Behind the Box Score: A Weird Year for Finishing at the Rim
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Behind the Box Score: A Weird Year for Finishing at the Rim

April 04, 2019

The 2018-19 basketball season is officially in the books and over the coming days, there are some numbers I want to dive into. Nebraska’s season went off the rails after a promising 11-2 start, but it wasn’t just because of Isaac Copeland’s injury. Things were trending south well before the senior forward was lost.

So the following is just going to be data with context. There won’t be a ton of commentary from my end; you can draw your own conclusions on what really went wrong and why.

First look was at box plus/minus. Up next is a look at something that became a pretty significant talking point in 2018: Nebraska’s shooting at the rim.

  FG% (2018) % of FGs (2018) FG% (2017) % of FGs (2017)
James Palmer Jr. 55.3% (126/228) 39.4% 65.9% (87/132) 32.4%
Glynn Watson Jr. 52.1% (49/94) 21.9% 49.3% (36/73) 21.9%
Isaiah Roby 59.7% (95/159) 48.8% 73.2% (52/71) 42.3%
Thomas Allen 56.9% (33/58) 26.4% 75.0% (9/12) 14.0%
Isaac Copeland 73.6% (39/53) 26.5% 73.2% (52/71) 23.1%
Nana Akenten 56.0% (14/25) 26.7%
Tanner Borchardt 64.4% (47/73) 92.4% 55.6% (5/9) 69.2%
Thorir Thorbjarnarson 50.0% (15/30) 53.6% 50.0% (1/2) 28.6%
Brady Heiman 76.0% (19/25) 59.5%
Amir Harris 71.9% (23/32) 80.0%
Johnny Trueblood 54.2% (13/24) 74.6%
Justin Costello

>> Overall team averages has the Huskers shooting 59.1 percent at the rim for the entire season. That’s tied for 213th in the country, and down from 62.5 percent (tied for 104th) in 2017-18. Median average across Division I basketball in 2018 was 60.3 percent.

>> Only seven perimeter players in the Big Ten took more than 150 shots at the rim this past season, including Palmer. No one had more looks at the rim than Palmer, but only one player (Carsen Edwards, 49.2%) shot worse on those looks.

Palmer struggled across the board shooting in his final season. He went from a 51.3 percent shooter on 2s in 2017 to a 40.1 percent shooter in 2018. His 3-point shooting got a slight bump, from 30.9 to 31.3, but was still among some of the worst shooters in the conference at the volume he was chucking at.

Maybe it was increased defensive attention affecting the senior wing after his breakout junior campaign. Palmer's brand of scoring inside the arc was always more Paul Pierce than anything else. He's a herky-jerky kind of player who won't dazzle with athleticism or ball-handling, instead working his way into the paint and finding ways to get his shot up in awkward positions with defenders in his airspace. When that's the case, a defense loading up on you and sending help can make life miserable.

He's deadly in one-on-one situations where he can take his man to the hoop and he's even harder to deal with when he's in transition. Those settings allow him to use his length. But as the season wore on, Nebraska was less and less able to get into transition and fastbreak opportunities (more on that later). 

>> I'm not sure what to make of Roby's numbers. If you want more volume, you have to live with a decline in efficiency, generally. But Palmer's volume increased and his efficiency dropped and it was a problem, so Roby going from an over-70 percent shooter at the rim to a sub-60 percent shooter should probably be criticized a little as well. 

That being said, Roby doubled his high-percentage looks while his volume from 3 stayed consistent year-over-year. He took 25 percent of his shots in 2017 from beyond the arc and 25.8 percent of his looks in 2018 from beyond the arc.

Which might be the best way to explain the dip in efficiency at the rim. Teams clearly were fine letting Roby shoot from deep as the season wore on; he was much more likely to shot-fake and drive then actually take those 3s, even if open. When that’s the case, and the defense knows that’s the case, and you still try and force your way to the basket, stands to reason the degree of difficulty on those inside looks is going to turn up. 

>> I wrote above "things were trending south well before the senior forward was lost," which is true, but I don't want that to minimize what his loss meant. He was a strong performer by plus/minus and a 74 percent shooter around the basket who can also knock down an elbow jumper off the pick-and-pop or a corner 3 off a drive-and-kick is just hard to replace. 

>> Watson’s volume at the rim (94 shots) was pretty middle-of-the-road amongst starting point guards in the Big Ten. Purdue’s Carsen Edwards led the group with 191 while Michigan State’s Cassius Winston had 160 and Maryland’s Anthony Cowan had 129 on the high side, Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon had 53 and Illinois’ Trent Frazier had 72. 

Watson’s efficiency was pretty middle-of-the-road as well. He didn’t shoot the 63.4 percent that Ohio State’s CJ Jackson shot, but he wasn’t down at Bohannon’s 37.7 percent. The point guard, all things considered, had a fine year near the basket after a sub-50 percent season in 2017.

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