The Texas Longhorns offense is struggling. In a recent article, I charted Texas’ three-point shots in a recent loss against Kansas State. At least in that game, it was clear that Texas’ best three-point attempts often came in situations where the Longhorn offense was first able to penetrate the ball into the interior of the defense before kicking the ball out to an open shooter who was set and ready to fire. It was also clear that the Longhorns just weren’t able to generate many of these sorts of chances.
But why is this? Common armchair analysis of Texas basketball this season seems to start and end with the statement that the Longhorn lack a true point guard. This is reasonable, and true, but my armchair analysis leads me to believe that the reality is a bit more complicated. Lacking a true point guard doesn’t have to sink an offense — just ask the Duke Blue Devils what they think about this point guard question, as they seem to be getting along fine without one. (Duke has the benefit of highly skilled offensive players at pretty much every position, which tends to help.)
I think the “lack of a true point guard” statement is really just a proxy for a more general issue — Texas struggles to break down a defense and create the sort of highly effective inside-outside scoring chances that high quality offenses produce consistently.
Breaking down the defense
To create chances to score in the half-court, an offense first typically must do something to disrupt and break down the defense, ideally threatening it with a chance to go to the basket. Texas’ offense this season is built around two basic ways to break down the defense. The Longhorns either look to work the ball inside to either Jarrett Allen or Shaq Cleare in the post, or one of the Texas perimeter players works off of a ball screen.
Thanks to the miracles of modern information technology, we actually have a lot of data made available by Synergy Sports to quantify some of the issues the Longhorns are having. Synergy Sports catalogs plays using game video, and classifies them into a number of categories. It additionally tracks the results of each of these plays, and generates statistics on them. So using the results of their work, we can evaluate the performance of Texas’ offense for various play types.
A few words on the Synergy data before we go further. Synergy uses a somewhat idiosyncratic unit of action for calculating efficiencies; for the purposes of understanding their data a play ends as soon as the ball is turned over or a shot is attempted. This means that offensive rebounds will initiate a new play, and are not counted as a part of the prior one. For this reason, we should not confuse the points per play results of Synergy with points per possession numbers that are the currency of modern basketball analysis. Additionally, running an offensive action that does not lead to either a shot or a turnover isn’t counted in these numbers.
To be clear, Synergy isn’t doing things differently just to be annoying. In trying to catalog a large video database and analyze it, the choice they made is probably easier to work with than using the more conventional possession definition.
Conveniently, Synergy tracks both ball screens as well as post ups. I am going to defer the post play discussion for a future post. Here, I am just going to focus on ball screens.
Texas’ ball screen effectiveness
On all pick and roll plays this season, Texas has been one of the worst teams in the nation. The Longhorns are averaging a little less than 0.7 points per play, compared with an NCAA team median of 0.85, per the Synergy Sports database. As another point of comparison, last season Shaka Smart’s team scored 0.9 points per play off of ball screens.
We can break things down further to isolate the source of Texas’ troubles using the ball screen. When the ball handler passes off to either the rolling screener or a perimeter shooter, the Longhorn offense has been solid, scoring 1.0 points per play. But when the initial ball handler keeps the ball and takes the shot himself or turns it over, the Longhorns are averaging less that 0.45 points per play, which is the fourth lowest scoring rate out of 351 D-I programs. As a point of comparison, a season ago Texas scored at 0.84 points on these plays thanks to the strong work of Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix.
In the Texas offense, roughly three out of every four ball screens are set for Kerwin Roach, Eric Davis, and Andrew Jones. Jones has performed somewhat better when he keeps the ball, scoring about 0.65 points per play, while Roach and Davis have struggled greatly, both averaging roughly 0.4 points per play.
Diving deeper into the numbers reveals that both Roach and Davis have had a hard time getting to the basket in ball screens, with Davis having more trouble at this than Roach. Meanwhile, Roach has been somewhat turnover prone working off of ball screens, while still shooting less than 30 percent when he keeps the ball.
Tracking Kerwin Roach ball screen plays against Kansas State
In Texas’ recent loss to Kansas State, there were six logged plays where Kerwin Roach kept the ball in a screen and roll situation, which serve as a nice example of the sorts of problems the Texas offense is having with the high ball screen game. Two of these six plays were positive, leading to a made two and a trip to the free throw line. The other four plays resulted in a miss at the rim (the shot was blocked out of bounds and Texas recovered), a highly-contested missed jumper (this was taken with the shot clock winding down), and two turnovers.
When things went well
One of Roach’s greatest gifts is the ability to quickly attack a defense, and shoot through gaps before they can close. The first few examples from the Kansas State game show this well.
The image below sets up our first example, which came late in the game. Roach is preparing to work to his left off of a high ball screen, with the three additional offensive players spread across the baseline. Note also the position of the defender who is guarding the screener, who I have labeled as the “Helping Defender.”
In this play, Roach is able to quickly attack the defense off the dribble and split between the two defenders. It is a little hard to capture something like this with still photos, but the image below shows things just after this has occurred.
Roach will go on to take the ball to the basket and finish over Kansas State’s shot blocker.
Another good example of Roach’s ability to blow by the defense in a ball screen and get to the rim occurred in the later portion of the first half. In the image below, Roach is working off of a high ball screen set by Shaq Cleare.
Advancing a few moments takes us to the point where Roach has come off the ball screen, and is starting to turn towards the basket. The two Wildcat defenders are getting in each other’s way (a common occurrence in an effective ball screen), which will give Roach a clear run at the rim.
Just a few moments later, Roach is exploding to the basket for an attempted dunk. The only thing that prevents it from going down is a hard foul by the defense.
When things went poorly
Roach turned the ball over twice on ball screens against Kansas State. In general, turnovers off of ball screens have been a major issue for Texas this season, with roughly one out of five logged plays where the ball handler keeps possession resulting in a turnover, per Synergy Sports. This is nearly double the rate Texas experienced last season with more experienced players handling the rock. In Roach’s case, turnovers are even more frequent, occurring in a little less than 30 percent of his logged ball screen scoring attempts.
In Roach’s game against Kansas State, the two plays resulting in turnovers were so similar that I will just show one of them. This example starts off well in the image below. Shaq Cleare sets an outstanding screen on Roach’s defender, effectively removing him from the play. This gives Roach the chance to attack a big man out on the floor with a running start, which is a match up that will generally favor the guard.
But as Roach makes his move, blowing by the defender, he loses control of the ball.
The result is a turnover. It was the second time in the game that Roach simply lost possession of the ball while making an aggressive play towards the basket.
Sometimes the defense is just better
When I do these sorts of breakdowns, I inevitably come across examples where I cannot really fault the actions of anyone for a play that doesn’t go the way it should. Sometimes the offense does what it needs to do, but the defense makes a play to erase the scoring chance. One of Roach’s misses against Kansas State off of a ball screen happens this way.
In the image below, Roach has just come off of a ball screen and is now facing up against the helping defender.
Advancing slightly, we see that Roach has made a move laterally, and is stretching out the defense, forcing the help defender to have to recover a longer distance than would be ideal.
As the defense starts to recover, it creates a seam that Roach is able to attack, which he aggressively does. Roach drives to the rim.
In the end, Roach’s shot is blocked at the rim, as Kansas State’s defense has recovered well. The ball goes out of bounds and Texas retains possession. It’s a good play by Roach, and a better play by the defense.
It is possible in the play above that Roach had a chance to pass the ball to the far wing to create a high quality catch and shoot chance from three point range. That said, I am not sure if he had a clean path to throw the pass or not — it can be hard to tell from the angle that we get on television.
Texas’ guards need to make better use of their ball screen options
Perusing the pictures above, one thing that I note is that Kansas State was not conceding many easy kick out passes when Roach put the ball on the floor in ball screens. As is common in our current high ball screen era, the Wildcats took away chances to drive and kick on the strong-side of the play.
In each example, Bruce Weber’s team was bringing help from the weak-side, and was leaving a Texas shooter open in the far corner. To hit this player requires a much more difficult cross-court pass that comes with greater risk. This opportunity is also is harder for the guard to recognize.
Roach did make such a cross-court pass early in the second half, finding Jacob Young for a cross-court pass that left him wide open for an easy three point shot. The moment before Roach threw the pass is captured in the image below, where you see the Texas freshman standing ready in the weak-side corner. Roach whipped the pass over the defense and hit Young right on the money. Young buried the shot on what was possibly Texas’ best looking offensive possession of the game.
To see and make this play more often, it may just be that Roach simply needs more reps running high ball screens. It is also possibly something that his coaches can help him with during the game, as Kansas State looked to be doing this fairly consistently in the possessions that I have watched closely.
But I think it is also true that as Roach develops as a ball handler, he will also do a better job at making plays for himself going to the basket. His two turnovers in ball screens against K-State came in situations where he had outstanding chances to score. Roach and the other Texas guards need to be able to punish the defense at the rim often enough to make them pay for not bringing extra defensive help one the strong-side of the play. Maintaining possession of the ball all the way to the rim is a critical step to get to that point.
One of the amazing things about basketball is how interconnected everything is, and how improving at little things can have such big effects. Because Texas misses something early in a possession, it has to force up a bad shot late. Because the Longhorns struggle to make solid plays when attacking the middle of the defense, there are fewer quality chances for perimeter shooters to get clean looks. Because Roach is unable to adequately punish a spread-out defense, that defense does not have to consider bringing extra help to stop him, freeing up more shooters for better shots. Eric Davis and Jacob Young struggle to shoot in part because the rest of the ecosystem is struggling to create prime opportunities for them to shoot.
I truly believe that as bad as the Texas offense looks, it is getting better, in the sense that it is cleaning up many of the problems that it has shown earlier in the season. Just as one example, the problem that I highlighted a few weeks ago with Texas big men not properly moving without the ball on dribble penetration appears to have been corrected. These little improvements are laying the groundwork for a much more potent attack once Kerwin Roach and Andrew Jones log the requisite number of hours running ball screens. And as I watch them play they seem to be getting closer all the time.
Both Roach and Jones have the ability to turn the corner and blast to the rim. They both have the ability to find guys on the perimeter and finish at the hoop. But both players are still just a little too inconsistent from play to play for everything to fit together.
It is hard to know what the timetable for the needed improvements will be. But when these small changes happens, it will have a big effect on everything.