Category 3: Offensive Scheme-Changers

Category 3 Lead Guards: Offensive Scheme-Changers

Three-Level Playmaking Initiator:

1.James Harden (Sophomore): #3 Overall Pick (Age When Drafted 20)


(Keith Allison; Wikimedia)

Three-Level Scoring Initiators:

1.Damian Lillard (Senior) #6 Overall Pick (Age When Drafted: 22)


(Keith Allison; Wikimedia)

2.Kyrie Irving (Freshman) #1 Overall Pick (Age When Drafted: 19)


(Keith Allison; Wikimedia)

3.Kemba Walker (Junior) #9 Overall Pick (Age When Drafted: 21)


(Keith Allison; Wikimedia)

4.Isaiah Thomas (Junior) #60 Overall Pick (Age When Drafted: 22)


(Keith Allison; Wikimedia)

Two-Level Scoring Initiators:

1.*D’Angelo Russell (Freshman) #2 Overall Pick (Age When Drafted: 19)


(Keith Allison; Wikimedia)

Update: Similar to category 1 fives this category needed subcategories to highlight crucial differences. Harden’s uniqueness as both an elite scorer AND passer relegate him to his own sub-grouping as an outlier primary initiator and the standard for offense only initiators. Lillard, Irving, Thomas and Walker are more primary scorers who also meet a passing threshold. All are adept finishers around the rim, armed with either elite body control (Irving, Thomas) or burst (Lillard, Walker). Russell is still in part a mystery box, but he’s more of a two-level scorer lacking the craft and athleticism to both get in the lane and finish in traffic. This renders shooting off the dribble paramount for Russell, an elite college trait of his that has yet to translate.

Key Skills/Attributes:

  • Shooting off the Dribble/3s off the Dribble
  • Scoring/PNR Scoring
  • Advanced Handle

I.What Sets Them Apart

Simply put, these players are elite offensive players, and they have to be because none contribute even at an average defensive level.  If you’re going to be largely a one way player, you have to be near exceptional on that one side of the ball, and all of these players either are or profile as elite offensive players.

As outlined in the first post on lead guards, when we’re talking star offense we’re implicitly saying a player can handle heavy offensive usage without an efficiency curving off:

2015/16 Regular Season Usage/Efficiency


A few quick notes:

  • I included Harden in this section even though he does not defend opposing lead guards (some define position by what position you defend, which makes sense).  Regardless, I felt this was the most apt category to place him in, as he initiates basically all of Houston’s offense and his skill-set is very conducive to this category.
  • I also included Russell here, despite the fact his rookie season statistics aren’t overly promising. His college sample of shooting off the dribble prowess and skill-set overall profiles well for this category.  In my opinion he was drafted #2 overall precisely because he projects to be this kind of player.  His toxic situation last year affords him a mulligan.

Now, onto the differentiating skills.

A.Scheme-Changing Shooting 3s off the Dribble in PNR

2013/14 Regular Season Pull Up Jumpers (Lead Guards Sorted by 3PA) 


2014/15 Regular Season Pull Up Jumpers (Lead Guards Sorted by 3PA) 


2015/16 Regular Season Pull Up Jumpers (Lead Guards Sorted by 3PA) 


The Importance (Schematically) of Lead Guard Shooting 3s Off The Dribble

  • Schematically, there is incredible value at the point of attack initiating offense as a lead guard if you can shoot 3s off the dribble in high PNR. The defense typically has 4 options in such a situation: go under the screen, trail over the top, switch or blitz/trap.  Typically teams don’t switch what are usually 1/4 or 1/5 PNRs because of the created mismatches in a traditional setting (big on small, small on big) unless teams match up specifically to scheme for a switch (like most do now when playing the Warriors and the Curry/Dray PNR).  Trapping is becoming more prevalent when the screener is a PNR dive man without ball skills/the ability to make decisions on the move, but we’ll ignore this for now.  The two traditional approaches are either the on-ball defender trailing the ball-handler over the top of the screen or going under the screen, and the decision as to what avenue to proceed in is often contingent on the shooting capability of the ball-handler.
  • There are ways to combat on-ball defenders going under screens on “non-shooters” such as setting the screen lower down towards the foul line to allow for an easier finish, but that has spacing implications.  In general, a defender “going under” gives away the advantages inherent in the design of a PNR: creating a space advantage for the ball-handler to playmake and forcing the defense into rotation with that advantage.
  • Teams defend the standard PNR differently. You have the conservative Thibideau “zone up” scheme where the big drops back in the paint with the guard chasing over with the goal being trying to force a less valuable midrange shot while containing with only 2 players, and more aggressive hedging schemes like those usually employed by Doc Rivers with the Clippers in trying to thwart dribble-penetration entirely with the big cutting off the ball-handler from the off and then recovering to his man.  If the ball-handler in this scenario can shoot threes off the dribble AND has a feared reputation for doing so drawing the attention of a defense, it opens more opportunities for an NBA offense at the point of attack to create a scoring opportunity with higher shot value.  This is so because it forces the defense to alter defensive scheme if those teams employ more traditional sets with the big guarding the screener dropping back in the paint.  You can’t let a Lillard type walk into an open three off the bounce with the big just planted in the paint.
  • Most bigs aren’t adept at guarding the perimeter, and most don’t like to. So when Lillard comes off a high pick and roll, sometimes players like Whiteside don’t get out far enough to contest.  This act pulls the big out of the paint (most times the primary rim protector in a 1/5 PNR), which not only clears space to attack the rim or for the screener to dive hard to the rim before the defending big can recover, but also forces help defenders to rotate down and leaves shooters on the perimeter.
  • Essentially, having a Lillard, Harden or Kyrie type at the point of attacks opens up a plethora of options for an offense that aren’t available to non-shooters.

2015/16 Regular Season PNR Ball-Handler Stats


  • It follows from the above that this player archetype is an efficient scorer in pick and roll with the ability to shoot any shot off the dribble.  Threes especially afford Lillard, Harden and Kyrie an advantage over most of their counterparts, not only from an eFG% efficiency standpoint, but from a gravitational standpoint in altering defensive scheme.  Teams are terrified of Lillard walking into an open three, and thus change scheme to combat that.  That alone holds as much or more value to Portland’s offense than Lillard’s actual shooting prowess.

B.Isolation/Creation Off the Dribble


  • All of these players accomplish the end result of creating offense in different ways. Harden has an advanced handle and really utilizes the show move specifically to draw fouls.  Harden isn’t a top-shelf athlete but changes direction with eurosteps/incredible hip flexibility and is a nightmare cover with his side to side movement and strong frame to absorb contact to finish.  Irving has probably the tightest and most advanced handle in the league next to Steph, and really changes speeds well getting to the basket.  Lillard has the most burst and juice of the three with a plethora of step-back moves.  Overall, each can probe and create space with the ball to get to the their spots.  The ability to handle the ball in advanced fashion is again paramount to success here.

C.A Note on Defense

2015/16 Regular Season DRPM (Ranked by Lead Guards)


  • This section doesn’t require an extensive conversation.  Harden has long been scrutinized for his defensive effort both getting back in transition and falling asleep off ball (though he was better this year than last).  Lillard struggles getting around screens and Kyrie’s positioning and effort to contain penetration at the point of attack have always been sizeable minuses.  All of these players are high usage offensive players with a great amount of offensive ability, and each is a huge plus on the offensive side of the ball which compensates for the lack of defense.  But lead guards like Steph and Paul also shoulder that usage on offense and play plus defense at the point of attack.  Ergo the different categorization.

II.College Indicators/Translations



  1. Harden’s size/frame/length combination is outstanding, and his frame especially shouldn’t be discounted as it permits him to absorb and finish through contact at the rim.
  2. Every player here has a positive wingspan, but note Kyrie’s lack of length.
  3. Lillard’s no step vert is also one of the best I’ve seen, and while that leaping ability doesn’t translate to the fullest extent in a game setting, it is certainly reflected in his bounciness and burst.

2.Per 40 Minutes Pace Adjusted


  1. Harden:
    • Shooting: Harden had a solid shooting baseline on high volume (824 total FGAs, 271 3PAs, 494 FTAs) with consistent percentages across all categories, affording confidence he could shoot at the next level.
    • Free Throw Attempts: Perhaps no skill has translated to a greater extent than Harden’s free throw shooting.  9.5 attempts per 40 pace adj his Sophomore year is an incredible number for a D1 prospect.
    • Defense: Harden sported one positive and one elite steal figure, and while Harden has been able to create steals on the NBA level at an above average level, effort cannot always be built into a statistic.
  2. Lillard:
    • Shooting: Lillard did what you want a small school prospect to do: be relatively efficient on extremely high usage/volume (1310 FGAs, 630 3PAs, 600 FTAs). Lillard was a clean shooting prospect across the board without any real outliers and with plus volume.
    • Defense: Lillard had two slightly above average steal finishes and two below average finishes, and factored in with non-elite rebounding it probably wasn’t reasonable from a statistical sense to assume plus defense at the next level.
  3. Irving:
    • Shooting: In an extremely limited sample Irving had elite shooting efficiency.  The problem is of course the 11 game sample (104 FGAs, 39 3PAs, 71 FTAs).
    • Defense: The average steal mark and non-elite rebounding numbers didn’t afford much confidence Kyrie could defend at the next level, especially when you factor in his lack of length and undeveloped frame.
  4. Russell:
    • Shooting: I personally was reeled in by Russell’s 3pt efficiency on high volume (231 3PAs) as evidence he was an elite shooter. However, his 2pt FG% and FT % (156 attempts) while both above average were not elite figures, rendering him a clean but not a shoe-in elite shooter.   There is a chance I overestimated his shooting ability, but I still think with his ability to shoot off the dribble (see below) and how smooth and effortless his stroke is he will translate much better than he demonstrated last year (especially with improved strength).
    • Defense: Russell doesn’t have that quick twitch athleticism, and his lack of foot speed reacting quickly to offensive players is concerning.  However, he’s tall and long, and that matters recovering in PNR defense to challenge shots. His slightly below average steals, average feet and defensive energy (he admitted he didn’t play defense in college) did not afford much confidence that he would be an elite defender.


  • Finally we get some recent prospects and thus stats to advertise. I like looking an unassisted college shooting stats as an indicator for offense creation.
  • Russell made a high number of unassisted 2pt jumpers and unassisted threes, giving a fantastic statistical profile for shooting off the dribble in pick and roll (with the eye test you could see Russell in college make a ton of dribble jumpers off high PNR).  He shot 44% on pull ups jumpers in college, which is an outstanding number (also 38.7% on 2pt jumpers overall).
  • Lillard didn’t have as many unassisted two point jumpers, largely because he got to the rim 177 times (66 more than Russell) and also drew fouls at a higher rate, but you can see again the high number of unassisted 3s, shedding light on his scheme buster potential.



  1. Harden: Harden profiled as a scoring lead guard with a below average mark in ASS/FGA and both of his seasons were outlier red flags as far as decision-making goes.  Harden has really developed as a playmaker, making reads and skip passes in PNR, eclipsing that forecasted ASS/TO translation.  Notice again the elite shooting.
  2. Lillard: As a small school prospect Lillard had a significant offensive scoring burden and thus sported low AST/FGA figures throughout his career.  Outside of one outlier negative season his Sophomore year, he his decision-making was slightly above average, which given his usage was very encouraging.
  3. Irving: In his limited sample Kyrie posted elite figures as a shooter, and displayed the most pure lead guard passing and decision-making stats on the list.  That playmaking for others component has not really translated.
  4. Russell: Russell was the worst shooting prospect of the lot, and profiled as scoring guard with above average decision-making.



  1. Harden: Harden commanded borderline elite usage while maintaining outstanding efficiency, and got to the line at an elite rate.
  2. Lillard: Again, for any small school prospect you want to see high usage and plus efficiency. Lillard offered that while throwing in a few promising free throw rate figures as his college career progressed.
  3. Irving: Irving was right about average for usage (kind of similar to CP3), but had a really strong knack for getting to the foul line.
  4. Russell: Russell’s had a strong usage number, but his FTA rate was below average (this has correlated with the pros, at least thus far).

5.Skill Translation:

  1. Harden:
    • Scoring efficiency on high usage
    • Shot creation profile
    • Score first mentality
    • FT Rate
    • First Contract Translation: All-Star in 4th season, but spent first 3 seasons as a 6th man.
  2. Lillard
    • Scoring efficiency on high usage
    • Shot creation profile
    • Strong shooting profile
    • Score first mentality
    • FT Rate
    • Average defensive profile
    • Ability to shoot 3s off the dribble
    • First Contract Translation: All-Star Years 2-3
  3. Irving
    • Shooting efficiency
    • Shot creation profile
    • FT Rate
    • First Contract Translation: All-Star Years 2-4.
  4. Russell
    • Ability to shoot off the dribble (2s and 3s)
    • Below average foul drawing
    • Score first mentality
    • Rebounding ability
    • First Contract Translation: INC

III.Overall Takeaways 

  1. Elite Offense Skill Lead Guards Translate Faster than Advertised: It is common nomenclature to say athletic players adapt quicker to the speed of the game at the NBA level than skill-guys, and that still might be true. But the elite offense lead guards above + CP3 translated quickly to NBA success. All-star appearances might not be the best way to gauge this, for it is situational and conference based (It’s damn hard to make an all-star team as a guard in the West as Lillard just saw this year). But we should see significant improvement from D’Angelo in year 2 if he is the player that I think he is, even if it doesn’t result in an all-star appearance.
  2. Importance of Playmaking for Others Despite Being Scoring Lead Guards:I emphasized scheme changing shooting 3s off the dribble above because that’s the skill the really sets this players apart and even though these players are largely score first players there is still a necessity to playmake for others at the position.  Lillard and Harden are much better passers than Kyrie, the latter of whom really isn’t your prototype lead guard at all, lacking the vision and distributing instincts.  This is why Kyrie is such a vexing player: he can really create for himself but at the point of attack his game is largely predictable.  I personally think Russell has the best vision and passing instincts out of any of the above players at this stage of development.
  3. Ability to Play Off the Ball/Shoot: Shooting prowess is paramount because it allows players to play both on and off ball, allowing others to create.  I could have included spot-up metrics above to outline this component for the the aforementioned players, but it’s definitely worth bringing up here.  If you need the ball to be effective you better be damn good with the ball. These players are but can also play off the ball, which is tremendously valuable. Even D’Angelo flashed as a cutter this year, showing fantastic slashing instincts for a rookie, to pair with spot up shooting.

Up Next: Category 4 Lead Guards (Two-Way Skilled + Shooting Threats)

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