How much mid-range is too much mid-range?

How mediocre at shooting can our Moreyball offense be while still producing a good eFG%?

This was a similarly fun thought experiment: what’s the worst you can do and still be a top 100 eFG% offense (i.e., what every national champion since 2012 minus 2016-17 North Carolina has been)? What about top 50 (six of the last nine national champions)? Top 25?

For this project, I assumed the average shooting percentage on non-rim two-pointers across Division I last year: 37.2%. (Even if I had restricted this to just the 54 offenses who got 20% or less of their offense from these shots, it still would have been 37.2%.) I’m also assuming an aggressive shooting split – not quite Alabama, but maybe that of Boston College, who had the 30th-lowest percentage of non-rim two-point attempts at 18.2%. We’re divvying up the remainder of the attempts equally between the rim and threes, which brings us to a 40.9%/18.2%/40.9% split. (There were 15 members of the 40/40 Club in 2020-21, of which Alabama was the lone Big Six representative.)

With this in mind, you would have to shoot at least the following FG% at each split to ensure a Top 100 (52% or above in 2020-21) eFG% finish:

  • Rim: 60% (150th-best nationally)
  • Non-Rim Twos: 37.2% (174th)
  • Threes: 33.7% (181st)

LOOK AT THE ABOVE SPLITS. To pull together even a top 100 eFG% offense, this hypothetical offense didn’t place better than 150th in any individual shooting category. They were average at best in all three categories, actually, and were a below-average three-point shooting offense. And yet: this would have been a top 100 shooting offense in the nation, simply because they allocated their shots correctly.

Here’s what the FG% splits would have looked like for a top 50 (53.8% or better) offense:

  • Rim: 62% (88th)
  • Non-Rim Twos: 37.2% (174th)
  • Threes: 35.3% (101st)

Let’s take that same offense, but assume they’re less efficient at the rim – a 60.2% conversion rate (the average FG% of the 10 most rim-oriented offenses in 2020-21). How well do they need to shoot from three to stay in the top 50?

  • Rim: 60.2% (143rd)
  • Non-Rim Twos: 37.2% (174th)
  • Threes: 36.5% (58th)

Neither of these two hypothetical offenses had a single category rank in the top 50 nationally, but they’re a top 50 shooting offense.

Lastly, here’s what it would look like to be a top 25 (55.4% or better) shooting offense.

  • Rim: 63% (64th)
  • Non-Rim Twos: 37.2% (174th)
  • Threes: 37.3% (36th)

“A team could never shoot a higher percentage from beyond the arc versus from 14 feet,” you may say. And yeah, I had that same inkling at first, too. But did you know 62 teams (17.9% of all 2020-21 participants) had a higher three-point percentage than a non-rim two-pointer percentage? If you’re good enough to get into the top 25, all bets were off – just as they were for Colgate (#8 eFG%), Baylor (#11), California Baptist (#15), VMI (#19), and UC San Diego (#21).

Let’s play with the flipside of this experiment while we’re at it. If you are inclined heavily towards mid-range attempts, how well do you need to shoot as a team to achieve these same eFG% milestones of top 100/50/25? For this, we’re making two assumptions again that are similar to our first part: this team takes the 30th-highest rate of mid-range twos in the sport (34.8% of all shots) and they hit 37.5% of them (the average non-rim two-pointer FG% of the 50 most mid-range heavy offenses). We’re divvying up the remainder of the shots equally between rim attempts and threes so that the shot attempt splits are as follows: 32.6%/34.8%/32.6%. 

Here’s how well a team would have to shoot to get inside the top 100 (52% or higher) in eFG%:

  • Rim: 64% (50th)
  • Non-Rim Twos: 37.5% (162nd)
  • Threes: 37% (45th)

Two top-50 shooting categories out of a possible three, yet all this offense will do when applied to eFG% is rank out as the 100th-best shooting offense in America. Do you see the problem here? Unless this team is very good both at the rim and from three (begging the question of why they wouldn’t just take those shots instead), there’s a serious limitation on how good their offense can be. Even if you shift those rim/three percentages to the 25th-best in each category – 65.7% and 37.5% – it still barely pulls into 70th-best nationally. That’s an elite offense in hiding; the amount of teams who were top 25 in both categories last season were four. It is really, really hard to be elite both at the rim and from downtown. And yet: you’d have no idea this offense could be so good, simply because they wasted so many attempts on lower-percentage looks.

We’ll offer up one more experiment here: what if this 14-footer offense actually did hit a pretty good percentage of its long twos? Here, we’re upping the mid-range hit rate to 40%, which would’ve ranked 75th-best last season. That’s pretty good, especially if it’s over 34% of your offense. So: those same shooting splits, but this time, how well would you have to shoot to get into the top 50 (53.8% or better) of eFG%?

  • Rim: 66% (22nd)
  • Non-Rim Twos: 40% (75th)
  • Threes: 37.6% (24th)

Alternately, what if this team was similarly good-not-great at threes – say, 60th-best – and had to make up for it at the rim?

  • Rim: 67.8% (11th)
  • Non-Rim Twos: 40% (75th)
  • Threes: 36.4% (60th)

The amount of teams in college basketball who were in the top 75 of all these categories in 2020-21: 13 out of 347, or 3.7%. Even if you regress these numbers to our last ‘normal’ season of 2018-19, it would actually be harder to get into the top 100 (52.7%) or top 50 (53.9%), meaning you’d have to be even better at all three categories to be a good shooting offense.

If you want a true and real example, take a look at 2018-19 Kentucky. They finished 85th nationally in eFG% at 53% flat, which is another way of saying they came up an overtime short of another Final Four bid. Pretty good, right? Sure, I suppose, but their shooting splits were quite unusual for a modern-era college basketball success story: 33.5% of all shots at the rim, 36.9% from mid-range, and just 29.6% from downtown.

Here’s what their shooting splits looked like on an individual basis:

  • Rim: 68.1% (10th)
  • Non-Rim Twos: 39.2% (78th)
  • Threes: 35.4% (129th)

None of those taken on their own are bad at all. Kentucky was above the national average in all three categories and truly elite at the rim, along with doing a fairly good job of hitting their mid-range twos. And yet they barely cracked the top 100 in eFG%. Why? Because they spent nearly 37% (11th-most) of their offensive time taking shots that they hit at a 0.784 points-per-shot rate. If Kentucky had even dialed that back to just 30%, which still would have been one of the 60 highest rates in America, their eFG% could have risen a full 1.5% percent to 54.5% (39th-best nationally) had they sustained those same field goal percentages. This is just one real-life example; there are many, many others you could explore and come away mystified by.

Again: it is extremely hard to both produce a high eFG% and take a lot of long two-point attempts. We may think that because a team takes a lot of these, they’re more likely to make a higher percentage, but that isn’t really the case. In 2020-21, 42 college basketball teams got more than a third of their attempts from non-rim two-pointer land. (Yes, Tennessee was one.) Of these 42 teams, only nine hit 40% or more of their mid-range shot attempts. (Tennessee was not one.) If you’re taking all of these shots, you’re aiming for a 21% chance at being a top-75 mid-range shooting offense, which gives you about a 0.6% chance (2 out of 347 teams in 2020-21) of also posting a top-100 eFG%. To answer this article’s title question, yeah, there’s probably a thing such as too much mid-range. It’s up to you and your personal leanings as to what that number may be.

If you’d like to play with the percentages yourself, click here for a calculator where you can goof around with the shots a team does or doesn’t take. (I couldn’t figure out how to embed this correctly, so my apologies.)

NEXT PAGE: Wait, what teams actually *should* be taking these shots?

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