These are the players who are keeping the mid-range game alive in the NBA

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As the analytics community grows, one of the most common debates in basketball is the role of the mid-range jump shot in the modern NBA.

While those arguments are tired at this point, the data suggests that the league is increasingly moving away from the mid-range game. But at the same time, the mid-range game is not going to go away any time soon thanks to the style of play from several stars around the league.

To determine which players are keeping the mid-range game alive, we looked at three factors and then compared how each individual performed relative to the league average in the same span:

  1. Output: To determine just how prolific someone was from mid-range, we pulled total field goals made outside four feet but from inside the three-point line per 100 possessions.

  2. Shot dependency: We examined how often a player’s shots came from everywhere on the floor except at the rim and beyond the arc.

  3. Efficiency: This is simply the field goal percentage a player had on their short mid-range and long mid-range attempts.

It is worth mentioning that longtime NBA fixtures who recently stepped away from the game (e.g. LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and Shaun Livingston) would have likely made this list if they were active and had not yet retired.

But in their absence, the following players are working the hardest to keep the “in-between” alive in the NBA.

All data is from PBP Stats unless noted otherwise. Shot charts are via Positive Residual.

DeMar DeRozan

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Output (FGM per 100 poss.): 7.2 Shot Dependency (frequency): 69.5% Efficiency (FG%): 45.3%

You already knew that a list about modern mid-range shooters is going to start with DeMar DeRozan. Even if everyone else in the league decided that they would only shoot at the rim or from beyond the arc, DeRozan would keep the in-between game alive. Growing up in Los Angeles, DeRozan didn’t have access to cable television. The Los Angeles Lakers were the only televised team, he recently explained, which meant that he watched a lot of Kobe Bryant. Bryant was a mid-range maestro in his own right so that’s exactly what DeRozan has become during his time in the league. It’s been the driving force to what has allowed him to average at least 20.0 points per game for seven seasons in a row. Statistically, he has been far more reliant on these looks than any other player in the NBA. But it’s also been successful as his mid-range jumper has been between ten to thirty percentage points better than his shots from long distance in each of the past five seasons, per Cleaning the Glass. Considering just how pretty it looks, it’s hard to blame him for wanting to take it as often as he does. https://twitter.com/stevejones20/status/1378537333167906817?s=20 But as noted by Jonathan Tjarks, the evolution to eventually step beyond the arc more often -- even if he wasn’t hitting them -- was inevitable for DeRozan so he could serve as a better floor spacer (via The Ringer):

“There was never any mechanical reason that DeRozan couldn’t take 3s before. He came into the NBA as a slasher who depended primarily on his athleticism but has long since become a polished scorer with the touch and footwork to drain mid-range jumpers. His sudden willingness to take catch-and-shoot 3s is more a reflection of him embracing a new role.”

After spending the first chunk of his career on the Toronto Raptors, DeRozan was the centerpiece of a deal that sent him to the Western Conference to play for the San Antonio Spurs. But next season, DeRozan will head back to the East and will join the starting frontcourt for the Chicago Bulls. Considering the prowess that both Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic have in the pick and roll, defenders are going to have to lock in on their two-man game. Defenders won’t be able to ignore second-year forward Patrick Williams, who fared well when he was handed the keys to Chicago’s offense during summer league. That means that DeRozan may get a ton of open looks from the mid-range, and if we know him, he’s going to take them. But his playmaking has improved, too, as no one has assisted on more long mid-range jumpers since 2018-19, per PBP Stats. Don’t be surprised if his teammates start making more mid-range looks as well.

Kevin Durant

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Output (FGM per 100 poss.): 6.6 Shot Dependency (frequency): 51.7% Efficiency (FG%): 52.5%

You can look at a shot chart from Kevin Durant for half a second and see that he is absolutely brilliant from everywhere on the floor. But one area that shines is the mid-range. During the offseason in 2019, while he was rehabbing from his torn Achilles, Durant took to Twitter to join the discourse about mid-range jumpers. It was a vintage performance of Durant-on-Twitter and he uttered an unforgettable one-liner about the role of graphs in sports. The whole conversation was simply a fascinating insight into the mind of one of the world’s great shooters. Sometimes, Durant argued in this conversation, the mid-range look is just the open shot. Why, he wondered, would you pass up on the easy look for something contested? According to Durant, there is no reason to ever forgo something that isn’t guarded to force something that is less guaranteed at the rim or at the three-point line. https://twitter.com/kirkgoldsberry/status/1333813747006115841?s=20 But what’s crazy is that, per ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, an astonishingly high 95 percent of his mid-range looks have been contested over the course of the past eight seasons. But yet since 2013-14, Durant is still the most efficient player in the league from this zone. His output is nothing to scoff about either as he made 2.9 pull-up two-pointers per game this past season, which trailed teammate Kyrie Irving (3.0) for the most in the Eastern Conference. Once the playoffs arrived, however, the tune changed and Durant averaged a league-best 5.3 pull-up two-pointers -- nearly one more per game than any other player in the postseason. Ultimately, Durant believes that players are best at what they practice at the most and they would have no idea how good they could be at the mid-range if they don’t train in that area. However, he has played the game long enough to know when it feels like his shot is sinking particularly well on any given night. Or as he explained: “if my middy workin then that’s where I’m goin for dinner.”

Chris Paul

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Output (FGM per 100 poss.): 5.5 Shot Dependency (frequency): 54.7% Efficiency (FG%): 51.2%

Despite his advanced age, Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul is coming off one of the best seasons of his career. His mid-range jumper was one of the main tools he used to accomplish as much. In fact, Paul actually recorded one of the most efficient seasons from mid-range of any player in the past 25 years. His ability to create off the dribble alleviated some of the pressure that both Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton both faced before his arrival in Phoenix, which is one of the reasons the two young stars took such giant leaps forward in 2020-21. Paul’s pull-up jumper from the right elbow has been the most fundamental staple in his shot selection over the entirety of his career, which has included eleven appearances in the All-Star game. https://twitter.com/Original_Turner/status/1404250758204231685?s=20 But due to defenders now focusing more on guarding the rim and the perimeter, there is more space to operate off ball screens from the mid-range. As opponents shift to drop coverage near the basket more and more often, Paul can dribble off the pick and either kick out to a shooter on the perimeter or just take the long two. This past season, he actually averaged more pull-up two-pointers than any other player in the league. It certainly worked in the postseason as he hit eight consecutive mid-range jumpers in less than ten minutes against the Denver Nuggets. His defenders are assuredly still having nightmares about the hot streak and as the Suns look to defend their roles as conference champions, look for Paul to continue giving Phoenix an advantage every time he steps on the floor. He also assisted on 162 connections to his teammates from the mid-range, per PBP Stats, which trailed only Russell Westbrook for the most in the NBA. When factoring that in, he may be the one who wears the crown as the true king of the in-between game.

Nikola Jokic

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Output (FGM per 100 poss.): 5.8 Shot Dependency (frequency): 46.1% Efficiency (FG%): 45.3%

When fans think of reigning league MVP Nikola Jokic, many immediately gravitate towards his playmaking. It’s easy to quantify success when a 7-footer is constantly recording triple-doubles, which is exactly what he does. But just as impressive as his passing is his shooting. The fantastic two-man game Jokic has shared with Jamal Murray, who will miss most if not all of next season due to the guard’s injury, has predictably propelled the Nuggets to great heights over the past few seasons. The two were a remarkable combo in a traditional pick and roll offense with Jokic setting a screen then popping out -- usually to somewhere around the free-throw line -- for a jumper off the catch. More exciting, though, is that Jokic and Murray also offered a fairly unusual bag of tricks, including some mesmerizing 5-1 PnR sets and crafty dribble-handoff actions. For example, Denver could go to an unconventional inverted ball screen where Jokic is the ball handler. Or he could fake the dribble handoff and instead keep the ball to create opportunities for himself from the mid-range. Occasionally, just for good measure to show his versatility, he would even hit a jumper on the move after an off-ball screen. Overall, Jokic is among the league’s most lethal threats to drop step after a post-up or take a hook shot from the elbow. Outside of perhaps Robin Lopez, nobody in the NBA has been more effective or productive from the short mid-range over the past few seasons. https://twitter.com/madacic/status/1396545227901521932?s=20 But his best attack has been his self-created Sombor Shuffle. It’s one of his go-to moves for late-game heroics and game-winners. Everyone who ever discusses it ends up comparing it to the iconic mid-range stepback from Dirk Nowitzki. Here’s what happens when he’s doing the Sombor Shuffle: After facing up his opponent on the block, the big man fakes a drive with his left foot then swiftly takes a one-dribble fadeaway jumper off his right foot. He said he actually started using it while he was recovering from an injury because he didn’t want to put pressure on his sore left foot. You can see just how much the shot frustrated even a former Defensive Player of the Year in Draymond Green. Put it all together and his massive size and his insane footwork, as well as the supremely high release point on his jumper, makes his mid-range an absurdly tough shot to defend. In fact, when his defenders are between two and four feet of him, only human-cannonball Zion Williamson made more two-pointers this past season. What that means is if the opponent decides to double-team Jokic, however, he also has the playmaking chops to find an open teammate for an easy dime. That’s what makes him the MVP.

Kawhi Leonard

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Output (FGM per 100 poss.): 6.2 Shot Dependency (frequency): 49.3% Efficiency (FG%): 46.1%

While the player in the league who is most often compared to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant most often is LeBron James, the Los Angeles Laker superstar doesn’t exactly resemble either player. Leonard, on the other hand, has far more similarities to Jordan and Bryant -- at least in terms of their preferred methods of attack. When these comparisons are drawn, it’s not unfair. In fact, Bryant was Leonard’s “mechanical model” when he built out his game during his early days with the Spurs. Leonard called the late Bryant one of his mentors and had the opportunity to work out with the five-time NBA champion. That’s one of the reasons why Clippers coach Ty Lue allows Leonard to fire away from mid-range as often as he sees fit (via ESPN):

"I think it's a lost art. I'm a firm believer in, 'why not work on what teams are giving up?' Every team wants to give up the mid-range shot, the mid-range 2s, and why not continue to work on the shots that teams are giving up … When you see, even in late-game situations in the fourth quarter, the mid-range shots are what wins the games. Those are the shots you're gonna get in the playoffs as well.”

Lue is exactly right considering when postseason play came around, Leonard was unstoppable from mid-range. It was a fairly small sample size but he was shooting 67.7 percent on his looks fired off between the free-throw line and the three-point line, per Cleaning the Glass. The league average shot from between zero and three feet of the basket was 67.5 percent this past season, according to Basketball-Reference. Basically, as his skills trainer Clint Parks told Clutch Points, a mid-range jumper “is a layup” for Leonard. [listicle id=1550246]

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