What kind of point guard is he?

The Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose shoots a free throw while playing the San Antonio Spurs during the fourth quarter of their NBA game in Chicago February 17, 2011. REUTERS/John Gress (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

We hear it all the time. NBA analysts call one point guard “pass-first” and another “shoot-first.” Or they say one guy is “turnover-prone” while another “takes care of the ball.” But really, what makes a player a “pass-first” point guard? How carefree must he be with the ball to be considered “turnover-prone”?

I first tackled this subject two years ago, and settled on the shot-to-assist ratio to determine whether a player is “pass-first” or “shoot-first.” The higher the number, the more of a “shoot-first” player he is. To determine whether or not a player is “turnover-prone,” I calculated each player’s assist-to-turnover ratio. The higher the number, the better the player is at taking care of the ball.

I narrowed the list of players to 33, one for each team plus a few extra for teams like Cleveland, Sacramento and Denver, who have a couple of players manning the position. I also added eight prospects (indicated in green) just to see where a few of the younger guys land. Here’s the graph — it’s small, but if you click it, you’ll get to a bigger version:

So the pass-first/shoot-first aspect goes left to right, and the turnover-prone players will be towards the bottom, while the guys that take really good care of the ball will be up top. Players indicated with a blue diamond are in the Top 10 in this group in Efficiency Per Minute. I set the axis for each category at the average of the 33 players in question, so 1.97 for FGA-to-assist and 2.70 assist-to-turnover.

Two years ago when I conducted this study, seven of the top 10 EPM performers were in the top left quadrant (pass-first, takes care of the ball). This year, only five of the top 11 (I included both Rondo and Calderon, since they tied for #11) are in that quadrant. This is due to the emergence of three shoot-first, (fairly) turnover-prone guards who are emerging as stars: Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry.

A few takeaways:

Ty Lawson looks like a star. He is #13 in this group in EPM, so if he can continue to post big numbers in bigger minutes he’s poised to join the Top 10 sometime soon.

Kyle Lowry isn’t too far behind him. It’s not clear if Houston has decided that Lowry is their point guard of the future, but he is #16 in EPM and is well above average in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Brandon Jennings can still become a Top 10 point guard.
Two years ago, I would have said that Jennings would have to drastically change his game to join the elite group of point guards, but with the way Rose, Westbrook and Curry have emerged, he can continue to be himself. One thing I’ve noticed with his game is that he has a tough time finishing around the hoop when he gets bumped, which is something that Westbrook and Rose excel at. Jennings needs to master the floater — that way, he can use his quickness to get into the lane pretty much any time he wants, and then get his shot off without taking a big hit.

Roddy Beaubois is an interesting prospect, but it’s doubtful he’s going to be a quality starter in this league… unless he changes his game to become more of a distributor. He doesn’t need to turn into Jason Kidd, but right now he’s an outlier so he needs to take better care of the ball and create a few more opportunities for teammates. You may notice that Tyreke Evans is very close to Beaubois, but he really needs to play shooting guard.

If John Wall can take care of the ball, he’ll be right there with Deron Williams.
For a rookie, Wall’s numbers look great. Sure, he’s a little turnover prone, but no worse that Westbrook, Billups, Collison or Curry. He’s a playmaker, so once he cuts back on the turnovers, his assist-to-turnover ratio really has a chance to skyrocket. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s up in the area of Maynor and Lowry with a blue diamond next to his name in a couple of seasons.

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