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The hockey assist in the NBA: more valuable than we thought?

With the release of SportVU stats, access to secondary assist stats is now available. These highlight passing skills that regular assists don't, and puts the abilities of players like Marc Gasol and Mike Conley into the spotlight.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The assist has always been the measuring stick with which we use to measure great passers in the NBA. If somebody can score while being "assisted" directly by his teammate's pass, it stands to reason that a player with a lot of assists is great at finding scoring opportunities for their teammates.

And really, there's nothing wrong about that assertion. Nobody's saying the league's assist leaders aren't great at finding their teammates for scores, or even leading them to the scoring opportunity with the pass itself. They call Chris Paul the Point God for a pretty legitimate reason. However, "assists" don't account for each and every single way to create shots with a pass.

If you'll forgive the sudden topic change, let's look at the NHL. I have no idea if Memphians support the Nashville Predators much (go Canucks!), but in the wonderful realm of hockey, the value of passing gets taken to another level. Because goals in hockey are much more difficult to create than points in basketball, a team's offense in hockey has to pass creatively to find the gaps in their opponent's defense and shake the goaltender's eyes. Like in basketball, passes aren't used just to get just point A to point B, but also to manipulate and warp the defense. It just tends to be more important in hockey, which is reflected in assists being worth as much as a goal when tracking a player's points (for example, Sidney Crosby has 12 goals and 18 assists, which combine for a league-leading 30 points).

Another interesting quirk with the assist stat in hockey is that, instead of there being just one assist handed out for each goal, there will often be a second assist awarded as well. Multiple passes are needed to direct a defense's attention before hitting the open man for the goal, and while the second assist on a goal might be awarded a bit too generously at times, it can be crucial to creating the scoring chance.

On the second shot/eventual goal here, Henrik Sedin (#33) passes the puck to Daniel Sedin (#22) who makes the extra pass to Jannik Hansen (#36) for the goal. Henrik's first pass gave Daniel the puck right at the net, but it also directed the defense towards him. With the defense crashing down, this allowed Daniel to make the pass to a wide open Hansen setting up in the slot (the area in between the two red faceoff circles, and a great scoring area), and with the goaltender distracted by Daniel right in front of him, it's a beautifully executed shot and goal for (incidentally, my favorite player) Jannik Hansen.

Did I bore you guys with my hockey talk? (GO CANADA) Well, back to that other sport. This second assist exists in basketball too, though it wasn't an officially tracked stat before this season. We've literally seen "hockey assist" thrown around as a basketball phrase informally describing a pass-to-an-assist that created the scoring opportunity for a player.

Well, with the integration of SportVU Player Tracking cameras into every NBA arena this season, Player Tracking stats are now available and this includes the hockey assist stat I've been talking about. It's listed as "secondary assists per game", and it has its own detailed definition:

Quantity of passes made by a player to a player who earned an assist on a made shot. Assister must make a pass within 2 seconds and 1 dribble for passer to earn a secondary assist.

If you look at the league leaders in secondary assists per game, you'll see two Grizzlies in the top eight: Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Conley ties for 5th with 1.9 secondary assists per game, while Gasol ties for seventh with 1.8 per game. We can contextualize that number with some of the other fancy stats provided to us by SportVU, too. Conley's 1.9 secondary assists account for 2.8% of his 67.1 passes per game and would be equivalent to 34.5% of his 5.5 assists per game. Extrapolated to his 10.8 assist opportunities per game (which would only give us a crude estimation), Conley has approximately 3.7 secondary assist opportunities per game. As for Marc, his secondary assists account for 3.4% of his 52.3 passes per game (meaning he has more secondary assists per pass than Conley) and would be equivalent to 40.9% of his 4.4 assists per game. Extrapolated to his 8.8 assists opportunities per game, Gasol has approximately 3.6 secondary assist opportunities per game.

It's partly a byproduct of lacking a go-to scorer and having to pass to create scoring opportunities instead of just giving the ball to a "first option", and sample size is of course a factor at this early stage in the season. Like in hockey, there are also situations where a secondary assist might just be a pass made to a player who quickly spots a teammate on the move and makes that connection; the first passer might not be consciously setting up the opportunity. Every stat needs to be contextualized.

In simpler words, [Gasol and Conley] are great at creating "assist opportunities" for teammates.

Even before this season, however, Conley and Gasol have proven that they're both among the league's best at using their pass to create a shot opportunity for a player other than the one they're passing to. In simpler words, they're great at creating "assist opportunities" for teammates. As a distributor from the high post, Gasol has always been great at reading off-ball movement and getting the ball in the right place. Sometimes, this means he picks up an assist. However, he can also predict what a defense will do to prevent a shot after his pass, and make that pass to free somebody else up or open up a passing lane to a cutter.

It's the same with Conley, whose speed and shiftiness in the pick-and-roll often forces a few extra seconds of help defender attention. That allows his pass to go to someone with the option of making an extra pass as the defense rotates on to him, and leaves somebody else open. We've definitely seen the Conley-Gasol pick-and-roll break down into Conley passing to Marc passing to Zach Randolph or Tony Allen.

This play is a pretty basic look of how a pass can be made to force the defense to react in a way that can free up somebody else. Marc Gasol is bringing the ball down on the fast break (and it's an absolute luxury to have a big man that can do that), with Tayshaun Prince and Zach Randolph filling the lane and within passing range.


With Z-Bo on his right and Prince running down the center of the lane, Marc makes the pass to TP. This might seem an odd decision if Marc was looking for the assist, because TP is right in the middle of Will Bynum, Chauncey Billups and Josh Smith. On the other hand, Z-Bo could be looking at an open jumpshot or an opportunity at the rim against Billups. But, look what Gasol's pass to TP does to the defense.


The red triangle shows TP is literally right in the middle of all three Pistons defenders, and though it's kind of blurry, all of the defense's eyes are on him. Because of Marc's pass to Prince, Z-Bo is left with a wide open lane to the rim and TP makes the pass right away to allow Randolph to get the easy layup against a too small and too late Chauncey Billups. You can watch the play in real-time here.

Similar thing in this play, as Mike Conley and Jon Leuer work a side pick-and-roll on the right side of the court. The Pelicans trap Conley high, and in many typical pick-and-roll situations, Conley would just have passed the ball over to Leuer rolling to the rim. In this case, however, there was no chance of Leuer getting to the rim before a rotation from one of the three guys on the weak side of the pick-and-roll. The extra pass to one of those guys wasn't an appealing option either, because of the overload in that area.

So instead, Conley uses Gasol as the delivery man. The Pelicans defender (I think it's Eric Gordon?) starting to help towards the middle actually goes back to Quincy Pondexter in the corner to prevent Gasol's pass going there. However, that just gives Leuer a wide open dunk rolling off of the original Conley pick-and-roll.

This is an instance where Conley made the decision to give Leuer a better lane to cut to the rim by making the pass to a different player. A simple pass to Leuer would have just led to a Greg Stiemsma or Eric Gordon (?) help rotation, but going to Marc eliminated that rotation altogether. And, it probably would have taken Conley just as long to float a pass to Leuer over the pick-and-roll defenders as it took for him and Gasol to make two quick passes for the better shot.

There can also be a pretty important distinction between the secondary assist and the "extra pass", which will still often count as a secondary assist. Extra passes often imply that a decent shot was passed up for an even better one. Picture a pick-and-roll that draws a defender off of a shooter on the wing and into the paint, and the ball gets passed out to that shooter spotting up. That shooter has a good open look at a three, but the player defending his teammate in the corner is making a late rotation over to him so he makes the extra pass to his teammate in the corner for an even better look. In neither play above did the player with the ball after the first pass have a particularly good shot, but the original passer was never looking for his own assist. That selflessness is a very tangible asset.

In both plays, you can see how the player awarded with the assist (Tayshaun Prince and Marc Gasol respectively) didn't have to make much of a decision with the ball. They got the ball and then they made a pass that must've been almost a natural reaction for them when seeing the defense shift away from the cutter. The player that made the secondary assist (Gasol and Conley respectively) was actually the one responsible for getting the better shot with their decision to find a middle man for the ball. Well, there might not have been a good opportunity at all if Gasol and Conley went straight to the scorer to pad their own stats in the process.

SportVU has allowed us to see which players do rack up the most secondary assists, which adds a brand new dimension to analysis of good playmaking in the NBA

These kinds of tick-tack passing plays are very reminiscent of the hockey play from earlier, aren't they? While it's still a more valuable skill in hockey because of the scarcity of the goals and the different style of play, being able to manipulate the defense with a pass means being able to open up easy opportunities from ideal scoring areas in basketball too. Reading the defense and identifying which process of passes (and they can get a lot more complex than in the plays above) can lead to the best shot for your team is an invaluable skill.

That skill is one that would never have been tracked through assists alone. SportVU has allowed us to see which players do rack up the most secondary assists, which adds a brand new dimension to analysis of good playmaking in the NBA. Even if they require teammates that are willing passers and can make snap judgments with the ball, the guys leading the league in secondary assists may just be some of the NBA's most forward-thinking passers. For now, sample size clouds us from reaching any reliable conclusion, but the fact that rookie Nate Wolters of the Milwaukee Bucks is currently averaging 2.0 secondary assists per game might speak to a not-yet-fully-unearthed quality that his 4.4 assists per game wouldn't indicate.

With the Grizzlies, their own passing offense could actually take a step backward if Marc Gasol is out for an extended period of time with a rumored (but currently unconfirmed!) torn left MCL. Not only would he be prevented from setting up assist opportunities for his teammates, but he's also out as an intermediate passer for someone like Conley to take advantage of. Ed Davis has flashed decent court vision and Kosta Koufos has operated on the high post before, but neither of them are on Gasol's level. Taking a passer as forward-thinking as Gasol out of the equation can throw the entire team's passing out of whack.

We'll see what happens with Gasol and our team. We'll also see what happens with the value of the secondary assist in the NBA. Marc might not be around to flash his own skills in that area for a while, but now that it's a tangible stat, the hockey assist should be a term that will crop up more and more repeatedly soon.

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