The road to success for most NBA rookies goes through the 3-point line. That’s clear when you look at the performance of the 2020 draft class. Here’s a list of the top 10 players from that draft in terms of win shares this season:
Top 10 Rookies
Win shares is far from a perfect statistic, but it’s an easy way to compare players at different positions in different roles on their teams. The list mostly corresponds with the popular consensus. LaMelo and Haliburton will likely finish one and two in the Rookie of the Year race, while Quickley has been a revelation for the Knicks. There are three centers (Stewart, Tillman, and Achiuwa) who don’t take many 3s. Everyone else is lighting it up from behind the arc.
It’s not just that the NBA has become oriented around shooting. Being able to knock down 3s is one of the few skills that immediately translates to the next level. The hardest thing for any rookie is to earn playing time, but a coach can find a role for a good shooter pretty easily. Teams don’t need to draw up a lot of plays for shooters, or make sure they have a large role in the offense. They can put them on the floor, and count on them to make open jumpers when the ball swings their way. And once a player has earned a spot in the rotation, they can expand their game and establish themselves in the NBA. But that chance would never come without that initial breakthrough.
Every team is looking for shooters. That demand is causing those types of players to rise on draft boards. The days of prospects sliding because they are “shooting specialists” are coming to an end. The NBA is rapidly moving to a point where everyone has to shoot like a specialist. Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, the likely no. 1 pick, is shooting 41.2 percent from 3 on 5.4 attempts per game. Here’s a look at a few players in March Madness who aren’t as well-rounded as Cunningham, but will benefit from the league’s 3-point boom:
Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
No player has risen more this season than Kispert. Had he come out last season, after his junior year, he probably would have been a second-rounder. Now, it’s hard to see the senior slipping out of the lottery. Kispert came back with a headband and a different level of swagger. The numbers (44.4 percent from 3 on 6.2 attempts per game) don’t tell the whole story. He has the ultimate green light and will shoot from anywhere, at any point in the shot clock. He’s a big wing (6-foot-7 and 220 pounds) with a quick release who can shoot off movement, and that ability opens up the floor for the rest of his teammates. Per Hoop Lens, the Zags average 1.23 points per possession with Kispert and 1.05 without him.
Kispert, who is averaging 19.2 points per game on 54.4 percent shooting, can turn a game in the blink of an eye. He shot 9-of-13 from 3 in a 98-75 blowout of Virginia in December. He’s also the player that the Zags have leaned on in the rare times when they have struggled this season. They were down 12 points to BYU in the WCC tournament championship game before Kispert reeled off three 3s in less than two minutes at the start of the second half. There are just so many different ways that he can hurt teams from behind the arc:
His shooting ability has drawn a lot of comparisons to Joe Harris’s. That ability is valued more in 2021 than it was in 2014, when Harris was an early second-round pick. But there are still questions about how high to take Kispert. He doesn’t offer much value as a defender, playmaker, or rebounder. And he could struggle to create his own shot against longer and faster NBA defenders. Gonzaga uses him as a small-ball 4, but the NBA team that drafts him will likely need to hide him on the worst scorer on the opposing team, regardless of position. His pro career will be a fascinating test case on just how far shooting can take a player.
Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, VCU
Hyland, the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, could be the breakout star of the NCAA tournament. VCU has a tough draw against Oregon in Round 1, but he has the ability to put his team on his back and carry them to an upset. He’s part of a new generation of shooters who grew up watching Steph Curry and don’t think anything of launching off-the-dribble 30-footers. Hyland shoots 37.1 percent from 3 on 7.8 attempts per game. The defense has to pick him up once he crosses half court and can never leave him open:
Despite being only 6-foot-3 and 165 pounds, Hyland doesn’t run point for VCU. He plays off the ball and relentlessly hunts for 3s. It’s a unique style of play that will become more common. What makes Hyland particularly dangerous is his combination of speed and shooting ability. He’s much faster and more athletic than most elite shooters, which is why he’s the rare shooter who also averages 1.9 steals per game.
There is a wide range of opinions on Hyland. Some executives see him as a second-round pick because he’s a slight 6-foot-3 guard who can’t run point. Others point to Quickley’s success with a similar skill set as evidence that Hyland is worth a late lottery pick. The best role for him at the next level would be playing off a point forward who can run the offense while allowing him to defend opposing point guards. Hyland and Quickley represent a new twist on the types of players who can succeed at that position. The best complement to a player like Julius Randle might be an ultrafast guard who can drain 30-footers.
Trey Murphy III, Virginia
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting name for a shooter than this. Murphy also represents the logical end point of searching for shooting ability above everything else in the draft. No one was talking about him after two seasons at Rice, but he’s on NBA draft boards after transferring to Virginia and shooting 42.9 percent from 3 on 4.7 attempts per game and 92.7 percent from the free throw line on 1.7 attempts per game this season. Murphy isn’t like Kispert or Hyland. He averages only 11.3 points per game. Catch him on the wrong night and you might not notice that he’s out there.
But any player who shoots as well as Murphy will get noticed by NBA scouts—especially when he’s also 6-foot-9, has a quick release, and moves his feet well enough to play as a small forward in the ACC. Murphy isn’t a great athlete, and doesn’t do much in Virginia’s offense beyond bury catch-and-shoot 3s. But he does show flashes of being able to do things that most shooters can’t:
Murphy probably won’t have a big tourney. Virginia has an uphill battle just to make it out of the first round after missing most of the ACC tournament because of a positive COVID test. Most of its players have been in quarantine this week. But all Murphy has to do is make a few 3s and catch a team’s eye. Tony Bennett’s players tend to outperform their draft slot because his glacially slow system suppresses their offensive statistics while making them masters of defensive positioning. Murphy could be Bennett’s next success story. He’s nowhere near one of the best players in college basketball. But he is one of the best shooters. And that’s all that really matters anymore.