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Northwestern needs to shoot more threes

At the expense of the mid-range jumper.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Northwestern's problems with its historically bad offense mostly came down to the fact that the Wildcats had no effective point guard, and had a bunch of "shooters" who couldn't really shoot. So no matter how well the offense ran, it couldn't end in made shots.

This year, things are a little bit different for the Wildcats. While the offense certainly isn't stunning, it at least has serviceable players, and most importantly, it has players who can shoot. Namely, the additions of Bryant McIntosh and Nathan Taphorn have given NU some reliable options from beyond the arc, and they've been aided by Tre Demps and Dave Sobolewski. Overall, the shooting numbers have vastly improved:

Year ORtg ORtg Rank 3P% 3P% Rank B1G 3P% B1G 3P% Rank
2013-14 96.3 309 30.7 319 27.7 12 (of 12)
2014-15 100.5 182 33.9 177 35.0 4 (of 14)

NU's three-point percentage is exactly average nationally, and it ranks in the top quarter of the conference during Big Ten play. As NU has gotten Nate Taphorn more involved in the offense — NU would've almost assuredly won had he played against Michigan — the Wildcats' percentages have gone up, and it stands to reason that he should get more shots if he can continue to shoot as well as he has.

But the improved shooting can't really help if it isn't utilized correctly, and right now, the Wildcats' shooters aren't taking shots from places on the floor that can maximize their scoring potential. It's an obsession with midrange shots that, if changed, can give NU a boost in its remaining close games.


Above is Northwestern's shot chart this season, via the outstanding The Wildcats' favorite shot this season has been the right elbow jumper. NU takes that shot 15 percent of the time, but is shooting very poorly — 32 percent — on it. The same goes for the rest of the mid-range area. However, the Wildcats have been obsessed with mid-range shots.

Year Mid-Range Quantity Mid-Range % Rim Quantity Rim % 3P Quantity 3P %
2013-14 33% 39% 25% 57% 42% 30%
2014-15 33% 32% 31% 65% 37% 34%

NU has done a much better job of getting the ball to the rim, and it's doing a better job of finishing at the rim, as well. But the problem is, those shots are coming at expense of three-point shots, not mid-range shots. Even looking at the pure, non-advanced shooting percentages, that should raise concerns, as NU is shooting 34 percent from three and 32 percent from mid-range. But a more in-depth look shows an even bigger problem.

Mid-range shots have long been detested by basketball's analytics generation. As Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry explains, mid-range shots are just as difficult as threes, but they're worth fewer points, and they aren't usually spot-up shots like threes are, meaning they're less likely to go in. Of course, if you never shoot mid-range shots, your opponents can better defend threes, but NU is far from that being a problem.

The short of it is, the Wildcats are missing out on a ton of points by having such a high mid-range-to-three ratio. In fact, they've gotten 60 percent more points for every three they've taken this year than every mid-range shot they've taken.

Shot Type FG% eFG% Points Per Shot
Mid-Range 32% 32% 0.64
Three 34% 51% 1.02

Even the right corner three — where NU shoots an unadjusted 25 percent — has been better than the Wildcats' mid-range shooting, as they've gotten 0.75 points for every right corner three and 0.64 points for every mid-range shot.

Three-point shooting can also serve another important purpose for the Wildcats: offensive rebounding. Northwestern has actually made not rebounding the ball on offense part of its strategy (this is a bad strategy, as John Gasaway explains), but when you shoot more threes, you're more likely to get long, random bounces on misses, which are more likely to end up back in the Wildcats' hands than short bounces are.

The response to this article will be that you have to "take what the defense gives you," and people will suggest that NU is simply taking the best shots available. But given how many very long twos NU has taken, compared to just stepping back and turning those twos into threes, this is almost certainly not the case. Moreover, it would take NU's three-point shooting percentage to drop to 21 percent for threes to be worse shots than twos with the current personnel and statistics.

Nobody expects this team to become the Houston Rockets or Iowa State Cyclones and essentially eliminate its mid-range shots. However, if the Wildcats replace a few more mid-range shots per game with threes, then some of these close losses are likely to turn into wins.