At first glance, Sacramento Kings forward Anthony Tolliver is an NBA player with little that sets him apart. In an earlier era, his range might have been a defining characteristic given his height, but now that seemingly every big man has a jumper, he doesn’t even have that. The most remarkable part of the 31-year-old’s resume is how long it is. Tolliver has played for nine teams — almost a third of the NBA — during his nine-year stint in the association.1
But there is something else that could distinguish Tolliver: a stat that could unveil the undrafted journeyman’s best skill. The only problem is that it hasn’t been invented yet.
The fuel of this stat: collisions, particularly when a ballhandler is barreling his way toward the basket despite a defender standing in his way. If those collisions make their way into the stat sheet, they usually go one of two ways: a charge call on the offender or a blocking foul on the defender. Players such as DeMarcus Cousins, Ersan Ilyasova and Marreese Speights have dominated the leaderboard of charges drawn in years past — and this year — according to NBA Miner, an advanced stat site that has tracked charge numbers for several seasons.
But shouldn’t we be interested in more than just how many charges a player draws? The raw number doesn’t tell the whole story because it’s not speaking to a player’s success rate. If a defender draws a ton of charges, but gets whistled for nearly as many blocking calls, then the fouls essentially negate the turnovers he creates.
With that in mind, I decided to take a more holistic look at things by creating “Charge Rate,” a simple stat that measures how efficiently a player draws charges. All it entails is dividing a player’s total of charges drawn by the total number of whistled collisions he’s been involved in; a number we can generate by incorporating the blocking fouls he’s been called for. At the top of the list was Tolliver, who has been the NBA’s best player at drawing charges while not getting whistled for blocking.
Over the past three seasons, Tolliver’s garnered 42 charges in 54 total collisions, a Charge Rate of 78 percent; easily the best mark among players who’ve taken at least 30 charges since the start of the 2014-15 season. For context, consider that the average NBA player this season has a Charge Rate of just 40 percent, according to the collision counts on BigDataBall, which logs play-by-play data.
|PLAYER||TEAM||NUM. OF COLLISIONS||NUM. OF CHARGES||CHARGE RATE|
|Draymond Green||Golden State||43||30||69.7|
|DeMarcus Cousins||New Orleans||119||82||68.9|
|Marreese Speights||Los Angeles||101||62||61.3|
|Donatas Motiejunas||New Orleans||79||40||50.6|
This season, Tolliver has been almost automatic, drawing 10 charge calls in 12 collisions for an eye-popping 83 percent success rate2. He’s won five more calls than you’d expect the average player to earn in those same 12 situations.3
A number of other players around the league have struggled in this area just as much as Tolliver has succeeded in it. Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas has drawn just one charge but has been called for 16 blocking fouls, a Charge Rate of 6 percent. Milwaukee Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo has been almost just as bad, inducing one charge in 13 tries, for an 8 percent Charge Rate. Minnesota’s Cole Aldrich, Philadelphia’s Dario Saric, Toronto’s Lucas Nogueira and Brooklyn’s Joe Harris have combined to go 0-for-36 in drawing charges this season, highlighting just how tough it can be for some players to persuade officials to side with them in bang-bang scenarios.
Tolliver knows he’s good at this very particular task. “I just try to be smart about it, and pick my spots. Someone like Ersan is really aggressive about it, and he’ll jump in front of somebody every single time,” Tolliver said of Ersan Ilyasova, a former Pistons teammate, who leads the NBA in charges but sports a considerably lower Charge Rate than Tolliver, at 61 percent the past three years. “Nine times out of 10, guys know [Ilyasova’s] gonna try to take the charge, so they adjust to that and go after his shoulder to make him look like he’s not squared4 [properly]. But keeping the offensive player on his toes can make you more effective.”
The other thing that helps? Tolliver says he doesn’t flail or flop. He argued that it’s not necessary to, because of the way he takes contact.
“I don’t just fall because I get bumped or whatever. I try to absorb the bumps. When I get hit, it’s usually the type where you say, ‘Man, you must’ve really gotten run over,’” Tolliver explained. “When you look at someone like Marcus Smart, he tries to sell [charges] sometimes by flailing, but it’s not just him. DeMarcus5 flails, too, and as a result, he doesn’t get some calls that he should get, because refs are trying to make a decision: ‘Did he get hit, or is he just trying to pull a fast one on me?’”
Much of how Tolliver is programmed to think on defense stems from his time at Creighton, where then-Bluejays coach Dana Altman6 often preached the importance of drawing charges. Under Altman’s direction, Creighton ran frequent practice drills teaching players how to properly take charges. And because of the coach’s emphasis on drawing charges in practice, the program seemingly began paying more attention to the skill in games. Rob Anderson, the team’s longtime sports information director, said he began manually tracking the metric — which isn’t kept by the NCAA — along with a stat spotter in 2002.
Tolliver said drawing charges wasn’t a focus for him when he first got to Creighton, and numbers seem to bear that out, as he didn’t take any charges during his freshman season. But from his second year on, it became routine to see him morph into a human bowling pin, as he drew nine and 17 charges as a sophomore and junior, respectively, before drawing 23 charges — the same total as the rest of his team combined — in his senior year.7
“I took those drills to heart, and [drawing charges] became a major part of the way I play,” said Tolliver, who began his career at Creighton shortly after Cavaliers sharpshooter Kyle Korver finished there. (Korver also played for Altman, and is very good at drawing charges. He’s gotten the call on 11 of his 17 collisions this year — four more than the league average would suggest he should have — and drew the call on all nine of his collisions during the 2013 season.)
Of course none of this means that being skilled at taking charges is the same thing as being a good defender. Tolliver himself, merely a decent stopper, would be the first person to tell you that. And the fact that Sacramento — tied for the NBA’s fourth-worst defense — manages to get 4 points worse per 100 plays on D when Tolliver is playing illustrates that no amount of charge-taking would make the Kings good on that end of the floor.
Still, there is an art to how he goes about taking charges — both to prompt refs to side with him, and to avoid getting seriously hurt during the collisions. The key, according to Tolliver, is to set your feet, then begin falling as soon as the driving player makes contact with you, and not a millisecond before.
“If you launch yourself backwards as soon as the contact hits you, the ref can see you getting hit without you having to take the full brunt of it,” he said. “Guys mess up because they start falling before they get hit.”
But any way you slice it, taking a charge is going to be uncomfortable, he said. The main objective, aside from winning the call, is to avoid a potentially serious injury.
“You can get really hurt if you don’t know how to take one. Even if you do know how, it’s gonna hurt. It just doesn’t feel good,” he said, adding that teammates asked him if he was OK after taking a knee to the chest from Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams. “I told them, ‘Yeah: I know how to fall,’” he said.
Whereas other players might not be good at taking charges, or simply may not want to, Tolliver feels as if he has no choice but to play to his strengths in hopes of finding a more permanent NBA home. So that means relying on his ability to draw fouls in a physically taxing way.
“Fans don’t care about that sort of stuff; you’re not gonna get any glory out of that,” he said of charges. “At least by making a pass, you might get an assist. You can get something out of that. With a charge, I get a bruise or two out of it.”
But maybe now, with more statistical information at our disposal, Tolliver’s nearly flawless ability to draw charges will get the credit it deserves.
Neil Paine assisted with research for this piece.
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