ALMOST PERFECT: A LOOK AT ZION-ESQUE GAMES

By Kenny Huang

On Friday night, Zion Williamson put up 36 points on a preposterous 14/15 shooting split, with his lone miss being his only shot from 3. In short, Zion bullied my Mavs inside and made all 14 of his shots within the arc. A couple of weeks ago, I scraped a sizable dataset of individual player box scores, so I decided to take a quick look at similar dominant performances in the past, specifically the 59 games in which a player scored all of their two-point field goal attempts on at least 10 attempts. For the sake of space, below is an abridged version with the 31 games with 11 or more attempts. (Note: the data only starts in 1996 and ends a couple of months ago on New Year’s Eve, so I ask that you take these figures with a sizable grain of salt.)

Let’s take a quick look at these games. For starters, some of the players here were not starters. Sabonis, a bona fide star today, and Nene, a solid starter at his peak, each came off the bench and provided quality efficient minutes. Some players were able to put up several of these insane statlines. Notably, Dwight Howard has gone 10/10 or better three times throughout his career, and players like Nene, Giannis, Jarrett Jack, Karl Malone, Pau Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams did so twice. Even James Harden made the list, scoring 49 (including 18 free throws) in a close win over my Mavs in the 2020 bubble.

In terms of trends, scores were definitely skewed on the higher side, and Friday’s game was no exception, ending up at 143-130. In addition, these players tended to shoot poorly from 3, as the 31 games in the table combined for a putrid 8-41 from beyond the arc. Intuitively, this makes sense, since big men tend to take high-percentage 2-point shots at a higher volume, and a quick eye test verifies that most of the players indeed play in the frontcourt. Also notably, these players naturally had excellent plus-minuses; the histogram of all 59 games looks roughly normal and is centered at about +10.

The most glaring commonality was just how often teams won. Before Friday, teams with a player going 11/11 or better combined for an absurd 29-2. If we take a look at Friday’s game in this context, we can see that in some sense Zion’s 14/14 performance was historic. As we can see from the table, Gordon Hayward scored 16/16 inside the arc back in 2019, and Thomas Bryant also went for 14/14 back in 2018, making Zion just the third player since 1996 to reach this benchmark. However, this is the first time that a team has had a player go 14/14 or better in a losing effort, as the Celtics and Wizards each won their games (the Wizards doing so in 3OT). After tonight, here are the splits:

This dominance is most likely indicative of the fact that players’ performances depend heavily on how well the rest of the team is playing offensively, and it just happened that the Mavs were even hotter than the Pelicans. This “historic performance” stat may be cherry-picked, but I think it’s also valuable in that it demonstrates the incredible finishing ability of Zion as well as the inside defense vulnerability of the Mavs. Both teams have very bright futures ahead, and I’m looking forward to watching more games like this!   

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