Two months after making its first NCAA tournament appearance in over 50 years, the Yale men’s basketball team graduated three of its five starters. Just six months later, preseason Ivy League Player of the Year favorite Makai Mason ’18 suffered a season-ending injury. But despite the gaps left by the loss of three first-team All-Ivy players, Yale currently has a 98.5 percent chance of making the Ivy League tournament, per YUSAG’s model — a testament to the team’s younger players stepping up to shoulder more responsibility.
To understand more precisely what Yale lost from the graduating seniors, we examined the shot charts for the three seniors who made the greatest impact on the 2015–16 team: forwards Justin Sears ’16 and Brandon Sherrod ’16 and guard Nick Victor ’16. These shot charts, modeled after Kirk Goldsberry’s shot charts for players in the National Basketball Association, help easily explain a player’s tendencies and talents by showing where they shot from and how effective they were in those spots.
The shot chart displays both shot frequency and efficiency at a given location. The size of the square indicates the number of shots a player took from that location, while the color indicates the shooting percentage relative to the Ivy League average from that region. Squares increase in size as the number of shots increase and become redder as the player’s shooting percentage exceeds the conference average. A large red square, for example, marks a spot on the court in which the player converted a high volume of shots at a high rate.
Sears, the two-time Ivy League Player of The Year, used his size and athleticism to dominate near the basket, especially when driving to his right. From those spots, he shot frequently and with above-average consistency compared to the rest of the conference. While Sears also strayed from the basket and took the occasional long-range shot, he was not as efficient from those spots.
Sherrod set an NCAA record last season after making 30 consecutive field goals without a miss, and his shot chart tells a similar story. The large, deep-red squares around the basket show what was obvious to any spectator last season: He was an excellent finisher. Though close-range shots are already the highest-percentage shots across the Ancient Eight, Sherrod dominated the low post more than anyone else in the conference last year. This combination of close shots, efficiency and volume allowed Sherrod to break the NCAA record and earn first-team All-Ivy honors alongside two of his teammates.
Victor’s shot chart tells a different story, because he was a very different player than Sears and Sherrod. While the two forwards took shots almost exclusively in the paint, most of Victor’s attempts came from beyond the three-point line. Additionally, the guard’s smaller squares show how he took fewer shots, deferring to his teammates and focusing on other aspects of the game; the Dallas native recorded nearly as many rebounds as points in his Yale career and ranks eighth of all time among the Bulldogs’ top shot blockers.
Among the trends that emerge from these shot charts is the dearth of mid-range shots. These shots have the lowest expected value and thus have become less frequent across basketball, especially from analytics-focused teams in the NBA such as the Houston Rockets or the Philadelphia 76ers. With an increased understanding of how best to score points in basketball, coaching staffs and players can now create the most-efficient shots for their teams.
Yale’s style of play has changed without Sears, Sherrod, Victor and Mason in the lineup. After just three players averaged more than nine points per game last year, the 2016–17 Bulldogs have six players surpassing the nine-point plateau. Not only have more players been scoring regularly, their shots have been coming from different places on the court. With Sears and Sherrod controlling the paint, a significant portion of Yale’s shots last season came very close to the basket; this year, more of Yale’s shots come from the middle of the field and behind the three-point line.
According to Hoop-Math, a website that tracks college basketball play-by-play statistics, 35.6 percent of the Bulldogs’ shot attempts this season have come from beyond the three-point arc. This is nearly a 5 percent uptick from the 30.9 percent frequency with which the Elis took threes last season. Even forward Jordan Bruner ’20, Yale’s 6-foot-9-inch freshman assigned the daunting task of replacing Sears on the low block, has already hit 12 three-pointers this year, one more than Sears did in his four-year career.
With strong freshman and sophomore classes filled with reliable three-point shooters and Mason’s expected return next season, the future looks bright for the young Bulldogs.