesting note: 6 of these 25 players are bigs, guys who play at least 25% of their minutes at the center position. And there were 22 bigs in this 116 player sample, so it’s not as if they make up a disproportionate segment of the data. One explanation I considered was their propensity to grab defensive rebounds and immediately pass the ball to a ball handler or wing to push it up the court. But even when looking at Adjusted Pass Percentage, which removes defensive rebounds from the equation, guys like Joakim Noah, Andrew Bogut and DeAndre Jordan pass a fairly large portion of the time that they touch the ball. For players like Noah, whose teams run a large percentage of their offense through, it makes sense. For Jordan, maybe not so much.

Stopping for a quick detour in the middle of the pack, the median passing percentage for this group of players was right around 68.5%, and I’m pleased to inform Knicks fans that J.R. Smith came in above average, at just under 71%!

And, of course, the black holes of the league deserve their day in the sun.

Bottom 25 in Pass Percentage


It’s something of a motley, if somewhat expected, crew. Klay Thompson is far and away the player least likely to pass the ball when he touches it. A few other catch-and-shoot players make appear near the top (or bottom) of this list as well, and they’re in good company with several wings one expects to be on a list of potential ball stoppers. The bigs are well represented, too. James Harden, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony make sure that the list is a star-studded affair. Overall, this is a list of players who terminate possessions, for better or worse, when they get their hands on the ball.

Lastly, I divided players into 4 positional categories: ball handler, wing, power forward (including both traditional and stretch-4s, as well as LeBron) and, as mentioned previously, bigs. You can take a more in-depth look at sorting by position by going to the spreadsheet. Some quick notes:

  • 4 out of 29 ball handlers finished under the median average for passing percentage: Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley and Rodney Stuckey. The median point guard was Damian Lillard, whose passing percentage so far is 73.44%.
  • Wings, unsurprisingly, were a bit more selfish, with just 11 of 40 players coming in above the median. The wing with the highest passing percentage? Jordan Crawford. …yep. Median wing: 65.17%.
  • Power forwards and big wings of all shapes and sizes ran a nice range of percentages, from Josh McRoberts’ league leading unselfishness to Rudy Gay’s 58.43%. LeBron James is just under the league average with his 67.68% passing percentage. Median power forward: 68.34%.
  • Bigs, like ball handlers, tended to be above the league median. 16 of 22 were above-average. Median center: 70.47%.

Andrew Lynch

When God Shammgod created the basketball universe, Andrew Lynch was there. His belief in the superiority of advanced statistics and the eventual triumph of expected value-based analytics stems from the fact that he’s roughly as old as the concept of counting. With that said, he still loves the beauty of basketball played at the highest level — it reminds him of the splendor of the first Olympics — and the stories that spring forth from the games, since he once beat Homer in a game of rock-paper-scissors over a cup of hemlock. Dude’s old.