On Wednesday, Utah Jazz radio announcer David Locke caused an uproar on NBA Twitter. The play-by-play man had the unmitigated gall to tweet the following:
The horror. Scan through the replies to that tweet to see how many people weren’t having it. Search “screen assist” on Twitter for even more overreactions.
It’s OK. You don’t like screen assists. We get it. I’d just like one explanation for why so many seem to be philosophically opposed to this stat.
We’re witnessing the NBA’s age of information. There’s loads of it out there. And much of it captures things happening on a basketball court that previously languished in anonymity.
Good screening is one of those things. Ask Utah’s perimeter players, who are largely responsible for the league’s No. 1 three-point percentage and No. 4 effective field-goal percentage, if they think Gobert’s screen assists are useless. Ask his coaches.
Pick-and-roll possessions are a staple of the Jazz’s offense, and having a 7’1” tower who’s mastered the ability to stay set on screens, re-screens, flipped screens, etc. as the screener for those possessions is literally and figuratively huge.
On so many possessions this season, Jazz ball-handlers have had their defenders completely engulfed by the All-NBA center, leaving them precious time and space to either pull up for a three or drive to the rim.
Why is it a bad thing to point that out?
Would those foaming at the mouth over use of the term “screen assist” prefer to hear that Utah’s effective field-goal percentage is 3.9 points better (a swing that ranks in the 92nd percentile) when Gobert is on the floor? Or that Utah’s field-goal percentage at the rim, in the short mid-range, in the long mid-range, on corner threes and on non-corner threes is better when Gobert is on the floor?
Those tidbits can and should be explained. But for years, there was little to no statistical explanation for why a player like Gobert might be having an outsized impact on his team’s offense.
“To me, telling Rudy Gobert’s story is a really exciting challenge, because he is legitimately one of the best players in the league, but nearly none of the traditional ways of explaining it work,” the Salt Lake Tribune’s Andy Larsen wrote. “So you have to be creative, while still being convincingly non-homery.”
Gobert’s absurd true shooting percentage gets you part of the way there. But there will always be detractors digitally screaming, “All he does is dunk!” without acknowledging that teams would love to get as many dunks as possible. Looks at the rim and at the free-throw line are still more valuable than threes. Gobert’s size, intelligence as a roller and good hands gets the Jazz plenty of looks at the rim.
Offensive rebounding is another traditional stat we can use to try to explain Rudy’s offensive impact. Those who deride Gobert’s post game don’t seem to care for that form of shot-creation (and that’s exactly what it is).
But those numbers don’t paint the full offensive picture on Gobert the way basic points, assists and threes do for perimeter players.
Being able to cite to specific things Gobert does on offense, like free up his teammates for open shots with screen assists, gives us details we didn’t previously have.
It’s one thing to be able to say, “Ya know, it just feels like Utah plays better on both ends of the floor when Gobert is out there.” It’s another to be able to back up that observation with film and data.
This season, Gobert is averaging a league-leading 7.8 screen assists a game, which is a full 1.0 ahead of second-place Domantas Sabonis. His 17.9 screen-assist points are nearly three ahead of second place.
Rest assured fans, these numbers aren’t making it into traditional box scores. Probably ever. But there’s nothing wrong with providing more context for the often limited line of numbers we all grew up on.