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Do Transition Points Translate?

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We know that buckets in transition before the defense gets set are the easiest points to score in basketball and that it is easier to score off of possessions that start with a live ball. Every new coach, for this reason, pledges to run an up-tempo brand of basketball as soon as they are hired.

It is also why “runs like a deer” is one of the more frequent cliches we hear about potential NBA draft picks. The ability to run the floor and get transition buckets is a valuable skill for any team and is deservedly coveted. However, when evaluating college players looking to move up to the NBA, it is important to consider whether the player will be able to convert those plays against a higher level of competition. With transition baskets the question is simply whether those same opportunities will be there as a pro, and whether they are reliant on the ‘easier’ baskets to up their efficiency and point totals.

I spent some time looking at that using data from the website Hoop-Math that splits scoring for each college player into transition and non-transition baskets with the effective field goal percentage (eFG) for both scenarios.  Hoop-Math creator Jeff Haley  defines transition field goal attempts as shots in the first ten seconds of the possession, not including second attempts. At this point Hoop-Math has three years of data making any definitive predictions about the carry-over impossible, but it was enough to find some indications.

I matched the transition/non-transition Hoop-Math numbers with the rookie true shooting (TS%) numbers from NBA.com to look at which of the two gave a better indicator for  scoring efficiency in the NBA. I came up with 65 players with enough minutes to compare and ran the numbers a few different ways, including by year, separating bigs and back-court players, and using a statistical method known as  ‘Boosting’ to draw a number of random sub-samples for comparison to try to test the relationships and check for overfitting. In all methods the non-transition eFG% was a better indicator for NBA efficiency than transition eFG%.  The strength of the bias showed up particularly strongly for wings and guards, in fact, the percentage of a player’s points generated in transition was a negative factor in predicting NBA efficiency.

Here’s the correlations and significance looking at the non-big men.

Wings and Guards Correlation Significance
NBA TS% 1
College non-trans efg 0.345 0.014
College trans efg 0.121 0.225
TOT EFG 0.321 0.02
trans_pts_ratio -0.358 0.011

The numbers for the entire sample were similar, though the transition eFG% does become statistically significant.

There are a couple of reasons to think the non-transition eFG% should have a stronger relationship to efficiency at the next level  than transition efficiency. The first is simply sample size, the average player in the study had more than twice as many non-transition field goal attempts than in transition making non-transition the number with the least expected luck factor. Second, transition plays favor raw athleticism more than the half-court, where future NBA players are likely to have an advantage in college hoops that won’t be there in the pros. Third, there is the question of whether the ability to get into transition in college translates to the NBA, ie. do those deer runners generate running offense or benefit from opportunities that will not be available in the pros?

An example is a player like advanced stat favorite, Will Barton, who produced above average efficiency numbers in college primarily because a disproportionate percentage of his total offense came in transition, while his non-transition eFG% was a below average 48.8%.  In Portland last year Barton was not able to produce score efficiently with their sub-par bench.

You may be aware that there’s an NBA draft this June, as there is every summer. There is unusual interest and scrutiny on this class due to the combination of supposed talent available in this draft and the continued value the CBA gives to players on their rookie contract.

Focusing on the top back court and wing players, because that is where I think splits might have the larger implications:

  • Andrew Wiggins is under performing in non-transition scoring.  His overall eFG% is somewhat below average at 49%, and his non-transition eFG% is only 47%, well below average for a projected first round back-court player.
  • Jabari Parker is currently looking better with a 53.4% eFG% in non-transition. He also relies less on transition points as a percentage of his scoring — higher percentage of transition scoring showed up as a negative in my numbers, though I am not fully confident in that result.
  • Jahii Carson and Gary Harris have the lowest non-transition numbers. Carson relies heavily on transition scoring to boost his percentages with 44% of his scoring coming in transition, well above the average for wings and guards.
  • Rodney Hood is the most efficient of the possible first round back court players in non-transition with a 58.8% eFG, he’s efficient in transition too, he just doesn’t do a great deal else on the court.
  • Zach LaVine is an interest case, efficient in non-transition so far, 55.7% eFG, but relies on transition the most for his offense, scoring over half of his points in transition, nearly twice the average of other prospects.

Given the size of the data set we can only draw tenuous conclusions, but I would take look twice at players like Carson that have difficulty scoring when the defense is set. I am really eager to hear what other observers think, are we under-valuing degree of difficulty or is getting in transition a skill for wing players and guard?

  • MDMH1787

    This is a very interesting article. Common sense (that troubled and troubling friend of the “eye test”) suggests that a player scores more and more efficiently in transition if he is more athletic than his typical college competition. That is, faster players get blocked/harassed less on fast breaks and thus don’t have to pull the ball back out on the fast break in favor of setting up the set offense. When such a player moves to the NBA his relative speed and athleticism decreases compared to the league average and thus transition finishing ability is bolstered by playing athletically inferior competition.

    Common sense does not tell me though why such athletic superiority would not likewise translate to better college-level eFG in the set offense as one would think that the advantages of athleticism would also boost college level set offense eFG%.

    • Andrew Johnson

      MDMH- Thanks for the comment. There is a positive relationship between transition efficiency and NBA efficiency, but it is weaker than the non-transition numbers.

      If this data holds up, the analogy could be to being able to hit the curve in baseball. Many prospects feast on lower level pitching and fastballs but once they face pitchers with better off-speed pitching they can’t make the leap. Scoring against a set defense is similarly more difficult.

      I think most of the wings and guards in the top one hundred can run the floor effectively, the questions are whether they generate transition opportunities themselves and whether have other skills when those opportunities aren’t there.

  • nbacouchside

    Great stuff as always, Andrew.

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