What Makes A Great Scorer?

Posted on October 23, 2009 | 18 Comments

[I was having a discussion with someone over at the Raptors Republic about Bargnani’s developmental ceiling, when I brought up the same argument I have dozens of times. Instead of going back over the same stats that I always do, I realized I should put it in a post, which I can point people to, should the need arise, and save me the time typing and researching.]

Andrea Bargnani FadeawayIn the NBA, there’s a big difference between someone who can score, and a great scorer. Someone like Andrea Bargnani can score. He’s an incredible shooter, and because of his ability to hit the three point shot, and his quickness, he is very good at getting defenders to bite on his shot fake and get by them. His pull up shot is something that guys a foot shorter would love to have. He’s also big enough to score over smaller defenders inside, which makes him a bit of a matchup nightmare. It’s no wonder many Raptor fans foresee stardom in Bargnani’s future. The problem, however, is that despite Bargnani being a great shooter, he’ll simply never become a great scorer. Why? The answer lies with his inability to get to the line.

You see, a top scorer needs to be able to do more than just shoot (whether from close or faraway). A top scorer needs to be able to score even when his shot isn’t dropping, or when he’s being defended so well he can’t get a clean look. The difference between a good scorer and a great scorer is the ability to manufacture points. In basketball, there’s only one place to manufacture points, and that’s at the free throw line.

Dwyane DunksHow many times have you seen someone like Kobe or Dwyane Wade go 3-9 from the field, but still end up scoring 25 points? It’s because they still are able to get to the line at a prodigious rate.

Simply looking at how many times someone gets to the line can be misleading, however. Dwyane Wade went to the line an NBA leading 9.8 times a game last year. Obviously Wade is going to get to the line more than, say, Eric Gordon, of the Clippers. Wade has the ball far more, shoots more and the offense revolves around him. It might surprise you to learn, however, that Eric Gordon is almost as good at getting to the line as Wade. Sure, he went to the line less than half as many times, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Instead of looking at how many free throws a player attempts, you have to look at how many free throws a players attempts in relation to how many shots they take. This ratio is the best indication of how well they get to the line because how often a player gets to the line is directly tied to how often they shoot, no matter how often that is. The ratio remains fairly constant whether a player plays 15 mpg and shoots very little, or 40 mpg and shoots a lot.

Eric Gordon DrivesLast season, for every 100 shots Eric Gordon took, he went to the line 38 times. That’s a very good average and one that shows he has good potential to, one day, become one of the NBA’s top scorers. For every 100 shots Wade took, he went to the line 44 times last season. So we’ll say that Wade has a FT/FG ratio of .440.  Let’s look at the career FT/FG ratio of some of the NBA’s top scorers.

- LeBron James:  .420
- Kobe Bryant: .400
- Dirk Nowitzki: .388

Yes, Dirk Nowitzki.

Charlie VillanuevaNow, I first came up with this ratio when some Raptor fans were trying to convince me that Charlie Villanueva was going to become a better scorer than Chris Bosh. Their logic was that Villanueva was a much more versatile scorer than Bosh, so obviously he should eventually be able to score more, right? Wrong. Villanueva was very bad at getting to the line. So bad, in fact, he had a FT/FG ratio similar to Jason Williams (.170). That’s awful, by the way, especially for someone with the offensive skills of Villaneuva. Of course, they argued that it was so low because Sam Mitchell had him stuck on the three point line and because he was playing out of position at small forward. Three point shooters don’t get to the line as much as slashers, right? Well, that’s true, except when you’re talking, again, about the top scorers.

Dirk Getting FouledEven in Dirk’s rookie season, which was considered a bit of a disaster. He only scored 8.2 ppg after Don Nelson famously touted him as a future star. Many scoffed at that prediction after that rookie season, but a closer look would have shown that he still showed ability to become a great scorer. You guessed it. He had an excellent FT/FG ratio of .381 (very close to his career FT/FG ratio). His field goal percentage was not very good (.405), and his vaunted three point shooting was nowhere to be seen (.206), but he could manufacture points.

Now, I must add here that the FT/FG ratio of players fluctuate very little from their first season to when they start to decline (more on that later). The fluctuation is generally under 10%. It’s how a player plays. It’s pretty much ingrained by the time they reach the NBA. Either they are aggressive and look for contact, or shy away from it. As evidence, we look again at Villanueva. Last year, his best statistical season of his career, was his fourth full season (third in Milwaukee), one in which he started more than half the games, and played the entire season at his more natural position of power forward. His FT/FG ratio was a slightly better .220. It’s pretty safe to say that Villanueva, despite his offensive gifts, will never be a top scorer in the league because he can’t manufacture points. A bad shooting night or a good defender means he won’t score.

Bargnani DrivingThat takes us back to Andrea Bargnani. In Bargnani’s rookie season, his FT/FG ratio was .227. That’s lower, by the way, than Jose Calderon’s rookie season (.295) or last season (.239), when he was injured. Not good, but Sam Mitchell had him camped out at the 3 point line most of the time, didn’t he?  It’s not his fault he couldn’t get to the line. Well, last season, which saw him breakout and become the scoring threat many envisioned, he saw his FT/FG ration jump to .277. Not a ratio that is going to get him in the top ten in scoring. Okay, but what about after he broke out and became a starter at center? A minutely better .278.

Before you say that the FT/FG ratio doesn’t mean anything, let’s take a look at the ratio of all the top ten scorers for this past year, as well as their ratio for this past year, their rookie year and for their career.

D.Wade .440 .391 .443
L.James .472 .308 .420
K.Bryant .329 .393 .400
D.Nowitzki .337 .381 .388
D.Granger .360 .310 .334
K.Durant .377 .328 -
C.Paul .418 .491 .398
C.Anthony .388 .358 .408
C.Bosh .489 .404 .513
B.Roy .383 .315 .344

Old Michael JordanA few observations:

Everyone is in a pretty similar range. Kobe and Dirk had the lowest ratio of the top ten scorers, but they’re also the oldest players. Perimeter players tend to get to the line less once they hit a certain age. For some, like Jordan, that age is a little later. His ratio only went down once he came out of retirement the second time. It’s not surprising. As players get older, they want to save the wear and tear on their body, and try and avoid the contact, rather than initiate it. Does this mean that Kobe and Dirk are declining? I’d say so.

Also, LeBron had a relatively low ratio of .308 in his rookie season. His jump of 17% is one of the highest I’ve seen.

Chris Bosh’s ratio is excellent, and is why he has the ability to be such a good scorer. Inside players, however, generally have a higher FT/FG ratio than perimeter players. Shaq’s career ratio is .580. Dwight Howard’s is an astounding .781, although that’s partly due to the fact that he is such a bad free throw shooter than players foul him intentionally rather than give up the dunk.

These numbers are pretty similar no matter what year you look at. Top scorers get to the line. It’s always been that way in the NBA.

Andrea BargnaniBargnani went from .227 in his rookie season to .277 last season. Certainly nothing that indicates that he has the potential to be a 25 ppg scorer, as some seem to believe. In many ways, Bargnani is incredibly similar to Villanueva. In Villanueva, Raptor fans mistakingly saw a player who would supplant Bosh as the franchise player, and someone who would eventually become a better scorer than Bosh, simply due to their offensive versatility.

See, versatility is nice, but in the end, it all boils down to putting the ball in the basket. Karl Malone scored the second most points in NBA history by having little else but a short jumper and a good first step (as well as being stronger than just about everyone else). He wasn’t exactly Kevin McHale in the post, but what he did do was get to the line. Malone’s .503 FT/FG ratio allowed him to get over a quarter of his 36,928 points from the line.

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Join the discussion: 18 Comments


  • TheR3dMenace

    I think, then, you will be pleasantly surprised by how much Andrea will get to the line this year. If you watched any of Eurobasket you would have noticed that this was his primary goal on offense for Italy’s games – Going to the hoop and getting fouled/scoring.

  • http://sbrother.wordpress.com brothersteve

    Based on DeMar DeRozan’s preseason, he’ll be a great scorer!

    No question that someone who gets to the line regularly can score more constantly than a “shooter”.

    But Bargs does have 20ppg potential this year.

  • JayElZee

    Good analysis, one question:

    You looked at the FT/FG ratio for top scorers…but, can you also find high scorers with a low FT/FG ratio? If so, that debunks your theory a bit.

    Better yet, do a full correlation analysis between scoring average (by MPG) with the FT/FG. That would fully reveal what is happening.

  • Johnn19

    Using your logic CB4 has the potential to be a leading scorer (top 3/5), if his new build and added strenghth ,allows him to reduce his Jump Shots, and attemp to score more inside this year, as he has already the best ratio in the top 10.

  • http://www.wearingfilm.com Tim W.

    The R3dMenace,
    I hope I will be pleasantly surprised, but based on history and his preseason play, I don’t see much of a change. If he creeps past 30%, I think that will be a good improvement, but he’d have to get up well past that to become the scorer some envision, and players almost never improve that much.

  • http://khandorssportsblog.com/wordpress khandor


    This is a solid piece of analysis.

    2 small quibbles:

    1. re: “His pull up shot is something that guys a foot shorter would love to have.”

    Bargnani’s pull-up jumper is better than most other Bigs in the NBA but it’s not an accurate assessment to say that it’s even “adequate” when compared to the 1st-class PG’s, OG’s and SF’s in the game today.

    2. One of the key attributes of Karl Malone’s [PF] individual game was his unmatched ability to sprint the floor in offensive transtion and finish plays on the wing at the end of break-out situations for the Jazz … which resulted in a fairly high percentage of his overall points scored for the early and middle phases of his career.

    IMO, this one skill alone The Mailman did better than any other PF in the history of the NBA and contributed significantly to him eventually becoming a high end “scorer”.

    Keep On Truck’n :-)

  • http://www.wearingfilm.com Tim W.

    I was actually going to mention DeRozan’s preseason, but I figured 1500 words was enough. His percentage isn’t good, but he’s only had one game where he didn’t hit double digits and that’s mostly due to his ability to manufacture points.

    As for Bargnani, think he very well could get up to 20 ppg, but I think that would be close to his limit.

    I’ve done exhaustive research on this, and while there are exceptions (Ray Allen is one) they are incredibly few and far between. In fact, if memory serves, Ray Allen might be the only player in the last 20 years who made it into the top ten in scoring with a FT/FG ratio below 30 (and Kobe’s ratio last season may be the second lowest). Allen’s career ratio is .267. Now obviously Bargnani COULD very well also be an exception, but the chances of that are incredibly slim.

    And there is absolutely no correlation between the ratio and mpg, which is why I like the stat (although you need a minimum of minutes simply to get enough of a sample size). Generally, I’m not a big stat guy because I don’t usually feel they tell the whole story, but some stats overwhelming say something.

    I think Bosh showed a glimpse of this last November, when he averaged something like 26 ppg. The big question is whether or not he’s going to get enough shot attempts this season. I think he will, but you never know.

    1. Ya, I was exaggerating a bit for effect, but his pull-up is very good, and it looked better in the preseason.
    2. Hey, I was a huge Jazz fan during their heyday,. so I’m well acquainted with Malone. I agree about his ability to run the floor, but it’s his ability to score in the halfcourt, especially for the Jazz, who played so much halfcourt basketball, that got him the majority of his points. I know many will say that without Stockton, and his ability to run the pick and roll, Malone wouldn’t have been the scorer he was, but the fact that Malone was also so dangerous on the pick and roll- being able to fade for a jumpshot or step hard to the basket- made him just as valuable.

  • http://lucianogalasso.tumblr.com Lu Galasso

    Great piece of analysis here. Solid research. I can’t argue with much, except to say, like Brothersteve, that Bargs could end up scoring 20ppg this year. It’s basically what he did from January onwards last season.

    As a Raptors fan I’ll continue to hope that Bargs starts rebounding, playing defense, and drawing fouls, but I’m not holding my breath for any of it.

  • http://khandorssportsblog.com/wordpress khandor

    Raptors fans who expect Bargnani to score 20 PPG this season may not be accounting for the fact that his best average points scored totals for a solid stretch of games last season was achieved with a player like Shawn Marion added into the mix.

    This year, Hedo Turkoglu is NOT the equivalent of Shawn Marion; and, neither are:

    DeMar DeRozan and Marco Belinelli = Anthony Parker
    Jarrett Jack = Roko Ukic
    Antoine Wright = Joey Graham
    Reggie Evans = Pops Mensah-Bonsu
    Rasho Nesterovic = Jake Voskuhl
    Amir Johnson = Kris Humphries [injured/absent]

  • http://www.wearingfilm.com Tim W.


    I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that Bargnani could score 20 ppg. His backers do claim that his scoring average was higher than it really was, after he became the starting center. He averaged 19.8 ppg in January, 17.9 in February, 20 in March and 16.3 in April. The two months he averaged 20 ppg (or close), he also shot 48% and 52% from behind the arc. Does anyone in their right mind really think he’s going to do that on a regular basis?

    And you completely lost me when you said Jack was equal to Ukic. He’s miles, MILES better.

    And while Parker might be equal to DeRozan and Belinelli right now, in the next couple of years, I think they will be much better than Parker ever was.

    Antoine Wright is also better than Graham, if for no other reason than he isn’t nearly as inconsistent. Wright at least started, and played decent minutes, for a 50 win team. Graham will never do that.

    In fact, I’d say that every single one of the new additions you mentioned is an upgrade over their counterpart. Not sure why you think they aren’t.

  • RaptorsAddict

    Fantastic piece, easily one of the more convincing statistical arguments I”ve read. It’s like you said, “I’m not a big stat guy because I don’t usually feel they tell the whole story, but some stats overwhelming say something.”

    Now, I’m Bargs’ biggest apologist and have been since day 1. I also think that, unlike CV3, Bargs actually has a drive to improve his game and might be willing to sacrifice his body to do it. But I agree that more than 20 ppg might be a stretch. Frankly, I’d be happy with 18 + the intangibles you mentioned, because I think DD really has a chance to be something special in 2-3 years.

  • http://www.wearingfilm.com Tim W.

    Wow! Tonight’s game really slammed home my point, didn’t it?

    Bosh scores 29 on 12 shots and goes 11 of 12 from the foul line, Bargnani launches 16 shots, but doesn’t go to the line once and scores 12 points.

    And not to rub salt in Bargnani’s wound, but both the PG’s on the roster outrebounded him.

  • http://khandorssportsblog.com/wordpress khandor


    Please read carefully what I actually wrote.

    It says that each of those other current Raptors are NOT the equivalent of their former counterparts, just as Hedo Turkoglu is NOT the equal to Shawn Marion.

  • http://khandorssportsblog.com/wordpress khandor

    Sorry … that should read as:

    ” … is NOT the equivalent of … “

  • http://www.wearingfilm.com Tim W.


    I got that. It was the other comments about Ukic, etc. In your comment, you say that, for example, Jarrett Jack = Roko Ukic. Are you saying that Jack is NOT equal to him, because it doesn’t read like that?

  • http://khandorssportsblog.com/wordpress khandor


    There are two parts to this sentence that need to be put together in order for the whole thought to make complete sense:

    PART I

    This year, Hedo Turkoglu is NOT the equivalent of Shawn Marion; and, neither are:


    DeMar DeRozan and Marco Belinelli = Anthony Parker
    Jarrett Jack = Roko Ukic
    Antoine Wright = Joey Graham
    Reggie Evans = Pops Mensah-Bonsu
    Rasho Nesterovic = Jake Voskuhl
    Amir Johnson = Kris Humphries [injured/absent]

    Which is just another way of saying that …

    Turk does NOT equal Marion [Shawn is better]
    DeRozan and Belinelli do NOT equal Parker [Parker is better right now]
    Jack does NOT equal Ukic [Jack is better]
    Evans does NOT equal PMB
    Nesterovic does NOT equal Voskuhl
    Johnson does NOT equal Humphries

    What I didn’t do originally is specify which half of each equation I believe is superior to the other. :-)

    Turk < Marion
    DeMar and Belinelli Ukic
    Evans Voskuhl
    Johnson < Humphries

  • http://khandorssportsblog.com/wordpress khandor

    and …

    Jack > Ukic

    Nesterovic > Voskuhl

  • http://www.wearingfilm.com Tim W.

    Yes, now it makes more sense. Although, I would definitely say that DeROzan, Wright and Belinelli are superior to Parker, at least how parker was last season. I like Parker, but he’s getting on in years and is best on a talented team where he isn’t asked to do too much.

    And I don’t think Humphries is any better than Johnson. My big gripe with Humphries was that he would take shots he shouldn’t. Johnson, at least, understands his role a lot better than Humphires. Id rather have a less talented player who knows his role than a more talented player that doesn’t.

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