Surprise stats: Perception versus reality
Quite often, numbers can tell us things we wouldn't otherwise be able to see. Granted, you probably are aware of this already; after all, that's why we play fantasy basketball. We devote at least a partial section of our fandom to analyzing the numbers that NBA players produce, and there can be a sizable gap between what we believe to be true about a player's statistics and what actually is true.
We believe, for example, that Stephen Curry is great at shooting the basketball. It is said anecdotally to be true, and it is noticeably true in the games we watch. He just looks like a great shooter. On the flip side, we also believe that Rajon Rondo is a train wreck when it comes to shooting the basketball. Without statistics to prove it, I'd probably guess that Curry makes a higher percentage of his shots than Rondo. Turns out that's simply not true.
For the season, Rondo is shooting 52.0 percent from the field, while Curry is at 46.5 percent. And it's not just Rondo's skill at finishing around the basket that makes him a higher-percentage shooter than Curry. A quick look at hoopdata.com tells us that while Rondo is better at the rim, Curry is actually the better shooter this season from 10 feet and in. Even more shocking, Curry and Rondo are shooting almost the same percentage on shots from 16-23 feet from the basket.
And this is just one of the reasons why we play this game called fantasy basketball, so we can better measure, prove or disprove what we think we see. As we approach the halfway point of the season, now seems like a good time to look at some of the more surprising individual fantasy stats up to this point in the season.
Paul Pierce's 51 percent shooting from the floor: Since he came into the league in 1998-99, Pierce has scored more points than anyone besides Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. Pierce has the lowest field-goal percentage of any of those guys over that stretch, and also has the lowest of anyone in the top 10 besides Chauncey Billups. In fact, Pierce's career-high shooting percentage for a single season is 47 percent (twice). Considering that, it's a bit surprising that Pierce, a seasoned 33 years of age, is shooting as well as he is this season. His splits show that he's not slowing down, either, and since he's in great shape and playing the same number of minutes he played last season, there's no reason to think he'll slow down. If you drafted Pierce thinking he'd be this big a boon to your field-goal percentage, congratulations on your foresight, but to me, this is one of the most surprising stats of the season.
Derrick Rose's 82 percent shooting from the free-throw line and 1.6 3-pointers per game: Coming into this season, Rose's free-throw shooting looked bad in two ways. First, he didn't get to the line enough, and second, he seemed to be regressing, having gone from 79 percent shooting as a rookie to 77 percent in his second season. Add to that the fact that he was just a 71 percent free-throw shooter during his one season in college at Memphis, and there seemed to be some real reason for concern. Instead, Rose has become a great shooter from the line while increasing his attempts per game by nearly 50 percent from last season.
This is even more amazing when you consider his field-goal percentage has fallen off a cliff, from 49 percent last season to 45 percent this season. The reason for this? Because he's taking way more 3-point shots. Rose seems to have taken the hint that teams were going to force him to beat them with jump shots, and he did a phenomenal job preparing to handle that this offseason. His 3-point shots have jumped from 0.8 per game last season to 4.2 this season, and his 3-point shooting percentage has jumped from 26.7 percent to 37.8 percent. He's better than just a "passable" shooter from long range; it's now a weapon for him. I thought Rose was in for a great season, and liked him over guys such as Tyreke Evans in preseason drafts, but even I never would have imagined him producing these numbers.
Landry Fields' 7.1 rebounds per game: This one is truly amazing, especially when you consider that Fields lines up at shooting guard. For a second-round pick to have started every game as a rookie on a team with a winning record is remarkable in and of itself, but Fields is shaping up to be one of the best rebounding guards in the league, if not all-time. Using basketball-reference.com's "Player Season Finder," I discovered that only four guards in the past decade have managed to pull down more than seven rebounds per game, and they are Jason Kidd, Bonzi Wells, Quentin Richardson, and Steve Francis. Kidd is the only guy to do it more than once over that stretch, so the fact that Fields is doing it as a rookie bodes well for his future prospects. Add to that his surprising proficiency as a shooter, and Fields looks like a great pickup if he's still available in your league.
Corey Brewer's 1.8 steals per game: Here's another item from the Player Season Finder: No player in the past decade has averaged more steals per game in fewer minutes than Brewer has this season. The fact that he's pretty awful at nearly every other aspect of the game is problematic -- based on per-game-average stats, Brewer actually has a negative overall value on our Player Rater -- but if you're looking just for steals, well, Brewer is getting more of those per game than anybody besides Chris Paul, Monta Ellis, Russell Westbrook, Raymond Felton, and Manu Ginobili. When we did our projections at the start of the season, he wasn't even the first guy named Brewer on the projected steals leaderboard; Ronnie was. That makes this a pretty surprising (and possibly useful) stat.
Andrew Bogut's 2.7 blocks per game: Bogut blocked 2.5 shots per game last season, which takes out some of the shock value here, but consider the following two nuggets of information: First, until last season, his career average was 1.0 blocks per game in 32.2 minutes per game; and second, he was unable to finish last season because of a horrific elbow injury that threatened to make him less effective this season.
Actually, Bogut has been less effective this year. His field-goal percentage has fallen from 52 percent to 49 percent, his free-throw percentage has fallen from 63 percent to 41 percent, and he's finishing a lower percentage of his shots at the rim than ever before, according to hoopdata.com. One would think a horrific injury to a center's arm would make him a less effective shot-blocker -- before the season, we generously projected him to post 2.2 blocks per game -- but Bogut has managed to actually improve in the face of that adversity.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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