This topic was inspired by this tweet from Ben Taylor. It is an interesting exercise to compare passers, as it is an great example of where analytics and the eye test cohesively coalesce to form a coherent conclusion. Accidental alliteration aside, elite passing ability includes the ability to spot and capitalize on less than obvious openings, whereas, court vision encompasses the ability to foresee potential openings, create openings organically by deceiving or outwitting the opposing defense, and as a matter of pragmatism, the willingness to sacrifice one own’s shot if it means dishing to a teammate who has, or will have a better shot.
Elite passing ability can (and often does) include, but is not limited to, the ability to successfully complete difficult and flashy passes through or around the opposing defense. Another key component of elite passing is the ability to do everything already mentioned above with a reasonably low turnover rate. Flashy passers are often elite passers, and the overlap of the talent with those who are actually elite sometimes causes there to be confusion and melding of the two. Conversely, elite passers are not necessarily flashy passers.
This of course is because court vision is sometimes a key component of elite passing, and the ability to complete difficult passing can be present without possessing elite court vision. Court vision is the quality that will often get a player dubbed with the “pure point guard label” when possessed in tandem with the willingness to pass. Despite not being an exact measure or direct correlative factor, players with high court vision will tend to be rewarded with higher assist numbers as well due to generating offense for their teammates rather than simply capitalizing on opportunities their teammates already created on their own (eg, getting open from an off-ball screen).
Larry Bird, Jason Williams, and Nikola Jokic are all examples of great, flashy passers whose court vision is not necessarily elite. These types of players, while not slouches in the court vision department, are certainly more apt to make tight needle-threading passes than they are to create an open look for a teammate through their offensive gravity, play-calling or some combination of those.
The ability to control the pace of the game, force the defensive to be reactive and successfully set your teammates up for advantageous looks, is what separates an elite passer with court vision from a flashy passer. On/off metrics, assists, turnover rate, and PRF (Points Responsible For) are a decent proxy for recognizing a player’s ability to generate offense for themselves and others.
Much is made of LeBron’s high scoring average despite ostensibly being a “pass-first” player. LeBron essentially is the epitome of a player who’s ability to generate offense for others is so elite that combined with his own ability to get to the rim, he can essentially force the defense to make uncomfortable decisions every time he is controlling the possession. In fact, LeBron’s elite play-making ability slightly compensates for the fact that he occasionally misses open looks that a lesser player may have spotted. LeBron isn’t looking for openings per se, he trying to create them.
Disagree? Leave a thoughtful comment below.
Clint is an avid fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, and contributed to various sports publications prior to his work with Upside Hoops.