When I think about isolation scoring, I always recall a conversation I had with Diana Taurasi during the 2007 WNBA Finals. Her Phoenix Mercury team employed the run-and-gun style from coach Paul Westhead, but during the Finals their opponents from Detroit were able to slow them down and force them to execute in the half court. Enter Cappie Pondexter, one of the league’s top isolation scorers, who took over the Mercury offense when it bogged down and they needed a bucket.
Taurasi described the offense as “get the ball to Cappie and get the hell out of the way.” And that strategy paid off as Phoenix won their first championship in five games and Pondexter was named Finals MVP. Whether its a Finals game or a regular season contest that comes down to clutch time, having an elite isolation scorer can be a game-changer.
When looking at great isolation scorers, we’ll see players that can beat their defender off the dribble and get all the way to the basket to score or draw fouls. Others will pull up in the mid-range, and of course, there is the art of the step-back 3-pointer – a move perfected by James Harden, who leads our list of the top 10 isolation scorers in the league today.
James Harden: Whether this article came out in 2015 or 2022, the name at the top of the list would be the same. We have Synergy play type data on NBA.com/Stats dating back to the 2015-16 season – and Harden has led the league in isolation scoring every season during that time.
- 2021-22: 8.3 ppg (BKN)
- 2020-21: 8.7 ppg (BKN)
- 2019-20: 15.8 ppg (HOU)
- 2018-19: 18.1 ppg (HOU)
- 2017-18: 12.2 ppg (HOU)
- 2016-17: 6.6 ppg (HOU)
- 2015-16: 6.4 ppg (HOU)
Harden’s isolation scoring peaked at 18.1 points per game during the 2018-19 season when he posted the seventh-highest scoring average in NBA history at 36.1 points per game. More than half of Harden’s points came on isolation plays as Houston’s entire offense reflected the scenario I described earlier in Phoenix – get the ball to James and let him create.
Since being traded to Brooklyn, Harden’s isolation scoring numbers have come back down to earth a bit, but he still holds a commanding lead over the rest of the field, with OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander ranked second (6.9 ppg) and Harden’s Brooklyn teammate Kevin Durant ranked third (5.1 ppg) through games played on Sunday, Jan. 9.
One thing that has not changed for Harden is his ability to draw fouls in isolation plays. He draws free throws on 22.4% of his isolations – second only to Toronto rookie Scottie Barnes (22.8%) – among the 54 players with at least 50 isolation possessions this season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: There are only two players in the league with isolation plays accounting for more than 21% of their offensive arsenal – Harden (31.7%) and Gilgeous-Alexander (31.5%) – as they are more than 10 percentage points higher than any other player. While SGA has similar iso frequency as Harden, he does not yet match Harden in efficiency. Gilgeous-Alexander scores 0.93 points per isolation possession with a 43.6 effective field goal percentage, while Harden scores at 1.11 ppp with a 49.2 eFG%. SGA’s six isolation shots per game leads all players; it is a mark topped only by Harden (four times) and Russell Westbrook (once).
Kevin Durant: Durant’s 5.1 ppg on isolations this season is his highest average and ranking dating back to the 2015-16 season. Outside of his first season in Golden State (2.6 ppg in 2016-17), Durant has consistently averaged nearly four points per game on isolations regardless of which team he played for: 3.8 ppg in 2015-16 in OKC, 3.8 ppg in 2017-18 with GSW, 3.9 ppg in 2018-19 with GSW and 3.9 ppg in 2020-21 in his first season in Brooklyn. Of the 42 players that average at least two isolation possessions per game, Durant ranks third in field goal percentage at 49.3%.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Giannis is also on pace to set a career-best mark in isolation scoring this season at 5.0 ppg. A key to Giannis’ progression has been increased efficiency in isolations as his FG% has steadily climbed from below 40% to near 50% the last two seasons: 38.9% in 2015-16, 37.8%, 39.2%, 42.9%, 43.4%, 49.1%, and 48.5% in 2021-22. One red flag to watch with Giannis is his propensity to turn the ball over in isolations; his 13.8% turnover rate on isos is second only to Westbrook (15.2%) among the 42 players that average at least two iso possessions per game.
Jayson Tatum: Since Tatum entered the league as a rookie in 2017, his isolation frequency has increased every season: 10.6% in 2017-18, 12.8% in 2018-19, 15.8% in 2019-20, 18.6% in 2020-21 and 19.7% so far in 2021-22. His isolation scoring has increased along with that rise in frequency; however, his efficiency has not followed suit. Tatum’s peak in terms of isolation efficiency came in 2019-20, when he shot 40.8% from the field and posted a 50.7 effective field goal percentage on isos. Can he get back to that level of efficiency as his frequency continues to rise year over year?
DeMar DeRozan: There are three players that appear in the top 10 in both isolation points per game and isolation points per possession: Harden, Durant and DeRozan. DeRozan has scored over a point per iso possession every season dating back to 2016-17 in Toronto, but has continued to improve his isolation efficiency, which peaked last season in San Antonio when he scored 1.2 points per possession and shot a career-best 54.7% on isolations. Compare that to the 2015-16 season, when DeRozan scored 0.92 ppp and shot just 38.9% on isolations. Now in his first season in Chicago, DeRozan has maintained a high level of isolation efficiency; of the 42 players that average at least two iso possessions per game, DeRozan ranks second in field goal percentage (52.7%) and first in both and-one frequency (6.6%) and scoring frequency (54.0%).
Damian Lillard: Lillard has been battling an abdominal injury through the season (he is not traveling with the team during their current six-game road trip) and his 24.0 points per game is his lowest scoring average since the 2014-15 season. While Lillard is still averaging 4.5 ppg on isolations this year, it is a drop from the two more efficient seasons of his career: 5.5 ppg on 53.4 eFG% in 2020-21; and 5.1 ppg on 53.0 eFG% in 2019-20.
Julius Randle: For the second straight season (and third time in his career) isolation plays account for more than 21% of Randle’s offense. This season, he is averaging 4.2 ppg (down slightly from last year’s peak of 5.0 ppg) and shooting at a 45.2% effective field goal percentage. Randle’s 0.90 points per isolation possession matches last season’s mark and trails only his career-best marks of 0.95 ppp and 48.6 eFG% from his 2018-19 season in New Orleans.
Paul George: While we have not seen PG-13 on the court since Dec. 22, he still ranks among the top isolation scorers in the 26 games he played so far this season. Isolations account for 18.1% of George’s possessions this season – the highest mark we have for his career – and a significant jump from last season when Kawhi Leonard was able to share some of the offensive load for the Clippers. Last season, George had his most efficient isolation season (1.07 points per possession, 55.0% eFG%). So far this season, those numbers have dropped to 0.80 ppp and 42.9 eFG%.
Joel Embiid: Embiid is the lone center to make the top 10 in isolation scoring and is a testament to the diversity of his offensive game. According to Synergy, Embiid averages a league-high 8.6 post-up possessions per game (scoring 9.0 ppg on those possessions) and just under four isolation possessions per game (scoring 3.9 ppg on those possessions). The fact that Embiid can hurt opponents with nearly the same efficiency with his back to the basket (1.04 points per possession on post ups) and facing up (0.98 points per possession on isolations) shows why he’s one of the most dominant scorers in today’s game.