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Correlating College Point Guard Statistics to NBA Success

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Which college stats are most important for point guards’ NBA success?

Portland Trail Blazers v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

This article is the conclusion to my three-part series on college stats and their translation to NBA success. The wing and big men articles contain all my methodology, so if you need a refresher (or this is your first time reading one of these), please check one of those out.

Compared to big men or wings, there are fewer sub-groups within the general class of “point guards”. Sure, there are some point guards who are pass-first, others who look to shoot as their primary option, and even a few who are defensively focused or play mostly off-ball. But generally, point guards handle the ball a fair amount, and are some of the smallest players on the court. That means it’s easier to categorize them together—they operate differently, and each player has a slightly unique playstyle, but the differences are not as vast as those between certain types of big men or wings.

With that said, here are the simplified results of the regression analysis. ‘Significant’ means that the statistic explained some of the variability in the NBA advanced statistics to at least some extent. ‘Model-usable’ indicates that while not useful by itself, the inclusion of that stat strengthened the overall model of correlation. ‘Insignificant’ suggests that the college stat had no real bearing on the players’ advanced metrics in the NBA.

Point Guard Stat Significance

Stats BPM VORP WS/48
Stats BPM VORP WS/48
Age Model-Usable Significant Insignificant
PPG Significant Insignificant Model-Usable
APG Significant Model-Usable Significant
SPG Significant Model-Usable Significant
RPG Model-Usable Insignificant Insignificant
TOPG Model-Usable Insignificant Insignificant
BPG Model-Usable Insignificant Insignificant
3PT Significant Insignificant Model-Usable
TS Significant Significant Significant

Three stats jump off the page as having more importance to point guard success than anything else: assists, steals, and true shooting%. The first two make a good deal of sense, as assists are the most ‘traditional’ point guard statistic, and point guards have long racked up steals as well. True shooting is a bit more complicated, but I’ll return to that later. After that, there’s another group of three stats that are significant in one model, usable in another, and insignificant in the third—age, points, and three-pointers made. These all get lumped together on a similar tier of importance, leaving rebounds, blocks, and turnovers as the more irrelevant numbers. The coefficients, however, are where things get interesting.

Tier 1: True Shooting, Steals, Assists

Tier 2: 3PT, Points, Age

Tier 3: Rebounds, Blocks, Turnovers

Point Guard Stat Coefficients

Stats BPM VORP WS/48
Stats BPM VORP WS/48
Age Negative Negative Negative (but not included in model)
PPG Negative Negative (but not included in model) Negative
APG Negative Negative Negative
SPG Positive Positive Positive
RPG Positive Positive (but not included in model) Positive (but not included in model)
TOPG Positive Positive (but not included in model) Negative (but not included in model)
BPG Positive Positive (but not included in model) Positive (but not included in model)
3PT Positive Positive (but not included in model) Positive
TS Positive Positive Positive

The most eye-opening information regarding the coefficients in the models is that assists and points are negative across the board, meaning that prospects with lower numbers in those categories have generally had greater NBA success. Assists, in particular, is fascinating, as it is usually the first statistic that is brought up in any discussion of point guards and their relative value compared to one another. Why would point guards with higher assist numbers in college have worse odds of success?

There are a couple reasons why this could be the case. The first is that it is likely that point guards on successful teams with better teammates would have more assists. This wouldn’t necessarily be an indication of their passing prowess or playing ability, just that they are surrounded by teammates who can convert on the opportunities given them. Even if a point guard can only run the most basic of reads, if he’s surrounded by several knock-down three-point shooters and a big man who can catch lobs, he’s probably going to rack up assists. Similarly, point guards with high assist numbers might be ball-dominating, controlling point guards with high usage rates. Regardless of efficiency in passing, or running a good offense, a point guard who has the ball a lot will simply have more assists than one who doesn’t. The next question is, why are these bad things? After all, NBA teammates are far superior to those in college, so point guards who play on stacked collegiate teams would seem to be more ahead of their competition. And many of the most storied point guards in NBA history are ball-dominating, high-usage handlers who controlled every aspect of their team’s offense.

I think the first option wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for college point guards’ success in the NBA, it would just lead to deceptive assist numbers, making them appear to be better than they are. But the second is reflective of how the NBA has shifted in recent years offensively. While point guards still possess the ball a lot in the NBA, the era of point guards exclusively running the offense and calling out plays from the top of the key has been left behind. Instead, most NBA teams have adopted more free-flowing systems with multiple ball-handlers, so that even if a point guard runs a lot of pick and roll, they will play without the ball quite frequently as well. And that type of offense requires different skills than just passing, ball-handling, and ability to run a pick and roll. More specifically, point guards in the modern NBA need to be able to shoot, and they must also possess the capability to attack the basket and finish at the rim, which in turn opens passing lanes for drive and kicks to three-point shooters.

This shift in offense also explains why points have a negative coefficient as well. Most NBA point guards are able scorers, yes. However, more than sheer scoring, they need to be efficient. Point guards are usually the quickest players on the court and have the best handles. This enables them to create their own shot more easily than other players, meaning they often lead their team in shot attempts. But point guards who can create shots but can’t finish them are therefore a massive drain to their team. What’s the point of being able to take a lot of shots if the efficiency rate is horrible? Point guards who score a lot in college might be the only players on their team who can create their own shot, so by necessity they must score, and shoot frequently. But that also means they must take a lot of bad shots, which has the double negative of inflating point per game numbers and instilling bad habits. Seeing a point guard with a high scoring average in college isn’t a bad thing by any means, but the immediate next step must be checking on how they are scoring, and whether they are doing so efficiently.

That’s why true shooting (and three-point makes) are such an important indicator for modern point guards. Scoring efficiently is only going to get harder in the NBA, and if point guards can’t finish against college rim protectors, or shoot over college wing defenders, they’re sure going to find it even more difficult in the NBA. Therefore, point guards who might not score much in college, but score efficiently, appear to be better prospects. Not only could this suggest that they play off-ball more frequently (already setting them up for NBA offensive systems), it also indicates they have a method of scoring that they are truly good at, and which could then possibly carry over to the NBA better. Point guards who have a high number of three-point makes in college almost certainly take a fair amount off the dribble, and that’s a huge skill to have going into the NBA, where the high pick and roll is king. Even when off-ball, having the ability to space the floor for other playmakers is vital.

Steals, as usual, are a fantastic indicator of basketball awareness and functional athleticism. Some systems are designed to create steals, and a lot of point guards gamble in passing lanes, often weakening their defense. Still, just having the wherewithal to read the game well enough to see possible takeaways and having the quickness to get to the spot is something that boosts steals more than anything else, and those are abilities that translate to the NBA very cleanly.

So, should high-scoring, high-assist point guard prospects be automatically shunned to the second round? Absolutely not. As always, these analyses are designed to see through the flaws in basic stats, and to read into underlying talents and skills that are better able to carry over into the NBA, not as strict guidelines for who is a good prospect or not. But if you see a point guard with good efficiency who can shoot threes, and has high steal numbers? There’s probably a place for them in the NBA, and it might be a pretty good place at that.