I don’t know if Tre Jones will have a proverbial breakout sophomore season in terms of shooting threes, but I do wonder if, as a college basketball commentariat, we have perhaps overlearned the lessons of Duke’s round of 32 nail-biter against UCF last March.
That was the game where the feisty Knights weren’t merely sagging but were reportedly shouting “Shoot it!” and “Hell, nah!” at Jones when he had the ball outside the arc. Johnny Dawkins must have been doing something right, because his guys played top-seeded Duke into the final seconds before falling 77-76.
The word that recurred coming out of that game (for there was time to kill leading into the Sweet 16 matchup with Virginia Tech) was “exposed.” Duke and its lack of three-point shooting had been exposed. The KenPom archives were duly ransacked, and it was discovered that no team that was this bad at making threes had ever won a national title.
In real time, this vein of discussion puzzled me. For one thing, saying Duke had been exposed when the Blue Devil offense had in fact posted the third-best game that any opponent had recorded against the UCF defense over the course of the season seemed a bit asynchronous. Plus there was the fact that harping on Duke for missing threes felt akin to telling Charles Foster Kane he was losing money.
THATCHER: Don’t you think it’s rather unwise to continue this philanthropic enterprise, this Inquirer that’s costing you a million dollars a year?
KANE: You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in 60 years.
Duke was horrible at shooting threes last year, but basketball isn’t a three-point shooting contest. It is instead, in part, a shooting contest (just don’t forget the shot volume), and, at that, the Blue Devils of course were good verging on very good. Ironically, Mike Krzyzewski’s team was worse (both in absolute and contemporaneous terms) at shooting from the field in 2010 when it won a national title, but because that team’s success rates on either side of the arc were regarded as normal no one unfurled the “exposed” banner back then.
To be sure, seeing a garden-variety bad perimeter shooter like Jones playing alongside possibly the college game’s greatest interior scorer of the three-point era made for some irresistible half-court X’s-and-O’s video. In his subscription newsletter (highest recommendation), Jordan Sperber caught this purely idiographic point nicely: “[I]n the context of Duke’s offense — with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett — it became a necessity for teams to essentially not guard Jones.”
So Jones was, quite rightly, left unguarded during a moment of the absolute highest March drama. (We were literally screaming in the Bristol war room during the final seconds.) He thus carries emblematic weight under the banner of bad three-point shooting and, for all we know, Jones could come in under the Mendoza line (30 percent) again this year.
What we do know, however, is that Jones at least belongs to a category of shooters that will in all likelihood improve in 2019-20. The players leading this improvement will speak of having “worked on their shot” in the offseason, and doubtless they did. They were probably working on it before last season too. The hoops gods are funny that way.
Young major-conference players who missed many threes last year
(Four criteria listed below)
3FG 3FGA Jose Alvarado SO Georgia Tech 44 154 Ron Harper Jr. FR Rutgers 30 108 Prentiss Hubb FR Notre Dame 43 164 Tre Jones FR Duke 27 103 Naji Marshall SO Xavier 48 173 Mac McClung FR Georgetown 39 141 Oscar da Silva SO Stanford 29 113 TJ Starks SO Texas A&M 28 125
The good news for these guys is that the “young players who missed many threes in a season” fraternity has had some amazing members over the past quarter-century or so. From Allen Iverson and Tayshaun Prince right down through Gilbert Arenas, Keith Bogans, Randy Foye, Isaiah Thomas, Kenny Boynton, Erick Green, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Marcus Smart (twice!), and Jaylen Brown, membership on the “bad and voluminous three-point shooting as a youngster” list need not spell doom.
Heck, old-timers in Durham remember that William Avery once landed on this list. And, spinning this forward, who knows, Romeo Langford and/or Oshae Brissett could eventually come around from the perimeter, too. (D.J. Harvey, Curtis Haywood II, and Brandon Randolph, we hardly knew ye. Good luck, sirs.)
So, getting back to the group of returning players who were bad three-point shooters last season, picking individuals from this list that will have good or even very good perimeter shooting years in 2019-20 is, to be sure, a hazardous business. But collectively these players are in all probability going to look pretty normal when it comes to shooting threes, even with the new line. More specifically, they’re going to do much better than last season, when, as a group, they hit just 27.2 percent of their tries from beyond the old line.
Mere statistics and that smug predictive weeny known as regression to the mean are congenitally bullish on any group (emphasis on “group”) of players that is: a) young; and b) that substantially underperforms the Division I average in some category. In addition, basketball history is really bullish on any group of young and bad high-volume three-point shooters who are nevertheless good free throw shooters. Lastly, basketball history is even a bit more bullish than that when every qualifier in the previous sentence is applied in particular to ACC players of the last decade.
(It seems Obama- and Trump-era coaches in the Atlantic Coast had and have a fairly good sense of which shooters will come around eventually. If, on the other hand, you ever want to see a green light that should instead have been turned red, I give you Clinton-era coaches in the Big East. Yeesh.)
Since 1992-93, when the sports-reference.com data (highest recommendation) on such things kicks in, we’ve seen 135 major-conference player-seasons that met the following criteria:
1. Freshman or sophomore
2. At least 100 three-point attempts
3. Three-point percentage under 30
4. Returned the following season
Collectively, those 135 players went 6197 of 17753 on their threes the following season. That nets out to 34.9 percent.
Shave a bit off that to account for the new line if you wish, but, again, you’re still looking at a following-season improvement the would be in the neighborhood of six or seven percentage points. As a group, the 2018-19 “young and bad” three-point shooters may turn out just fine in 2019-20.