Some time ago, my friend Martin Kessler came to me with what he called a “crazy theory”: Pickup games in New York City are notoriously rough, featuring physical drives and slick dribbling rather than outside shooting. (At certain courts, the three-point line is even disregarded, and scoring is kept with ones only.) What if, he wondered, that permanently affects basketball skills? Are NYC-born players more likely to be bad shooters, due to the style they grew up playing?
Martin works for WBUR’s Only A Game, and this weekend he aired his story about the Big Apple playing style. Along with anecdotes from Sundiata Gaines and pickup lifers, he asked me to run the numbers on how they play at higher levels. And I found that his crazy theory wasn’t so crazy: New Yorkers indeed shoot worse and take fewer threes, and they earn more free throws instead. The differences aren’t huge, but they are consistent across the NBA and NCAA.
First listen to the story, which describes the NYC style in more detail, including fun tidbits like the city’s unique playground rims. But since radio isn’t an ideal format for data visualization, here’s a deeper dive on the numbers.
Using data from Basketball-Reference’s Play Index and player pages, I compiled career statistics for all NBA players born in NYC (with a minimum of 100 games to select established players only). I only used players who debuted in 1985 or later, to ensure they grew up in the three-point-line era (which began in 1979). Comparing Big Apple natives to all other players:
NYC-bred players make fewer threes, take fewer threes. and earn more free throws. The aggregate difference is not very large in any of these cases (1-2 percentage points across the board) but it is directionally consistent with the theory. You could imagine possible confounding factors — for instance, more New Yorkers played in the early years of the three-point line, when there was less emphasis on outside shooting in the NBA — but in a regression controlling for era and height, the estimated impacts were effectively the same (still 1-2 percentage points).
A small effect like this is hard to contextualize. Could it just be a fluke? I became more convinced when looking at the distribution across other regions:
Among the other top 10 states plus DC, New York City tops only Georgia in three-point accuracy and attempt rate, and it ranks third in free-throw rate. Some other patterns are visible in this data — for instance, California is a shooter’s haven (as are other West Coast states not shown here). That probably indicates a true style of play difference to some degree, although it might also show that California’s population has grown more quickly in the recent, three-point-heavy era.
As a final test of the theory, I studied college basketball and its much wider universe of players. Using statistics and hometowns from KenPom.com, I compiled the career stats of all D-I players who were active last season (a total sample of 4,000+ players). The results were similar:
If anything, the effects are even stronger here. College players are younger and have had less cumulative coaching throughout their careers, so it makes sense that their pickup roots would be more visible in their statistics.
This pattern doesn’t hold for every player: The city is a big place, so there are still plenty of good shooters here, plus others who could be taught the skill with more practice. So by no means should a coach seeking three-point shooting (like, say, Iona’s Tim Cluess) refuse to scout the Big Apple (where he found Brooklyn native Jon Severe, albeit via transfer from Fordham).
But the overall trend tells us about how basketball skills develop. To be honest, before I started this research, I was sure there would be no noticeable effect. Think about how much goes into creating an NBA player: Adolescence on the AAU circuit, one to four years of a college system, and untold hours of workouts as a professional. Yet even after all of that standardized training, NYC natives still show a bit of the pickup style.
Unfortunately, that style is falling out of fashion at higher levels. The playgrounds will adapt, as kids who grow up watching Steph Curry rather than Allen Iverson will play ones-and-twos and practice step-back threes. But if history is any indication, NYC games will remain rougher than those elsewhere in the country, and their products will carry that trademark. You can take the players out of the Big Apple, but you can’t take the Big Apple out of the players.