Over the last several weeks Peter has been previewing the Texas Longhorns basketball team. In one of his most recent posts, he wrote about the development and importance of J'Covan Brown. Texas will be very young, playing a number of freshman in key roles. Perhaps the most important player on the team will be junior guard J'Covan Brown. Brown is a skilled offensive player who can do a lot to help out his younger teammates.
Brown's first two seasons at Texas had their ups and downs. His freshman year was largely forgettable. He didn't play particularly well on a team that fell apart midway through the year. His sophomore year was much better. He still made occasional mistakes, but was also one of the best offensive players on the team. And Brown seemed to have his best games against top competition when the stakes were high.
I really wanted to try to build on Peter's post about Brown, so I decided to re-watch one of his best games from last season -- Texas' overtime loss to Connecticut. Brown was very good in a game where Texas nearly beat the eventual NCAA champion. Additionally, J'Covan Brown showed off a number of the different aspects of his game in that contest. So let's take a closer look at Brown on offense, focusing primarily on the Connecticut game.
J'Covan Brown as a Shooter
When I try to understand what a particular player does on offense, I like to start with the way that they primarily threaten the defense. J'Covan Brown's game is largely predicated on the fact that he can really shoot. It seems that this is not as widely appreciated among Texas basketball fans as it should be. Why is that? I think we have to look back at J'Covan Brown's freshman season. During his freshman season two years ago, his shooting ability didn't really show up clearly in the statistics. In the 2009-2010 season, his field goal percentage was 35.4% and his three point shooting percentage was 28.8%. I think a lot of this was due to forcing bad shots in an offense where there was a lot of standing around. Still in J'Covan Brown's first season we got a glimpse of his shooting ability during trips to the free throw line. He was an 88% free throw shooter that year. It has been my experience that it is really hard for guys who don't have a great shooting stroke to stick in the high 80's from the free throw line for very long. So whenever I see someone who shoots that well from the line, but isn't shooting well from the floor, I want to try to understand why that is. There are, of course, some rare exceptions to this principle that players who shoot well from the line are good shooters. But in general, when a player struggles from the field while shooting close to 90% from the line, I usually suspect that bad shot selection or an offense that doesn't generate good opportunities is to blame.
Last season, with a year of college experience and a functioning offense, J'Covan Brown's shooting ability started to show up in the stats. He hit 38.5% on three point shots, and 42.2% on two point shots (not a bad percentage for a guard who can't get many shots near the rim). He continued to shoot well at the free throw line, making 86.1% of his shots. J'Covan Brown's shooting ability was finally evident on the court. This is the basic threat of Brown's offensive game. If the defense doesn't take his shot seriously, then he will make them pay.
J'Covan Brown in the Pick and Roll
This fall I have been writing a lot about the Texas offense. I have really focused on a few of the basic sets and concepts used in that offense. One thing I haven't written about is the use of ball screens. In the Texas offense, there is pretty significant use of ball screens. In some games, we saw this more than other games. J'Covan Brown does extremely well working off of a ball screen, in large part because the threat that his shooting ability creates and his patience with the ball.
It is worth taking a paragraph explaining a little bit of theory about pick and roll defense. I have previously tried to tackle this subject a bit using a collection of youtube videos. Basically, when defending a screen and roll, the defense has a few options. The defender guarding the ball handler can either try to fight over the screen or under the screen. The defender guarding the screener can either try to step out aggressively, can play soft, or can try to body up on the screener to create a path for the defender fighting under the screen. If the offensive player with the ball can hit a jump shot, it takes away many of these options. Fighting under the screen will often give the offensive player an open three point shot. So most defenses will guard a player like J'Covan Brown by fighting over ball screens, often times with the man defending the screener stepping out to slow him down.
Let's take a look at J'Covan Brown working off a couple of ball screens in last season's game against Connecticut. In the first clip, we see how J'Covan uses his shooting ability to punish a momentary breakdown in the defense. After working through the offense, the ball swings back to J'Covan Brown and a ball screen is set. I have marked J'Covan Brown in the image below with a yellow arrow. If you watch the video, you will notice that as this screen is being set, Brown sets up his defender by faking away from the screen with a "jab step."
In the next photo we see the point where the screen has just been set. The screener (Gary Johnson) feels his man leave him, and is slipping to the basket. Brown's defender is fighting over top of the screen, while Johnson's defender is stepping out to slow down Brown. Or at least that is the theory. What is actually going on is that Johnson's defender is not very aggressive here in stopping the ball, and he does little to impede Brown's progress. Ideally, the defender would like to stop the ball handler entirely or force him to dribble away from the basket before he attempts to recover to defend his own man. This gives Brown's defender enough time to recover. But this case, Brown hardly slows down. This is a defensive breakdown. Defensive breakdowns happen often in basketball. It is really hard for five guys to play perfect defense for 35 seconds. The key is to have players who can punish the defense when it breaks down.
In the shot below, things become even worse for the defense. The defenders are getting in each other's way, and Brown is basically unguarded. He now has a split second alone. Brown hits an open three.
My advice is to watch the entire play again. Giving up that open three point shot seems adequate punishment to Connecticut for not aggressively defending on the ball screen.
Let's take a look at another screen and roll play from overtime of the same game against Connecticut. In this play, we see that as the screen is being set, the defenders start out aggressively impeding Brown's path. This is shown in the image below. This looks like pretty good defense to me.
The defense started out playing this pretty well. Brown remains patient with the ball. This is where Brown's second major strength comes in. Aside from being such a good shooter, Brown has a feel for the game. Sometimes, we like to refer to qualities like this as natural -- and perhaps they are -- but Brown at this point has played many thousands of hours of basketball over the course of his life, and he has been in situations like this before. He keeps his cool with the ball and waits for the play to develop. In the photo below, we see that the defender is bailing to cover the man rolling to the basket perhaps a split second earlier than he should. Brown's patience will be rewarded as the defenders once again get tangled up with each other. This time Brown turns to the corner and gets an easy shot in the lane. Connecticut usually defends ball screens better than this, but they were clearly having some issues in this game.
Take a look at the full clip here. Plays like this remind me of the old basketball cliché, "offense is reaction, while defense is anticipation." Like many clichés there is some truth to it.
J'Covan Brown Working Off the Ball
Working off of screens away from the ball, particularly double screens, is a major element of the Texas offense. These sorts of plays are a natural fit for a savvy player who can shoot. In the Connecticut game, I found several examples of J'Covan Brown working off the ball running through double screens. In both cases, the plays didn't result in points, but they did lead to very good shots that we would expect to go down pretty often. (This is just how basketball works. Sometimes you make the right play and the shot doesn't go down.)
At this point, I have written thousands of words about double and staggered screens, and how they function in the Utah Jazz and Texas Longhorns offense. To quickly recap, when a double screen is set, the defender guarding the offensive player has two choices. I show these two choices in the diagram below. The defender can either chase the offensive player under the screen, or can attempt to fight over the top of the screen. The offensive player running through the screen must read and react to the defender. If the defender chases the offensive player, he should curl around the double screen and look to either shoot or make a play with the ball. If the defender attempts to fight over the top of the screen, the offensive player should pop to the corner, where he will either have an open look from three, or will be able to drive the ball against the defender attempting to close out.
In the game against Connecticut, the defense elected to chase J'Covan Brown under the screen. This is probably the way I would want to defend this play as well. A player who shoots as well as J'Covan Brown should not be let alone for a corner three. Let's take a look at a couple of plays where J'Covan Brown curled off of the double screen.
Here is the first clip. In this clip, Texas is running out of their 1-4 set. The play they are running is a Utah Jazz staple, where a guard first runs off of a back screen, and then a staggered double screen. We pick up the action in the image below where J'Covan Brown is running through the screen (Brown is highlighted with the yellow arrow), with his defender following him. This is his indication to curl around the screen.
In the next image, we see Brown after he has completed the curl. he is receiving a pass and is open for a shot from in very close. He misses the shot, but this is a shot that we should expect him to hit frequently. If you watch the full play, you can better appreciate how this sort of screen creates options for J'Covan Brown to score from inside the lane.
In our second clip, we see Texas operating out of their standard Flex set. We again pick up the action in the photo below with J'Covan Brown running through a double screen. His defender follows him through the screen, and Brown curls.
The next image captures the moment just after J'Covan has come off the screen and received the ball. I have pointed out four players in this play with arrows, from left to right. They are J'Covan Brown, Brown's defender, Gary Johnson's defender, and Gary Johnson. One way to defend against this type of screen is to chase the man running through the screen, and have the defender of the screener step out and help. In this situation, that is how Connecticut is defending this play. Johnson's defender is helping to prevent an easy shot for Brown. Johnson is rolling towards the baseline. J'Covan hits him with the pass, and Johnson misses a pretty good shot. You can watch the full play here.
These double screen sets create opportunities for a playmaking guard like J'Covan Brown to find the open man. Essentially, the double screen does the work of breaking down the defense for a guard. While a player like J'Covan Brown can beat his man off of the dribble and get into the lane, using sets like this one makes things a bit easier on him. It allows him to make catch-and-shoot or catch-and-pass plays that suit his skill set.
J'Covan Brown the Competitor
I finally want to show one more play from the Connecticut game. With the clock winding down at the end of the second half and Texas down by two, the Longhorns needed some points. It is in these situations where J'Covan Brown's ability to just make a play comes in really handy. I don't need to break much down here. Just watch the play. In this play, Brown beats his man off the dribble, but then misses the shot. But he doesn't give up on the play, and instead fights with one of the big guys for the ball, and ultimately gets fouled and sent to the free throw line. He made both free throws and tied the game. At that point, it was the biggest play of the game.
J'Covan Brown has a very important role to play for Texas this season. In what will probably be an up and down season for the young Longhorns, his ability to make plays for himself and others will be a big help. He will also have to carry a significant fraction of the scoring load. I think he is up to the task.