Translating College Three Point Shooting to NBA Production


Doug McDermott was one of the best three point shooters in college basketball history.1 So far in his NBA career he has shot a mere 31.7%2 from three. A lot of this can be contributed to a shooting slump at the start of the year, and while he has turned it around shooting 42.9% in March, Bulls fans probably would have liked to have seen more out of him. This begs the question however, how does one of the best college shooters start his career as a below-average three point shooter? McDermott is far from the only players whose college long range shooting seems to be left behind when they reach the pros. So just how indicative is college three-point percentage of future shooting success?

The best answer I can give to that question is kind of. I’m no statistician so take what I say with a grain of salt. Maybe if I decided to run (or knew how) some statistical analysis there would be some correlation, so I don’t want to make a definitive statement. With just the eye test however certain things can be seen. The details will be hashed out later but there are plenty of guys who shot horribly in college and turned into good NBA shooters. There are also plenty of guys who shot decently in college but can’t seem to hit a shot for their life in the association. In my opinion three details are important to watch for when assessing shooters: consistency, potential, and circumstances. Any one of these can tell us a lot when looking at a player.

So let’s take a look at the first example out of the 2011 draft: Klay Thompson vs. Reggie Jackson. Klay Thompson has gained the reputation as one of the league’s best shooters and wings. Reggie Jackson is an arguably above average starting point guard and was one of the better back up point guards when he was with the Thunder, but he can barely hit a three to save his life. Klay Thompson was drafted 11th overall and Jackson was drafted 24th. If you simply look at their stats from their final college season you might think they are both fairly good three-point shooters. Thompson shot a very good 39.8% from three. Jackson on the other hand shot a blistering 42.0% from three. Jackson shot slightly fewer threes, but both shot a substantial amount. So why has Thompson ended up as one of the league’s best shooters while Jackson has been consistently below average? Well some people (Klay Thompson) are good shooters while others (Reggie Jackson) simply practice and become good shooters from certain spots. Reggie Jackson never shot above 30% from three until his Junior season and even when he shot well, displayed a slow deliberate shot. Jackson just got good at knocking down college three pointers. That is a full three feet shorter, which may not sound like much, but when you step on the court the difference is substantial. Thompson meanwhile, consistently hit threes including from NBA range and showed a quick release. So this brings us to our first thing to watch for: Consistency.

Prospects who come into college knocking down shots at a high rate likely have the “gift.” Some guys, like Steph Curry, Ray Allen, Steve Kerr, Kyle Korver, and Klay Thompson just hit shots. Doesn’t matter where they are on the floor they just get buckets. Other guys need to practice and just get good at hitting corner threes or something similar. That isn’t a bad thing, and guys like that can develop into consistent shooters. If you need someone to step in and knockdown shots however, you take the guy who consistently displayed shooting rather than one who had a great last season. One prospect to not get fooled by is Frank Kaminsky. Not exactly a great example because Kaminsky never really took many threes until his junior year, but he also couldn’t make them consistently until his junior year. Don’t expect Kaminsky to come in and be an immediate three point threat. He could end up being similar Nikola Vucevic in the sense that he spaces the floor very well with mid-long range twos. But he could also develop into a three point shooting big man. He will however, have a big jump to make in becoming a consistent shooter from NBA range.

Middleton. Bucks

That’s not to say that players can’t improve though. Khris Middleton is one of the best shooters in basketball right now, hitting over 41% from beyond the arc.  He wasn’t always such a great shooter however. A second round pick in the 2012 draft, Middleton struggled to find his range and only shot 31.1% from three (albeit a limited sample). If you go back even further and look at his three years at college you see a similar story. He shot 32.4%, 36.1%, and 26.0% in his freshman, sophomore, and junior seasons respectively. Granted, that 36.1% isn’t a horrible percentage and he was hampered by injury in his junior season, but coming out of college Middleton didn’t exactly look like a future league leading shooter. He also didn’t exemplify consistency. Nevertheless he did exemplify the next attribute to look for: Potential.

When assessing a players potential to develop into a shooter there are several things you can look at, the first being form. Does a player have something to work with when it comes to shooting? In the case of Khris Middleton, scouts thought he did and now look at him. Next look at how well they shoot from mid range or the free throw line.3 Khris Middleton shot reasonably well from the free-throw line in college, never shooting below 75% in any of his three seasons. In addition his mid-range game was considered one of his strengths. Even if you look at his NBA rookie season in which he only shot 31.1% from three, he shot 84.4% from the free throw line. He may not have been the lights out shooter in college that he is now, but Middleton had something to work with. He had potential.

Two players (among others) in this year’s draft who are said to have potential as shooters. One of them is in the conversation for the number one pick and the other one is projected anywhere from the mid to late first. I’m talking about Karl Towns and Christian Wood. Towns shot 25% from three with Wood making a slightly higher 27.9%. The main difference between the two is the fact that Towns took 8 threes on the season while Wood took 88. However, in my opinion, Towns projects to be the better three point shooter. One thing worth noting is the fact that Towns made 81.7% of his free throws, but honestly this doesn’t sway my opinion that much considering Wood is a 74.7% free throw shooter for his career.4 The biggest thing for me is their shooting form. Towns displayed solid, consistent form in all of the games I watched. Wood’s shot was inconsistent and one thing I noticed especially is that he often splayed his legs when he shot. All in all, I believe that Towns has a better chance of developing a consistent three point shot. Wood definitely can as well but he has a much further road to improvement. That doesn’t mean that Towns will necessarily be a stretch big, because a team who already has shooters, may want him to focus on his inside game. This brings us to our next item however: Circumstances.

The example of Towns’ NBA future not developing his shooting ability is a circumstance. Towns might have the potential but because his team doesn’t develop he may not be considered a good shooter. This is why looking at statistics without giving any thought to why they mean what the mean, can give you a distorted view of a player. Looking at a shooters circumstances is important, because a guy who may excel as a spot up shooter could see his efficiency suffer when forced to become a creator. R.J. Hunter is a prime example of a player whose circumstances caused him to struggle. Coming into the 2014-15 season Hunter was considered one of the best players in the country, but he struggled this season, just shooting 30.5%. Why did this happen? I haven’t watched enough Georgia State games to say definitively, but I have a theory. Georgia States graduated their 3rd and 4th leading scorers one of whom was their assist leader.  That production was never really replaced by other players and Hunter had to step up. When you throw in the fact that Ryan Harrow missed a quite a few games that is a lot of production Hunter had to account for. He saw a 4% increase in USG% and also recorded career highs in FGA, FTA, assists, and turnovers. It seems pretty obvious that Hunter took on a much more important role in his team’s offense. However he also got less easy shots leading to a decrease in efficiency. It isn’t a stretch to assume that on a team with shot creators, Hunter could excel as a shooter.

So now we are back to Doug McDermott. Will he be able to find consistent success as an NBA shooter? Well first let’s look at our three traits. First is consistency, which McDermott displayed plenty of. He never shot below 40% in all four of his collegiate seasons. When a player shows the consistent ability to knock down shots that Doug had, looking for potential shooting ability is moot. And that leaves us with circumstances. In college McDermott was a multi-faceted score who could take players down on the block, the three point line, or anywhere in between. In the NBA he has done a good job close to the rim, but a lot of what you saw in college is negated by NBA player’s athleticism. Defenders can focus on him as a shooter, rather than a scorer. You also need to consider that in college he was surrounded by guys like Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat5 who shot above 40% from three, while the Bulls aren’t exactly known for their shooting ability. Throw in the fact that he has been nursing a knee injury all season, and it’s easy to see why McDermott has struggled in his first NBA season.

I told you three things to look at when assessing shooters. Have they shot with consistency? If they haven’t shot with consistency do they have potential to develop consistency? If they look like a good shooter, what circumstances are causing them to struggle, and how could those be addressed? But I still haven’t given you a definitive answer on whether or not college three-point percentage can indicate future success. I remain steadfast in my belief that the answer is only maybe. Certainty some statisticians out there can run some tests and find out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some NBA team already knew the answer. There are always exceptions to the rule, and there are always people, like you and me, who lack the resources or the know how to find that answer ourselves. For those exceptions and for those people you have to watch tape, and look beneath the stats. The future of scouting is statistical analysis, but scouting will never leave behind the good, old-fashioned eye test.

  1. 45.8% 

  2. as of April 6th 

  3. Obviously this should be taken with a grain of salt. There are plenty of bad shooters who make their free throws, but it can still indicate that there is a shot to work with 

  4. A tier lower than Towns but still quite good. 

  5. Among others such as Austin Chatman and Grant Gibbs 

About the author: John Slaybaugh

Baseball was my first crush but Basketball is my true love, I am currently a freshman at Drake University. In addition to school and writing I am a student manager for Drake's basketball team.