The narrative that Northwestern’s three-point shooting has dictated whether they win or lose this season is not new. Head coach Chris Collins has mentioned it in multiple pressers during the six-game losing streak. The Big Ten Network and ESPN have pointed it out on several broadcasts. Heck, even I wrote about how much Boo Buie’s shooting regression was hurting the squad.
NU has shot 48.4% from three in its six wins this season, and 28.9% in its seven losses.
“When we were playing winning basketball, we were getting the exact same shots, and we were shooting a better percentage,” Collins said postgame following NU’s 68-52 loss to No. 10 Wisconsin. “The last few games, we have not shot the ball as well, and our offensive efficiency has gone down a little bit.”
The mantra that it’s a make or miss game is all well and true, but are the ‘Cats actually doing everything right and simply clanking open jumpers?
That’s where things get complicated.
The one player whose three-point shooting hasn’t regressed below elite levels is Miller Kopp. He might not be shooting the incendiary 60% from behind the arc at which he started, but is still stroking it from deep to the tune of 44.7%. He changes the geometry of any defense he faces. So why then has he not taken more threes this season?
Not only are his three-point attempts per game down from 5.8 last season to 3.8 as a junior, but his rate of three-pointers attempted per 100 possessions is the lowest it’s been at any point during his career in Evanston. Even as a freshman shooting 31.9% from deep, he still managed to fire up 7.9 long balls per 100 possessions, and 9.8 per 100 while shooting 39.6% as a sophomore. Yet in 2021, by far his most accurate shooting season, he’s only attempting 6.8 triples per 100, which ranks as only the fifth-most frequent rate among the six Wildcats who are attempting more than one triple per game.
NU Players’ 3PT% and Volume
|3PA per 100
|3PA per 100
(Per 100 possession stats are considered useful for comparing players’ of somewhat similar minute loads, as it removes complicating variables such as the differences in total minutes played, as well as the differing paces played during each players’ minutes).
After the loss, when asked about Kopp only attempting two three point attempts, Collins said that opponents’ are focusing their attention on the sharpshooter, forcing both him and the team to adjust. Wisconsin didn’t give him much room, especially from deep, and Collins said Kopp made three to four nice drives to the basket and stressed the need to get him looks when the defense is scrambling.
“That’s what he’s going to have to do in order to loosen the defense when it won’t open up, but you want to get your best guy shots and and we’ll continue to work and free him up as best we can,” he said. “They’re going to send more guys at him, and I’ve been proud of him for not forcing things. We have to continue to try to hit him when you have a chance to find him, like when it’s an offensive rebound off or in transition.
I went through all of Kopp’s two-point attempts on Synergy Sports’ video database after the game and found that the junior guard only had one layup where a specific overplay by the defense on an off-ball action resulted in an open layup for him (the first play in the below video where Kopp correctly curls to the basket with Brad Davison chasing over the top of the staggered screens). But to Collins’ point, Kopp did capitalize on overplays in other ways, kicking out to an open Chase Audige when the defense collapsed on his cut to the hoop, and scoring off a drive when his defender closed out extra hard on him.
Creating open shots from different areas of the floor through off-ball gravity is a tent of being a great movement shooter, which Kopp for the most part is, making all of the above great to see. But it should not sit right with anyone save for the Wisconsin coaching staff that these were the only two three-point attempts NU could drum up for Kopp.
That first attempt is off of a routine off-ball screen that feels less like an intentional set designed to get Kopp going and more like a routine motion that caught the Badgers sleeping. The second was a transition look that is inherently off-script and comes within the flow of the game. That’s not going to cut it.
One might think Kopp’s 0-for-2 performance from deep in Madison is a rarity, but it’s actually become more common this season. He shot 0-for-2 from three in each of the blowout losses to Michigan and Illinois, 0-for-3 in the early season collapse against Pittsburgh and 0-for-1 against Michigan State when the team was carried by Boo Buie’s 30-point eruption.
In total, Kopp has shot three or fewer three-point attempts in six out of 13 games this season, despite taking that few shots from behind the arc in only three games out of 31 as a sophomore.
An increase in shooting volume for a player is often shares a slight inverse relationship with their efficiency, meaning Kopp would likely be shooting at a lower percentage with more attempts, but even so a 40% deep shooter on adequate volume is more beneficial to an offense than a 45% shooter who doesn’t get enough looks.
It’s also fair to question whether Kopp possesses the necessary attributes to get a myriad of shots off, as he’s not a dynamic athlete who can separate in space and has never been particularly adept at attacking a defense when moving left. But the best teams find ways to take an elite and essential talent like shooting and maximize it no matter a player’s limitations, running their sharpshooters through so many off-ball screens and looping cuts that the defenders like they’re trying to navigate an ancient labyrinth blindfolded.
Miller Kopp should be the star of this team’s one prestigious offense. That’s the power of upper echelon shooting.
Yet sitting at 3-6 in conference play and 6-7 overall, Northwestern has not unleashed its greatest weapon on opposing defenses. It better do so soon, or else this once promising year will only further fall into the gloomy depths similar to those of Wildcats’ seasons past.