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Modern NBA Point Guards: The College Stats That Really Matter

In an era where the point guard reigns dominant, having a star at the position is more vital than ever before. Here are the most significant college stats to find that next star.

Houston Rockets v Portland Trailblazers Ð Game Three Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Point guard is perhaps the most important position in today’s NBA. It is very difficult to create a good basketball team without a strong lead guard, and while there is an abundance of talent at the position, it still comes at a premium. Teams, therefore, hope to find their mythical “point guard of the future” in the draft, enabling them years of control and low salary/cap costs. Even more than other prospects, transitioning to the NBA is tough for most young point guards. Running a team is incredibly challenging, and it takes a while to adapt to the speed and talent level in the NBA. Many point guards never make it as full-time court leaders, washing out as backups, transitioning to other positions, or falling out of the NBA entirely. With such a high failure (or at least non-success) rate, discovering hints to point guard success is more valuable than ever before. This article, then, like the one on wings yesterday, will examine which college statistics are indicators of NBA advanced statistic measurements (analyzing the draft classes of 2009-2014).

2010 PG Draft Class.csv

Jonny Flynn 20.4 16.6 6 1.4 2.7 3.1 0.2 1.4 0.567 -0.015 -1.5
Steph Curry 21.3 27.2 4.3 2.3 4.5 3.1 0.3 4.1 0.622 0.203 6.3
Jrue Holiday 19 8.5 3.7 1.6 3.8 2.1 0.5 0.8 0.53 0.078 0.9
Ty Lawson 21.5 14.7 5.7 1.9 2.8 2 0.1 1.2 0.64 0.126 0.7
Jeff Teague 21 16.4 3 1.9 3 3 0.6 1.4 0.582 0.122 0.2
Eric Maynor 22 20.1 5.8 1.5 3.9 3 0.2 1.8 0.573 0.041 -4.7
Darren Collison 21.9 14.5 4.4 1.7 2.5 2.4 0.1 1.4 0.618 0.102 -0.3
Toney Douglas 23.3 18.5 2.9 2.2 3.6 2.6 0.4 2.1 0.565 0.077 -0.6
Pat Beverley 21 13 2.8 1.5 5.5 2 0.5 2 0.559 0.113 1.9
Nick Calathes 20.3 16.3 6.2 1.7 5.2 3.1 0.2 1.8 0.572 0.063 -0.7
AJ Price 22.7 14.6 5.2 1 3.5 2.5 0 2 0.544 0.058 -0.24
Patty Mills 20.9 16.6 3.7 2 2.2 2.9 0.2 2.2 0.53 0.128 0.9

The point guard class of 2010 is probably the best in NBA history (certainly the deepest), so I thought it would be fun to present that one. The first thing that jumps out is how good Steph Curry is. The second is sadness at Jonny Flynn’s career—he’s the 11th best point guard in a collegiate class of 12, yet was drafted highest. The third is how old most of these point guards are: Jrue Holiday was only 19, but most of the other successful point guards were at least 21. Once again, it’s notable that advanced stats mostly match up with general rankings. Steph is first, followed by Ty Lawson (he was great a few years ago), Jeff Teague, Patty Mills, Pat Beverley, and Jrue Holiday. This helps to confirm that the method used (equating success with advanced statistics) is at least generally accurate.

So, what were the results of the analysis? Just like last year, traditional point guard statistics in college (assists and turnovers) were meaningless to NBA success. Instead, the strongest correlation between college stats and NBA advanced stats was through TS%, followed by steals, three pointers made, and rebounds. Rebounds were the most important stat for wing players, while steals were somewhat valuable as well—perhaps these two numbers should be the first that people look at when evaluating college prospects. True shooting and three pointers, on the other hand, weren’t relevant for wing players, yet are highly pertinent for point guards. Why?

I think the significance of efficiency and shooting is a direct result of the way the NBA (and college, to a lesser extent) has changed over the past decade. The rule changes in 2005 that outlawed hand-checking and enabled zone defense made the old school style of basketball (feeding big men in the post or ISOing wings out on the wing) less important. In turn, it freed the lane up for point guards, and the high pick and roll as perfected by Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns became the modus operandi for most NBA teams. That style of play is dependent not just on strong point guard play, but on a very specific type of point guard. To be specific, the point guard must be a threat to score, and, more importantly, a threat to shoot. A lack of shooting at the point of attack means defenses can go under the screen, cutting off the point guard’s penetration and ability to drive and kick to shooters. Some players have been able to make it work even without great shooting, but it requires otherworldly athleticism or passing ability. While players can improve their shooting (Kawhi Leonard), most of the best point guard scorers in this era came to the NBA with their off-the-dribble scoring skills already well developed (Steph, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, etc.). Hence, the reason three point makes (not %) and efficiency (via TS) are so important and indicative of NBA success.

The other big question is why assists aren’t more significant. I think that the simple answer is that point guards in college generally control the team’s offense to a great extent, so they all get a lot of opportunities for assists. In addition, as mentioned in the previous article, assists depend heavily on teammates, especially when you’re kicking out to shooters a lot. Assists matter more for wings, then, because they have the ball less (at least in college). Unlike in the NBA, where wings are frequently the lead playmakers and ball-handlers (LeBron, Jimmy Butler, James Harden, etc.), wing players in college usually play more how they did in the past—as secondary creators and finishers. Therefore, the assists they create come more in the rhythm off the offense, and show more innate passing ability, vision, and creation skills. Plenty of point guards can rack up assists in college, but few wings can.

Here’s a look at the top 5 and bottom 5 players in True Shooting and three pointers made in the point guard classes of 2009-2014:

Top 5 TS: Kyrie Irving, Ty Lawson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Damian Lillard, Steph Curry

Bottom 5 TS: Tony Wroten, Marquis Teague, Michael Carter-Williams, Avery Bradley, Darius Morris

Top 5 three point makes: Jimmer Fredette, Curry, Isaiah Canaan, Langston Galloway, Brandon Knight

Bottom 5 three point makes: Wroten, Morris, Semaj Christon, Elfrid Payton, Carter-Williams

The top five in true shooting is full of stars outside of Dinwiddie, and the bottom five is replete with busts aside from Bradley. The three point top list is a bit shakier, though Fredette is a unique case (he was never really a point guard), and Canaan and Galloway have both had fantastic careers considering Canaan was a second round pick and Galloway went undrafted. The bottom five has some similar names (not in a good way), and the only player on there with a real NBA future is Payton. This is obviously a tiny sample size, but is representative of the entire half-decade considered in the analysis.

The point guard position has evolved over the past few years in a way that would make it practically unrecognizable to the NBA of prior generations. While they still control their team’s offense (for the most part) and distribute the basketball, their scoring ability is more necessary than ever before, while advanced passing skills and top-tier vision are somewhat less vital. An NBA team is limited to some extent if their point guard can’t come off a high pick and roll and drain a three off the dribble at least semi-consistently. Thus, three point shooting and efficiency are perhaps the most important stats to look for in a modern college point guard, though steals and rebounds are also valuable. High assists and low turnovers, once the benchmark for strong point guard play, are not nearly as weighty a consideration. Basketball is changing, and point guard evaluation needs to change with it.