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The Subtle Value Of Great Point Guards: Why Potential Assists Matter

Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen running Chin Iso, as described/diagrammed by Fast Model Sports.

Whenever people try to suggest that point guard play doesn't matter that much, I immediately think of the Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball team's beat down of the LSU Tigers in 1996.

That's extreme, so perhaps Nikki Caldwell's UCLA Bruins are a better example: if you can't get the ball upcourt, you can't score baskets. It's really not a whole lot more complex than that.

Sometimes the impact of a good ball handler - or multiple ball handlers to beat the aforementioned whirlwind presses - isn't easily measured by box score statistics either. One of the things that made Tia Jackson's Washington Huskies' defense effective at times is that their goal wasn't to fly around and force turnovers but simply to force teams into eating up time on the shot clock to rush their offense.

So really, collecting assists are sort of the next level up after withstanding pressure; creating assists efficiently is like Graduate Point Guard Seminar. But as you move up the ladder - getting the ball upcourt without turning it over, collecting assists, manipulating the defense to create high percentage scoring opportunities for teammates - it takes increasing skill to perform well.

So for all the emphasis on scoring points, being able to perform that function of a ball handler well has value that is easily overlooked. So just how valuable are point guards?

Creation Ratio

SB Nation's Tom Ziller helped provide insight into what makes a point guard valuable by offering a metric for NBA players called "Creation Ratio", which is essentially the rate at which a player creates shots for oneself or others as compared to how many shots others create for them. He wrote an initial piece centered around Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook - a "perfect storm of creation" - and then later wrote another about Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, but it's his piece On The Importance of Point Guards In Shot Creation that is most relevant to this discussion of point guard value.

To summarize the details of all three of those articles, creation ratio is the ratio of assists to others and unassisted shots made compared to assisted shots made. An estimated assist percentage for free throws is also included. He goes through the ins and outs of that metric over the course of those three posts, but what's ultimately most important is this: point guards created three times as many shots as other players. Of the top 20 players in terms of total shots created for the season last season in the NBA, 16 were point guards.

Basketball is a simple game that comes down to scoring more points per possession than the opposition. That NBA point guards - even average point guards - create more shots than anyone else in the league speaks volumes about their value that is often overlooked because it's neither captured fully by assists or points (what people normally look at) but the combination of how they get both.

The ability to a) recognize scoring opportunities for others, b) set up those scoring opportunities, and c) make the pass that leads to the score is what distinguishes good from serviceable point guards. And that's exactly what you see in the video above (click here for full description/diagram of that set):  a play created by Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen to set up Jessica Adair for an easy layup.

Obviously, they were running a play so Whalen knew what was coming and it was a screen that freed her to make the play. But her ability to drive on her smaller defender, recognize that the defense had been disoriented, and put the ball in the right place is what made that play beautiful. Simple, yes, but beautiful.

That is the type of play that a point guard - as a player who typically possesses superior ball handling, court vision, game awareness, and passing skill than other players - will make that others can't and/or aren't required to, hence why it makes sense that point guards have higher creation ratios than anyone else.

Potential assists

However, as Ziller notes, what's still missing from that creation ratio analysis is something else still not recorded in box scores: potential assists, which I described previously after Whalen's 20 point, 10 assist performance during this regular season. Potential assists are best described as a pass that leads directly to a shot or free throws, meaning had a ball gone through the hoop someone would have picked up an assist for it.

There's obviously a lot of subjectivity in counting potential assists - and really, the act of counting assists at all - but it's not unreasonable to just make a mark every time a shot goes up after a pass. So although we don't have the necessary data (assisted field goals) to offer you a look at creation ratios in the WNBA, I did continue to track potential assists in games that the top point guards played after Whalen's big performance just to see if there was any insight to be gained about the difference between good and great point guards.

As it turns out, potential assists are arguably what separate elite point guards from the rest of the pack for the reasons above - as described about Whalen's 20-10 performance, she had eight additional potential assists. That comes from the ability we see above in that video to not just lackadaisically swing a ball to an already open teammate, but set up and literally lead a teammate to a score.

But we've spent enough time raving about Whalen (and Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird...and San Antonio Silver Stars "combo guard" Becky Hammon) on this site; as a change of pace, I'm going to highlight Whalen's 2011 WNBA Finals counterpart, Lindsey Harding.

Harding's outstanding WNBA Finals performance

Statistically, Harding thoroughly outperformed Whalen in the Finals as a distributor*, and I'm going to start with the raw stats: Harding had 19 assists to 3 turnovers in three Finals games; Whalen had 11 assists to 8 turnovers. In addition, Harding's defense was no small part of Whalen's poor performance in the Finals - she can stay with nearly any point guard in the league defensively and make that process of creating shots for others difficult just by making it hard to advance the ball.

But where Harding really distinguished herself was in potential assists, particularly in Game 3 in which she had about as efficient a point guard performance as anyone could hope for.

Player Assists Potential Assists Turnovers PAsts + Asts / Turnovers
Harding 7 8 1 15/1
Whalen 1 4 3 5/3

Passing numbers for starting point guards in Game 3 of the 2011 WNBA Finals.

Needless to say, that was an outstanding game for Harding even without the potential assists. Stats aside, what made the performance so impressive was her poise in creating all those shots - she never made a terribly reckless play, although she did take a few risks in terms of driving to the basket. She was just extremely decisive in quickly getting the ball to teammates**. But Whalen wasn't exactly bad either, relative to non-point guards.

With Whalen unproductive assist-wise in Game 3, teammates Seimone Augustus and Taj McWilliams-Franklin helped pick up the slack with 4 apiece, a team-high. But they did so without even as many potential assists combined as Whalen.

Player Assists Potential Assists Turnovers PAsts + Asts / Turnovers
Augustus 4 2 3 6/3
McWilliams-Franklin 3 0 3 5/3

Passing numbers for Lynx assist leaders in Game 3 of the 2011 WNBA Finals.

The reason for this is probably obvious: in leading the team with 16 points in Game 3, Augustus was obviously looked to for scoring. Many of her assists - and potential assists - come in situations where she was in attack mode and gives up the ball when the defense adjusts. McWilliams-Franklin's assists often come from a stationary position, standing at the top of the painted area and passing to cutters or fellow post players in high-low situations. 

To be clear, both Augustus and McWilliams-Franklin exhibited outstanding game awareness throughout the game: Augustus' ability to pass out of doubles is nothing to scoff at and McWilliams-Franklin's timing and placement of her passes is excellent, particularly relative to the rest of the league's centers. But Whalen - like many good point guards - is just at another level.

A broader look at who is creating potential assists

Just to further demonstrate the value of potential assists, I tracked them in four additional games toward the end of the regular season. I selected games based on when the league's top 5 point guards were playing, but that obviously included other players, which further illustrates why point guards are so valuable by comparison.

Name Team Game Assists Potential Assists Turnovers Ast + PAst/Turnover Ratio
Lindsay Whalen Minn 9/8 vs Chi 10 8 0 18/0
Sue Bird Sea 9/9 vs Pho 6 8 2 14/2
Danielle Robinson SASS 9/10 vs WAS 3 4 0 7/0
Tully Bevilaqua SASS 9/10 vs WAS 2 5 0 7/0
Becky Hammon SASS 9/10 vs Was 11 8 3 19/3
Shannon Bobbitt Ind 9/9 vs NYL 7 5 2 12/2
Katie Douglas Ind 9/9 vs NYL 4 2 1 6/1
Danielle Robinson SASS 9/11 vs Tul (OT) 6 4 2 10/2
Ketia Swanier Pho 9/9 vs Pho 2 3 1 5/1
Courtney Vandersloot Chi 9/8 vs Minn 4 5 2 9/2
Amber Holt Tul 9/11 vs SASS (OT)
7 1 2 7/2

Top 11 assist and potential assist performances for a selection of WNBA point guards from 9/8/11-9/11/11 (ordered by ratio). Full list available here.

Just to be totally clear, this is a list of single games (or two games in a few cases). We cannot determine from this, for example, that Tully Bevilaqua is a better point guard than Becky Hammon.

Nevertheless, the italicized examples reinforce the point made with the numbers from Game Three of the WNBA Finals about why potential assists could be interesting to explore as part of a player's creation ratio: typically, even when a point guard picks up less assists than a player like Amber Holt, they are creating more scoring opportunities for their team than non-point guards. Whereas non-point guards pick up assists on a high percentage of their opportunities, at their best, elite point guards are creating opportunities for their team.

One might respond that maybe point guards are overzealous passers, setting up teammates for poor scoring opportunities. However, that same ability to create shots for others in the Whalen video above is what makes a good point guard's potential assists valuable over time: even on a terrible team, a good point guard is bound to pick up assists more often, right?

Assist ratio

John Hollinger's assist ratio - which you might have seen me reference every now and then - is a metric that essentially accounts for the effect of a good point guard's increased potential assists. Assist ratio is an opportunity rate that compares a point guard's successful attempts at setting up teammates vs. "failed" attempts. Clearly, given an interest in creation ratio it would be interesting to incorporate "unassisted field goal attempts" instead of "field goal attempts" as a touch that a player "failed" to create a shot, but that's not really the point: the point is to sort out which players end up with assists more often. Great point guards create assists at a much higher rate than they create turnovers.

And if you just take the players listed above, you start to see more clear differences in assist and turnover ratios over the course of a season.

Name Team Assist Ratio Turnover Ratio Pure Point Rating
Lindsay Whalen Minn 29.36% 11.06% 6.02*
Danielle Robinson SASS 29.60% 13.45% 3.56
Tully Bevilaqua SASS 32.36% 14.71% 2.36
Sue Bird Sea 24.09% 11.68% 2.67
Becky Hammon SASS 25.26% 15.66% 0.85
Shannon Bobbitt Ind 24.63% 16.87% -0.22
Katie Douglas Ind 16.73% 11.95% -1.15
Ketia Swanier Pho 20.14% 24.74% -1.39
Courtney Vandersloot Chi 27.93% 20.23% -0.94
Amber Holt Tul 19.59% 10.74% 1.1

2011 passing numbers for the selection of players above. (* = 2011 league-high)

The average assist ratio league-wide in 2011 was about 15%, so we're dealing with above average distributors in terms of ability to create shots for others. But conceptually, you might start to see where those potential assists add up over time, even if turnovers occur in the process: the best point guards have assist ratios well above average. Obviously, you'll note that both Katie Douglas and Amber Holt create turnovers less often ("turnover ratio", same concept as assist ratio), but that's because they're (generally) not handling the ball looking to make some thing happen as often.

Yet it's not just dumb luck or a willingness to pass that makes great point guards great creators - point guards have a skill set that allows them to create more opportunities for teammates while maintaining low turnover ratios. A lot of players can do what Whalen did in the highlight above; no so many players can execute that play a) consistently and b) without creating turnovers. As often as Whalen looks to create plays for others - both in spectacular fashion and finding the simple pass - her turnover ratio is below a player like Douglas, who is looking to create far less often in general.

There's also the matter of the quality of shots they set up teammates for (click here for more on that in the NBA), but for now let's just stick with this point: when you add up Harding's assists and potential assists from the WNBA Finals or Whalen's from that September game it's not only that you boost their image as passers, but you're also talking about an opportunity for at least 16 additional points (not counting the times they set up threes). Even if we assume they averaged half as many potential assists this season, given that the league's best point differential this season was less than 10 points, a good point guard could easily be seen as the difference between winning and losing just for stepping on the court based on what they aren't credited for, forget what we already take notice of.

So what separates point guards from other players is two-fold: the consistency at which they set up others and their ability to set up other players for scoring opportunities efficiently. That consistency in creating shots for others is clearly embodied in their assist ratio, which is illuminating when you start to wonder what separates the passing of a point guard from other players who might lead a team. And all of this - creation ratio, potential assists, assist ratio - is the value of John Hollinger's pure point rating in the far right column above.

Pure point rating

I've described pure point rating previously and use it all the time, but what it accounts for is the weighted value of creating all those assists in excess of the turnovers per minute that come about simply as a result of trying more often. In other words, it rewards point guards that take risks - like the one Whalen took in the video above - more often. Pure point rating does not account for potential assists, but you'll also note that players who create assists more often - and presumably get more potential assists*** - have higher pure point ratings even when they have higher turnover ratios.

But anyway, the point is this: if we accept that point guards are the top "shot creators" in the WNBA - and feel free to challenge me on that as I don't have that data that Ziller had for the NBA - then accounting for potential assists in addition to the assists they're already credited for would likely elevate them even further above the pack and help us account for their value even better.

Might that convince people that Whalen was 2011 WNBA MVP? Maybe, maybe not. But we can definitely say that she's probably even more valuable than she's often given credit for.

In the meantime, we'll settle for pure point rating as the best way to demonstrate the hierarchy established by Ziller's creation ratio, albeit only in terms of a player's ability to distribute the ball (not necessarily scoring).

You could also just imagine someone other than an elite point guard trying to navigate the 1996 Wildcats' press


* I say this with a massive caveat: as described at the outset, there are intangibles that point guards bring to the floor that box score statistics are terrible at capturing (e.g. potential assists, creation ratio). So saying "statistically" better in this instance is not even necessarily saying she had the better series as a point guard.

** the first half, Harding was the team's strongest example of the Dream's lack of offensive cohesion in the second half. In the first half, she created 2 shots at the rim; in the second half, three of her assists were on threes, representing the Dream's pattern of drifting away from the basket as the game wore on.

*** "Presumably", meaning because we don't have that data set for the season, we can't say for sure. And there's at least one reason to question that logic: a good point guard on a poor shooting team may well be getting short changed of assists solely because her teammates can't knock down shots that better shooters would. I might respond that great point guards know their teammates well enough that they make passes that they "know" will put teammates in optimal scoring position, but now we're veering way into the realm of speculation, though perhaps grounded speculation.