Devin Vassell: The Value of 3-Level Scoring

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Devin Vassell bringing the ball up the court
AP Photo/Darren Abate

Check out this statistic with Devin Vassell and the other top shooters in the league. 

First of all, KD? 60% Good God!

But Devin Vassell — he is making the game look easy, and it’s no coincidence why. The mid-range is ripe for exploitation, and Vassell has taken full advantage.

A Return to the Mid-Range?

The league-wide movement toward analytically efficient shots has everyone hunting rim attempts and open threes, almost exclusively. Defenses, as well, have been adjusted. Teams will chaotically chase shooters off of the three-point line knowing they have a rotation set up at the rim. With a sound funneling system and proper rotation, just about everything is covered against a 3-point shooting, rim-attacking scorer. The result of this wild rotation design is a massive opening in the middle of the floor between five and fifteen feet. Rotations have no interest in covering the mid-range. The area of opportunity for the best mid-range scorers to get high-quality shots is immense.

Players most comfortable stopping short, knocking down a pull-up, a push shot, or a floater, are getting their looks effortlessly and at will.

Mid-range shots, when accounting for shot value, are, admittedly a less valuable shot… for most players. But what about when your star knocks them down more times than not? Then, not only is it efficient; but it also plays your best scorer into a rhythm and makes them harder to guard.

Three-level scoring becomes especially important in the playoffs. Attacking switching defenses, teams need matchup-attackers. Teams need players who can score when the efficient shots are taken away. Ever wonder why Jimmy Butler is a different animal in the postseason? Ever wonder why James Harden shrinks? When opposing teams are scheming to take away your best looks, when the clock is winding down and you need someone to rescue a possession, when you don’t have anything working, you need a three-level scorer. You need someone immune to spacing concerns who can say “I don’t care if you pack the paint; I’m going to shoot over the top of you.”

Scorer vs Playmaker?

A common drawback of scoring wings is below-average playmaking. Players who view the game through the lens of creating their own shot get tunnel vision from time to time. For a long time, Kawhi was famously the worst playmaking star in the league.

It was a glaring weakness. He has progressed some to become respectable, capable of making basic pocket passes in pick and roll or simple kick outs against drop coverage but never the looping swing passes and post-playmaking one might see out of Lebron, Durant, or Ingram.

To become a true offensive engine, Vassell will need to develop his playmaking instincts. While he certainly has shown more potential than Kawhi did in his young star days, there is plenty of room for growth and improvement.

Managing the Game

Likewise, young scorers may fail to understand the rhythm of a game. In the playoffs, game management is vital. The Celtics certainly proved as much. What, though, is game management? In fundamental terms, game management is understanding the value of 1 possession versus the value of 100 possessions.

That understanding, in many respects, is the bridge between talent and winning basketball. A player like Donovan Mitchell, to be our case study, is at that convergence. Does he become Russell Westbrook or Dwyane Wade? The other team is on an 8-0 run. Does he shoot a pull-up three knowing he can make it? Or, does he do his best to force a great look close to the basket to stop the bleeding? How does he approach the game?

Is it his job to create shots for himself 30 times a game, or is it his job to create shots for his team 60 times per game? Devin Vassell must learn to master these nuances on his scoring journey. He must learn to come off a ball screen not just thinking about whether or not he’s open, but also thinking “is my shooter in rhythm?” “Is my big man getting worn out because he hasn’t gotten any touches? Maybe he needs a post-touch here.” Figuring out those details will be one step in the direction of becoming a bonafide first or second scoring option for the Spurs in leverage moments.

Explosive or Volatile?

This may seem obvious, but we must remember: for their impact to be felt, shooters depend dependent on their shots going in. This is especially true of three-level scorers who are not consistent playmakers. Think Kawhi against Denver in the bubble in 2020. His jumper stops falling in the fourth quarter and he doesn’t have another punch.

Think Devin Booker in Game 7 against the Mavericks. His jumper isn’t falling; he doesn’t have another punch. Even Kevin Durant, to an extent, when his jumper left him against Boston, saw his impact massively limited in close games where his team wound up getting swept. Conversely, when shots are dropping, a player can single-handedly turn the tide of a playoff series. Think Kevin Durant against the Spurs in the 2013 Western Conference Finals.

The Spurs go up 2-0. Then, Kevin Durant closes out the series with shot-making. Think Kawhi Leonard catching fire in the 2019 playoffs, leading the Raptors to their first-ever championship. The most recent example would be Jimmy Butler, despite a considerable talent disadvantage carrying the Heat within a basket in the Finals. It’s a give-and-take. After all, it is a make-or-miss league.

So, what’s the Verdict?

Like any archetype, the classic three-level scorer comes with pluses and minuses. As Vassell develops, only time will tell how far he rises among the strata of three-level scorers. Does he become not just an all-around scorer but an all-around offensive creator? As of Dec. 30, he’s shooting 40.4% from three.

We know his mid-range is superb. Does he lay on some muscle and become a powerful rim finisher? We’ll have to wait and see. Regardless of what the future holds, however, we know, one thing is for sure: Devin Vassell has arrived! And when that sweet, sweet jumper is dropping, there’s only so much the league can do to stop him.

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