Katie Benzan and modern basketball

“She’s one of the best shooters in the country.”

This is how Kathy Delaney-Smith, who has been Harvard’s head coach since 1982, has described her star point guard in press conferences. While coaches understandably have a tendency to inflate their players, this is no exaggeration. Last season, Benzan launched 220 shots from downtown, sinking 45 percent of them. Her stroke was even more lethal in conference play, during which exactly 50 percent of her 102 threes found the net.

Benzan is symbolic of the trend that is transforming the game at all levels: in the Ivy League, in the WNBA, in the men’s leagues, and in high-school gyms, teams shoot the three-ball now more than ever. What was once perceived as a somewhat selfish play is now recognized as a staple of an effective offense.

Coach Delaney-Smith has been in the game for a long time. When the UMBC men made national headlines last year for defeating Virginia and becoming the first 16 seed to upset a 1 seed in March Madness, many people applauded a supposedly novel feat that she had already accomplished twenty years prior, when the 16th-seeded Crimson upset Stanford, 71-67.

Given her tenure, Delaney-Smith’s embrace of modern offense is impressive. The number of threes taken per game has been steadily increasing league-wide, but Delaney-Smith and the Crimson have outpaced this growth, especially in recent years.

The above plot shows the average number of threes taken per game for both Harvard and the rest of NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball. While Harvard has taken more threes than the average team in every season since 2010, they have really separated themselves from the pack in recent years. Last season, the Crimson averaged nearly 25 threes per game.

To understand why teams are so three-friendly in today’s game, we can turn to some simple calculations provided by expected value. On a given offensive possession, the expected value of a play is defined as the number of points scored, weighted by the probability of making the shot. In other words, it’s how many points the play scores on average.

Suppose a player has a true-talent shooting percentage of 35 percent from three. In reality, a player’s shooting percentage is not constant, as the probability of making a shot depends heavily on where the player is shooting from, how open she is, etc. We’ll ignore this for now.

With a 35 percent shooting percentage, the expected value of that player shooting a three is (.35 * 3) + (.65 * 0). 35 percent of the time, the player will earn three points for her team. The other 65 percent of the time, she’ll miss and earn zero points. This results in a final expected value of 1.05 points. If a team did nothing but let this player shoot threes all game, they would be expected to score 1.05 points per offensive possession, on average.

Now, we know that this is not how basketball actually works. Many plays result in layups and easy shots that, while only worth two points, have a much higher expected value. Additionally, if a team ran the same play over and over again, their opponents could adapt their defense to counter that play. A smart team will balance plays that are high in expected value with plays that keep the defense on their toes.

Let’s return to Katie Benzan. If we take last year’s performance at face value and assume she’s a 45 percent three-point shooter, then the expected value of her taking a three is a whopping 1.35 points per possession. For context, reigning NBA MVP James Harden averaged 1.22 points per possession on isolation plays last year. This puts her in elite company.

Despite the immaculate shooting ability of Benzan, Harvard wasn’t able to get past Penn in the conference tournament last year. A big reason for this was that Penn refused to give Benzan any room to shoot, holding her to just 6 of 19 from three. As Benzan’s reputation as a shooter grows, teams will continue to put pressure on her as soon as she crosses half court.

As long as Benzan is healthy, the Crimson have a shot at winning the Ivy crown. The key for Delaney-Smith will be finding a way to get Benzan her shots while also utilizing other offensive weapons.

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