Before Will Smith got his big break as the title character in Hitch, he was a little-known television actor on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a gritty early-’90s drama about class and race in America, starring Alfonso Ribeiro of Extreme Ghostbusters fame. As we learn in the credit sequence, William “Fresh Prince” Smith was known to shoot some b-ball from time to time, and, indeed, an episode in the first season, “Courting Disaster,” finds the Fresh Prince shooting some b-ball for the heretofore-atrocious Bel Air Trust Funds. Using some advanced statistical metrics, I’ve taken a close look at the Fresh Prince’s game and at what it has to teach us about optimal shot distribution.
Our story begins with Will’s introduction to the basketball coach, whose moral fiber implies previous employment in the ’80s SMU athletic department. Will instantly becomes the star, singlehandedly turning the team around by taking and apparently making every basket. He gets delusions of grandeur, beating guest star and current shadow GM Isiah Thomas in a one-on-one dream sequence that culminates in Zeke’s signing him to the mid-level exception.
Despite Will’s ego, most of the team is content to feed him the ball. But not Carlton. Jealous of Smith’s success, Banks wrestles the ball from his cousin and teammate and attempts a half-court buzzer-beater. He misses wildly, but a lessons are soon learned: Carlton realizes he can’t be good at everything, and Will realizes he needs to share the ball.
This is a load of crap. First of all, Carlton is bad at a lot of stuff and knows it, and his jealousy is a manifestation of that insecurity. More importantly, Will should continue to hog the ball. Here’s the statistical evidence: I took advantage of software we get for free at Harvard to create a shot chart for the team (click to expand or view full-size version here).
All nine makes are by Smith, and the one miss is Carlton’s. Assuming the shot near the top of the key is a three-pointer, Will’s effective field goal percentage, a stat that adjusts for the extra value of treys, is 111 percent. Everyone else’s is zero percent. Small sample size and selection bias are the usual culprits, but the figures can’t be too far off. The other players badly miss all five (undefended) layups they take in practice. They also display dribbling skills that make me think we didn’t appreciate Chris Dudley enough. Sure, it looks bad when you’re getting quintuple-teamed on one side of the court and all your teammates are open on the other. But there’s no way in hell that those guys will catch a pass the length of the floor, even taking into account the court’s tiny dimensions. Meanwhile, Will is good enough to win the tipoff and nail a half-court shot before his feet touch the ground.
All of this relates to a popular advanced metric called Usage Rate, which is the percent of possessions that a player uses. Unlike most advanced basketball stats, it doesn’t describe efficiency per se. It doesn’t get invited to those crazy True Shooting Percentage parties where Offensive Rebounding Rate wakes up with John Hollinger’s underwear on his head. In the Fresh Prince episode, Will has a Usage Rate of 90 percent.
As an example of Usage Rate’s usefulness, let’s take a quick look at the 1995-6 Chicago Bulls. Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, two Hall of Fame-worthy players, were similarly productive but for different reasons. Pippen was a great distributor and shooter, both of which roles require the ball. Rodman, meanwhile, made a good number of the shots he took, but derived most of his value from defending, grabbing over a quarter of available rebounds, and making people afraid and confused, none of which activities requires the ball on offense. Rodman had a Usage Rate of 10 percent, the lowest on the team, while Pippen’s was 24 percent, the second-highest (some other dude led with 33 percent).
Does this mean that Rodman was more efficient than Pippen? Nope. It helps us describe how, not why, players are good or bad. But someone has to have the ball and take the shots. This is why great players on bad teams, like Will on the Trust Funds, look like inefficient ball-hogs. Their play is actually often selfless; who wants to take an ugly shot that probably won’t go in? Awful teams need Pippens (and Iversons, and even Al Harringtons) more than they need Rodmans, players who can rack up a high Usage Rate without severely hurting their efficiency.
That’s Will at Bel Air. At a high-school powerhouse, he’d be best off using his skill to help create open looks for his teammates. But here, the rest of the team is best off sticking around on the defensive end and letting Will do whatever he wants. In other words, he should have a 100 percent Usage Rate. He should shoot the b-ball every damn time until his teammates prove they can make a basket or demonstrate any offensive raison d’être whatsoever. Deal with it, Carlton.