In its second ACC game of the year, NC State absolutely shredded Wake Forest in Winston-Salem with some very basic pick and roll action. Danny Manning had his players fighting over the Pack’s unending barrage of ball screens, allowing the Pack to get dribble penetration and set its offense in motion.
The Pack was able to take advantage of Wake’s late rotations on the pick and roll, and dribble drives collapsed the defense opening up perimeter shooting opportunities. This is the Pack’s offense at its most effective. It scored 91 points, shot 55% from three, and had 18 assists. Those numbers are astronomical relative to the ones that State is putting up now. So what has changed?
Teams have slowed State’s ball screen actions with hedges
The core principle of State’s offense has not changed, but the way opposing teams are defending it has, and State has struggled to adjust to it. Virginia Tech was the first ACC team State faced since Wake Forest that played exclusively man defense, and the Pack stunk it up for 58 points. Some of this was just poor shooting, but some of it was the Hokies hedging ball screens instead of fighting through them, which cut off driving lanes for Markell Johnson.
The shutting down of Markell’s dribble penetration ground the Pack’s offense to a halt. Keatts had some wrinkles that were able to create a few easy buckets during that grotesque second half, but the inability to get ball penetration (laughs immaturely) was part of the reason why that game turned into the parade of terrible jumpshots that it did. State also just straight up could not make a shot, but that’s a story for never.
Opponents since Virginia Tech used similar approaches to similar effect. Unlike the softer approach of the Hokies, UNC hedged hard and aggressive, so much so that the Pack was able to find some driving lanes by catching the UNC defender overplaying. Not enough of them though. It was generally effective, just as it was for Louisville on Saturday.
Keatts has tinkered with the offense since then to try and counter the defense, enacting things such as this slip that put D.J. Funderburk in wide open space.
Unfortunately, D.J. Funderburk cannot shoot. He ended up finishing this play at the rim with an excellent display of athleticism, but this little action would be a lot more effective if the junior forward was a threat from three. This is where the personnel problems with this team start to show themselves. If Omer Yurtseven is slipping that screen, it’s probably three points or a wide open look at a step in jumpshot. Yurt’s ability to pick and pop would offer Keatts an effective countermeasure to the hedging defense. But neither Funderburk nor Bates can stretch the floor, which limits the effectiveness of the high ball screen and makes it too easy to defend.
State has adjusted to the way it attacks this in other ways. During the UNC game, State had some success using UNC’s aggressiveness against it by refusing ball screens or splitting the hedge, both of which were temporarily successful. It also tried moving the screener to behind the defender in that same game. There have been a lot of adjustments, probably even more that my untrained eye didn’t notice, but State has so many personnel issues right now that it is still struggling to find dependable answers.
State does not see the floor well
Keeping with the theme of personnel issues, State’s perimeter players sans Markell Johnson really don’t seem to see the floor all that well. Devon Daniels is very gifted athletically and excellent at creating dribble penetration. When he does that, though, he’s going to shoot that basketball about every time. I’m more okay with this now than I used to be given how poorly State is shooting the ball, and no doubt Daniels has been effective as of late, but a guy that good at getting inside a defense should be able to get some more assists.
This instance from Saturday’s loss to Louisville should have resulted in a wide open corner three for Andree, but it resulted in C.J. Bryce forcing a drive. There was an easy play there and it wasn’t made.
Markell Johnson isn’t just the lynchpin because he is the point guard. He’s the only guy who is a threat to drive the ball and kick the ball. When the offense doesn’t run through Markell, you’re mostly counting on a good individual play to produce points. Now Daniels and Bryce, and Funderburk lately, have shown an ability to make those plays, but those efforts are not dependable on a consistent basis (see: C.J. Bryce missing 14 straight shots).
The shooting dried up
Pat Andree was supposed to be a huge part of this team. His combination of size and shooting was supposed to be a game-breaking asset within the offense. Instead, he’s been plagued by injuries and seen his shooting percentage dip quite a bit. He’s 35% for the season after hitting 42% over the last two years at Lehigh, and he’s 5-31 since the Auburn game.
This, combined with Bryce’s random terrible stretch, has taken two valuable pieces of the offense and temporarily decommissioned both of them. You could not afford that this year if you’re NC State.
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This team had potential this year, but it really needed to get high-level play from everyone. It hasn’t gotten that, and it has put State in a weird spot where it struggles in the halfcourt because it doesn’t have a lot of options. It doesn’t create a lot of exploitable mismatches, and the guys who are supposed to be on the receiving end of plays created from those mismatches haven’t been producing. It has made everything very easy to guard.
I always go back to the 2017 team for a frame of reference. That team had three perimeter players who boasted the ability to get to the rim and knock down threes. It had a screen man that you could move anywhere on the court and he would be a threat to score, and it had consistent catch and shoot guys to benefit if the defense collapsed. That team really put pressure on defenses. This one had a chance to have similar elements, but it hasn’t panned out to this point.