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Basketball

MBB: Let’s Talk About Execution

The Mean Green are playing really well, but you may have read or seen some criticism here or elsewhere about the team. While the team has been winning, it has sometimes been closer than we would have liked. They play hard and well, even against really tough competition. However McCasland has had trouble getting his guys to get quality shots late in the game when the pressure is most intense.

Most basketball these days uses on-ball screens and relies on the ability to get your best players the ball when the clock is ticking down. Before that, many teams rely on old staples and new wrinkles to get into sets that will create good shots and some rhythm for their team.

North Texas runs a variation on the 4-1 out motion, with one big man surrounded by four players on the outside of the court along the three-point line. There are many ways to run this and many ways to teach it. Jay Wright’s Villanova probably runs the version you have seen run most effectively on the national stage. At its best it spreads the court, creating space for a big man to get buckets, while getting good spacing for open perimeter shots.

McCasland’s third year sees him with a team stocked with shooters like Umoja Gibson (he leads the league in 3pt% and is second in made threes), James Reese, Javion Hamlet, DJ Draper, and Roosevelt Smart. So far, NT has been able to create lots of shots for those guys and that is an indicator that 1) they are talented and 2) they can run the offense well enough to generate good stuff.

The team is first in the conference in offensive efficiency according to kenpom and is second in that measure according to sports-reference.com. There is a lot to like. Why, then, did the team look so poor against Louisiana Tech throughout the later portion of the second half? A good amount of credit goes to Tech, who defended well and whose long and rangy defenders made it tough to do anything.

We took a look at each of the possessions and we’ll break them down here. A couple of themes emerge and they are these: NT has good ideas but some poor execution. They have some weaknesses that should improve with more time in the system and at this level. Zach Simmons is good.

0-James Reese
1-Umoja Gibson
3-Javion Hamlet
4-Jalen Jackson
13- Thomas Bell
24-Zach Simmons

Situation: NT 43-41 9:05
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

NT is in a the standard 4-1 look, with Hamlet in the “slot” looking to start the action. There are a number of different ways to start a given play within the offense, and a ball screen is one of them. It can come ad-hoc or via call. McCasland is yelling instructions frustratedly. Here, Zach Simmons comes high to set a screen in the “slot” for Hamlet. Javion uses it poorly, and this ends up a turnover. When we talk about “poor” ball handling this is one of those things. Everyone on the team is D-1 caliber, but there are levels to this thing even in that category.

We want to see Hamlet use this screen better, going shoulder-to-shoulder and if that fails, to not lose the ball. Also, I believe there should be an “exchange” when there is an action on the ball. The away guards should exchange places to occupy the defenders.

Situation: NT 43-44 8:07
Personnel: 13-23-4-3-0

Again the standard look and Deng Geu sets a “drag” screen for Hamlet to start the action. It’s a screen from the big on the ball to begin some early action while the defense is not yet set. This was popularized by the SSOL Suns and is all over the NBA and NCAA now. Geu slips and rolls to the rim as he sees Tech start to trap — this is something they did throughout the second half and it caused lots of havoc. The pass goes to James Reese on the wing, who should have shot this ball on the catch. One teaching point in this offense is that a player will never be more open than when he first catches the ball. Reese is one of our better shooters and we want this shot. Instead, he tries to take advantage of Geu being “unguarded” but that goes nowhere. In his defense, Tech’s Ledoux is long and might have bothered the look. Geu is not the post player that Simmons is, even though he is much more bouncy. The kickout pass is tipped.

Situation: NT 43-44 — out of bounds play
Personnel: 13-23-0-1-3

NT runs a set to get a ball screen on the left side of the court. This action is something like Motion Weak in the Spurs/NBA playbook, with Gibson setting a screen for the big man to get him a touch in the post. Geu sprints past the spot to set a screen for Hamlet. He rejects the screen and goes baseline where he is doubled. Geu and Thomas Bell both dive for the pass — a no-no from Bell — and the ball is lost on a bad catch. Catching passes is ball handling. When we complain a bit about handling — this is also what we mean.

Situation: NT 43-46 7:11
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

We start with a ball screen from Geu, but set differently. Here is in a “flat” look, but not quite. A good “flat” screen is parallel to the half-court line. He is angled a bit here, which makes me think he was just setting a screen. Hamlet sends a wing pass to Reese after rejecting the screen from Geu. Reese looks inside to the rolling Geu but doesn’t pass it.

A couple things about this: 1) When Geu rolls or slips, Reese should “lift” quicker and move in the same motion as the roll. This helps give Hamlet a better pass and 2) This entry pass should be attempted. It wasn’t, and that messed up the rest of the action.

The ball is reversed — a “slot” to “slot” pass — and there should either be an exchange from the wing players (Bell and Gibson) or a pin down for Geu by Bell. NT was running the same set to get Bell to screen for Geu but instead he kind of floated a bit because Geu had his man sealed off for the post up.

Because the backside players did not move much the defense is able to lock on the ball. As it is reversed to Gibson, the wing players could do the action again — screen or exchange. They do not and even though Geu does a good job showing for the entry pass, there is no easy pass for Hamlet to make, because Bell’s man is digging. Bell clears out by running the baseline, opening things for another entry attempt. Hamlet rejects the screen and drives to the baseline, he has a pocket pass available to Geu but instead pulls it back out to Reese who has moved to fill the open space. He shoots a step-back three when the ball is reversed back to him. The one he had to start the previous possession was much better than this look.

NT is running the play to get guys as open as Geu was early, but did not find him. That happens even in good offenses, but that should not derail the rest of the play. The action should continue in a nice flow with players reading and reacting to the defense. Here, they kind of break down after the first option is taken away (or ignored, really). They did flow into a ball-screen — a hallmark of the modern college game — but that was not really executed at a high level. We would love to see that pocket pass made to Geu to allow him to make a play or score over the smallish Bracey “guarding” the paint.

Situation: NT 43-46 6:29
Personnel: 3-0-24-13-1

We see the same action. Hamlet passes to the wing (Reese) and then cuts through to the other side. Gibson sets the same pin down for the C, in this case Zach Simmons but instead of reversing the ball over to get him on the right block, he seals while Bell throws it back to Reese and Reese gives him the ball. Bucket. This is a great little counter to the hedging that Tech was doing.

Situation: NT 45-46 5:46
Personnel: 3-13-1-24-0

North Texas gets in a “horns” look, with two guys at the corners of the free throw line. Hamlet initiates the action by passing to Simmons, which is followed by a “split screen” where Hamlet and Bell run and set a little screen for each other. This is a staple of the Princeton offense and more recently, the Golden State Warriors’. The bass goes to Bell, and Gibson sets a screen for Simmons to get him to the post.

This action is all set up to get Zach a post touch. You might notice that everyone essentially ends up where they have the past few possessions. The pass out to Hamlet is hard to make for Bell because of the ball denial from Tech — again, let’s credit Tech here — and when Hamlet gets the ball he is uncomfortable making the entry pass to Simmons. The ball is reversed, but Simmons wants it back at Hamlet to get another chance. When he gets it, he scores. Good set, execution is at about a C+, but our best player got a great look and scored.

You will notice that Bell and Gibson exchange after the pass and Bell tries to exchange with Reese, even though they are sort of arguing about it. There are a lot of ways to get player movement but exchanging positions is a great way to do it simply and make the defense look away from the ball. Even though Bell is exchanging somewhat hesitantly, it forces Bracey (25) to turn his head when the ball is reversed. The same thing happens to Archibald (3) as the ball moves from Gibson to Hamlet to get a better angle on the entry pass. Instead of Archibald seeing the ball and moving to be in position to double up on the post, he reacts after Simmons has already received the ball and is making a move. Good player movement creates space for teammates.

Situation: NT 47-46 4:45
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

Thomas Bell sets a “flat” screen for Hamlet, something that is a staple of the 4-1 motion, especially when the opposition is pressuring the ball high. This is more of a 1-4 high look, that is typical of late-game possessions. We have basic screen-roll, 2-man game and Hamlet uses the screen well. We see that the simple act of going shoulder-to-shoulder with his screener opens up the middle of the floor and the pass to Bell, who does a great job of attacking the closeout and getting fouled. He made both.

Another thing to notice is Gibson’s “lift” action on the left side. As Thomas begins to roll, that triggers the “lift” from Gibson who comes up from his corner spot to create space for the kickout pass. Because Bell pops out behind the arc, Gibson is crowding him a bit for a second, but it works out. You can see Ledoux (5) lose track of his man Gibson. He realizes he has to step up and that means he has to abandon his previously great position. Instead of being in place to stop the drive, he vacates the area (rightly) to guard Mo. Again, good player movement creates space.

Situation: NT 49-48 4:01
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

Here we see the issue with only being familiar with the first or the basic action. NT runs the standard motion actions. There is a pass to the wing, a cut away by the passer (Hamlet), Gibson sets the screen for Zach and there is a ball reversal to try to post him. Here, Tech knows the play is coming and they jump the pass and there is a turnover. Here we’d like to see a counter action. Maybe Zach sets a screen for Hamlet and he cuts through. The Spurs have a counter for their similar set.

Teams will scout the hell out of this team when there is time to prepare. NT needs to be able to get into secondary actions easily.

Situation: NT 49-48 3:42
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

This is a different set, likely owing to the fact that Tech was jumping on the other stuff so easily. Zach is giving a hand signal — “stack” — and NT gets the ball on the left side with a look to post Zach on the seal. He misses but this was a good look out of a solidly-executed set.

Reese gets the entry pass, but looks confused about the next thing to do. I would like to see a cut through here, but that could bring a double on Zach. Gibson is asking for an exchange and that would work just fine. On the opposite side, you can see Tech is not respecting the passing ability of our guys, nor the shooting ability of Thomas Bell. It would be nice for Bell to set a “flare” screen for Hamlet to get him an open three on the cross court pass from Simmons. This all results in a good look for Zach, though, so we cannot complain too much. He just missed.

Situation: NT 49-48 2:58
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

Here we have an indicator of the work to be done. McCasland is screaming “thumb down”. It looks like NT wants to run a “continuity” set, which is essentially just a series of the same couple of actions: 1) a ball screen on one side, 2) a reversal to the big man into a ball screen on the other side. Typically this is run continuously until the defense makes a mistake or over-hedges on something.

NT There is confusion from everyone and mostly, the movements are slow. This can be run at a deliberate pace, but everything needs to be crisper — screens set solidly and the cuts sharper. Some teams use this to get into a set or just as a default action when the play breaks down. NT called it so it is a set to get into a ball screen.

All the motion gets Zach ready to set a ball screen for Hamlet, just like in the initial start of the previous sets earlier. The roll by Simmons triggers a “lift” action by Reese, where he pops up or “lifts” up from his original spot. The idea is to give Simmons space to roll and take away the defense’s help, as we saw with Gibson earlier. Tech does a great job of being active and tipping the pass. Jean (1) was tough all night. Having active hands is playing great defense and they do that here.

One note here — typically teams defend the “continuity” by dropping a guy in the center of the paint like Tech does here. He is sitting there but since NT does a good job of transitioning into the “regular” set, Thomas Bell is is wide open. Ledoux (5) is actually pointing to his teammate to pick Bell up, thinking he is communicating with him on the exchange by Gibson and Bell. This is an excellent example of how combining actions — flowing one into another — is a great way to take away the typical defensive tricks and plans that teams develop for a particular set. NT created two open looks and Hamlet was not wrong to look for Reese on the roll. The next level is recognizing who is open everywhere.

The deflection leads to a scramble and that leads to a kicked ball. NT runs an out-of-bounds play and NT runs something for Gibson to pop out and get a shot. You can see McCasland signal “zipper” on his tie. That’s typically the name for actions like this to get a shooter a look from the top of the key. Tech traps it hard — again, good stuff — and Mo attacks it and misses at the rim. Generally speaking, this is a good idea, but he is not going to make a living attacking the bucket.

We probably could use a better screen from Bell at the free throw line, as Gibson just needed a half-second longer and he could have let it fly. He does a good job finding something off the dribble, but we maybe would like to see a go-to action if they trap it like they did. Maybe Reese lifts and Bell continues to set a pin for Zach to get him a look inside. If Bell got big and called for the ball he would have drawn three players, and opened up a passing lane for both Reese and Hamlet.

Situation: NT 49-48 1:56
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

NT is running the action to get Zach the ball in the post. The bench is screaming instructions to everyone. Mo does not quite know he is supposed to be on the other side of the floor. He moves to his spot right as the action is beginning, throwing off the timing a bit. It looks like they tried to get Zach on the fake pin-down counter again. Reese could have probably found him but did not let it go. There was no exchange on the ball reversal, which makes it harder to get Zach the ball. Archibald (3) stays lurking in the paint ready for it and NT is not making him pay with any action. When Bell throws it to the wing, he cuts through (standard action) and you can see that Archibald (3) cannot stay and ball-watch anymore.

Beyond that, NT is reluctant to run a pick-n-roll with Reese and Simmons, which would be a default action when the entry pass is not there. Instead they abandon that position and begin again up top with Hamlet and Simmons — the standard pairing. Hamlet is doubled, Jean (1) is harassing Hamlet and NT gets a bad shot from Reese.

This was a crucial situation and NT was playing great defense here. They let Tech off the hook by not getting a good look. The details are crucial. NT was playing hard and that likely contributed to the somewhat slow offensive actions here. Zach was doing a great job battling for good positions but was not getting rewarded for it.

Situation: NT 49-48 1:14
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

After a couple of poor possessions, NT runs a set to distract Tech and get Zach in a two-man game with Hamlet up top. There are a series of screens to get Zach to sprint up and screen for Hamlet. Jean (1) is hounding Hamlet and forces a turnover just as the play begins. Mac is furious at the call. Wasted possession. Most of that was fine, and we should give a lot of credit to the defense there. Jean was fantastic and really forced the turnover. NT could not get into what they wanted because of it.

Situation: NT 49-48 0:35
Personnel: 13-24-1-3-0

A couple things happen here. Jean (1) is again hounding Hamlet and that eats up time. By the time NT is into their set, the staff is screaming at Mo to come over. Reese is yelling at him, too. Zach sets the screen high, both Bell and Mo run to the same spot in slow motion, with a look like they are trying to figure out what is supposed to happen. Zach is trying to adapt by reading the play. Hamlet is doing the same. There is a time out to reset.

Again, credit Tech’s defense here for making it tough to get into the look. The thing to learn here is that good teams like Tech will make it difficult to run your favorite play. There has to be better execution here — to the level where it is second-nature.

Out of the timeout, NT runs the same zipper play for Gibson. There is a ball screen for Hamlet to get down hill as Mo “zips” up to get a look. This time Tech does not trap it, but Ledoux pops out to challenge it. It is a nice enough look.

After that, Hamlet got the winner all by himself.

The verdict? North Texas got Zach some good looks out of various sets but failed hard when it did not work. The goal of the offense is to get a quality look every time down the floor. While A lot of that was Tech reading the actions and taking the first and second options away. NT looks like they are still working through learning the sets. Instead of reacting to the defense, they are thinking too much.

Again, the team is getting buckets at an efficient rate, but the good teams they’ve faced this season have done a great job of shutting that down late, as we saw. Tech held NT scoreless for a long stretch. WKU did the same. Marshall was more unlucky than bad in that game. NT will face some good defensive teams that force the offense into their second and third actions and the league title will likely be determined by how well NT executes those in crunch time.

Right now, NT does not have a player that can just go get a bucket on his own steam. Mo tried to make a play but was stuffed. Zach needs a good entry pass. Hamlet made a play in the open court, but against a half-court set, he needs good spacing and a good screen and the awareness to use those screens effectively.

NT has made a lot of improvement and will continue to do so as the season progresses. Repetitions are needed and that will only come with games. Having lost some tough ones against good teams has helped NT win this one. Playing this tough team will help NT prepare for the next tough game.

NT is 6-1 in the league and is getting better because they have a lot of room to improve. That is exciting.

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Basketball

Zachary Simmons Is Good

 

Previously, I linked to some of the good stuff Zach did against Tech. I wanted to discuss something else he did against UTEP last night. This play is not particular special in that it does not have some outstanding display of other-worldly athleticism like any Zion Williamson highlight. This is instead just good post play.

As my tweet highlights, the play has four things that are difficult for some players to master. Playing as the lone-big man is difficult and exhausting. Simmons has to battle all night and still do things that require good technique. Watch how he gets into position by setting a screen, sealing his man (who had helped on the screen by showing high) and holding him off.

Screen cap ESPN+

So much of any sport is doing the work before the play comes your way. This is good stuff. If we could get a great pas into the post he can simply turn and score. As it was, Woolridge had to toss it out a bit, but Zach still had the ball in a good spot to work on his man one-on-one.

Screen cap ESPN+

Zach then goes to work. This seems easy — I mean he is just backing down the defender, right? The answer is not really. Simmons is a right-handed player and every part of this is not necessarily natural. The balance and timing required to attack his defender from this position requires development. Finally he finishes at the rim with a nice left hook.

Screen capture | ESPN+

This again is not easy. Plenty of guys can do this in practice against ‘air’ but not against a guy trying to push you out of the paint. He gets his right shoulder into his defender, rises, leans and gets the soft, lefty finish there. It is simple, but requires so much skill and touch and hours in the lab.

All of the above skills are taught to big men throughout all the levels of basketball — well, they at least used to be — and while we all favor bigs that can screen and finish at the rim like Clint Capela, there is value in the traditional post-up play.

No, we do not want to take 35 of these a game, but it is unbelievably useful to have this in the repertoire.