February 9, 2022
A love letter to lefty layups
We watched 1000 layups from 20 NBA prospects and charted what we saw
I’m going to be up front about this. I am a lefty layup freak.
I go to basketball games at my kids’ school. They’re both still too young to play but I’m trying to encourage an appreciation of the game, so we watch the older students. It’s not an occasion that calls for much participation. I’m not allowed to do anything that might inspire embarrassment, which leaves me with a pretty narrow scope of acceptable dad-fan behavior. Commentary is unwelcome. Insights ignored. There’s certainly no shouting or loud cheering allowed. I mostly just sit on my hands and bite my lip. But if I see somebody make (or, really, even attempt) a lefty layup in one of these games I’m suddenly transformed into Fortune doing the impossibly loud slow-clap for Rudy. I can’t help it. It’s autonomic. An involuntary spasm of my basketball nervous system: “Nice left!!”
I’ll compliment the TV screen in an empty room for a left-hand layup. I’ll dole out a low-five to anybody who scores on me with one. I’ll nod in solemn appreciation of the grocery store clerk’s left-handed bagging skills. I just really LOVE lefty layups.
Which made me wonder – how often are young players taking lefty layups? And who is the best at doing it?
To find out, I took a layup survey among 20 of the top prospects for the 2022 NBA Draft (based on this Big Board from CBS), including 17 players from NCAA Division I, two from the G-League Ignite, and one from the Overtime Elite league. I used the Synergy database to find and watch the 1,000+ layups this group has attempted this season and charted location, shooting hand, and shot result for each one. Then I whipped up some charts to summarize what I saw.
First, let’s check out the direction of approach that our prospects have taken on their layups this season.
The most likely place to observe a left-handed shot attempt is on the left-hand side of the hoop. So, if you want to see lefty layups it makes sense to start by figuring out who is trying to score on that side of the floor.
Players like Johnny Davis (a 6-foot-5 sophomore at Wisconsin), Ochai Agbaji (a 6-foot-5 senior at Kansas), and Paolo Banchero (a 6-foot-10 freshman at Duke) have very balanced layup distributions, with a roughly equal number of shots attempted from the left and right-hand sides of the basket. In contrast, players like TyTy Washington Jr. (a 6-foot-3 freshman at Kentucky), Jaden Ivey (6-foot-4 sophomore at Purdue), and Bennedict Mathurin (6-foot-6 sophomore at Arizona) tend to attempt more layups from the right side of the basket. Chet Holmgren, the 7-foot freshman from Gonzaga, is unique in his propensity to attack the basket from head on – as he likes to turn and drop in layups over the front of the rim.
Of course, there’s no inherent benefit of having a symmetrical layup distribution. And having a lopsided layup chart isn’t necessarily a liability. You still need to make the shots once you get to wherever you’re going. We can look at which players are finishing effectively from each direction by adding some color to our original chart.
In this second version of the chart, the size and position of the bars is the same – representing how often each player shot a layup from each approach angle. Now, however, the colors of the bars show the field goal percentages for each player in each zone, relative to the group average of 55% (in white, with the scale ranging from 35%, in blue, to 85%, in red).
Holmgren leaps out of the middle of the chart – with his three pink bars – as a player who has been hugely successful in finishing from any direction, converting an impressive 4 out of every 5 layups he tries. Areas for potential improvement are highlighted by the blue bars present for various other players.
We can also look at how often and how well our prospects have finished with each shooting hand.
By coincidence, each of the prospects whose film we reviewed were right-handed, which is evident by the size of the right-hand mitts in the graphic above. However, there was a large disparity in the reliance on the dominant hand across the group. Davis used his left more than anybody else, with 40% of his layups being of the lefty variety. On the other end of the spectrum, 100% of the 29 layups attempted by Jaylen Duren (a 6-foot-11 freshman at Memphis) were right-handed. Once again, Holmgren stands out for his ability to finish, as he cashed in 80% of his layups with either hand.
Now that we have looked at who likes to finish on the left side of the hoop and who likes to finish with his left hand – let’s combine both of those things into one chart.
The layout of this chart is like the first one – the size of the bar on the left shows what fraction of each player’s layups were attempted from the left side of the court, etc. But now we are using the color to represent the mix of left- and right-handed finishes from each direction. If you see red, that indicates a player’s tendency to shoot left-handed layups from that position on the court.
This version of the chart allows us to contrast a player like Ivey – who only attempted 26% of his layups on the left side but used his left hand 43% of the time he was there – with somebody like Banchero – who went to his left more often but only finished with his left hand 6% of the time. It also gives us a chance to appreciate the textbook mirror-image finishing of Davis, who shoots with his right on the right side 95% of the time, shoots with his left on the left side 71% of the time, and shoots with a perfect 50-50 ambidextrous mix in the middle.
If we take that chart and split up the left- and right-hand layups (kicking it up a notch from 3 bars to 6) and then revert to using colors to represent high (red) and low (blue) field goal percentages, we can see how well each player converted at the rim under each circumstance.
My own reflexive appreciation for lefty layups has its roots in an endless loop of layup lines tracing back to my childhood with an accompanying soundtrack of coaches extolling the virtue of avoiding the shot blocker by using the offhand to keep the ball out of his reach.
To validate the wisdom of this advice, we might peep the chart of Jabari Smith (a 6-foot-10 freshman at Auburn) who shoots a fair amount on the left side of the hoop (41% of his layups), using both his left (57% FG%) and his right hand (38% FG%). Incidentally, many of Smith’s layups were blocked (30% of them, in fact) and the plurality of those blocks occurred when he tried to use his right hand on the left side. In support of the old layup line guidance then, Smith had more success when using his left hand on the left side.
Still, the opposite was true for Mathurin and Banchero – who each made a larger percentage of their layups from the left side when using the RIGHT hand not the left. This observation may just reflect the fact that they were only turning to left-handed finishing in that “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, PLEASE BREAK GLASS” kind of way. But the larger lesson – that lefty isn’t always bestie – is probably still valid.
At this point you might have realized that, although I mentioned studying 20 prospects, I’ve only talked about 9 of them so far. Some of the other charts were looking a little redundant to me and 20 charts just ended up feeling like too much to pack into one view. So, instead, I made this table of layup statistics to summarize what I saw from the rest.
One stat in the table which we haven’t touched on yet is the layup-to-dunk ratio, which ranged from 0.7 for Duren (he had more dunks than layups) to 19 for Jaime Jaquez Jr. (a 6-foot-7 junior at UCLA). I really enjoyed watching how Jaquez operates under the rim with his crafty footwork and body control, even if it rarely ended with a lefty lay in.
How would you use these types of layup statistics? Would they matter in evaluating a prospect or a recruit? Would you use them to spot tendencies as part of your opponent scouting? Would they be helpful in setting development goals for your own players? I’m interested to hear what you think.
Todd is building tools to help coaches, scouts, and players find winning team strategies as part of Synergy’s Analytics and Insights Team. He creates inviting infographics, engaging charts and interactive displays that make data compelling and accessible. Follow him on Twitter @crumpledjumper