The NBA’s Most Efficient Passers

Not every assist is equal, and the same is true for seemingly equivalent per-game lines. Two NBA players averaging five assists aren’t identically adept passers.

Right off the bat, we’ll admit we’re overlooking plenty of factors here. Passes squeezed into tight spaces count the same as easy feeds in transition. We’re not factoring in turnovers. The players who rack up disproportionate numbers of dimes don’t receive their due credit.

But we’re zeroing in on passing efficiency—not volume—by looking at two different metrics for the league’s top 50 in assists per game (among those with at least 20 contests to their credit): passes per assist and field-goal-percentage improvement off potential assists.

Using NBA.com’s SportVU data, we’re calculating the former by dividing a player’s total passes by their total assists. The lower the number (or the further left on the chart to come), the better they are at generating buckets for their teammates without wasting passes. Those with higher scores are more likely to swing the ball around the horn or pass to set-up men; they don’t always serve as primary distributors.

The latter is a bit more complicated.

First, we’re looking at a player’s assists and potential assists—defined as passes that would have resulted in assists had the ensuing shot dropped. Dividing potential assists into actual assists yields the field-goal percentage produced by their teammates on worthy feeds. For example, James Harden is leading the NBA by averaging 11.8 assists and 22.3 potential assists, so the Houston Rockets are shooting 52.9 percent when he passes and they shoot quickly enough to earn him an assist if the shot falls.

This would be a potential assist:

By subtracting the team’s field-goal percentage, we can see how much better it shoots off that player’s passes. The higher the discrepancy (or the higher up on the coming chart), the better.

Don’t be surprised that every single player among the 50 analyzed has a positive differential, as teams’ field-goal percentages are typically depressed by isolation attempts, post-up plays and shots off passes from players who don’t serve as leading facilitators.

Again, volume isn’t taken into account here. But the league’s most-efficient passers are those who populate the upper-left portion of this graph (full data at the bottom of this article):

The men occupying the most prominent spots shouldn’t be even the tiniest bit surprising.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook and John Wall are 2016-17’s three leading assist men, and each of them operates with near autonomy in their respective schemes. When they’re not looking to score, they’re always seeking open teammates.

LeBron James and Jeff Teague aren’t far behind, while Chris Paul is in arguably the best position of the leading bunch. The Los Angeles Clippers’ resident point god doesn’t waste many passes while running the show, and he boosts LAC’s field-goal percentage from 46.5 to 56.1 off his passes.

But the true outlier here is Nikola Jokic, who boosts the Denver Nuggets’ efficiency levels by a smidgen under 14 percentage points.

This isn’t a fluke created by his position or role. If it were, you’d see players such as Marc Gasol and Paul Millsap much higher on the y-axis. Instead, it’s a testament to Jokic’s knack for putting the ball in the perfect spot.

He accumulates his fair share of outlet passes and is often willing to kick the ball to the perimeter after an ill-fated post-up attempt, which is why he doesn’t fare better in passes per assist. But the Nuggets know they can cut to the hoop and receive a high-quality feed around the basket:

A disproportionate number of his assists lead teammates right to the rim, where they can complete easy layups and dunks. Even when defenders are there to contest shots, they’re capable of finishing, as Gary Harris is below:

In many ways, Jokic is a product of the Daryl Morey school of thought—just with his passing rather than his scoring.

Of his first 124 assists this season, 71 have led to buckets from no further than three feet (57.3 percent). Another 35 produced triples (28.2 percent), and that leaves just 14.5 percent allocated to two-pointers from at least four feet. He knows how to pass into the most efficient zones, and he’s already become a master of creating easy opportunities for his teammates.

By comparison, 23.4 percent of Gasol’s assists lead to two-pointers from at least four feet, and the average shot distance on one of his dimes is 4.5 feet longer than Jokic’s.

The 6’10” center from Serbia may only be 21 years old, but he’s already become one of the NBA’s most efficient distributors, simply by understanding how to pass players open in the most advantageous locations.

Denver was right to hand him the keys to its offense.

Player APG Potential APG FG% Off Potential Assists Team FG% FG% Improvement Passes per Game Passes per Assist
James Harden 11.80 22.30 52.91 46.90 6.01 67.90 5.75
Russell Westbrook 10.50 19.30 54.40 46.10 8.30 60.20 5.73
John Wall 10.30 18.80 54.79 47.10 7.69 60.40 5.86
Chris Paul 9.70 17.30 56.07 46.50 9.57 66.70 6.88
LeBron James 8.10 16.10 50.31 45.30 5.01 56.40 6.96
Jeff Teague 7.90 15.10 52.32 46.00 6.32 56.20 7.11
Draymond Green 7.70 13.20 58.33 49.90 8.43 61.30 7.96
Ricky Rubio 7.60 13.70 55.47 45.70 9.77 64.60 8.50
Rajon Rondo 7.20 13.60 52.94 43.20 9.74 68.50 9.51
Kyle Lowry 7.20 13.00 55.38 46.80 8.58 60.50 8.40
Jrue Holiday 7.00 13.20 53.03 43.80 9.23 57.70 8.24
Tim Frazier 6.70 12.80 52.34 43.80 8.54 56.70 8.46
Deron Williams 6.70 12.70 52.76 43.30 9.46 64.30 9.60
Goran Dragic 6.50 12.70 51.18 43.70 7.48 59.50 9.15
Dennis Schroder 6.30 12.80 49.22 45.50 3.72 57.30 9.10
Damian Lillard 6.20 12.20 50.82 46.10 4.72 61.20 9.87
Isaiah Thomas 6.10 12.20 50.00 45.30 4.70 59.50 9.75
Sergio Rodriguez 6.00 12.40 48.39 43.20 5.19 62.70 10.45
Mike Conley 6.00 13.10 45.80 42.50 3.30 60.70 10.12
Stephen Curry 5.90 10.60 55.66 49.90 5.76 52.40 8.88
Nicolas Batum 5.80 10.70 54.21 44.20 10.01 46.80 8.07
Eric Bledsoe 5.80 11.70 49.57 44.60 4.97 63.20 10.90
Kyrie Irving 5.70 11.40 50.00 45.30 4.70 53.60 9.40
Giannis Antetokounmpo 5.70 10.80 52.78 47.60 5.18 55.70 9.77
Elfrid Payton 5.70 12.50 45.60 43.70 1.90 52.40 9.19
Kemba Walker 5.50 11.30 48.67 44.20 4.47 59.00 10.73
Reggie Jackson 5.50 11.00 50.00 45.20 4.80 48.70 8.85
Matthew Dellavedova 5.40 10.10 53.47 47.60 5.87 46.60 8.63
TJ McConnell 5.30 11.20 47.32 43.20 4.12 58.40 11.02
Ish Smith 5.00 9.60 52.08 45.20 6.88 50.30 10.06
Al Horford 4.90 9.10 53.85 45.30 8.55 51.80 10.57
Brandon Jennings 4.90 10.60 46.23 44.60 1.63 46.60 9.51
Tony Parker 4.80 9.40 51.06 48.00 3.06 50.10 10.44
Kevin Durant 4.70 8.50 55.29 49.90 5.39 39.20 8.34
Blake Griffin 4.70 8.20 57.32 46.50 10.82 57.90 12.32
Jimmy Butler 4.60 10.10 45.54 43.20 2.34 42.70 9.28
D'Angelo Russell 4.60 9.10 50.55 44.60 5.95 49.20 10.70
Patrick Beverley 4.40 8.70 50.57 46.90 3.67 38.40 8.73
Marcus Smart 4.40 8.30 53.01 45.30 7.71 42.00 9.55
Derrick Rose 4.40 9.10 48.35 44.60 3.75 56.60 12.86
Jameer Nelson 4.30 8.80 48.86 45.40 3.46 40.50 9.42
Mason Plumlee 4.30 8.10 53.09 46.10 6.99 39.30 9.14
Darren Collison 4.20 9.00 46.67 45.00 1.67 54.80 13.05
Marc Gasol 4.20 9.00 46.67 42.50 4.17 50.60 12.05
Ty Lawson 4.20 9.10 46.15 45.00 1.15 46.80 11.14
Malcolm Brogdon 4.00 7.40 54.05 47.60 6.45 43.30 10.83
Emmanuel Mudiay 3.90 7.40 52.70 45.40 7.30 49.70 12.74
DeMarcus Cousins 3.90 7.70 50.65 45.00 5.65 49.20 12.62
Paul Millsap 3.80 7.80 48.72 45.50 3.22 46.00 12.11
Nikola Jokic 3.80 6.40 59.38 45.40 13.98 40.70 10.71
Player APG Potential APG FG% Off Potential Assists Team FG% FG% Improvement Passes per Game Passes per Assist

 

Adam Fromal is the founder of NBA Math. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA.com or NBA Math and are accurate heading into games on Jan. 13. Videos come from 3ball.io.

One thought on “The NBA’s Most Efficient Passers”

  1. Fish Aquarius says:

    Great article…he is so underrated right now (jokic)…but watch out fantasy geeks because he might surprise some people in the next years

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