With Three-Point Shooting So Important in NBA Today, Draft's Top Shooters Drawing Interest

by John Denton

ORLANDO – While NBA talent evaluators continue to pour over wingspan lengths, evaluate basketball IQ and debate positional versatility in the final hours leading up to Thursday’s NBA Draft, one talent in particular was proven to help teams win big this past season and in the playoffs.

Three-point shooting.

The teams that have a host of 3-point marksmen not only go to the playoffs, but usually surge deep into those playoffs. Meanwhile, the teams that can’t consistently hit shots from beyond the 3-point arc either struggle to make the postseason or flame out early in the games that matter the most.

Coming off a playoff series where they outshot the eventual World Champion Toronto Raptors in the one game they won and were out shot in their four losses, the Orlando Magic could be poised to address their need for more perimeter shooting in Thursday’s NBA Draft. Landing an elite-level shooter might prove to be difficult with the Magic picking 16th, and they might have to attack that area of need when the flag drops on the NBA’s free-agent courting period on June 30.

Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker (37.4 percent from 3-point range), Kentucky’s Tyler Herro (35.5 percent from 3-point range), North Carolina’s Cameron Johnson (45.7 percent from 3-point range) and Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson (38.1 percent from 3-point range) could be a few of the elite wing shooters in play for the Magic when they pick 16th overall on Thursday night.

``The significance of shooting continues to ramp up. That being said, it’s always been important,’’ said Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, who will conduct his third NBA Draft for Orlando on Thursday. ``We’re getting into a phase of the league where there are all of these trends – and there are the analytics-driven corner threes (statistics) – and we’re all trying to squeeze as much juice out of the orange as we can. But then there are also (points of emphasis about) punishing switches and now teams are saying, `We don’t want to over-switch.’

``So, there are all sorts of things that factor in, and shooting will always be important,’’ Weltman added. ``This is basketball and shooting always matters.’’

These days, it seems to matter more than ever. This past season, the number of made 3-pointers per team (11.4) rose for a seventh straight year, while the number of 3-pointers teams attempted on average (32 a game) climbed for an eighth season in a row.

This past season, every NBA team – even the 17-65 New York Knicks, the 19-63 Phoenix Suns and the 19-63 Cleveland Cavaliers – had a winning record when shooting a higher overall field goal percentage than their opponents. From 3-point range, 11 of the top 12 teams and 13 of 15 in terms of overall accuracy from beyond the arc qualified for the playoffs.

In those playoffs, teams that made a higher percentage of their 3-point shots were a whopping 53-20 with 31 of those victories coming in first-round play. In the NBA Finals, when the Raptors toppled the injury-ravaged Golden State Warriors 4-2, the team that shot a better percentage from the 3-point line was a spotless 6-0.

Three-point percentage also proved to usually be a very telling statistic when it came to success for the Magic, owners of the NBA’s biggest win-improvement total (17 more victories) this season. The 42-40 Magic ranked in the top half of the league in 3-point percentage (35.6 percent, 11thin the NBA), makes per game (11.4, 12thin the NBA) and 3-pointers attempted per game (32.1, 15thin the NBA).

In its 42 victories, Orlando shot 37.5 percent from the 3-point line and hit 11.8 shots on average from beyond the arc. In the 40 losses, the Magic’s 3-point percentage (33.6 percent) and their 3-point makes (11) dipped. As far as raw field goal percentage, Orlando was an impressive 32-8 when it shot better overall than its foes.

That trend carried over to the playoffs when the seventh-seeded Magic took on the second-seeded Raptors and superstar forward Kawhi Leonard. Orlando drilled an impressive 14 of 29 3-point shots – none bigger than point guard D.J. Augustin’s three in the final seconds – to capture a Game 1 victory in Toronto.

From there, however, the Magic struggled to make 3-point shots, going just nine of 34 (26.5 percent) in Game 2, 13 of 44 (29.5 percent) in Game 3, seven of 33 (21.2 percent) in Game 4 and nine of 34 (26.5 percent) in the clinching Game 5. Toronto, which would go on to defeat Philadelphia and Milwaukee to reach the NBA Finals, shot better from beyond the arc in Game 2 (31.4 percent), Game 3 (39.3 percent), Game 4 (39.3 percent) and Game 5 (41.7 percent).

Even though players such as Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Wes Iwundu became much-improved 3-point shooters this past season in head coach Steve Clifford’s offense, the Magic are still very much in need of perimeter shooters. That need could grow even more pronounced if Orlando loses super sub Terrence Ross when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on June 30.

Clifford, for one, expects the Magic to be a better shooting team next season regardless of the player that the Magic draft this week.

``The ability to create shots and some of that (improved shooting) isn’t just about adding guys; it’s also about internal development,’’ Clifford said back in April as the Magic’s season was ending. ``Some of the (shooting improvement) can come from continuity, higher execution – which we needed in the playoffs – and one or two young guys making a big jump. It’s not always just about changing your roster.’’

While acknowledging his team’s need for more shooting, Weltman warned that the Magic wouldn’t be pinned into drafting a wing player if another positional option presented itself on Thursday night. After all, the Magic still have other holes to fill at backup point guard and in the middle in case Vucevic departs via free agency.

``Not necessarily,’’ Weltman said when asked if the Magic were likely to draft a wing player with the roster already equipped with several talented frontcourt players. ``We’ll seek out the best player, the player who best identifies with our goals as an organization and the most talented player. I think if you’re just seeking to add a certain position you may be limiting your choices, and we don’t want to do that.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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