Netball: Introducing, embracing and enhancing advanced stats in New Zealand sports

By Niall Anderson

The Pulse play at the slowest pace in the league. Photo / Photosport
The Pulse play at the slowest pace in the league. Photo / Photosport

Advanced statistics - hell, even regular statistics - can often be hard to come by in New Zealand sport.

While American sports can now tell you the precise angle the ball comes off the bat, the percentage chance a fielder has of catching a ball, and the length of that fielder's socks (I'm kidding but they totally could), New Zealand sport's most recent additions tend to be of little use. (Looking at you, dot ball percentage and Caltex Clean Techron Rating)

Understandably, many people who do provide advanced analysis are snapped up by sporting organisations, keeping the competitive advantage in house and leaving fans bereft of even the chance to determine whether the advanced information is of interest.

Netball is one sport where advanced analysis is kept close to the chest.

A subsection of fans would surely be interested in which players run the furthest on the court and which players have the highest vertical leap; measurable athletic statistics which are eminently trackable.

Similarly, I would be curious as to which attacker takes their shots at the closest and furthest distance to the hoop, and what percentage chance a shot has of going in from one foot away, compared to six feet away.

At the other end, which defensive duos force the attacking pairing into the toughest shots? Who contests the most feeds into the circle? Which player is regularly the most open to receive passes, and which defenders let the person they're marking receive the ball the most?

Steel coach Reinga Bloxham and star player Jhaniele Fowler-Reid (left). Photo / Photosport
Steel coach Reinga Bloxham and star player Jhaniele Fowler-Reid (left). Photo / Photosport

Information like this may seem trivial, but can create a distinct competitive advantage. Find out that teams hit 98 per cent of their shots from one foot compared to 68 per cent from six feet, and maybe you risk a turnover or re-set your offence instead of settling for that shot from a longer distance.

To track that information, you need to pore over game footage for hours on end, or have player tracking cameras installed. Now, I would get fired for spending my working hours solely watching replays of netball games, and arrested for installing cameras in netball arenas. So, as a starting point which will keep me employed and out of prison, I've collated some low-level analytics to hopefully give you an introductory gauge into what can be gleaned out of netball's statistics.

A good starting point is analysing pace. It is possible to prove which teams play at a high speed compared to those who prefer a methodical, slow approach, and pace is an important factor when measuring the defensive and offensive abilities of netball sides.

If you will allow a brief basketball analogy, the Golden State Warriors concede 104 points per game in the NBA - the 11th best figure in the league. However, because they play at a very high pace, it gives their opponent more opportunities to score. When you adjust for the amount of possessions in game, they rank as the second best defence, a noticeable difference which must be taken into account when analysing a team.

The same theory can be applied in netball, where the Central Pulse play at by far the slowest pace in the ANZ Premiership. They average 84.1 offensive possessions per game, nearly five fewer than the next slowest team, and a notable 14 fewer than the high-tempo Southern Steel.

Offensive possessions per game

1. Steel 98.3
2. Magic 94.7
3. Mystics 92
4. Stars 90.1
5. Tactix 88.8
6. Pulse 84.1

When adjusting for that speed of play, you can create a better picture of which teams get the most out of their possessions. By calculating the amount of possessions a team has (Shot attempts + turnovers - offensive rebounds), you can then determine what percentage of the time a team scores when they have the ball.

That can then be translated into a statistic called Offensive Rating, which divides the amount of goals scored by the amount of possessions to calculate which teams are the most efficient on offence.

The Steel unsurprisingly lead the way with a 72.2 Offensive Rating - meaning they score 72.2 per cent of the time when they have the ball. The Tactix (also unsurprisingly) rank last, with a 49.2 Offensive Rating.

Offensive Rating

1. Steel 72.2
2. Magic 63.1
3. Mystics 62.7
4. Pulse 60.8
5. Stars 53.8
6. Tactix 49.2

This is where the Pulse's pace of play hides their offensive ability. They have only scored 460 goals, but they have only put up 534 shots, 221 fewer than the Steel, and fewer than every team bar the Tactix. As you can see via Offensive Rating, their attacking level is far closer to the Magic (538 goals) and Mystics (519) than the Stars (436), giving a better gauge of their ability on attack.

In terms of goals allowed, the Pulse's slow pace had them easily conceding the fewest goals in the competition, even though in the first six games they were no better than the Steel or Magic defensively. However, those two sides have been less efficient on defence of late, giving the Pulse a decent edge as the most efficient defensive unit.

Their Defensive Rating of 53.7 means they concede a goal on just 53.7 per cent of their opponent's possessions, and they are the best team at causing turnovers, snaring the ball 36.3 per cent of the time.

Defensive Rating

1. Pulse 53.7
2. Steel 59.8
3. Magic 60
4. Stars 61
5. Mystics 63.3
6. Tactix 64.7

Once again, the Rating formula shows that the Mystics (510 goals conceded) are notably worse defensively than the Stars (515), and closer to the Tactix (551) than they are to the Magic (503).

Here are some other things of interest which the research cropped up.

** The Magic are woeful at rebounding. They have grabbed 17 offensive rebounds in nine games so far, eight fewer than the next-worst Stars, and a staggering 36 behind the Steel (aka Jhaniele Fowler-Reid). At the defensive end, they have allowed 53 offensive rebounds, a massive 19 more than second place.

** The Steel rarely turn the ball over. This, along with the Steel's second ranked defensive rating, perhaps pushes back on the "one woman team" rhetoric. While that low turnover count is partially attributed to the Steel's midcourters being able to put balls in spaces only Fowler-Reid can get, they turn the ball over on just 20 per cent of possessions. The Mystics are in second, well behind, at 28 per cent, while the Stars (37 per cent) and Tactix (39 per cent) are almost twice as sloppy.

** The Steel are crazy good on offence. You already knew this, and Offensive Rating shows it, but to hammer it home - the Steel have put up 172 more shots than their opponents this year. The next best? The Mystics (+32). The Steel have also caused 261 turnovers and only coughed up 183, with their +78 turnover differential well ahead of the second-placed Pulse (+24).

These findings only scratch the surface level of new-age analysis which can, and should, be widely available in the future, across all sports. If netball continues to evolve, then there could be more ways to follow, analyse and debate about your favourite team than ever before.

If you have any netball (or any sport) statistics or theories which could be worth further research, or if you think statistics in netball are worthless and this article was a complete waste of your time, drop me a line at niall.anderson@nzherald.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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