Tony Snell, aka Snelly Cat, is better than you think, but maybe not quite as good he could be, should be or we want him to be. He is, in many ways, the poster boy for the Chicago Bulls in that he has strengths that you can’t live without and weaknesses that you can’t live with. That characterizes just about every player on the team not named Jimmy Butler.
If you’re defining a 3-and-D wing strictly as a wing who knocks down threes and defends well, Snell fits that moniker and is growing into one of the league’s best in those two regards, but only if you look at it from just the right angle.
Here’s a quick and dirty look at every wing who’s defended 50 shots and taken 25 threes. The further up the player is, the better his three-point percentage is. The horizontal axis shows the field goal percentage against. The axis is reversed for comfort’s sake, meaning that the further to the right the player is, the better he is (because that’s how we’re used to seeing graphs):
There’s Snell, and weirdly, Dion Waiters right beside him. For the most part, this graph has players where we’d generally expect them to be, although there are a few weird findings. The middle lines indicate the median, meaning half the players are over it and half are below it (or to the right or left of it). That means the players in the top right quadrant are the ones we can qualify as “3-and-D” players. For the most part, names like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Al-Farouq Aminu all fit what we usually consider to be 3-and-D.
Danny Green’s not there because his shooting is a bit down this year. Nick Young is there, and that’s just weird. But it’s early yet and some of these anomalies will find their way out.
But if you’re just going by this graph you’d say, “Snell has a great argument as the best 3-and-D wing in the league!”
But the thing about stats like this is that they usually come with context, and with Snell, there’s a ton of context to consider. First, he’s the second-best wing defender on the team, and as such, it’s not him, but Jimmy Butler who’s typically tasked with taking on the opponent’s best player. And is holding the Andre Robersons of the world to 30 percent really more impressive than holding the Kevin Durants below 40 percent?
Still, if his job is to be a help defender and keep players from scoring outside of the paint as a perimeter defender, you can’t argue with the results: Opponents are just 8-of 45.
Butler, Leonard and a lot of the other guys in that quadrant are defending much better players than Snell (or Waiters for that matter). That said, Snell’s opponents shoot 11.4 percent below their season average when he’s guarding them (which is different than saying he holds them 11.4 percent below their season averages, by the way), and that’s worth something.
And his defensive shot chart, courtesy of NBASavant, is impressive:
Point being: there is context to Snell’s impressive numbers, but the numbers are still impressive. This shouldn’t be debating whether we take the context or the numbers. We accept both. There’s something legitimately impressive here, but there’s some context that distorts it.
The other end of it is that not all three-point attempts are created equally. Some are easier than others, and Snell has capitalized on the easiest ones of all, which helps inflate his three-point percentage. Particularly two things can impact shooting percentage.
First, it’s easier to make a catch-and-shoot shot than one off the dribble. The league-wide effective field goal percentage on pull-up shots is 40.0 percent. On catch-and-shoots, it’s 51.0 percent. That’s a pretty hefty margin.
Second, it’s easier to make open shots than contested ones because, duh. On shots ruled at NBA.com to be “tight or very tight” (defender within four feet), the league is shooting 29 percent. On those judged to be “open” or “wide-open” (no defender within four feet), the league is shooting 35.4 percent from deep.
This is relevant to Snell because, without hyperbole, he’s only making threes of the open, catch-and-shoot variety. As in every, single, one has been with zero dribbles and no defender within four feet. That said, he’s still hitting those at rates well above average, even when accounting for the ease of their nature.
The problem is that when he’s not shooting open threes, he’s awful. He’s 16-of-32 just on open, catch-and-shoot opportunities from deep. On all other shots, he’s 8-of-35 (22.9 percent). So, your definition of “3-and-D” has to be pretty narrow here. Most of those other guys can do more with contested shots and/or put the ball on the floor to some degree.
Still, the things he does that are positive should earn him enough run to start trying more contested threes, or get better at driving to the rim without getting called for an offensive foul in the process.