Moving beyond the arc

By James Badas and Ashley Wu — Staff Reporters
Video by Peter Chung and Raleigh Capozzalo

Jack Montague ’16 can knock down shots from beyond the arc, and he can do it better than anyone in the Ivy League.

A basketball revolution is underway with no signs of halting, and the mantra of “adapt or die” is more true than ever on the hardwood.

The future of basketball has very nearly become the present. Vanishing are the clear-cut shooting guards or power forwards, falling victim to the emergence of swingman types with wingspans that disrupt on the perimeter, handles that can lead a fast break and strength to finish in the paint.

In years past, diminutive guards could rely solely upon quickness and ball-handling skills to earn their way onto the court, but when there are players now roaming the globe — such as 6’8”, 250-pound LeBron James — who have the agility and lateral quickness to defend even the shiftiest of small guards, a new skill must be developed or expanded upon.

Enter Yale guard Jack Montague ’16. He fails to inspire onlookers with his athleticism, nor does he intimidate defenders with his physical presence. At 5’11 ¾” — he is listed in the program at a clean six feet — and 185 pounds, Montague’s appearance does not cause coaches to lose any sleep the night before a meeting with Yale.

But his three-point shooting does.

Montague is an ordinary-looking basketball player with an extraordinary skill that is just as coveted in this new era of the game as the 6’8” do-it-all athlete. He can knock down shots from beyond the arc, and he can do it better than anyone in the Ivy League.

In part thanks to Montague, Yale finds itself two victories away from its first Ivy title since 2002. What teams across all levels of the game are beginning to realize is that the relationship between proficient three-point shooting and team success is not a mere coincidence.

AN UNEXPECTED TWIST

Although Montague has found a place in the starting lineup this season, that was not always the case in his career at Yale, despite his expectations. Montague acknowledges that as a freshman, he felt like he could make a big impact, but he was young, not as strong and not as experienced as the other players on the team.

“What really helped Jack was his strength and getting in the weight room,” head coach James Jones said. “When he first got to Yale he struggled to defend people and was a liability in that way. He really made himself much bigger and stronger and got himself in a situation where he can compete with anybody physically, which really helps him on the court.”

In Jones’ system, players rarely make meaningful contributions during their freshman seasons, and Jones expects players to develop and help the team during their sophomore years. Montague has followed this trajectory almost to a T — he appeared in just nine games during his first-year campaign, averaging 4.8 minutes per contest before playing 11.7 minutes per game his second season. In 2014–15, Montague is third on the team with 29.8 minutes per game, and he is one of just three players to have started all 29 games for the Elis this season.

But to get to this stage, Montague has had to make adjustments to his game. At Brentwood High School in Brentwood, Tennessee, Montague was a dominant ball handler and more of a true point guard who distributed the ball to his teammates, averaging 17 points and seven assists per game during his senior season. But at Yale, he has learned to play alongside other facilitators, and has grown into the role of a shooter.

“I see my role as being one of the primary shooters on the team as well as being another guard who can handle the ball, run the offense [and] get us into motion or whatever play that we’re running,” Montague said. “After one season, I realized that if I’m going to play … this is going to have to be my role. I’m going to have to be different from Nick [Victor ’16] or Javier [Duren ’15] or Armani [Cotton ’15] by shooting more. As a player you just really want to play, so whatever that role seems to be, you just try to figure that out through playing, working out on your own, and talking to the coaches.”

For Yale, Montague’s willingness to embrace this role has fulfilled the expectations set for him and given the Bulldogs’ offense a different look this season.

AN ADDED DIMENSION

Yale shot tendency chart

The three-point shot has become a valuable weapon for teams across the league, but especially for the Bulldogs this season as part of their successful, multifaceted offensive attack.

In the last few years, Jones’ teams have been known for their rebounding abilities and interior play near the basket, as evidenced by the emergence of forward Justin Sears ’16 as an unstoppable force in the paint last season. But this season, the team has shifted toward a more balanced offense that has seen a rise in the number of shots taken from long range and their conversion at a higher percentage.

“I think last year [the offense] was a little more [focused] exclusively on interior play for us, but now it’s more of a balance between the [interior and perimeter play],” Sears said. “Jack, Javier and Armani, they’re very good shooters and they’re successful [outside] because we’re a very strong interior team … We’re successful inside because we’re able to spread out the offense because we shoot the three. We just have a good balance between the two.”

Last season, Yale, which finished second in the Ivy League, attempted 16.1 shots from behind the arc per game, hitting 5.3 on average for a 32.9 shooting percentage from three. Improvements in perimeter play this year, coinciding with Montague’s rise as a shooter, have led to 19.0 three-point attempts per game from the Bulldogs at a clip of 37.1 percent, or 7.1 made per contest.

In roughly the same number of possessions per game, this improved shooting from long range has boosted the team’s offense, which scores nearly two points more per outing this season than it did last season. The differences have become even more pronounced during the Ivy League campaign, as a slower pace of play in the conference season leads to fewer possessions.

“We’ve certainly made more threes because of Jack’s accuracy,” Jones said. “But Javier has improved his percentage and so has Armani Cotton, so that really added to our team having multiple guys who can knock down shots from the outside.”

The team’s improved ability at shooting the three, however, cannot completely account for the team’s improved offensive play this season. Three-point shooters are just as, if not more, valuable for their ability to space the floor and give other players on the court extra room to operate on offense.

As teams hope to avoid giving up wide open looks to Montague, the league’s best three-point shooter for whom a three is “almost like a layup” according to guard Makai Mason ’18, defenders hesitate to help against guards driving in the lane or forwards posting up down low. Thus, both guards and forwards benefit from the presence of a reliable three-point shooter on the court.

“Having a three-point shooter on the floor, it’s hard to help off of him,” Montague said. “It basically just opens up the floor for the other four players. If you’re setting a ball screen, it’s hard for that defender to help off a shooter. You can’t play the penetration lanes as much. You basically have to know where that shooter is at all times, chasing through screens. If you don’t, it’s really easy to find an open look for a shooter.”

Mason concurred, saying that three-point shooters are a constant threat on offense. He noted that the floor opens up, and the paint in particular is less crowded, as defenders are unable to help off of knockdown shooters.

Defenses are forced to pick their poison, as opponents can be hurt inside going one-on-one against Sears, attacked in the paint by a slashing guard like Duren or stabbed with a dagger of a three by Montague. In fact, Montague noted that adversaries often can only pick to defend the key or allow themselves to be vulnerable around the rim.

“The three-point shot puts a lot of pressure on the defense,” Duren said. “I think especially with our team, we have such an inside presence that teams really key in on that. So, it’s hard to get that [presence] initially, but when we start hitting shots from three-point range, it opens [the inside] up, and it makes it a lot harder for [the defense] to stop our offense when we are not only hitting twos but also hitting threes.”

How Yale beat UConn: Diagramming the three of the season

The team has such incredible confidence in Montague’s consistency from three-point range that Duren believes making him part of the offense is one of Yale’s keys to winning. Montague’s ability to score has taken pressure off of Sears and Duren, who combine to score 41.3 percent of the team’s points each game.

But perhaps another reason the three-point shot remains important to teams is the fact that a three can quickly shift momentum.

“[Three-pointers are] momentum changers,” Jones said. “All of a sudden, an eight-point lead becomes five. All of a sudden, a seven-point lead becomes 10 … There’s nothing more frustrating for a defense than to get beat with a layup or with a three-point shot. That’s why it’s such an important part of the game.”

A recent case in point was Yale’s home game against the Penn Quakers on Feb. 28. The Bulldogs were trailing by four with less than four minutes to play when Montague drained a three to cut the deficit to one point. His long range bullet spurred an 11–0 run, to which he contributed six points on two three-pointers, helping the Elis to a 55–50 win.

The three-pointer has become integral to the flow of the Bulldogs’ offense this season thanks to Montague’s sharpshooting. It remains to be seen whether the Elis build off of this year’s model and shoot more threes in the future or return to a style focused on interior play.

AN ANALYTICAL REVOLUTION

In economics, risk premiums refer to the price an actor pays in order to avoid a given level of risk. The flaw of paying such risk premiums is that said actor forgoes the opportunity to maximize his potential value in favor of a less risky alternative with a lower ceiling.

In basketball, risk premiums may as well refer to the distinctive arc precisely 20.75 feet away from the rim in regulation NCAA play. A matter of inches separates a made basket from being worth two points versus three — the allure of the arc seems so inviting, yet few teams fully invest in capitalizing on the advantageous extra point.

Rather, risk-averse teams pay a price — that of failing to capitalize on their maximum potential offensive production — to avoid the prospects of an off night in which their shooters go cold from deep. Such teams willingly lower their potential ceiling in order to raise their floor, lowering the chances for a spectacular scoring night in order to try to avoid a possibly catastrophic offensive performance, even though their actions hurt them in the long run.

A matter of inches separates a made basket from being worth two points versus three — the allure of the arc seems so inviting, yet few teams fully invest in capitalizing on the advantageous extra point.

Thus, the premise behind the contemporary push in basketball toward more reliance on the three-point attempt is unsurprising; that teams have not fully embraced such an approach is the real surprise.

“I think that because analytics have become prevalent in college basketball and all of athletics, it’s something that coaches take into consideration now,” Jones said. “I am not a big analytics guy. I’m more of an eye test guy; I like to see it happen. I watch tape, and I can tell you who the guys we need to stop on the other team are. I don’t need to look at statistics, but they certainly can help from time to time.”

Whereas Jones might be categorized as a reluctant believer, acknowledging the merit of the statistical analysis that has engulfed the sports world, an example on the extreme end of the spectrum can be found at the professional level.

The Houston Rockets, led by general manager and analytical guru Daryl Morey, have launched the most three-pointers in the NBA the past three seasons, based on the simple calculation that even if shooting from beyond the arc might mean a slightly lower shooting percentage, the marginal benefit of those extra points makes it worthwhile.

Such a game plan, however, is slightly more nuanced. A look at the numbers reveals that for the 2014–15 season, 36.1 percent of Yale’s attempts from the field are from beyond the arc, and rather expectedly, Montague leads the way at 68.5 percent. The Rockets are not all that far in front of the Bulldogs, as 40.2 percent of their attempts from the floor are from deep.

In fact, rival Ivy schools Princeton and Columbia each shoot a higher percentage of three-pointers than the Rockets. Where the nuance comes into play is the disparity in available data between the NBA and Ivy League basketball.

The Rockets also value shots in the paint, close to the basket, based on the idea that layups by guard James Harden and dunks by center Dwight Howard are more efficient than longer two-point shots. As a result, the Rockets have taken only 15.7 percent of their shot attempts from that midrange area. Not only is it by far the lowest percentage in the league, but it is 20.5 percent fewer than taken by the worst team in the league this season, the New York Knicks.

While data is not readily available for Ivy squads, one can safely assume the Elis have not nearly begun to streamline their offense to such proportions. Sears and fellow forward Matt Townsend ’15 are both known to take their fair share of jumpers from the 15- to 18-foot range, and both are comfortable with taking such shots.

“[The two-point jumper] has always been a comfortable shot for me,” Townsend said. “Most of the basketball analytics guys hate that [shot] but the coaches have told me that I shoot it at a high enough rate that it actually is a good shot … I felt I could contribute more sticking with the two but I think a big part of our success this year has been guys being able to shoot from three as well as they have been.”

While the numbers can begin to paint a picture of what the prototypical offense might look like, there are still variables yet to be readily explained.

Perhaps most important in Montague’s case is his aforementioned ability to space the court as a threat teams cannot ignore, adding another dimension to the team’s offense that has created room for the team’s two leading scorers, Duren and Sears, to operate in the lane.

The numbers may not yet be able to put a precise value on Montague’s ability to space the court, and the number of baskets Montague creates for the likes of Duren and Sears simply by stretching the defense may never be accurately defined.

As a consequence, Montague’s true value to the Elis may never be appropriately measured.

But if his play can help secure the Bulldogs their first Ivy championship in over a decade, and their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1962, then his value will be found sitting in a Yale trophy case.

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