Drive, Monta, Drive: Using Player Tracking to Analyze Drives in the NBA

By Harrison Chase

A year ago, Monta Ellis was regarded as one of the less efficient shooters in the NBA, a player who put up a lot of unwise shots and didn’t make enough of them. Now, seven games into the new NBA season, he seems to be a changed man. Whether he himself has changed his style, or whether just being part of a competent offense for once has given him access to better shots, is up for debate (for more on this Kirk Goldsberry just recently wrote a great piece at Grantland[KM1] ). Whatever the case, Monta Ellis has been one of the surprises of the admittedly short NBA season so far, and a large part of that has to do with the fact that he has been one of most effective players on drives to the basket in the whole league.

Until recently, seeing which players were best at scoring on drives used to be a matter left to the viewer, as there was no widespread stat regarding drives. With the installation of six cameras in every NBA arena, this has changed. The cameras record the position of every player and the ball 25 times each second, and then translate that footage to raw data in the form of points. For a much better explanation of how this works, check out this link.[KM2] has provided the general public with some of those metrics[KM3] , which include stats on several different types of shots, including drives, which are eloquently defined as “any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks.” Thanks to this data, we now have a much better understanding of who the best players on drives are.

Evident from just looking at the stats is that Monta Ellis is averaging the most points on drives per game and the most drives per game. But was does that mean? It means he drives a lot and scores a lot – but is he doing it efficiently? Is he doing it at an above average rate? Is there a way to express with a single number how many points he is scoring on drives above what an average player would score on as many drives as he has had?

The answer to this can be found fairly simply. First I found how many points the average NBA player scores per drive to the basket. Then, using this number, I found how many points we would expect an average player to score on Ellis’s number of drives. Subtracting the average player’s points from Ellis’s actual total points on drives gives us Ellis’s points above what the average player would have scored on the same number of drives this season.

For example, so far this season, players are scoring on average around 0.48 points per drive. Monta Ellis has driven 92 times, meaning we would expect an average player to score 44.5 points (92*0.48).  That leaves Ellis and his 71 points on drives with 26.5 more  points on drives above average through 8 games (more than 3 points per game). How does this compare to other players?


The top five in individual scoring above average per game on drives through Tuesday morning, among players having played five or more games, are:


Player Scoring points above average per game on drives
Evan Turner 4.95
James Harden 3.62
Eric Bledsoe 3.50
Monta Ellis 3.32
Ramon Sessions 2.89


As you can see, Monta Ellis has been very good at scoring the ball on drives. However, he’s still been not even close to Evan Turner, who has stepped up his game from last year and been scoring quite ridiculously well – shooting over 70%. That number may go down: it has, after all, only been seven games. But Turner’s incredible shooting percentage on drives is a major reason why the 76’ers have looked better than expected so far this season. And James Harden, widely regarded as one of the best attackers in the game, ranks second, despite not being at full health.

(Just to clarify: these aren’t necessarily the best drivers in the league. These are the players who have contributed the most points above average on drives. LeBron James might, in your opinion, be a better driver than any of these players, but because he does so many other things besides driving, like posting up and shooting jumpers, the points he contributes by shooting on drives are not nearly as much as players whose primary scoring method is by drives.)

Of course this doesn’t tell the whole story, because players not only shoot on drives but also can pass the ball out to a teammate and have him shoot. Luckily for us, also tracks the team’s points per game on a player’s drives, so we can calculate how many points he created by passing the ball on drives.

Unfortunately does not currently list the number of drives on which a player shoots and the number on which he passes (if anyone who’s reading this can make this stat available, I would be very grateful). Because of this, some players may seem to produce  below average[KM4]  when actually they just don’t shoot a lot. One way to reconcile this is to calculate the points above average a player creates with his passes, and then combine them, to get all points above average on a drive. If a player shoots more, then his individual points per drive will probably be above average, but his points created by pass will most likely be below average, and the total should even out.

The average player creates 0.35 points per drive by passing to his teammates. With Ellis’s 92 drives, an average NBA player would have created 32.5 by kicking the ball out. Ellis actually created 34 points by passing, so he created 1.5 points above average on passes. Does this mean that he is basically an average passer on drives? No – he is most likely an above average passer but just creates the same amount of points on passes as an average player because he most likely[KM5]  shoots more than normal. So who are the players who create the most points on kicking the ball out on drives?


Players Passing points on drives above average per game
Ty Lawson 5.01
Kyle Lowry 3.11
Ricky Rubio 2.90
Steve Blake 2.56
Jameer Nelson 2.55


What do all these players have in common? Four of them score at close to the rate of an average player – or even below. These are the players who for whatever reason are kicking the ball out on drives a lot, and creating a lot of points for their team that way. The player who doesn’t score at a below average rate? That is also the player who is leading the overall points created on drives above average list. (Calculated by adding scoring points above average with passing points above average).


Players Total points above average on drives per game
Ty Lawson 5.84
Evan Turner 4.35
Jeremy Lin 3.58
James Harden 3.56
Monta Ellis 3.45


Ty Lawson has sneakily been having a great season. He has scored 43 points on 77 drives, shooting over fifty percent. More impressively though, he has created 62 points by passing it on drives. Those numbers put his team’s PPG on his drives at 15 – nearly two points per game higher than Monta Ellis, and he has done it on about one less drive per game!

Still though, Monta Ellis has clearly been very effective at driving this year, and more specifically at finishing on drives. It is a major reason that many are marveling at his apparent transformation into a new player. Can he keep it up throughout the season? It’s hard to say right now- this is admittedly looking at a pretty small sample. But so far he’s been nothing short of spectacular.


All stats found on and current through 10:30 11/14.


About the author


View all posts


  • Excellent work! This new influx of data from the NBA is opening up a lot of different opportunities for analysis. I love your idea of examining this.

    I don’t it would be hard to calculate players on a drive and their pass/shoot ratio if we had access to the raw data. If I stumble across anything, I will let you know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *