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Iowa State Basketball’s Blueprint to Offensive Domination

Deflating narratives, eye-tests and crunching numbers in the Cyclone offense.

Oklahoma State v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Iowa State’s Traditional Offensive Narratives

Narrative: The Cyclones need a go-to guy, especially in crunch time.

Traditional narrative would have it that “Iowa State needs someone who can just go get a bucket in crunch time.” This philosophy narrows offensive options and allows defenses to key in on one player. If guy can just make a play and get a bucket whenever he wants, why wouldn’t you just do that every time down the floor? Or every other time at least?

That is not how basketball works. I’ve said this before, but unless you have a transcendent talent, you can’t just have a player score when they want to. You can run sets to put your best player in an advantageous position to play to his strengths on the offensive end, but if the defense takes that option away, then what? You have to play off what they are taking away and exploit what the defense is then giving up. And that might not be your best player scoring. This is why end of game isolations at the top of the key are so rarely successful at all levels of basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Christian at Iowa State Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

There are many, many great college basketball teams who don’t have a go-to guy in crunch time. National champion Villanova last year is one example. Iowa State should be taking the best shot available on every possession no matter how much time is left in the game. The squad doesn’t need to designate someone to take shots in crunch time when Morris, Thomas, Naz and Burton are all capable.

At the end of games, Iowa State would obviously put the ball in Monte’s hands because he is our best player, but that doesn’t mean he has to score or assist. If the defense takes his offense away, they will be giving something else up for one of our other playmakers, and Cyclone fans should be more than confident that they can create something positive.

Narrative: Live by the three, die by the three.

Iowa State has taken 174 2-point shots so far this year compared to only 64 3-pointers. That is not very many tries from downtown. That could be for a variety of reasons, or because the Cyclones have gotten so many warm-up layups against Swiss cheese defenses so far. I hope that Iowa State shoots many more triples than this going forward.

Shooting the 3-ball is Iowa State’s biggest strength as a team. They should be shooting them in bunches. Twenty five or thirty attempts from long range per game isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With Thomas shooting 40% from three last year, Naz at around 40% for his career, Monte’s high clip starting from the middle of last year and Burton’s 47% last year, Iowa State should live by the three.

Granted, not all 3-point looks are created equal. The best 3-point shots are spot-ups off of kickouts and open looks off of defensive rotations or offensive rebounds. Any bombs off the dribble or contested shots after a few perimeter passes are the least efficient.

NCAA Basketball: Citadel at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

If Prohm’s lineup is launching a ton of threes off the dribble or not testing the defense and settling for challenged bricks, then shooting a high volume will hurt Iowa State. Our best players are made to penetrate and kick as well as spot up. As long as the guards are a threat to drive and finish around the rim, the dishes will be open back out to the perimeter and the Cyclones will feast on those opportunities.

Based on watching our returning guys over a number of years, we should be confident that most of these 3-pointers will be excellent shots. The four returners will shoot the majority of 3-pointers. Guys like Donovan Jackson, Nick Weiler-Babb, Darrell Bowie and Solomon Young should have to prove to Coach Prohm that they can convert threes at an acceptable rate before they are allowed to shoot them consistently in games.

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Championship-Kansas vs Iowa State Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The counter argument is that Iowa State will go cold some nights and will lose a few games because of it. This claim may happen, but it doesn’t mean Iowa State shouldn’t shoot a bunch of triples.

The main point is this: In the long run as a team, I would rather fire loads of threes at a 37-40% clip rather than trade those looks for contested pull-up twos, floaters or contested shots around the basket. All things being equal, to match 40% from beyond the arc efficiency wise, you have to shoot 60% from two, and it is very difficult for guards to get buckets at that rate inside the arc. It’s doubtful that any of our bigs will shoot 60% unless they are almost exclusively catching lobs.

If our backcourt is getting to the rim and making plays with ease, then yes, those opportunities are clearly better than threes, but if that is not the case, rather than having to settle for mid rangers and any non-layups, threes are infinitely better shots. It’s true, you might go cold for a game or two, but over the course of a season taking more triples at a high percentage will win you more games than it will lose you.

Narrative: Iowa State needs a big to become a post up threat.

This is one of the most confusing claims. There are many cases of programs having incredible success without a big man who can score on the block. Just like with 1-on-1 isolation plays, unless you have a mismatch, straight up post-ups are not the best shots to get. This is especially true for Iowa State.

Merrill Holden and Darrell Bowie are unproven at the Big 12 level and there is no need for Coach Prohm to have talented guards dump it down into the post and let them go to work. Chances are that these plays will not turn out well and every possession you use with a post up, you can’t use to explore better options, like letting ISU’s best players create shots.

NCAA Basketball: Citadel at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

As for Solomon Young, we may need him to be a force down low next season, but this year the Cyclones absolutely do not need buckets from him posting up. He needs to work on playing off of the pick & roll as well as gobbling up offensive boards.

There is no point where it becomes mandatory to look at post ups because the defense is taking away our guard play or any other reason. Iowa State’s offense will be engaged by guards coming off on- or off-ball screens and creating opportunities out of that. The bigs will be involved by playing off the screens and the openings that guards have created. Coach Prohm has stated this in almost every one of his post-game press conferences, and he is spot on with that assessment.

The Eye-Test

This past summer, I wrote about how Iowa State can improve their offense. Many of those concepts still hold true.

I mentioned this above, but cannot emphasize it enough. The single biggest development that fans can look for to see how Iowa State is playing offensively are the types of shots the guards are creating. If the Cyclones are getting into the paint for easy looks close to the rim, kickouts for open threes or drives off of those kickouts, then they will be very successful on offense.

On the contrary, if Iowa State guards are not able to attack the paint on most possessions, the offense will be struggling. Pull-ups off the dribble and contested moon shots from deep are the bane of any offense’s existence. These are bad signs for Iowa State.

In addition to these trends, if opponents are mucking up the Cyclones’ normal actions and forcing a lot of 1-on-1 “take em” plays, it will be bad offense for the good guys. Unless you have a clear mismatch, it is always easier to gain an offensive advantage with the help of a screen rather than in a 1-on-1 situation.

The obvious strength offensively for Steve Prohm’s squad is the guards. As you watch the Cyclones this year, almost all offensive possessions should run through Monte Morris, Naz Mitrou-Long, Matt Thomas and although technically not a guard, Deonte Burton.

NCAA Basketball: Citadel at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The best skill Thomas possesses is shooting threes. He continues to add aspects to his 3-point skill. At the beginning of his career, he was only moderately effective as a catch-and-shoot guy. His catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage has skyrocketed as he’s become an upperclassman.

Towards the end of last season and into this season, Thomas has even added a step-back game to his arsenal to create open threes for himself. This is an incredibly difficult shot to make and takes thousands of practice attempts to make it game worthy. Just watch this. Normally, step-backs are very low percentage shots and are bad looks for any offense, but if Thomas can continue to hit these step-backs at the same clip that he has recently, those can be good shots in moderation for Iowa State.

Naz, on the other hand, has been struggling from 3-point range. Based on his career percentages I highly doubt that will continue for the entire season. He still remains a deadly marksman from beyond the arc and he needs to continue to shoot open threes. Prohm has spoken to Naz about his shot selection because he has chucked up some poor decisions this year. They haven’t mattered so far in three blowouts, but could become costly.

Thomas and Naz are not nearly as effective when they have to create shots for themselves off the dribble inside the arc. Thomas tends to shoot pull-up mid-rangers or uses that stepback game inside the arc. As I said before, these types of shots are low percentage, especially inside the arc, and large doses of them will hamper your offense. It would be great to see Thomas take more of his drives to the rim to finish closer in, draw a foul or dump it to an open teammate. He has shown this ability in the past.

Naz can get to the rim with some regularity and it will be interesting to see if he can keep finishing once the Cyclones play better competition, or if he will have to settle for tough floaters and pullups.

Naz is trying to figure out what his offensive role is going to be this year. He seems to have taken a little bit of the lead dog bit in the first three games. It’s not clear that this is the role he needs to have. With the personnel that the Cyclones can put on the court and they way their offense can flow, there isn’t really a need for someone to take the most shots every game.

Monte Morris has been as advertised so far this season. I’ve written about him pretty extensively here. He is so much better than anyone that Iowa State has played so far that he can do anything he wants on the offensive end. It’ll be exciting to see how he performs this weekend in the Advocare Invitational.

Deonte Burton hasn’t been as aggressive for the Cyclones, which is surprising because I believe he is the team’s second best offensive player behind Morris. Burton has focused more on crashing the glass it seems because he is averaging many more rebounds this year in about the same number of minutes. We will see if that continues in the games this weekend. I’m sure Prohm would love to see Burton be more aggressive, because he was very efficient last year and is a matchup nightmare for just about anybody.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Christian at Iowa State Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

These four should be the main focus of almost all of the offense, and Prohm has the luxury of leaving at least two of them in at all times while staggering minutes. It will be very interesting to see how Nick Weiler-Babb, Darrell Bowie and Donovan Jackson fit into the fold.

Bowie is more skilled than many imagined and does have the ability to make plays. He has been averaging an astronomical turnover rate against three cupcakes, so I am really not convinced he should be asked to create offense against better teams. This is only something that you can judge by experience, though. Prohm will let him have some freedom this weekend to see how capable Bowie is versus tough competition, but if it doesn’t work out, the coaching staff shouldn’t hesitate to shut it down. Either way, he should be able to fill in as a screener and convert easier plays after openings are forged by our guards.

Weiler-Babb is athletic and will be very good down the road. The question marks around him are whether he can shoot and whether he will be successful offensively against players that can match his athleticism. Prohm will have to judge what he can do in the next few games. As long as he doesn’t try to do more than he is capable of, he will be a positive contributor off the bench.

Donovan Jackson is huge unknown for the Cyclones. The skill seems to be all there. His stroke looks solid and everyone says he can really shoot it. It is probably worthwhile for Iowa State to let him explore where his limits are offensively. I think he could become a real playmaker in the Naz and Monte fold and that added dimension would really benefit Iowa State. It’s really hard to tell how good he is because he’s only played three games at the Division 1 level. We will find out a lot more about him soon.

The Numbers

As far as raw box score numbers go, you can generally judge how the Cyclone offense did without watching the game by looking at total field goal attempts in conjunction with the percentage as well as 3-point attempts in conjunction with percentage.

If Iowa State took many more twos than threes and made 50% or higher, then you often get a result like the last three games. If they’ve made a low percentage on twos (44% or below) with high attempts, chances are they played poorly offensively and were forced into tough shots off the dribble.

If the Cyclones take and make bundles of threes (meaning anywhere around 40% or above), then chances are we played very well. If we take a ton of triples and shoot a low percentage (lower than 33%), then generally the offense wasn’t flowing well and most were contested.

Free throws are fantastic sources of offense. Iowa State will probably be slightly below average in attempts this year based on our style of play. Anything more than 20 tries from the line in a game will be a positive.

NCAA Basketball: Savannah State at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Turnovers you want to keep around 12 or below per game. Monte leading the charge always helps in that category.

Offensive boards are a little bit of a mystery as well. Prohm has said he wanted more Cyclones to crash the glass this year, which is beneficial to offenses. Bowie, Holden, Young, Babb and even Burton have done well in this category so far. I would say anything more than 10 offensive rebounds per game for the Cyclones will be good. Obviously this number changes with the pace of the game and how many shots ISU puts up.

Team assists is also a fine category to look at. More assists often mean the offense was flowing and everyone was getting involved. Fewer assists often mean individual play that many times doesn’t lead to great results. Anything around 20 or above assists is ideal.

Don’t worry so much about how many points per game the team averages. That can vary widely with opponents’ styles of play.

If you’re into advanced statistics and are a KenPom believer, then any adjusted offensive efficiency rating above 110 points per 100 possessions is considered quite good. Iowa State’s rating is currently at 113.0 and that is adjusted to account for the bottom feeder teams we have played so far.

This is only a blueprint of Iowa State’s offense. The coaches tweak it all the time based on the opponent and matchups. However, as a fan, throughout a season you can tell if the Cyclones are having a good year if they are doing the things outlined above. Hopefully you will be able to use a few of the concepts mentioned in this space and see if the Cyclones can apply them on the court this weekend and beyond.