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The early returns for NC State basketball: Offense holdin' up, defense showing positive signs

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

We're a quarter of the way into the season, so now seems like a good time to check in on the Wolfpack and see how they're performing relative to last season. As far as the schedule-adjusted components go, not a lot has changed: NC State is currently No. 54 in the Pomeroy Ratings; it finished last season at No. 55.

First up, a closer look at the offense.

NC State Offense -- Four Factors eFG% (National Rank) TO% OR% FT Rate
2013-14 50.0 (146) 15.8 (36) 34.2 (78) 37.0 (264)
2014-15 50.0 (124) 16.2 (24) 35.7 (76) 47.6 (35)

Look, everybody, twins! The big question coming into this season was how State would fare in the first year of the post-T.J. Warren era. Warren was the rare player who not only shouldered a huge load offensively but did so efficiently. His absence means that a lot of possessions that were put to good use last season needed to find a new home.

Warren took 37.3% of NC State's shots while he was on the floor, a proportion that ranked third nationally. An average player takes 20% of his team's shots, so Warren was essentially doing the work of two guys. That left little room for other Pack contributors to assume above-average workloads, and only Ralston Turner and Cat Barber did so.

That also left precious few shots for the Pack's frontcourt--Lennard Freeman, BeeJay Anya, and Jordan Vandenberg each took less than 10% of the shots while on the floor. Only Kyle Washington, at 16.6% of the shots, was something of a regular contributor.

This year, Washington's involvement is way up, as he's actually leading the team by taking 25.5% of the shots while on the floor. If the majority of those shots are going to be long jumpers then obviously this is not ideal. Washington's effective field goal percentage is up this year, but it's still well under 50%.

Elsewhere, Trevor Lacey not surprisingly has stepped right into a primary role. He's accounting for about 24% of the shots, as is Turner, which represents a slight uptick for Turner over 2014. Cat Barber is shooting a bit less frequently, hovering around the 20% mark. Which is fine since his shooting percentages haven't gotten any better.

Getting back to the larger picture, State has been less accurate inside the arc (here's where the lack of Warren or a true interior presence is clearest), but between Lacey, Turner, and Caleb Martin, the team has gotten more frequent and more effective contributions from three-point range.

Last year nobody other than Turner could buy a three-pointer and State shot 30.5% from outside as a team. This year that shooting percentage is up to 35.7%, which is a couple percentage points higher than the national average. The Pack's three most-frequent three-point shooters also happen to be its most accurate three-point shooters so far. This is still not a team that leans on the three by any means, but this is one of the ways it has been able to successfully adjust to Warren's departure.

The Pack's overall performance suggests this is still a top-50ish offense (44th currently), if not quite as effective as it was last season. Obviously there are things yet to be ironed out, like just what is Washington's true role, and can we eventually expect more from Freeman, Anya, or Abdul-Malik Abu? Will Desmond Lee ever work his way back into the rotation? Does Lacey's role increase once conference play starts? Regardless of that, how much will Lacey's career-best shooting numbers (both from two and from three) decline back toward his career averages?

NC State Defense -- Four Factors eFG% (National Rank) TO% OR% FT Rate
2013-14 47.5 (86) 17.5 (231) 35.7 (326) 42.6 (224)
2014-15 41.4 (22) 16.4 (321) 25.8 (28) 29.7 (58)

This Pack team has a chance to be the best defensive squad Mark Gottfried has had, though that's probably a 50-50 bet at best. Gottfried's first Wolfpack team finished 78th in opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency and sits at 79 this season. Obviously, if the unadjusted numbers you see in the table above hold up, then this defense will be far better than 79th.

It's just that Pomeroy's strength of schedule measures say State's defense has faced the 281st-toughest collection of offenses in the country. So: decline is a certainty since they've been taking advantage of some crummy offenses. How far that decline goes, nobody knows.

Now, I'm not saying to expect all of the above stats to fall off a cliff. For example, I think we can rest assured this is a considerably better defensive rebounding team because of how its makeup has changed. Warren logged a lot of frontcourt minutes last season out of necessity. Vandenberg was on the floor a lot as well. Neither player rebounded well at the defensive end.

Freeman and Washington were the best guys on the defensive glass for State in 2014, and basically the only guys the team had to rely on for consistent production there. They'll end up on the floor more often this season. Additionally, Abu has been a tremendous defensive rebounder in his brief time on the court, and Lacey has done a nice job snagging boards from his guard spot throughout his career.

Anya's going to get a lot more minutes this season, pending foul trouble, and that alone makes this a better shot-blocking defense. Even while playing overweight in 2014, Anya was the Pack's best shot disruptor. This year he's rejecting shots at an elite level--I mean, dude had five against Wake in 11 minutes. Abu has the athleticism necessary to be a factor in this area as well, and Washington has been as effective in this category as Vandenberg was in 2014.

So this is definitely a better shot blocking and defensive rebounding team. Mark Gottfried's defenses simply don't force a lot of turnovers and that ain't changing this season. Getting a little closer to average in that respect would be nice, but the Pack's improvements in other places can compensate.

Thing is, when you don't force turnovers you leave more to be decided by sheer random basketball luck--because more of your opponents' possessions are ending with field goal attempts. More possessions that end in shots means more potential offensive boards, more random-assed bounces, just more of all the weird stuff any long-time basketball fan has seen. I ain't got to tell you people.

Plenty of teams have shown you can make a good living by playing solid interior defense and locking down the defensive glass while not so much worrying about forcing turnovers, and that'll have to be NC State's route to success with this roster (or any Mark Gottfried roster). It's just that it can be a bit more harrowing journey.