No Cheap Fouls For Young, Man

Trae Young, Stephen Curry, and James Harden could all see hits to their free throw totals next season. Here's why

The NBA is cracking down on unnatural shooting motions — the type of foul baiting where an offensive player launches themselves at angle into a defender. Or as I like to call it, bullshit basketball.

Since were likely to see some changes that result in fewer whistles next season, it’s worth taking stock of the landscape of shooting fouls as it exists today and examine the players who are most likely to be affected by the change.

Let’s start by taking a look at the chart below, which shows the location of every shot attempt and shooting foul from the 2020-21 season. Notice how even though there’s overlap between the two groups, the vast majority of shooting fouls occur within just a few feet of the basket. Meanwhile, shot attempts are more evenly distributed in the area around the basket and the three point line. So while 3s make up around 40 percent of all shot attempts, they represent only about five percent of all shooting fouls.

This is an important point to keep in mind when wondering why your favorite player doesn’t get as many whistles as his peers. If they don’t get to the rim often, then they probably won’t get fouled often. In general, the more shots at the rim a player takes, the more shooting fouls they will be able to draw.

Earlier this month the NBA posted a Twitter thread where they gave examples of the different types of “non-basketball moves” that will be disincentivized next season. All four of the examples they provided were jump shots from the free throw line or further out. That means someone like Zion Williamson, who draws nearly all his shooting fouls at the rim, probably isn’t going to be officiated any differently than he already is. Meanwhile, the players that rely on drawing shooting fouls from outside the restricted area are going to be shit out of luck.

The NBA isn’t going to come out and tell us which players are the worst offenders of this type of foul baiting. But we can use location data on shooting fouls to infer which players it might be.

So I went through the NBA’s play-by-play logs and plucked out the X,Y coordinates on every shooting foul. I then calculated the distance between the spot of the foul and the basket itself. With this information we can make some reasonable guesses as to which players are most likely to be the subject of stricter officiating next season.

The chart below shows the distribution of shooting fouls drawn by distance from the hoop. I’ve limited the chart to the players that drew at least 100 shooting fouls last season. The players are ordered on the chart by the median distance on all the shooting fouls they drew, meaning the further up a player is on the chart, the larger their proportion of shooting fouls that came from jump shots.

At the top of the list is Trae Young. No player has exemplified the need for a change in officiating more than Young. His foul baiting has drawn the ire of opposing coaches and national media alike. More than half of all the shooting fouls Young drew last season came from further than ten feet from the hoop. That’s the highest proportion out of anyone who drew at least 100 shooting fouls last season.

Compare the shape of Young’s distribution to the league at large in the chart below. The evenness of Young’s distribution indicates he’s equally adept at drawing shooting fouls near the basket as he is at drawing shooting fouls from 25 feet away from the basket. That takes an immense amount of skill and a complete lack of shame. Which is probably why more players don’t do it.

Right behind Young is Stephen Curry. This shouldn’t be too surprising given that Curry led the league in three point shooting fouls drawn last season — a title that had belonged to James Harden in every season before last year since 2015-16. Curry averaged a career high 6.3 free throws per game last season and it’s hard to imagine him topping that given that he fits the profile of someone who used unnatural shooting motions to his advantage last season.

Other players that relied on drawing shooting fouls off of jump shots last season include Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, and James Harden. Of those three, I suspect that Harden will have the hardest time adapting to the change in officiating. Given his age and recent injury history, it’s reasonable to think Harden will have more trouble getting to the rim compared to younger players like Booker and Doncic.

It’s worth emphasizing what a small percentage of shooting fouls the officiating change will likely impact. Only around 15 percent of all shooting fouls were drawn from further than ten feet away from the basket this past season.

Still, it’s a worthwhile change. Even though shooting fouls on jump shots make up a tiny proportion of all shooting fouls, they’re far more salient. As a fan, it’s a lot harder to stomach seeing an offensive player get bailed out by a referee on a jump shot than it is when a player attacks the basket in good faith and draws contact.

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