Simple math

As NBA offenses abandon ‘no man’s land,’ high schools are following suit

Take a look at a recent full-season shot chart for most of the top scorers in the NBA — LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and the like — and most of them will look a lot like the bottom half of a smiley face.

A nose clustered around the rim, and a big, beaming grin following along the 3-point circle.

Sure, there are some marks in between, but the stubble on that face gets thinner and thinner every year.

Story continues below gallery

As advanced metrics take on a bigger and bigger role in determining how pro basketball teams play, offenses have worked to create the most efficient shots possible. That means chucking up plenty of 3-pointers and getting to the basket for tons of layups and free throws.

That trend also has been working its way down to the high school game, where the mid-range jump shot has increasingly become a dying art — largely by design.

“If you just look at it statistically — and I’m a math teacher, so sometimes I do — really, it needs to be layups and 3s,” longtime Greenwood boys coach Bruce Hensley said. “If you just look at percentages and try to figure out points per shot, the mid-range shot is probably not the best shot to take. Layups and 3s, and free throws, more than anything, are where you need to score your points.

“I think any coach would tell you that shot just one step, two steps inside the arc is probably the worst shot you can take.”

Despite Hensley’s mathematical analysis, the Woodmen actually shoot fewer 3-pointers than most of their local rivals, with just 26 percent of their field-goal attempts (165 of 635) having come from beyond the arc before Wednesday’s game. Greenwood does, though, get to the foul line more frequently — 17.6 tries per game entering Wednesday.

The 3s-or-layups approach isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy. On average, high school boys teams now launch roughly one-third of their shots from 3-point range — Franklin fires up more than 40 percent of its shots from deep. But taking more 3s just to take them isn’t necessarily a smart play for teams that can’t make them.

Indian Creek, for example, is shooting an eye-popping 42 percent from long range as a team. In order for a shot inside the arc to be equally worthwhile, Braves players would have to convert it at a 64 percent clip — a rate of efficiency that is usually only attained on layups. So the Braves might even be better off shooting more 3s than they already do (33.5 percent of their shot attempts).

Greenwood, on the other hand, is hitting just 28 percent of its 3-pointers — so for the Woodmen, getting to the rim is the smarter play.

“You’ve got to adjust to the personnel you have,” Whiteland coach Matt Wadsworth said. “Not every team has those four guys on the perimeter that’s going to really stretch the defense and a point guard that can drive to the basket.

“So I feel as if in the high school game, for the right team, there’s still a place for that (mid-range) shot.”

Mathematically, however, it’s the shot of last resort.

Wadsworth’s Warriors, for example, make 35 percent of their 3-point shots. To make those mid-range jumpers just as valuable, they’d need to make just over half of them. Considering that Whiteland is 54 percent inside the arc including layups, its percentage on jump shots from 12 to 18 feet out is likely not high enough to make those shots a wise choice.

Still, coaches note, there is something to be said for at least having the mid-range shot in your arsenal. Indian Creek coach Derek Perry, for one, wishes his team would use it more frequently — even though he’s got a team that shoots nearly as well outside the 3-point line as it does inside of it.

“You’ve still got the good teams that will take those elbow shots or pull up,” he noted. “The good guards that pull up, and teams have some big guys that can hit that elbow shot.”

For Wadsworth, the big thing isn’t always which shots his teams are taking, but when they’re taking them. The less patient his team is in seeking quality shots, the worse they tend to fare.

“We learned that, when we look at our shooting in drills and game situations, if we shoot off one pass our percentage tends to be lower than if it’s off of two or three passes,” Wadsworth said. “And I think being really mindful of when we shoot within that possession is important.”

There’s little denying that the 3-point shot has had a major impact on the high school game since it was instituted in 1987. It has changed the way the game is played, and generally for the better.

But Hensley — one of the few area coaches old enough to actually remember what the game was like before the 3-point line — does offer one lament.

“I definitely think shooting was better 25, 30 years ago,” he said. “I think the 3-point arc has hurt shooting. Because kids, when they’re young — you go look at 6, 7, 8-year-old kids, and they’ll go grab a ball and they’ll step right outside that arc, and they’re not ready to shoot it yet, and they get bad habits.

“When I was growing up, we never shot out there because it didn’t mean any more to you.”

Nowadays, a shot from 20 feet out means 50 percent more than a shot from 15 or 18 feet. Across all levels, the style of play is adjusting accordingly.

The end result might not appeal to everyone, but the numbers don’t lie.

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2715.