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Looking at the Texas basketball offense, Part 2: High ball screens

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Texas vs Nevada Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

This summer, I’m trying to work through some of the details of Texas’ offense, which over the past few years can probably best be described as problematic. Our aim here is to try to understand what the Longhorns were trying to accomplish, and what was going wrong with Shaka Smart’s team.

In the first part of this series I attempted an overview of how the 2017-2018 Longhorns approached an offensive possession, and then dove into the details of their fall back option on offense — the continuity ball screen game. If you didn’t read that first post, I propose that you read it now.

In this article, I am going to look at a second major component of the Texas offense — the high ball screen. As I did in the first part of this series, all of the possessions highlighted here took place in Texas’ non-conference win against Alabama. We will start off with one of Smart’s favorite high ball screen plays.

The “Hook” play

Over his career as a head coach, Smart has perhaps called the Hook play more than any other. Any Google or YouTube search of Smart’s offensive tactics will almost immediately turn this play up, so I am not exactly going to be covering new ground here in explaining the play itself. Instead, I will hopefully highlight some important details that help us to better understand how the play can go either right or wrong.

The idea behind the Hook play is simple. The aim is to set up a high ball screen and allow the point guard to read the defense. But rather than simply dribbling up the floor and running a high ball screen, the play starts with a down screen for the big man who will set the ball screen, which is designed to mess up the ball screen coverage by making the help a step late.

Let’s set up the action with the image below.

The play will start out with a lot of movement, as the two off-ball perimeter players switch sides, and the two big men position themselves. One of the perimeter players sets a down screen for the 5-man (James Banks in this example) before moving to the corner.

The goal of this down screen is not to free up the 5-man to receive a pass, but to instead help set up the ball screen that Banks is preparing to set. Note that while he moves up to set the ball screen his defender is delayed. This will make some of the potential defensive overages common on high ball screens (such as trapping the ball or showing hard on the screen) difficult to execute.

Banks initially approaches Matt Coleman’s defender as if he is going to set the ball screen to allow Coleman to drive to the right, but at the last moment changes the direction of the screen allowing Coleman to attack to the left instead. This is a second little detail that makes it hard for the defense, as Bank’s defender won’t know until the last possible moment where the help on Coleman will be needed. As we see in the photo below, the defense has recovered reasonably well, although the Longhorns should have pretty good prospects at this point.

We need to spend a little more time with the photo above to discuss what the other players on the floor are doing. The two wing players are either in or moving towards their respective corners of the floor, to try to stretch the defense out horizontally. Dylan Osetkowski, the 4-man, is starting to work his way up to the top of the key on the side opposite where Coleman is dribbling. He and Banks are working together to execute a popular combination known as a “roll and replace,” where one big man sets a ball screen and rolls to the basket and a second player pops out to take his place.

Roll and replace accomplishes more or less the same end state that we would see if instead the play called for Osetkowski to ball screen for Coleman and then pop out beyond the three point line (an action Texas also uses). But the roll and replace is arguably harder to defend, as it requires three different defenders to move and coordinate their response. When combined with the actions that Texas uses to set it up and the possibility of a last second change of the screening angle, this is a combination that when properly executed should almost be unguardable.

So about that execution. The image below shows us the moment after the screen has been set, and Banks is starting to roll to the basket. Notice Coleman is now drawing two defenders, leaving one defender to account for Banks and Osetkowski. At this point all that has to happen is for Banks to roll hard to the basket (likely forcing Osetkowski’s defender to follow him) while Osetkowski ends up wide open behind the three point line.

That in this case was all that had to happen, but it did not in fact happen. In the image below, Banks is hanging out at the free throw line, instead of diving to the rim. I have helpfully labeled the place Banks should have gone with a massive blue oval. Banks being where he is means that Osetkowski’s defender is a few steps closer, and has time to close out when Coleman hits Osetkowski with the pass.

Oh well. An opportunity was missed, or rather an opportunity that never materialized because a little detail was not properly completed. Against a good defense windows to score open and close quickly, and making a defender cover two extra steps is generally the difference between a wide open shot and no shot.

As Osetkowski takes the ball, things proceed to plan B, which for Texas last year was the continuity ball screen game that we covered in detail during the first part of this series. In the image below, Osetkowski swings the ball to Eric Davis.

Advancing a few moments shows Osetkowski following with a ball screen. You will also note that there are only four seconds remaining on the shot clock, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for the offense to work. Texas was pretty slow getting into its original Hook set, and that means there isn’t a whole lot of time left to work with.

When there isn’t a lot of time left on the shot clock, someone needs to do something. For the Texas Longhorns, Eric Davis was someone who typically was willing to do something, and in this case rather than using Osetkowski’s ball screen he instead sinks a contested three. This was the obvious outcome in a season when Davis could only make contested shots (he uses the defenders hand as a sight).

I think we can reflect on this possession a bit, as Texas did some things well and some things poorly. The Longhorns were slow to get into their set initially (which became a problem late in the possession), but once they got organized mostly executed things well. Right up until the point where Banks didn’t read the floor properly, and as a result the high ball screen didn’t create an open look for Osetkowski. Then Eric Davis bailed out a bad possession. All basketball teams have bad possessions, and having someone who can bail them out is very useful.

What roll and replace is supposed to look like

Let’s take a second example of a high ball screen with this same roll and replace action from the second half of the same game. Here we see Bamba preparing to set a ball screen for Coleman, while Osetkowski again sets up near the basket.

Again, at the last moment, Bamba changed the direction of the screen, which this time has totally taken his defender out of the play. This is shown in the figure below. Osetkowski is preparing to replace the soon to be rolling Bamba, as Matt Coleman has dreams of an open lane to the basket.

With Bamba’s defender out of position to help on the drive, Osetkowski defender now has to pick up the slack and prevent a layup. This is a bad situation for the defense.

With Bamba starting to roll to the basket, Coleman quickly reverses the ball to Osetkowski, as shown in the image below. This sort of wide open three is the sort of opportunity that high ball screens with a roll and replace action frequently create. All that remains is to knock down the shot. But Osetkowski misses.

If you want to see the Hook play in action (with examples taken from a variety of Smart’s teams), you can watch this video that created by Half Court Hoops.

The central role of the 4-man in Shaka Smart’s ball screen-heavy offense

The two example plays I have broken down above are of central importance to understanding some of the problems Texas had on offense during the 2017-2018 season (as well as the previous season). In the first example, Texas’ offense was undermined by poor execution or a poor read of the defense, and in the second case everything worked perfectly and a player just missed the shot.

Sometimes players just miss shots. What matters is how often this happens. And in Texas’ case this is particularly true for the 4-man. (Note: for simplicity when describing positions, I am using the convention of numbering each player on the court with a number between 1 and 5. In the examples I have used Dylan Osetkowski is the 4-man.)

Shaka Smart’s offense puts a lot on the 4-man. In all of his high ball screen sets, the 4-man is often the guy who is open, and who ends up having to make a play.

Frequently, that play is an open three-point shot. Over the years, Smart’s teams have featured 4-men like Bradford Burgess, Treveon Graham, and Connor Lammert who took and made a lot of threes. In the post-Tevin Mack portion of the 2016-2017 season there was no one on the team who filled this role for Texas, while during the 2017-2018 season these shots fell to Dylan Osetkowski.

Let’s be honest; Osetkowski struggled shooting from the perimeter last season in an offense that fed him a steady diet of these sorts of shots. Osetkowski took more threes than any other Longhorn last season, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; most of the 4-men I listed in the paragraph above finished first or second on one or more of Smart’s teams in three-point attempts.

While this shot roll and replace action creates a lot of open looks for the 4-man, that is different from calling these shots easy. In the roll and replace action, the 4-man has to run from the baseline out to the three point line, turn around and set his feet while receiving a pass and preparing to shoot.

Smart’s offense will turn a big man with the ability to knock down this shot at a high rate into a star. If Osetkowski can be that player next season, or Kamaka Hepa can be that player a couple seasons from now, then we will really have something.

In the meantime, it might make sense for Texas to look to other ways to try to attack the defense with ball screens that will take some of the pressure off of Osetkowski to deliver each and every possession, or will at least give him easier stationary looks from three. And Texas has already shown us one possible way to do this.

The spread pick and roll

Last season I would contend that the Texas offense was often at its best when it simplified the game and allowed Kerwin Roach and Matt Coleman to attack the defense off of ball screens with a spread floor. The problem is that this tactic was sort of at odds with a roster that featured a lottery pick big man. But that particular mental hurdle will not be present this coming season, and it is my hope that Smart will look at his two lead guards and call for the spread floor a little more often.

What I am about to show you is hardly even a play, but it is what Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns terrorized the NBA with at their peak when they popularized the spread pick and roll game in American basketball. I am about to show you how Texas created a wide open and truly easy three-point attempt with one pass and a handful of dribbles.

In the photo below the Texas Longhorns are looking for their spots on the floor. The action will be simple, as three other Longhorns will space around the perimeter and allow Jericho Sims to sprint out and set a ball screen for Matt Coleman. Sims will hopefully create space from his defender if he runs out and sets the screen quickly enough, making it difficult for the defense to help.

In the next image in this sequence, Sims is setting a solid and properly-angled ball screen for Coleman. The angle is important because it forces the defender to go over the screen — generally it is a good practice for the offense to take away the option the on-ball defender otherwise would have to go under a high ball screen. Unless the guard is an excellent perimeter shooter, things generally go better for the offense if the defender is forced to go over the screen.

Advancing ever so slightly we see that Coleman is coming off the screen, and looking for his angle of attack. Sims’ defender is attempting to contain Coleman, but has gotten a little too far away from his teammate (Coleman is about to split the defenders break the defense completely). Meanwhile, the other three Longhorns have taken their positions spotting up along the perimeter. Osetkowski is in the weak-side corner, and his man is helping to protect the basket.

Advancing a few moments takes us to the image below, where Coleman has split the defenders, sucked in the defense, and now has his pick of teammates to pass to. The most open is Osetkowski, and that is where the ball goes.

The result of this is the shot below, which is about as good of a shot that a team can create. Osetkowski is ready to shoot and is wide open. He doesn’t have to scramble and set his feet to shoot, he simply has to catch the ball and stroke it. Which he does, putting up three points for the Longhorns.

This is not to say Texas did or will make every shot like this, but shots like this are of the sort that you hope to get when you run offense.

How Texas uses high ball screens as a part of a more complex sequence of actions

Up until this point in this article I have focused on possessions where Texas brought the ball up the floor and initiated a high ball screen as the first offensive action. But during the 2017-2018 season, high ball screens were also used as a single segment in a more complex sequence of actions. I will pull together more examples of these sequences in a future article, but for now I want to show you one simple example of how it worked.

The example I am about to show looks a lot like a combination you might see watching the San Antonio Spurs play (it is almost a direct copy of something the Spurs and many other NBA teams run). Play will proceed through a sequence of actions, with each action potentially creating a chance for a player to make a play to score the ball.

The action starts with the ball being swung through one of the two big men (in this example through Mohamed Bamba) to a wing. The other big man (in this example Dylan Osetkowski) flashes to the post.

With the ball on the wing, Osetkowski is isolated on the post (and honestly looks pretty open). The Texas wing with the ball has the option of entering the ball into the post, but instead chooses to reverse the ball again through Bamba, setting up the weak side Spursesque action.

We can see this action start to play out in the image below. The ball is being swung back to Coleman in the slot, while the wing (Jacob Young) is preparing to set a cross screen for Osetkowski.

Advancing a few more moments finds Coleman moving the ball to the wing to create a passing angle. But it is very early in the game, and Osetkowski is a little impatient, and doesn’t wait for Young to set the screen (Young’s defender is also doing good work by slowing down Young’s cut). Ideally, Young would set his screen more in the center of the paint, but instead in this case ends up setting it at the edge of the lane.

By the time Osetkowski clears the screen, he isn’t in a useful position (this is a consequence of his leaving early, rather than waiting on the screen). So now play progresses to the next action. After setting the screen, Young will run off a screen being set by Bamba near the free throw line.

Let’s advance a short distance to see how things evolve...

...and then we can advance some more to the moment where Young comes off the screen and receives the pass. Bamba’s screen is just OK, and Young doesn’t end up with much room to either shoot the ball or drive the basket. But no harm there, because now we are on to the next action.

The next action in this, and in many other sequences that the Longhorns ran, is for Bamba to adjust and set a high ball screen for Young. He does that, and this time his screen is a good one. Note that with all of the moving around that Bamba’s defender is in the paint, where he can do little to prevent dribble penetration. This means that Young’s chances for making a play with the ball look pretty good. Bamba is supposed to roll to the basket after the screen, while Osetkowski replaces him, just as we saw in the patterns from earlier in the article.

Advancing a few moments takes us to the image below, where things start to go sideways for the Longhorns. As Osetkowski is filling in behind Bamba, the Texas freshman is just sort of standing around and watching.

Let’s watch things play out just a little more. Now it is clear that Bamba and Osetkowski have their wires crossed. Bamba thinks he should be picking and popping, while Osetkowski is looking to replace a rolling Bamba. This mix-up turns Bamba into an extra (gigantic) defender. The wheels have completely come off.

I will save you the gory details on the rest of the possession. The way things should have gone was that a rolling Bamba should have created an opening for Osetkowski to catch the ball and possibly shoot. But if that chance wasn’t open, Osetkowski could swing the ball to Matt Coleman on the wing, set a ball screen, and initiate the continuity ball screen game.

Reflecting, and looking ahead

I think if you want to reflect on some of the things that were messed up with the Texas offense, that final possession gives you a lot to consider. Texas had a chance right away to throw the ball inside, but elected not to do it, knowing that it was just the first possession of the game and there would be other actions in the play to score off of. And then with each of those actions, the execution was messed up in some way or another.

We can try to critique these specific sets and actions that Texas ran last season. But I think that type of critique is besides the point when there were so many errors of execution on the sets that the Longhorns were trying to run. I haven’t cherry-picked the examples here; I have a hard drive filled with these sorts of mistakes. I cannot tell you how I feel about a particular play when I can’t find many examples of it being run properly.

I want to be careful not to be horrendously unfair to Texas here. All teams have bad possessions and go through stretches of sloppy execution. At times like this, it helps if the offense has one or more players who can go and make a play late in the shot clock, or can hit a contested shot. Kerwin Roach did a nice job of making things happen last season for Texas, and Matt Coleman and Eric Davis certainly had their moments, too. Roach and Coleman will still be around to fix some of these situations next season, but it would be nice if they didn’t have to try to do it quite so often.

I also want to say that this analysis makes me somewhat hopeful that things can get better for the Longhorns. After experiencing so many problems the past two seasons, it is possible that we will start to see a correction of these mistakes now that most of the key players on the team will have at least one full season in the program. So many of the problems we have run across are fixable. Once the team gets past the point where it is making up new mistakes faster than the coaching staff can correct old ones, progress can begin.

I will wrap up this series with a third post, which will hopefully come sometime before the season starts, where we will look at a few more of Texas’ set plays.