There has been a lot of yelling and screaming about Kevin Keatts and his halfcourt offense. First things first, let’s not do any of that. Let’s all just take a deep breath, go to your happy place, and feel the breeze wash your troubles away. Okay, we’re ready for this.
I know how some people feel about this, and I’m not seeking to belittle anyone’s opinions here, but Kevin Keatts does in fact have a halfcourt system complete with base concepts and set plays. Here, I’m going to break down what that is, how it works, why it works, why it doesn’t, and look at a bunch of examples.
If you would like to challenge any of the assertions in this article, I welcome you to do so in the comments. Let’s have a discussion and be open to different interpretations of what we’re watching. That said, the following two statements are purely factual. They are not up for interpretation.
- NC State runs an offense. It does not play “iso ball” every possession.
- NC State’s offense was good this year, ranking 25th nationally in efficiency.
The number that most fueled angst over the course of this season was NC State’s assist rate, which was not very high. Thing is, scoring metrics were great, and complaining about the low assist rate is really missing the forest for the trees. The point of a basketball offense is to make the basketball go through the basketball hoop. NC State did a pretty good job of this in 2022-23. From a high-level statistical overview, it was a good offense. I don’t know what context could be applied to change that. State scored the basketball. That’s what it’s supposed to do.
It may not have always looked fluid, but style points aren’t worth more than regular points. The nature of the spread pick and roll is that it’s read-based and relatively unscripted, and sometimes the right read is to go to the basket and score. We saw a lot of that this year because State ran their offense through two elite scorers while still lacking a true point guard.
The offense relies heavily on ball screens run from various locations above the three-point line, which every single team in America runs multiple times a game. It is the most popular play in basketball for a reason. It’s very hard to defend well, especially when you can inject versatility into the action. State wants to play four-out one-in, spread the floor wide with perimeter shooting, and then attack the paint with ball screen actions. It’s simple, but it’s lethal if you can run it with a versatile point guard and big man and surround them with shooting. It’s not different from any other system, regardless of complexity, in the respect that it works when it has the players in place to make it work.
There are only so many ways to defend a ball screen. Each one concedes space somewhere on the court. Defense in basketball is about conceding space where it’s least likely to hurt you so you can pressure the areas where it’s most likely to hurt you. For example, one of the most basic elements of defending a ball screen is that you don’t go under a screen against a good shooter. Doing so allows you to stay between the ball handler and the basket, but you’re giving space in order to do so. Most people know this is a great way to give up threes.
Remember Cam Hayes’ breakout stretch at the end of the 2020 season? The freshman guard went through a nice six-game stretch where he averaged 11.6 PPG, mostly as State’s primary ball handler. Hayes shot 45.5% from three over that stretch but just 38.5% from two. Most of his points came because he had good range as a shooter and made defenses pay for going under the ball screen. The following year, teams stopped doing this, instead running him off the three-point line, and he started to struggle to initiate offense on the ball.
Hayes didn’t create a lot of rim pressure and he wasn’t excelling as a passer, so teams ran him off the line until he was eventually moved off the ball in favor of Dereon Seabron who could get downhill and create rim pressure. It’s an example of State running its offense, defenses adjusting to the way it’s running it, and then Kevin Keatts offering a counter adjustment.
To break this down, we’re going to go back to Keatts’ first year at NC State, back when everyone loved the offense because it was unstoppable.
It’s not a coincidence that Keatts’ best offense at State was his first. It was his most skilled and his most versatile. Markell Johnson was an elite ball screen guard and he thrived in the system because he was explosive, could get to the rim and finish, and he was a great passer. Once his jumpshot started to fall, State became unguardable. There was simply no way to stop this offense because it had all the right pieces (some of these clips are from later years but they still illustrate the points well of why that first offense was so good).
You couldn’t go under the ball screen against Markell Johnson, who shot better than 40% from three as a sophomore and a junior. You just couldn’t do that. Johnson was really an elite shooter those two years. I’m not sure he gets enough credit for how good he was.
Here, Tre Jones gets caught underneath a screen and Johnson makes him pay for it.
You couldn’t fight over the top and put your big in drop coverage because Johnson could finish over the drop, dish to his knockdown shooting center, or hit a big on a traditional rim run.
This is the basic pick and roll that is the bread and butter of the ball screen offense. Johnson’s ability to beat his defender and the team’s ability to stretch the defense with good perimeter shooting makes this work, and both are on display here. Markell uses Funderburk’s screen and beats his defender as said defender fights over the screen. Fundy rolls to the rim as the big plays drop coverage on Johnson’s drive. There is nobody to help on Funderburk though. Watch the other defenders immediately recover and try and deny passing lanes, leaving the big in essentially a one-on-two. Once he cuts off the drive, he can’t recover back fast enough. Perimeter shooting demands attention and helps create space in the paint. Number one is supposed to tag DJ and slow his run to the rim but Devon Daniels coming back to the ball gets him into a bind.
This offense can really pinch a defense if it’s ran with the right players. That’s why it’s so popular. Miami does a better job fighting over the screen here, but Johnson just wins with a hesitation move and then finishes over the big. Johnson had a lot of moves in the paint and was really good at finishing high off the glass.
You could not play any kind of aggressive coverage of Johnson with the big because any temporary double on Johnson made it far too easy for Yurtseven to pop to open space on the court and hit a jumper. Hedges and other forms more aggressive ball screen defense require leaving the screener momentarily unguarded. That was something you could not do with Yurtseven, who didn’t need much space to get his shot off as a seven-footer. Good luck recovering to that.
Here Clemson brings the big up as Yurt comes to set the screen, but instead of screening, Yurt slips to the point as the defender doubles Johnson. This is not a problem for Clemson if Yurt is a guy who cannot shoot. But Yurt is a guy who very much can shoot. The Clemson big actually recovers pretty well, but not well enough to close out a guy as tall as the seven-footer.
It was funny to watch Yurt explode after being pretty bad his freshman year and only attempting a couple threes. For whatever you think about Kevin Keatts, he used this guy’s skillset to a lethal extent.
You certainly couldn’t switch the ball screens against State. What guy that’s guarding Omer Yurtseven could also guard Markell Johnson? Late in NC State’s win at UNC in 2018, UNC started trying to switch defenders on the ball screen. It had disastrous effects for them. UNC concedes no space with the switch, but it matches up Luke Maye on Markell Johnson. Good luck I guess. This is a straight-up blow by.
I cannot stress enough that this is not iso as the term is commonly used. Yes, it is one-on-one, but it’s a favorable matchup generated by an action. That’s good basketball. Isolating when you get a big switched onto your explosive guard is good and basic basketball.
The final piece of this was the combo of the other four guards who got most of the playing time. Braxton Beverly, Al Freeman, and Sam Hunt were all better than 38% from three, and while Torin Dorn wasn’t a great shooter, he was streaky and made enough of them to make you care. You could not help off of these players to come cloud the paint against Markell. He was too good of a passer and State was too good of a shooting team. It was too easy. If you want to see how a ball screen offense is supposed to work, this is the group to go back and watch. There was no way to defend this team. They did it all and they did it well.
Here is State paying off that perimeter shooting. UNC has switched on the screen and Maye is guarding Johnson. Johnson beats Maye easily and the help drifts in from the corner. Johnson makes the pass to an open shooter.
This game was a fantastic example of how it is supposed to look. There is nothing UNC could have done to slow this offense down in this game. Johnson had 11 assists, part of a five-game stretch where he had at least 10 in every game. This the same offensive system State uses now.
Here is another great example of shooting creating spacing. This just looks like a dribble drive, but Pat Andree’s shooting helps make this play, even though he does nothing but stand there. Andree comes to set a screen but instead slips toward the corner, an action State used a lot with Yurtseven. The Alcorn state defender flashes toward the lane but has to recover to Andree, who was a 42% three-point shooter the year before. If this was a guy who blew at shooting, the strong side help would be free to clog up the lane on Markell and live with a dish to the wing.
This was back in the days when the fanbase loved Kevin Keatts. Now he’s the most polarizing figure in NC State athletics and his offense is the most argued about topic within it. Ironically, it’s the same stuff they ran in his first year when State had the number one offense in the league and Johnson led the ACC in assists.
Basketball is a personnel game first. Talent procurement and talent development is where the game is won and lost more than in the Xs and Os. Recruiting and developing skillsets and molding guys to play within a system is what allows you to leverage elements of your style of play in the first place. The biggest problem for Kevin Keatts’ offense is that he whiffed trying to replace Markell Johnson. State has not put a great distributor on the ball since he left. This is the root of State’s lack of ball movement this year. It’s not the system.
Granted, this has not stopped NC State from scoring well. It may have made it look less pretty, but it’s still worked fine as a result of talent procurement and development. Neither Joiner nor Smith are great distributors. In fact, Joiner’s best season as a passer prior to this year was 2020 when he averaged 2.3 APG (he averaged 3.6 APG this year, his career high). Both are elite three-level scorers though. Joiner and Smith are explosive guards that can finish at the rim, shoot the three, and to some degree score in the mid-range (Joiner was very good, Smith preferred the floater and was hit or miss).
After State lost Mahorcic, it lost a good bit of athleticism with which it could run true pick and roll. Mahorcic could move better than Burns. Burns didn’t move well enough to be put into a lot of roll-type actions. The best use of him was to isolate him in the post. State did that a fair amount. It worked really well and resulted in lots of points, but few assists. That’s okay because the ball still went in the basket. Burns shot over 56% for the season.
State created a ton of matchup problems with three really strong scorers, so it put those guys through actions and alignments that created opportunities for them to score. The low assist number is the nature of the personnel. State didn’t have a true point guard and it was Dusan-less, so it ran its guards through the ball screen and asked them to make the best play, which for those guys was usually attacking drop coverage or a switch. As a secondary option, it sought to isolate Burns. The whole thing functioned pretty well, resulting in the ACC’s second most efficient offense.
State’s low assist rate had very little impact on its offensive efficiency. The only player on the team that was a really good passer was Burns, and teams were hesitant to double him after he beat Miami by recording seven assists. If teams don’t run doubles at him and you get him one-on-one in the post, you’re taking that matchup every time if you’re State.
Let’s look at some examples of base concepts from this year before we dig into some of the set plays State ran this year.
We’ll start with Creighton, because some guys were really upset about three assists in this game. People treated this number as some sort of an indictment of the system, but it had more to do with how Creighton defended the ball screen.
Creighton fought over the screens, dropped their 7’2 center, and dared the Pack’s guards to score enough points to win over the top of him. That was their game plan. They left him on an island. They did not help on the drives. Number two never even moves his feet in this clip.
The Blue Jays were pretty content to run State’s guards off the line, not help, and put all 7’2 of Ryan Kalkbrenner in drop coverage. It created a lot of one-on-ones at the rim that Smith was able to finish because he’s insanely good.
It’s hard to score over a 7’2 dude. Creighton knows this, which is why they recruited a 7’2 dude and why they were fine saying “okay, do it. No passing lanes for you.” That’s a big component of the low assist number in this game. Smith was 11-22 from two in this game, making numerous shots over Kalkbrenner. Look at these frames with that info and tell me what you would want Terquavion Smith to do with the basketball.
This wasn’t an uncommon approach for defenses this year. Smith’s range was so good and he needed so little space to shoot that teams would commonly play over the ball screen and drop their big, especially since nobody State was screening with could shoot. I suspect with Smith, defenses were trying to force him to take that floater since it was arguably his worst shot. I don’t know this for a fact but it tracks with how they opted to defend him.
Here, Bacot plays pretty deep and concedes the floater to stay in front. The shot doesn’t hit the rim.
It was different with Joiner because he was a great mid-range shooter. Joiner balled in the UNC game, scoring 29 points. Here State sets a ball screen and Joiner attacks Bacot who is in drop coverage. Bacot doesn’t leave much space, but Joiner didn’t need a lot of space to knock down a mid-range jumper.
Here State runs a drag screen and RJ Davis gets absolutely lost behind Burns, freeing Joiner to attack Bacot again. Bacot could score but he wasn’t exactly a rim protector. Here he displays a nice 2-inch vertical and Joiner scores over him. Getting him in these situations was a positive matchup for State.
This was my favorite little wrinkle from the UNC game, where Keatts uses a decoy down screen to create a driving lane for Joiner. Ross sets a down screen for Smith. Burns is elevated here, serving as a decoy like he’s going to set a screen for Smith once Smith rises to the point and gets the ball. Instead Ross rescreens his man and the entire side of the court is wide open for Joiner to attack with no help, as any defensive help is elevated out of the paint. It doesn’t lead to an assist, but it leads to a bucket.
State did a pretty good job getting their best scorers in advantageous positions this year. Even without a real pick-and-roll and/or pick-and-pop threat, It had some fantastic players and it built around giving them opportunities to work.
Speaking of pick-and-pop, being able to stretch the floor with interior players is a big component of the ball screen offense. That’s why it thrived with Yurtseven, that’s why State took the defensive hit to recruit Pat Andree, that’s what State wanted out of Jericole Hellems, and that’s why Manny Bates was going to take some threes that one year.
As mentioned, State didn’t have a great pick-and-pop option this year either. Jack Clark had a chance to add a little bit of this. He was never that good of a shooter, but he was streaky and capable of getting hot, and they used him occasionally as a pick-and-pop four. He was also injured for like half the year.
Here, Virginia Tech brings a little more heat on the ball screen coverage, and Clark slips toward the corner when his defender steps up to show. Now Clark did not end up taking the shot, but the action is still there. Clark is a 29% three-point shooter though. Just because an open shot exists doesn’t always mean it’s the right play.
State had the Hokies in the spin cycle a little bit early in this game. Here, Dowuona slips a drag screen that is defended the same way. He is wide open in the paint after 25 fails to rotate quickly enough.
Instead of dropping the big, Virginia Tech elevated their coverage and showed harder to try and force Smith and Joiner away from the basket before they could get downhill. It, um, did not work. You can see the big anticipate the screen and get ready to work up the floor before Dowuona slips away.
All these examples are little elements of this offense, tweaks that can be made to address how the other team has chosen to defend you. The system is as adjustable as your personnel will allow it to be. And while it’s simple in nature, when you run versatility through it, it can be unstoppable. That’s what Kevin Keatts is trying to run in the halfcourt.
I really can’t stress enough that you’re not required to like this style of basketball, and I’m not trying to change your mind one way or the other. Your opinion is your opinion and you can have it. Honestly, I hope you share it with me in the comments, especially if you disagree with anything I’ve said. But if you think this is “iso AAU ball” or whatever, that’s not an opinion. That is an incorrect statement. Please stop saying that.
Set play examples
Personally, I think Kevin Keatts should run more sets with off-ball action, but the notion that he never does is fiction. With State flailing a bit in the second half against Creighton, Keatts called timeout and drew up this double pin down for Smith, which led to a nice rhythm catch and shoot.
I particularly like this roll and replace action with Morsell that we saw against BC. It’s an extension of the base ball-screen concept, a wrinkle, as it sometimes called. State ran this throughout the year.
Dowuona comes up to set the ball screen, and Morsell screens for him. This pushes the would-be drop defender way out of position as Joiner refuses the screen and goes to his left. Morsell’s man is forced to help and cut off the driving lane, and Morsell is free to elevate to the point where he is wide open.
Here’s a good one after a timeout when State badly needed a bucket against Virginia. State runs the double pin down and Smith attacks off the curl. Gantt slides across the paint and Smith can either shoot off the catch, attack to score, or if help comes, dish to Gantt or Burns.
Kevin Keatts is certainly capable of drawing up a play. Philosophy wise, he prefers less scripted offense. He prefers to spread the floor with shooting, create space for his guards with screen actions, and let them get to the spots they are comfortable in. It’s a strategy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s not innately stupid because it’s simple and it’s also not iso ball. Iso ball is clearing out all four other players, running no action at all, and letting a guy go one-on-one. Every team does this in spots, State included, but it’s not the core concept of the offense.
Personally, I’d like to see more scripted actions. The pin down for Smith was a great play, but Smith rarely took shots that were not off the dribble. It wasn’t even that good of a look, but it was a rhythm shot and he buried it. Smith went through an extended shooting slump, and while I agree that keeping his green light on was the right decision throughout that, some more actions to get him open looks may have helped him get going.
Thank you for your time
The big point of this article is to say that it’s fine to have complaints about a style of play and certainly about consistently average results, but just do it in good faith. The offensive numbers are good, and Kevin Keatts did not become an ACC basketball coach by not knowing what a basketball offense looks like. Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not required to like it or agree with it. Heck, I’m not saying I love it. I criticized it like a paragraph above this one. Just please stop looking at one year’s worth of assist numbers and then confidently asserting that all State does is iso. It’s just not true, and you just sound like a doofus, and you’re not a doofus. You’re very smart. I know you are, because you’re an NC State fan. If you were a doofus, you’d be one of those guys that watches two Carolina basketball games a year and likes the Lakers and Tom Brady. What do you call them? Oh yeah, UNC fans. If you want to identify the source of State’s general mediocrity under Keatts, I would start on the defensive side of the ball. You can take it from here.