Fantasy basketball: This key metric goes overlooked but can provide an edge

I’ll admit it. As a perpetual tinkerer, I have found something to relish in our current fantasy basketball climate. With most of my leagues adding extra IR slots, I get a little buzz knowing I’ll get to audition 2-3 new players every few days. (I’m a serial monogamist in every area of my life but fantasy sports.)

I find it freeing. You get to try new ideas and play hunches with little to no fantasy regret. Our teams need a constant influx of new players. And if someone isn’t working out, there are dozens of other players waiting for their shot at the simulated big time. (In fantasy and reality… at present, all of us are offering a ton of 10-day contracts.)

Take Stanley Johnson. I have been waiting for Johnson to hit his stride for years… as a point-big-sixth-man. Previously, Johnson got shoe-horned into fitting the 3-and-D mold — a role he couldn’t fill due to his middling 3-point shooting. But now, with differentiation by position flattening, gifted passers like Johnson can find a way to thrive. And with the protocol in effect, Johnson got the extra chance he needed.

Now when he shoots, it’s either a dunk or a 3. Unlike Ben Simmons, Johnson can hit his free throws (84.6 FT%). Evidence of Johnson’s overall increase in offensive efficiency is in his new career-high 62.1% True Shooting Percentage.

When evaluating prospective adds, I recommend leveraging True Shooting Percentage (TS%) whenever possible. It’s a stat that conflates field-goal and free-throw percentage while also accounting for the extra point generated by a successful 3-pointer. (TS%’s closest relative is Points Per Shot, another handy metric for fantasy team-building.)

If you’d like to try calculating your own TS% at home, the formula is Total Points Scored / FGA + (.44 x FTA).

What’s that coefficient of .44 about? Good question! It’s there to account for free throws awarded in non-possession situations (and-1s, technicals, etc.). (BTW, if all free throws came in pairs, the coefficient would be an even .50)

Like slugging percentage is to batting average in baseball, TS% is a better indicator of a player’s actual shooting acumen than the more widely-used FG% and FT%. And with 3-point shooting becoming so widespread across all positions, in my opinion, traditional FG% is obsolete. Effective Field Goal Percentage is a mild improvement, but it only accounts for added 3-point production, not free throw production. TS% puts the entire shooting picture in one easily understood metric.

TS% is a fundamental bedrock of my draft approach. It’s a built-in hack for identifying hidden value other managers might miss. However, it’s just as valuable when evaluating prospective adds or trades in-season. A sudden in-season jump in TS% is a clear indicator that a younger player is figuring it out (see: Johnson, Stanley).

What’s a good TS%? Well, the current league average is 55.7 TS%. As a team, the Utah Jazz are dunking on the rest of the NBA with an historic 59.4 TS% (the surprising Bulls are second at 57.8 TS%… again, Chicago’s TS% jump reflects the leap the franchise has taken this season.) I’ll give you one guess at who’s last. Yes, it’s the Thunder, with a 70s-vintage throwback 51.6 TS%.

With individual players, 60.0% TS% is a benchmark for very good. As of this writing, about 80 NBA players are at or above 60.0 TS%. A 63.0 TS% is All-Star caliber (about 40 players) and 65.0 TS% and above is elite (about 25 players).

If you asked me why I was ahead of the curve in identifying Onyeka Okongwu as a fantasy asset, I’d answer your question with a question of my own. Who currently leads the NBA in True Shooting Percentage? He’s only played in 12 games this season, but Okongwu qualifies for the leader board with a gaudy 76.5 TS%. What happens when Clint Capela comes back? It’s 2022… who knows? (Don’t overthink things. Take production where you can find it.)

A cursory glance at the rest of the TS% leaderboard reads like an NBA who’s-who. That is if your NBA who’s-who consists of centers John Cregan currently rosters on his various fantasy teams (okay, except for Nick Richards … I’m not in any 30-team leagues this season).

I’ve never met Gary Payton. But if I do, the second or third thing I’ll say is “congratulations on your son being the only non-center who’s top-10 in True Shooting Percentage.” It’s a rare and beautiful occurrence for a non-big to rank that high.

I hear your next question in advance: “Hey, Cregan, you analytic charlatan… where’s this value in using TS% in team-building? It seems to only reward low-volume shooting bigs with a relatively low number of shot attempts per game.” (I can’t tell you how often I was preyed upon by 7th-Grade bullies with that exact question.)

Before you stuff me in my locker, here’s the answer: shot volume. Like any percentage valuation, one must also account for how many shots a player is taking. We need to conflate a player’s TS% with their volume of shot attempts relative to other players.

Doing this knocks Okongwu down to just sixth overall. Jarrett Allen leaps up to first, followed by Gobert, Nikola Jokic, Holmes, and Willams III.

Then you’ll start to see another classification of player: fantasy risers who should be snapped off 12-team-league waiver wires with gusto. Okongwu, Brandon Clarke, Payton II.

Those names are sprinkled in with monomonous fantasy juggernauts: Durant, LeBron, KAT, Giannis, LaVine, Embiid.

Finally, you’ll find underrated pleasant surprises. Players who might be on the wire but more likely would be prospects in a trade. Eric Gordon, Seth Curry, LaMarcus Aldridge, Harrison Barnes, Nicolas Batum, Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges, Desmond Bane.

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