In the opening minutes of Saturday's loss to the Kansas Jayhawks, the Texas Longhorns started off quickly. That early start was powered by a combination of timely shooting by the Longhorns, missed jump shots by the Jayhawks, and quick scores off of ball screens in transition.
While the Longhorns didn't win the game, these first few minutes put the spotlight on something that the Texas Longhorns have done well this season -- use ball screens to score. I previously took a look at some of Texas head coach Shaka Smart's half court ball screen set plays. In this article I look at some of the ways the Texas Longhorns use ball screens in transition.
The Longhorns use early ball screens to quickly get a good shot with the minimum amount of messing around. Because Texas can usually generate a decent shot with just a few passes, Smart's men do not have to do anything particularly risky with the basketball to create scoring chances. As a result of this, Texas has one of the lowest turnover rates in the nation, giving the ball up in less than 16 percent of its possessions. And the turnover rate has been even better during Big 12 play. In conference games, the Longhorns have only coughed up the ball in 12 percent of possessions, which leads the Big 12 by a sizable amount.
How Texas uses ball screens in transition to score with a numbers disadvantage
When the Texas Longhorns come down with a defensive rebound they quickly look to find one of Texas' many ball handlers who can push the ball up the floor in transition. In Shaka Smart's system, the ball does not need to go to the point guard to advance up the floor. While Isaiah Taylor does frequently find himself with the ball under his control, Javan Felix, Eric Davis, Kerwin Roach, Kendal Yancy, Demarcus Holland, and Tevin Mack have all at various points dribbled the ball up the floor and initiated the offense.
In the image below the ball has found freshman guard Eric Davis, who is playing with two other ball handlers -- Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix. The arrow in the photo shows were Davis is pushing the ball up the floor as two Texas guards run the sidelines ahead of him. Davis is flanked by Texas forward Connor Lammert, which Prince Ibeh trails the play (he is out of the frame).
One of the things that sets Smart's transition approach apart from many others in college basketball is that the first big man up the floor does not run straight to the basket. For many teams, the first big man up the floor runs straight to the rim, looking to quickly establish scoring or rebounding position inside.
But Texas doesn't do that. Instead the first big man, in this case Lammert, looks to set a screen for whoever has the ball. In the photo below we see Lammert running up to set a transition ball screen for Eric Davis.
I want to reflect on something in that photo above. If you count players, you will see that Kansas has five defenders back while Texas is attacking with only four offensive players. The fifth man for Texas, Prince Ibeh, is off the screen running to catch up. Texas is attacking from a numbers disadvantage, which is something that you will see frequently in Longhorn games.
When we think of transition basketball we commonly think of attacking the defense when a team has a temporary numbers advantage, or at the very least the numbers are even. But Texas attacks even with numbers aren't there. Why would a team attack when it doesn't have any advantage?
The truth is Texas does have an advantage, and it's one of the biggest advantages in the game. Texas has the ball and the initiative. There are five defenders back, but they are still backpedaling and a bit disorganized. The Longhorns are attacking a defense that is not yet settled.
In the next photo the ball screen has just been set.
Advancing just a few more frames takes us to the image below. Now Davis has the ball and Connor Lammert is beginning to roll with him. Notice that Davis' defender is temporarily behind the play, which leaves the Longhorns with a four on four opportunity. Even better is that Davis is on the move and is attacking a flat-footed Perry Ellis. Davis blows by him for an easy layup.
Of course, many times the Longhorns won't score immediately off the initial ball screen. When the initial screen does not lead to an immediate scoring opportunity, the Longhorns do the same thing that they do in all of their ball screen set plays. The ball reverses to someone else who has options to shoot, dribble, pass, or take another ball screen and attack the defense.
In the image below, after charging up the floor Isaiah Taylor has the ball on the wing. The arrow indicates where he is located. Prince Ibeh is preparing to set a ball screen for Taylor. Notice again that Kansas has five defenders guarding four offensive players. Lammert is trailing the play and will join shortly.
The photo below shows us what happens just after the screen is set. There's a pile of defenders in the middle, and Taylor is not able to do much with the ball. Javan Felix, who is at the top of the key, will begin sliding over to the wing where eventually the ball will find its way to him.
In the next photo for Felix has the ball after it's been reversed. Lammert is preparing to set a ball screen for him.
The photo below occurs just a few moments later, with Lammert setting the ball screen.
After coming off the ball screen Felix draws Perry Ellis, who is assigned to guard Lammert. Meanwhile Lammert is flashing open for a shot. Another defender, Wayne Selden, has two men to guard -- both his man and Lammert.
Finally, the ball reverses to Lammert, as shown in the photo below. He hits an open three pointer. Notice that while Lammert has a very good look at the basket, he also has the option of making an additional pass to Kendal Yancy in the corner. If Lammert were covered (perhaps by a rotating Selden), Yancy would likely be open for a shot or a drive to the basket. Or Lammert could follow the pass to Yancy with a cut to the basket or yet another ball screen.
Why transition ball screens work for Texas
Shaka Smart's teams at Virginia Commonwealth University frequently fielded lineups with two, three, or four effective ball handlers on the floor. The ball would get pushed up in transition, and the many ball handlers would work around the perimeter, using ball screens until they found a good shot.
This Texas team is built in much the same way. With so many ball handlers playing on the floor together, it is a simple matter to get the ball to someone who can use a ball screen. With multiple ball handlers who can take advantage of such a screen, the Texas offense is faster and more dynamic than it would be if the ball always had to find its way into the hands of a point guard.