“He’s at the front of the scouting report now and, you know, at the beginning of the year he wasn’t. There’s a lot of expected of him now, both internally and externally. At the beginning of the year there wasn’t.”
The comment from Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart last Monday about his rising freshman forward Jaxson Hayes, a potential lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft, provided some perspective on just how much Smart’s offense has changed due to the high-flying Hayes.
The meteoric rise of Hayes is worth appreciating once again — he played only a handful of minutes as a high school junior before joining the AAU circuit for the first time, emerged as a senior, then drew serious buzz in practice before the season began expectations entering college that included a ranking outside the top 100 players nationally in the 247Sports composite.
Hayes didn’t disappoint — at least as it related to confirming the sudden and strident preseason buzz — immediately making an impact offensively and defensively off the bench. When Hayes forced himself into the starting lineup, he took advantage by scoring continuing to score baskets with greater efficiency than all but a handful of players nationally.
Because Hayes has such a rare combination of quickness, height, length, leaping ability, body control, and strong hands, he immediately became an extremely dangerous threat screening for the Texas guards and rolling to the rim.
Increasing the use of spread ball screens allowed Smart and his staff to take advantage of the freshman’s best offensive attributes and the best all-around skills of his guard corps — the ability four players to run the pick-and-roll and get to the basket.
The attack also helped mitigate the team’s inconsistent outside shooting, which projected as the greatest question mark and then biggest offensive weakness for this team.
From the wider angle, the spread ball-screen actions run by the Longhorns gave the team an offensive identity, something that Louisiana-Monroe head coach Keith Richard questioned early in the season.
“They’re a little bit of a hard team to figure out in that... obviously great size, obviously talent, but are they a great driving team, are they a great post-up team, are they a great three-point shooting team? What are they?”
The answer? A spread ball-screen offense with some heavy doses of dribble penetration in one-on-one situations and other more subtle tweaks when necessary.
Opponents quickly began having to scheme for the spread ball-screen actions or paying for not making adjustments with finishes at the rim by the guards or rim-rattling dunks by Hayes. At times, even game plans heavily tilted towards taking away Hayes weren’t executed well enough, especially early in game or early in the shot clock in general.
Against Kansas in Austin, Hayes scored less than a minute into the game on an alley-oop dunk from a side pick-and-roll in semi transition when the Jayhawks defense failed to load against him quickly enough.
In Manhattan, the Wildcats were so worried about Hayes that it contributed to poor perimeter defense as the Longhorns guards got to the basket with regularity.
When it wasn’t the guards doing the damage, it was Hayes, despite Kansas State’s efforts to eliminate him around the basket. On one dunk in that game, Texas quickly ran two high ball screens set by Hayes to produce the highest-percentage shot in basketball.
Shaka Smart didn't anticipate using the spread ball-screen offense so much this season. Jaxson Hayes changed that calculation and shot to the top of scouting reports. Liked this play that showed how much opponents keyed on it, allowing great cut and assist by Courtney Ramey. pic.twitter.com/nZu3Cw7RzZ— Wescott Eberts (@SBN_Wescott) February 22, 2019
On the first ball screen, Hayes was pushed beyond the three-point arc by the Kansas State defender, so sophomore point guard Matt Coleman quickly swung the ball to senior forward Dylan Osetkowski on the perimeter, sparking a dribble handoff action and pass back to Coleman as Osetkowski and freshman guard Courtney Ramey essentially switched places. The dribble handoff also allowed Texas to essentially reset the spread ball-screen offense.
The second screen by Hayes happened at the three-point line and facing the other direction to alter how Kansas State played it and how Coleman could come off of it. Since concern over Hayes and his roll to the basket dominated the pre-game scouting report, both weak-side defenders got caught watching the pick-and-roll action.
In a savvy play, Ramey recognized his opportunity to cut and took it. By the time his defender reacted, it was too late. With no driving lane or good look to Hayes, Coleman dropped the ball off to Ramey on the baseline, who passed to Hayes immediately upon the catch for the slam. The ball was only in Ramey’s hands long enough for him to redirect it — a backdoor cut and two passes to a dunk in the blink of an eye is sweet basketball.
Less than a minute later, Hayes ultimately benefitted again from the attention paid to him on the roll, as the weak-side defender guarding Ramey had to help on Hayes to stop a dunk. So Coleman once again made the right decision by finding the freshman guard wide open. Ramey decided to drive against the closeout instead of shooting and was able to penetrate deep enough to draw the defender away from Hayes, ultimately producing a foul and a trip to the free-throw line for the big man.
One variation of the spread ball-screen offense puts the three other Texas players on the weak side, eliminating help from the strong-side corner — exactly what the Horns did on the first and second clips in this piece.
During the Oklahoma game in Austin, as well, Hayes finished an alley-oop on the play below when Roach beat the opposing guard off the screen, forcing the big on Hayes to help up. When Ramey’s defender failed to come across the lane to stop Hayes, it was an easy slam.
Texas has also combined the spread ball-screen offense with a simple action meant to produce post-up opportunities for Osetkowski, who has at times developed an extremely effective back-down game against smaller or generally overmatched defenders.
Instead of starting a possession with a high ball screen by Hayes, Texas instead runs a cross screen set by a guard like Kerwin Roach II near the free-throw line to help Osetkowski gain good position for a post-up move. If the entry pass isn’t there, Texas quickly flows into a high ball screen by Hayes set for Osetkowski’s defender. Against the Wildcats in Austin, the Longhorns ran this action twice to start the game.
More than anything else offensively, the attention that opponents have to pay to Hayes and stopping the guards from getting all the way to the rim themselves from the pick-and-roll is what helps the Horns get easy baskets.
Sure, there are some transition opportunities that the team produces and the guards also excel at beating opponents off the dribble one-on-one when necessary, along with some other effective actions, but nothing else is more difficult for opponents to stop than the spread ball screen actions run by Texas.
Against Texas Tech, as well as other times this season, Smart also changed the roll technique for Hayes, using short rolls to the key or into the paint. On several occasions, Hayes has used his long stride to finish with at the rim with one bounce or operate from five to 10 feet after the short roll into the paint.
Hayes has even flashed some passing ability from the wing to expand his influence on the offense. To open the second half against West Virginia in Morgantown, Hayes flashed to the perimeter to catch a pass as Roach faked a handoff, then cut back door. When the freshman found the senior, Roach finished in traffic with a big-time dunk. Ramey also benefitted from a similar cut and beautiful bounce pass from Hayes to score at the rim.
So even though the spread ball-screen offense has played such a large role for the Horns, Smart noted that there have been several offensive evolutions this season. The biggest challenge? Finding ways to consistently score points even though the team has been inconsistent shooting the basketball.
As a result of that inconsistency, many opponents have been able to help into the paint in some games without fear of getting beat by the three, while also employing strategies like zone defenses and icing the pick-and-roll to take Texas out of the high ball screen offense. Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Kansas State all gave Texas some problems by effectively neutralizing those actions run by the Longhorns for significant stretches of those games.
In the home loss to Kansas State, Bruce Webber made the rare decision to change up his defense by playing a zone and icing the ball screen in the second half. When the Longhorns struggled to quickly adjust to both of those defenses, the Wildcats were able to create enough separation to pull out that victory.
Such is the ebb and flow of running offense in basketball. At times, the evolutions have worked well for Texas. When Iowa State opened the game in Ames packing the paint and double teaming Osetkowski, Smart countered by having Febres slip high ball screens and asking the guards to win off the bounce. It got the Longhorns back in the game and gave them a chance to win in the second half.
In multiple games this season, Texas has been able to take advantage of teams overplaying the passing lanes on the perimeter or icing the pick-and-roll by relying on the four strong ball handlers to make plays for themselves. That’s one of the easy counters to advanced scouting in a league that plays a full round-robin schedule.
“A lot of it is what’s going well for us at the time and what the other team is trying to take away,” Smart said. “So depending on their pick-and-roll defense, we may slip the screen. Particularly with Snoop, sometimes he’s better without a screen where he can just have space to drive and attack.”
Remember Roach’s game-winning drive left and finish with his right hand against Oklahoma State last season? No ball screen on that take.
“Of late, when we space the floor and really get great spacing, Matt and Snoop, and to some extent Courtney, have done a really good job attacking one-on-one. It’s one of those things where your players kind of dictate your scheme when they’re playing well. Because, hey, if Courtney Ramey being out there and shooting a pull-up three is working well for us, we’ll do it again.”
The most consistent tenet — Smart wants his team to get the ball into the paint and then make a good decision.
The emergence of more explosive shooting threats has helped, too, and the player who has arguably provided the most space for his teammates to operate is sophomore guard Jase Febres. Despite flashing as a freshman against Baylor by scoring 18 points, Febres only hit just over 30 percent of his three-point attempts, a number that didn’t exactly represent his upside as a shooter.
As a sophomore, Febres has become much more reliable, improving to 36 percent overall from distance and hitting big shots against Kansas and Kansas State on the road, for instance, in addition to keying the home win against the Jayhawks with four made three pointers.
Smart noted last week that opponents are much less likely to help off against Febres, who is still working on sticking his landing, holding his follow through, and avoiding any fade on his shots to take the next step as a highly dangerous shooter.
Ramey is also starting to demand more attention — he might have deeper range than Febres. If the St. Louis product misses a few shots, his confidence doesn’t suffer the same way it sometimes does for Febres, helping him lead the team in three-point efficiency at 37.5 percent. He’s now made five shots from distance in two different games this season, both in the last month.
Put it all together and the Longhorns offense now ranks No. 31 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, aided by the second most efficient offense in Big 12 play.
Given the limitations placed on the offense by the team’s inconsistent shooting, that’s a remarkable accomplishment — Baylor leads the conference in adjusted offensive efficiency in large part because it’s the most efficient three-point shooting team in the conference. Iowa State and Kansas State, the No. 3 and No. 4 offenses in Big 12 play, rank third and fourth in three-point percentage.
See the trend? The Longhorns are the team bucking it at No. 8 in the conference in that category. The only other outlier is Oklahoma State (No. 2 in three-point percentage), a team decimated by suspensions and a complete inability to make two-point baskets (4.4 percentage points worse than No. 9 West Virginia).
Add on the fact that Hayes emerged so quickly after he arrived on campus, forcing Smart to use more spread ball-screen offense than he planned and it’s both understandable that the offense took time to gel and extremely heartening that it has come so far.
The biggest takeaway, though? Hayes is a special player identified early and recruited effectively by Smart and his staff, who then developed and maximized his ability by largely building the offense around him.
The win-loss record may be disappointing, but the overall offensive efficiency and usage of Hayes have been impressive.