The 2021-22 NBA season has dropped us with a plethora of pleasant surprises and nasty declines. All-Stars Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving put themselves on the shelf, while Fred VanVleet and Ja Morant have balled out of their minds.
We’ve seen leaps and falls this season to go along with ice-cold shooting from deep (we’re talking about you, Bradley Beal) and incredible spot up numbers from all over the court (hello Norman Powell).
Below, we’ll name our most sensational stats. Some are good, and others are lousy. But don’t expect to see anything like: “Durant Is Leading The League In Scoring”, or “Stephen Curry Is Tops In Three-Point Attempts.” Those categories are too basic, and everybody knows KD is an offensive juggernaut, and Chef Curry bombs away from distance.
We’ll go deeper into the stat pool to give you our top-10 most interesting numbers more than halfway through the year.
10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Leads The League In Drives Per Game
In a league that seems to worship long distance snipers, athletic guards who can get to the rim have lost some of their lusters. But don’t be fooled. Players who can consistently put pressure on opposing defenses by breaking down their man and crashing into the lane are the most valuable assets in the NBA.
This season Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the best rim assailant in the league. The former Kentucky product leads the league in drives at 24.1 per game. He’s scoring 13.8 points per contest off his rim attacks, and he has an excellent 40.4% pass rate.
Gilgeous-Alexander uses a shifty first step, or small pump fakes to rock his defender onto his heels before jetting into the lane. If you foul him, he’s knocking down 82.5% of his free throws on the season, and if you lay off him, he’ll rise up and dunk.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has toiled away in small market, Oklahoma City, for the past two-and-a-half seasons, sapping his overall brand. Gilgeous-Alexander might be an afterthought to most NBA fans, but he’s better than most folks think, and this year he’s proving he can run a high-powered offense with his capacity to get by his man and crash into the paint.
9. Jakob Poeltl Is A Master Of The Hustle Statistics
Jakob Poeltl was traded ahead of the 2018-19 season with DeMar DeRozan and a first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green as primarily a throw-in afterthought. This year, the Spurs 26-year-old center is proving he can be the backbone of a solid defense.
Poeltl leads the league in the most critical hustle stat, contested shots, at 14.4 per game. Translation: the former 9th pick in the draft is getting a hand up and dissuading close to 15 shots per game, a monster number that is the difference between the Spurs going from their shoddy 20th defensive rating down to last in the NBA.
Poeltl isn’t only grinding on D. He’s also second in another key hustle stat, screen assists, at 5.9 per contest. He sets enormous screens, taking dozens of body shots nightly from defenders trying to fly around him to help create 13.1 screen assist points per game for teammates Dejounte Murray and Derrick White.
The Austrian center does all the little things it takes to win that typically go unnoticed. Poeltl creates misses and helps his teammates increase their scoring numbers for the 19-33, lottery-bound Spurs. Imagine what he could do for a contending team that has something to play for on a night-to-night basis.
8. Jayson Tatum Is One Of The Worst Pull Up Shooters In The League
Jayson Tatum’s pull-up shooting numbers are ugly. He’s taking 4.9 off-the-dribble three-pointers per game and connecting on only 29.6% of his attempts. He’s also taking 8.7 mid-range pull-up jumpers with a 32.7% average. Overall, Tatum has a 41.0 eFG% on his 13.6 total pull-up attempts per game.
Jayson Tatum has fashioned his game after Kobe Bryant’s. Bryant took only 24.0% of his shots at the rim during his fifth season, working more from today’s no-man's-land, and Tatum is only getting to the rack 21.1% of the time during his fifth campaign. There are a couple of problems with Taco Jay’s Kobe impersonation: Kobe was a one-of-kind player who routinely woke up at 4:00 in the morning to perfect his footwork and fadeaway jumper. And Black Mamba worked out of the triangle, a free-flowing system designed to get him good looks between the key and the arc.
Tatum is surrounded by non-shooters in the Celtics starting lineup:
Jaylen Brown: 36.1 3P%
Marcus Smart: 31.2 3P%
Robert Williams: 0.0 3P%
Al Horford: 29.7 3P%
Opposing teams pack the paint against Jayson Tatum, daring him to shoot difficult pull-up jumpers. Time and time again, the former Duke standout has taken the bate in 2021-22.
Here’s the thing: Tatum’s pull-up game isn’t working.
The Celtics are 27-25, with the 19th rated offense in the league.
Jayson Tatum averages only 4.0 assists per game this season. It’s time for him to use his incredible blend of size and explosiveness to create more open looks for his teammates from beyond the arc. If they miss, then they miss. It’s still better than jacking up wild, contested 20-footers all game long.
7. Norman Powell Is The Best Spot Up Shooter In The League This Season
*(minimum 5 possessions per game)
We’ve established that players who can drive to the rack are crucial in the association, but if they’re the engine that makes NBA offenses run, spot-up shooters are the fuel. With their deadly shooting ability, spot-up shooters create the space rim slashers need to operate within.
In 2021-22, nobody in the league manufactures more room on the court than Norman Powell. Norm averages 5.3 spot-up shots per game, good for 8th most in the NBA, and he’s drilling 49.7% of his attempts, which adds up to 1.26 points per possession (93rd percentile).
Powell mixes a silky smooth stroke with a lightning-quick release and solid footwork to destroy the rim with his three-point bombs. Going deeper into Norm’s mechanics, his balance really separates him from his long-distance peers.
Follow Powell as he sprints across the court for 1.27 offensive miles per game, and you’ll see he’s a master at getting his shoulders squared toward the rim. It doesn’t matter if he’s shooting off a quick screen curl or off a jaunt into the key; he always points his shoulders at the basket, giving himself a high-quality look.
6. Donovan Mitchell Is The Best Ball Handler In Pick And Roll Play Types
Donovan Mitchell averages 12.1 pick and roll opportunities as the ball handler in 2021-22, and he’s putting down 12.1 points nightly off a very efficient 1.05 points per possession (92nd percentile).
Mitchell and the Jazz run several pick and roll sets, but one of their favorites is the corner pick and roll, where Mitchell and typically Rudy Gobert work out of one corner with the Jazz center setting the screen facing the baseline as three long-distance assassins wait beyond the arc on the other side of the court putting as much distance between themselves and the ball as possible. The Jazz’s corner pick and rolls create the ultimate eat your poison offense because if teams send help to stop the rock, Mitchell can swing the ball to an open three-point shooter. If squad’s guard the pick and roll straight up, Gobert is already facing the baseline off his screen, making his roll to the rim incredibly easy compared to more traditional middle-of-the-court actions where the center is usually sideways to the rim, making his rim attack more complicated.
Mitchell is also a sensei at creating separation out of screen actions. He mixes an incredible bag of spin moves, crossovers, and hesitation moves around his screener, Rudy Gobert, putting opposing defenders in the washing machine, cultivating animated stars circling around their heads as they do their best to stay in front of Spida.
This year, the Utah Jazz own the highest-rated offense in the NBA, and Donovan Mitchell is at the center of everything they do.
5. Luka Doncic Has Been One Of The Worst High Volume Isolation Players In The NBA
Last season, the Dallas Mavericks featured a top-10 offense behind Luka Doncic’s scoring genius and a bevy of solid three-point bombers. This year, not so much. Luka and the Mavs rank 20th in offense.
Luka Doncic averages 4.5 isolation plays per game (10th highest in the NBA), but he’s only producing 0.87 points per possession, good for the 50th percentile.
Doncic has incredible footwork he uses to counter his marginal athleticism. He has no problem maneuvering around opposing defenders, and when he gets into the lane, his floater is a thing of beauty (52.3% from 3 to 10 feet) he routinely uses to destroy shot-blocking centers.
This year Doncic’s problems lie in his identical 30.9 shooting percentages from 16 feet to the three-point line and from beyond the arc. Too often in 2021-22, Wonder Boy has settled for tough outside jumpers instead of pushing things on offense and driving into the lane.
Doncic came into the season slightly out of shape with a balky left ankle. Mavericks fans have to hope as the regular season flows into the playoffs, their superstar point guard will get his health and fitness back up to 100%, helping him grind through his screaming lungs and continue to pressure opposing defenses by getting in front of the rack.
4. Bradley Beal Has Become One Of The Worst High Volume Three-Point Shooters In The League
The Wizards have gone 3-7 over their last ten games, slipping to 11th place in the Eastern Conference and out of the play-in tourney. Bradley Beal recently went on record saying the Wizards’ problems stem from too many guys on the roster fighting for a spot in the league or trying to land a pay-raise on their next contract instead of doing what’s best for the team.
Beal’s on the inside. Who are we to argue with him?
His awful shooting numbers haven’t helped, though. This season, Bradley Beal is shooting 30.0% from beyond the arc off 5.3 attempts, making him the sixth-worst high volume (minimum five 3P shots per game) long-distance shooter in the association.
His drop-off has been startling. Beal is a career 37.2% three-point shooter, and when you watch a Wizards game, it’s hard to pinpoint where the problem with his stroke lies. He’s taking the same type of shots he’s always taken, off step-backs and curling around screens. His mechanics look the same as well. He’s still squaring his shoulders toward the rim, jumping off both feet, and aiming his elbow directly at the basket.
Maybe Bradley Beal is in a major slump, and he’ll break out of it soon. Or, perhaps he’s having some personal crisis we don’t know about that’s affecting him mentally.
Either way, the reeling Wizards need their sharpshooting All-Star to round back into shape, creating space for the rest of the roster to get better looks.
3. Fred VanVleet Ranks 6th In Dunks And Threes Estimated Wins (9.2 eW)
Last season Fred VanVleet was a solid starting point guard for the 27-45 Toronto Raptors. This year he’s upped nearly all his numbers for a Raptors team that is three games over .500, good for eighth place in the deep Eastern Conference.
Here are VanVleet’s numbers:
21.5 PPG, 7.0 APG, 4.7 RPG, 39.1 3P%, and a 4.6 BPM across a league-high 38.6 minutes per contest.
VanVleet's excellent scoring and passing ability, combined with his excellent steal rate have launched him into the advanced stats stratosphere. Dunks and Threes rates him fifth in estimated wins at 9.3, which means he’s been worth the fifth most W’s in the league behind only Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Fred VanVleet has mixed his 110% tough-nosed defense with a fearless brand of playmaking for a Toronto Raptors team lacking backup point guard Goran Dragic. He’s been the top PG in the Eastern Conference, doing more than famous 1’s like James Harden, Kyrie Irving (9 games played), Ben Simmons (0 games played), or LaMelo Ball, with zero drama. VanVleet suits up, plays nearly the entire game, and does whatever it takes to bring a W to the Raptors.
Fred VanVleet’s emergence as a top-10 point guard in the NBA and a legit All-Star is one of the league’s best stories this season. It’s time for the former Wichita State star to come out of the Canadian shadows and to be recognized for what he is: A humble All-Star.
2. The Knicks Have Been Awful With Julius Randle On The Court
17.6 points worse!!!!!
How is that even possible?
When you mix a 30.7 three-point percentage with 3.5 turnovers per game and a subpar 63.9% hit rate at the rim with uninspired defensive play, the results are ugly. Sadly, that’s what Knicks fans have been dealing with this season from their one-time All-Star Julius Randle.
We’ve seen one-year drop-offs before, but it’s rare for a player to go from a fringe MVP candidate to statistically one of the worst players in the league without suffering a significant injury.
Julius Randle has spent entire halves disappearing on offense, only to pick up after the half by bricking contested three-pointers. He also tends to check out on the less fun end for entire possessions in 2021-22.
Basketball players are rich, famous, and highly talented human beings, but they are human beings who can suffer through tough personal years. We do not know what’s going on mentally with Julius Randle, but his play this season, coupled with his I-don’t-care attitude, reeks of something more than just basketball X and O’s. Hopefully, Randle will pull himself out of whatever’s been bothering him through the first half of the season and play like last year’s All-Star.
1. Joel Embiid Is First In Points Scored Per Clutch Situation
In the past, when Shaq was in his prime, dominating the league on the Lakers, he used to get into media battles with some of the most famous TV analysts. The pundits would hound O’Neal for his poor free-throw shooting, while The Big Diesel would shout out, “I make my free throws when they matter. I make them at the end of close games.”
The Talking heads would always respond by proclaiming a free throw in the first quarter is worth the same amount as a free throw at the end of games as they heckled Shaq for his poor shooting at the charity stripe. There was a slither of truth to what the TV guys said. One point is one point.
Still, the commentators were primarily wrong.
Who knows what would have happened during the game if Shaq had made something like four extra free throws in the first half. Maybe the Lakers’ boosted lead heading into the fourth quarter would have eased their psyche, causing them to relax slightly on D, allowing the opposing team to get back in the game. Or, maybe the Lakers’ opponent would have stepped it up, seeing they were down that extra four points, ending up winning the contest because of their increased intensity. There are 1000s of variables that decide basketball games, so it’s impossible to say whether four extra points at the beginning of a contest are the same as at the end.
Shaq was essentially saying, though, that it’s much more difficult to make free throws during clutch situations, and that is 100% true.
When you go to an NBA game, typically only 70% of the seats fill up in the first quarter, and half the people in the arena usually look at their cell phones. Fewer eyes mean less pressure. In the second half, the attendance rate jumps to 100% (at least for important games), and as the third quarter turns into a tight fourth quarter contest, everyone in the crowd puts their phone away, stands up, and screams as they take in the action. The pressure level increases 10-fold for every player on the court.
We’d be foolish to believe NBA athletes don’t feel that added pressure. Sure, they’re full of swagger and bravado during media sessions, but people are people, and tension is tension.
Flicker back to game 7 of last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals when Ben Simmons passed on a wide-open dunk towards the end of the fourth quarter because he was scared to get fouled and take two clutch free throws. Would he have avoided that dunk attempt in the first quarter? Of course not.
Here’s the point: Joel Embiid is leading the NBA in clutch scoring this season with an average of 5.5 points throughout the end of close fourth-quarter situations. He’s nailing 53.3% of his clutch three-point attempts while hitting 79.1% of his free throws. Overall, he’s helped propel the 76ers to a 13-7 record in close games.
Joel Embiid has become the best clutch player in the NBA, dominating when tens of thousands of eyeballs are focused on him. He’s soaked up that late-game pressure and laughed at it in a way nearly every other player (Ben Simmons) in the league can’t. That means something.
Top-10 Wild Statistics
The NBA is full of wild statistics. Shai has morphed into the type of guard who could lead a team on a deep playoff run. Jakob Poeltl has become a top defender, while Norman Powell and Donovan Mitchell lead the league at different offensive play types.
Jayson Tatum needs to stop jacking up contested pull-up jumpers, and Mavs fans hope Luka Doncic will regain his isolation skills. On the East Coast, Bradley Beal is looking for his three-point shot, and Julius Randle is trying to find his two-way game.
Fred VanVleet has been one of the most surprising players in the league and a bona fide All-Star for the Raptors. Finally, Joel Embiid tops our list with his clutch play.