Different types of assist that you won’t find in traditional box scores

December 23, 2016 by J.H. Yeh

Looking at the box scores from the Clippers vs. Spurs and Warriors vs. Nets games on Thursday, December 22, 2016, it’s easy to tell the number of assists from the traditional box scores.

For the Clippers vs. Spurs game, Chris Paul had only 6 assists as the Clippers managed only 18 assists–below their season average. Though the Spurs had 19 assists, with Kawhi Leonard leading the team with 6, they struggled to shoot throughout the game and Clippers’ balanced offense ultimately prevailed and outlast the savvy Spurs.

For the Warriors vs. Nets match up, Jeremy Lin had 11 assists, contributing to half of the Nets overall assists which was 22. On the other hand, the Warriors won the game 117-101 by cumulatively amassing 29 assists. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry both led the team with 7 assists each.

Those statistics provide a good overall look at how well the teams overall passed the ball; it also gives a general look on an individual’s playmaking ability. However, there are other metrics to measure how effective the teams share the ball. And these metrics can be broken down into three types of assists:


  1. Secondary assist
  2. Free throw assist
  3. Potential assist


Let’s start with the first one. A secondary assist is the pass that directly leads to an assist. In the NBA, it strictly states that a made field goal must be be made within 2 seconds and 1 dribble after the first pass is made. For example, if Stephen Curry passes the ball to Draymond Green, who immediately passes the ball to a guarded Zaza Pachulia down in the paint, and he dribbles once against the defender to create room, and then he pump fakes to throw his defender off before he lays it in. This entire sequence took three seconds and therefore, Stephen Curry would not be credited with the secondary assist (at least in NBA language). There are still some minor controversy surrounding the “policy,” or the definition for such metric. Nonetheless, secondary assist, also known as a “hockey assist,” is a good measurement that indicates offensive effectiveness. Not surprisingly, the Warriors lead the league with 10.4 secondary assists per game and Stephen Curry leads the league with 2.4 secondary assists per game. Surprisingly (or not), the Warriors are averaging 3.6 more secondary assists than the second-placed Atlanta Hawks. Curry is also the sole player who averages more than 2 secondary assists per game. Mike Conley and Dennis Schroeder are next in line with 1.9 and 1.8 secondary assists, respectively. Secondary assists are less common than normal assists, but it is a good metrics to show how well a team efficiently shares the ball. The table below shows the averages of the top 30 players and all NBA teams. Usually teams who heavily and efficiently rely on both 3-pointers and scoring from the posts accumulate the most secondary assists. In the past couple seasons the Warriors and the Spurs have been the leaders in this interesting category. The current league average is 5.3 secondary assists per game. All stats on this article are as of December, 22 2016.


The second type of assist is the free throw assist. This type of assist is credited when a player passes the ball to a player, who is immediately fouled and makes at least one free throw. This metric shows the quantity of passes that leads to points scored from the charity stripes. A free throw assist will not be credited if the player misses all free throws. Free throw made after an and-1 is also credited to the passer as a free throw assist. This is a good metric that tells the story on the quantity of passes that directly leads to points scored and it also tells which team is actively looking to score. In a way, free throw assists compensate the passer who finds a teammate but the teammate cannot successfully convert the conventional field goal attempt while successfully  making at least one free throw. Since the point(s) comes from the free throw line instead of the traditional field goal attempts, free throw assists add value to a player’s playmaking skill and further account for any passes that directly leads to points scored via the free throw line. Like the secondary assist, free throw assist is also tricky to be measured. The current NBA’s rule states that the recipient must be fouled within four seconds and two dribbles for the passer to earn a free throw assist. Moreover, free throw assist is not a good indicator on a team’s success. Though the trend is mixed and no clear pattern is presented, usually the two extremes tend to pile more free throw assists since young, inefficient teams generally are unable to finish a play and experienced, veteran teams usually have a knack of exploiting the opponents by finding the right teammates at the right time to wisely score some additional points while punishing the opposing defender with a foul. Again, this is not a clear pattern because many factors contribute to this category such as individual and overall team’s playing style, etc. Furthermore, there may also be other factors that explain why free throw assists are not a good metric to predict a team’s success because a team can have a very poor free throw shooter who gets intentionally fouled, or a team can have a playing strategy that relies much of its offense from the paint. The current league average is 2.1 free throw assists per game; note free throw assists are far ore rare than secondary assists. The table below shows the NBA’s ranking and the top 30 players’ free throw assists per game. Interestingly, Chicago Bulls rank dead last on both secondary assists and free throw assists.



The third and last type of assist is the potential assist. This is a pass made by a player to a teammate in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would be an assist. This is a very good metric to account on all the passes that lead to missed shots. It sounds somewhat strange that a statistic like this that keeps track of all the passes leading to missed shots would exist. As interesting as it sounds, this is a good (but not great) predictor on a team’s success; it shows which teams and individuals are actively and aggressively looking to score. Generally, fast paced and floor-spacing teams that strategically run offenses through perimeter shooters tend to generate the most potential assists. High-volume scoring teams such as the Warriors and the Rockets crack the top 3 in this category. Reasons why this is not a great metric to evaluate a team is because, like free throw assists, young and inefficient teams such as the number 4 ranked Philadelphia 76ers and number 9 ranked New Orleans Pelicans accumulate much of their potential assists through poor shot selections and inability to finish plays. As a result, similar to free throw assists, potential assists also include inexperienced teams because young and rebuilding teams tend to be inefficient and miss a lot of shot attempts. At the same time, experienced teams that rely on 3-pointers tend to accumulate more potential assists because of their high quantity in shooting 3s (Note: 3 point field goal percentage statistically is the lowest out of any other shooting percentage from different zones; however, offensively, three pointers are the second most efficient shots. There is a distinguished difference so do not get confused, We will talk about this some other time).

On the other hand, from an individual standpoint, this is a very good metric on evaluating how aggressive the player is looking to help the team to score. Players such as Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and LeBron James all crack the top 5 because they are known to get their teammates involved while actively looking to exploit the defense by finding various ways to put points on the board through excellent passes. However, like measuring the overall team, using potential assist to measure a player’s playmaking ability may be confounded because it depends on the quality of teammates. Tim Frazier averages 14.0 potential assists because his young, inexperienced teammates often fail to find ways to score effectively, thus contributing to his high potential assist number. Moreover, Frazier played sparingly in his first two seasons and is receiving starter’s minutes this season (his third). Due to the small sample, it is difficult to judge Frazier’s playmaking ability at this point. The similar can be applied to John Wall, who is an excellent playmaker into his seventh season in the league, but he is playing for a poorly constructed team, hence inflating some of his potential assist numbers. Regardless, evaluating though potential assists is far less confounded when doing so on an individual level than on a team level. The table below shows the ranking in the league as well as the top 30 players. The current league average is 44.2 potential assist per game.



Now that we have talked about these three types of assists outside the traditional “assist,” we can start to conclude our findings.  All these three assists combined can tell the full story on how well a team is playing. By looking at these statistics, those numbers can also suggest a team’s playing style and situation. For example, if you see a team with very high potential assist, very low free throw assist, and a very low secondary assist, you can infer that the team is probably in a rebuilding mode and composed of inexperienced players who like to hoist 3-pointers. Consequently, when evaluating a team’s performance, the secondary assist is the best way to see how effective and efficient both the team and the individual perform. Secondary assist is also an excellent metric at predicting a team’s success since elite teams tend to share the ball more by getting all players involved while running a balanced offense. The Spurs are the quintessential example where besides the offensive focal point of LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, the rest of the offensive load is very evenly spread to the rest of the team. On the opposite side of the spectrum lies Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat, where the offense is inconsistent and struggling outside their focal players.

The free throw assist is not a good metric for evaluating the effectiveness on both the team and the individual levels because many factors are involved in producing such statistics–which inevitably confound the findings. The prominent factors are the quality of the teammates and the playing style.

Lastly, the potential assist is a good metric on the effectiveness on the individual level–however this works well to a certain degree. Judging by the potential assist alone, players playing for inefficient teams tend to confound the true effectiveness of the actual playmaking skills since his teammates are more likely to miss shots, hence inflating the quantity of potential assist. This is a general overview of the three subcategory of the assists. Next time we will dig into a more in depth analysis of the assists.


–J.H. Yeh

(all graphs are created by me, and all sources of information are courtesy of NBA.com and BasketballReference.com as of December 23, 2016)


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