Chris Paul is one of the league’s best shooters from the mid-range area. Paul leads the league in mid-range shooting percentage for all players who have more than two field goal attempts from this area of the floor. Paul shoots 53.9% on 4.1 FGA which is astounding considering the fact that the mid-range jumper is typically considered to be the most inefficient shot in basketball. The mid-ranger has been abandoned by most teams in the NBA as it is a shot that requires a lot of hard work to set up for little reward compared to bombing away from deep on three-point attempts
The difficulty of the mid-range jumper in today’s NBA comes from the nature of the shot. There are few teams who take the shot in volume which makes it difficult for a player to find rhythm on the look and become efficient from this zone. The other issue is the shot design, again there are few teams who diagram to create open catch and shoot looks in the mid-range area. The pick and pop jumper used to be a common tool for stretch fours but forwards are now encouraged to step back behind the arc. The most common look from mid-range league-wide is the pull-up jumper off a screen. Chris Paul and CJ McCollum both use the mid to great effect coming off screens. However, pull-up jumpers are difficult. The player does not have a lot of time to get a stable base, the shot needs to be taken quickly so the defender does not catch up and contest the shot. Paul is anomalous compared to the larger population of NBA players as he makes a hard shot looks completely effortless.
Paul’s efficiency did not quite make sense to me, it is rare to see a player perform so well on a shot which can be troublesome for a lot of players league-wide. However, an analysis of mid-range jumpers from the most recent Thunder game was eye-opening in terms of identifying why Paul is able to hit that elbow pull-up jumper with startlingly regularity.
The first play is pretty simple in terms of the action called by Coach Donovan. It is a screen and roll that is designed to create separation for Paul so that he can make a play for a team-mate or himself. The screen set by Adams at the start of the possession is important in terms of freeing Paul to go left without challenge. Adams is a capable screener, one of the best in the league in terms of creating space for his team-mates. Adams is also able to set a few different types of screen, Adams’ commonly uses a ‘destroyer’ to create full separation and force the help defender to switch onto the guard. In this example, Adams does not set a ‘destroyer’, the screen is slightly softer but the placement of his feet is important in this example. Steven’s right foot drifts over and blocks the path of a quick turn for Tatum, it forces Tatum to curl around the screens instead of cutting across the screen. The screen separates Paul from Tatum and forces Tatum to chase the ball.
Paul then only has to play Daniel Theis. Theis is a capable rim protector and Chris makes the decision to pull-up instead of going straight at the big for a look at the rim. Paul is aware that Theis do not want to come out of his position where he is protecting the rim, it means that the mid-range jumper is open to hit. From that point onwards, it is all about the execution of the look. Paul decelerates hard using the long hop step, the hop step kills all forward momentum which gives Chris another half a metre of space due to Daniel Theis backtracking towards the rim. The other aspect of the hop step that is important for Paul is that the hop pre-loads the thrust for the shot, the momentum is available on landing rather than Paul having to take another step.
From that point onwards, Paul has a strong base to shoot from, the only aspect of the shot which needs to be controlled is the release. The hop step allowed Paul to generate thrust but it also allowed Jayson Tatum to close up to contest the shot. However, Chris has a textbook jumper with a high release point that puts the ball out of reach for a contesting player. The sound mechanics combined with the high release point makes the shot hard to guard especially for a defender who is chasing the game. The result is simple, it is a straight bucket for Chris Paul.
This possession starts with Paul isolating on Daniel Theis. Paul needs to get Theis moving to find a seam that he can attack. Theis is comfortable taking away the path to the rim and remaining static, Chris needs to get the Celtics’ big man out of his comfort zone. Paul uses his footwork and dribble moves effectively in this scenario to create a good look for himself.
In the first few seconds of the possession, Paul throws the long step towards the rim but it is a dummy. Theis takes the bait and goes rightwards, it means that when Paul spins away from the rim, Theis’ base is compromised. His legs are far apart from each other and movement does not happen quickly. As Paul comes out of the spin, he uses a hard dribble to put the big man on his back and create separation. Theis being on Paul’s back protects the ball and allows Chris to work out his next move.
The spin brings Paul into a more crowded area as he draws the help defender. Romeo Langford sags off Dennis Schroder and steps into an area where he can steal the ball. The help defender coming over takes away space for Paul to work with the ball and it becomes important to protect the ball from both angles. It is here where Paul’s intelligence comes to the fore, Paul has to deal with a 1v2 situation. Langford swipes at the ball but Paul is aware of Langford’s positioning and gets low with the dribble, making it difficult for Langford to connect with the orange. Paul dribbles leftwards and sees off the help defence which puts Theis on an island.
The next few moves are important in terms of setting up the bucket effectively without wasting time. Paul cannot wait precious seconds off the clock by over-dribbling the ball, there is only ten seconds left on the shot clock so getting a good look quickly is crucial. The good look will come from making the defence work which is exactly what Chris does. Paul crosses the ball over to the right and fakes a drive towards the stripe. Theis takes the bait again and Paul quickly crosses back left with enough separation to pop the jumper.
Paul does not settle for an easy rhythm jumper as this shot can still be contested effectively, Theis is within blocking distance on the shot. Paul opts for the stepback mid-range jumper, a shot which gets him another foot of separation. That extra foot of separation makes the contest harder for the defender and increases the probability that Paul gets a good shot off. The footwork to create the shot is impressive, Paul's crisp movement catches the defence by surprise due to its speed, the speed of movement does not give the defence a chance to recover.
Moreover, Paul choosing the stepback jumper is an example of Paul’s spatial awareness on the court. It is important for a point guard to be aware of the space on the court, good spacing makes scoring opportunities easier and stresses a defensive system. The other aspect of being point guard is interpreting the floor and working out how to use the space to their advantage. There is not a specific term for this kind of player in basketball but there is a term in soccer which would accurately describe Paul’s ability to interpret space.
A ‘Raumdeter’ is a German term used to describe a forward who drifts around in attacking areas of the fields and finds space to exploit. The role is commonly associated with Thomas Muller, the Bayern Munich player who is often called a ‘space interpreter’ by the German media. Paul is a ‘Raumdeter’, he understands how to use space to his advantage. In the example above, Paul’s spatial awareness is clear, he knows that Langford has vacated defending the corner chasing Schroder around the arc. The corner area is totally clear and Paul can afford to go a step backwards as there is no threat of a shot contest from a help defender.
On this play at the start of the third quarter, Paul looks to get into the offence quickly as he runs the pick and roll with Steven Adams. Oklahoma City are eight down coming out of the half and it is necessary to score relatively quickly in order to chop down the deficit. Paul goes into the size up dribble and generates forward momentum before the screen even comes over. It is an interesting decision from Chris who usually plays at a slower pace, Paul prefers to manage each possession carefully instead of simply attacking the first available weakness.
Paul’s decision comes from his understanding and knowledge of his primary defender. Knowing your match-up is really important in the game of basketball, a player needs to know what areas can be attacked and where their game needs to be reigned in. Marcus Smart is an elite level defender, his instincts for stopping danger are second to none, Smart is able to predict where offensive players are going and stop them. Smart is a lengthy, physical bruiser who uses his size to slow down opponents and tire them out. Easy shots do not come against Smart, it is important to play with unpredictability to beat Smart on each individual possession. Chris going into the action quickly is unusual for the Thunder and it catches Smart out.
Boston do not choose to switch the pick and roll as they would with a smaller lineup. Brad Stevens drops Theis back towards the rim where he is most effective, this means that Smart will go through the screen to stay with his man. In the example above, Smart chooses to go under the screen and Paul’s opportunity to play-make materialises twenty feet out from the rim.
Adams’ screen needs to slow down Smart without fully stopping him. Marcus Smart being able to fight through the screen means there is no incentive for the help defender to come over and muck up the play. Hayward is a capable defender and Paul will not want to face two quality defenders while trying to generate a bucket. Help coming over would not generate a quality look, Terrance Ferguson is a passive player who is reticent to shoot corner threes, a dish to Ferguson does not threaten the defence.
Adams ses a ‘reducer’, the screen slows down Smart and forces him to rotate around the screen, it generates enough separation for a mid-range shot without inviting additional defensive pressure. From that point onwards, it is up to Paul to make the shot. Chris is superb mechanically but his timing really makes this shot a really good look. Paul takes the shot as he comes around the screen, it does not allow Smart any time to recover into a suitable position to contest the shot.
At this point in the game, Oklahoma City are still chasing the game. It is still important to generate quick, quality looks that can cut the deficit. It is the reason why Oklahoma City run a high screen play, the Thunder get into their bag quickly and create an opportunity for Paul to attack before the defence is fully set up. In a way, this action is similar to possessions called for Russell Westbrook in previous years. It is a fast possession that is designed to set up a quick look rather than being a good look. The screen creates space for Paul to work and set up a look for himself or a team-mate. The main difference compared to high screen and roll sets in the past was that Westbrook would go hard to the rim the majority of the time, Paul is much more likely to slow down and pull up.
The pull-up mid is a difficult shot to hit for most players in the NBA due to the variables in the shot. The combination of upward momentum, solid mechanics and accuracy needs to be balanced carefully so that the shot is on the money. A mid-range jumper is different to a three-point shot which is shot with more force. A three-point shot has more thrust and will catch the rim with enough spin to drop.
The other aspect of the pull-up jumper is tricking the defenders and creating space for the shot, a straight-line drive towards the big does not create a good shot unless the ball-handler is a hyper-athlete. A straight-line drive is easy for the big to defend because it does not challenge the big mentally, it is the reason why a lot of point guards have to develop ball-handling skills that force the opposing team out of their comfort zone. Paul is particularly good at using pace as a tool to generate looks. Paul’s use of pace is evident on this possession.
Paul dribbles hard as if he is attacking the rim, Robert Williams takes the bait and drops off to protect the rim. It is a dummy used by Paul used to move the big man backwards so that space materialises for the mid-range jumper. The next progression for Chris Paul is harder than the initial trick, it requires Paul to stop quickly and hit a quick pull-up jumper.
Deceleration has become a common tool used by a lot of primary ball-handlers in the NBA. It is common for players who are not brilliant athletes, being able to stop on a dime is important in terms of creating a slither of separation in which a play can be made. Luka Doncic and James Harden are with players who have maximised their ability to stop fast, it allows both players to bomb away on stepback threes without the defence being able to challenge the shot effectively. Chris does the same thing when it comes to his mid-range jumpers, he uses the long hop step to slow himself down and build momentum for his shot attempt. While Paul does not decelerate as well as a player like Harden, he decelerates to a good enough degree that can hurt the defence. In the example above, Paul stops quick once he beats the first man and pops the jumper.
The last step taken before the shot displays Paul’s sense of spatial awareness again. It would be easy to pull up just inside the key, it would follow Paul’s natural trajectory of movement. However, this shot is still easy to contest for the big man, Robert Williams does not have a great amount of distance to cover in order to block or deflect the shot. Paul drags his movement leftwards and finishes just outside of the key, this little movement puts Paul just out of contest range from the big man.
The final play which I have identified for analysis does not involve Chris using a variety of tricks to beat the defence, it is Paul trusting in his abilities to make shots late in games. Oklahoma City’s offence is ran democratically for the majority of the game but the ball gravitates to Paul when the game gets tight in the clutch. The context of the play needs to be made clear, Oklahoma City have little time to get a good look and all of the defensive pressure is on Paul.
Chris Paul is isolated on Daniel Theis at the top of the key which is favourable match-up for Chris but Paul is playing two help defenders. Marcus Smart is looking directly at Paul and is not focused on his match-up, Dennis Schroder. Tatum is also playing Paul at the start of the possession, he is not focused on defending Danilo Gallinari. A 1v3 match-up is unfavourable, there is less space for Chris to move offensively and the presence of three defenders takes away any semblance of a driving lane. Chris trying to dribble into closed lanes would not be beneficial for the Thunder, the jumper is the only option left for Paul.
I would say that Paul misses an opportunity on this possession, he could have made an easy swing pass to Gallinari or Schroder for a fairly open jumper. It would have been a better quality shot compared to the contested mid over a bigger defender that Paul eventually takes. Schroder and Gallinari are not Terrance Ferguson or Hamidou Diallo, both players can be trusted as deep shooters.
The possession above is probably the least technically impressive compared to the other examples used in this article. However, this look indicates Paul’s mental strength and lack of fear during the closing moments of tight games. There are very few players who are comfortable with the pressure of taking shots late in games, we have seen players like Ben Simmons and Kemba Walker wilt under pressure in these moments. They do not want the ball and are not comfortable in trusting their shot in crunch time situations. Paul shows no fear, he will take that mid-range at whatever point during the game, there is no deviation from Chris Paul. The shot diet is always consistent.
Paul’s fearlessness stems from his experience as a big-time shot taker but it also comes from his trust in his mechanics. Paul is confident that his shot will drop because his form is repeatable and the form on the shot is textbook. Paul’s jumper does not have any herky-jerky movements or hitches, he does not need to think about making sure the form is right every single time due to the mechanics being strong.
When all of these examples are broken down, Paul’s outstanding efficiency from mid-range is easy to understand. His good mechanics mean that his shot is accurate and likely to fall, Paul’s timing and spatial awareness creates good scoring opportunities for the guard out of Wake Forest to hit. Paul’s mid-range shooting has been brilliant but also really important for the Thunder, his scoring from this zone has resulted in the Thunder being a highly efficient offence.