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How the Iowa State Offense has Evolved Without Georges Niang

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An analytical look at the changes to ISU’s offense in the first few games of the post-Niang era.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa State at Gonzaga Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

A six-game sample size certainly isn’t much, but in the college basketball season, it’s about 20% of the action. So while it’s certainly early, we wanted to take a deep analytical dive into just how different this team is without its closer extraordinaire, Georges Niang.

A lot of what you’ll read here about the offense, and eventually in Ian’s article later Wednesday, are number and statistic heavy, so be forewarned before continuing. All of the stats and trends found in this article are from KenPom and Synergy Sports Technology.

Offensive Composition

Let’s take a look at how the offensive composition has changed since last year before breaking it down individually.

Percent Change from 2015
Transition +6%
Spot Up -8%
Isolation -3%
Pick & Roll Ball Handler +2%
Pick & Roll Roll Man +3%
Offensive Rebound +3%
Cut -3%

Transition

The increased transition rate is due to two major factors — depth and personnel. The additions of Bowie, Holden, and Young provide the Cyclones with big options that run the floor rim to rim. Jameel McKay did this last year, but Georges was really the only other forward, save for Burton at times. Every forward on this year’s roster can run and does run.

It’s not only the forward depth that contributes to this aspect though. Defensively, we’ve seen the Cyclones utilize a 1-2-2, 34 court press. The increased turnover rate has led to some runouts for Iowa State. Coach Prohm couldn’t really implement this strategy last year, as the rotation was no more than seven guys. Couple that with four capable, rim-to-rim runners in the front court and you can see why the Cyclones are able to pick their spots more often in transition and secondary transition.

Accounting for tempo numbers, the Cyclones are averaging about 22 points in transition per game this season compared to just 17 last season.

Spot Up

The important thing to remember with spot-ups, is that this doesn’t include transition pull-up 3-pointers. So where do spot-ups come from? Think about how many times in the last four years you saw Niang isolated on the block only to kick out to the weak side for a Thomas, Mitrou-Long, and Morris three? How many times against Baylor or West Virginia did Georges sit in the middle of a zone and distribute the ball to shooters?

Who fits into that role this year? Nobody, very well. Holden, Bowie, and Young aren’t being posted up, and if we’re being perfectly honest, Burton is 100% looking to score when he gets the ball on the block. About the only other way to get spot-up attempts is off of a pick-and-roll situation where the ball handler or roll man passes out of the two-man game.

Georges was a maestro at working the middle of a zone and we’ve seen a rotation of guys play that role so far this year. Holden got a lot of run there against the Gonzaga zone, but he doesn’t possess the same passing skills that Big G had. It’ll be interesting to see how the offense flows against a Baylor or West Virginia.

The lack of spot-up attempts is costing the Cyclones about 6 points per game (17 in 2015-16; 11 in 2016-17).

That’s frustrating for a team that many thought would be doing a ton of damage from the perimeter in preseason conversations. Perhaps Prohm knows best though, because the Cyclones are shooting a putrid 33% from deep. Iowa State is also shooting less 3s on a percentage of total attempts from last year. In 2015, 35% of Iowa State’s shot attempts were long balls and that’s down to 30% this year. That’s likely because the Clones are extremely efficient from inside the arc, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

This same concept applies to the 3% drop off in “cutting” and “post-up” possessions. With Georges in the post, he was very adept at finding cutters, specifically from the weak side. Remember the big to big lobs with Jameel? This season, the ball isn’t going to the post nearly as much, so the opportunity isn’t there for the bigs to make this pass.

Isolation

Last season, Iowa State ran isolation sets 11.6% of the time. There’s no way to further break this down, but I would bet about 90% of those sets were end-of-game or end-of-shot clock scenarios. It’s no surprise to see that number down to 8.7% this season. Iowa State’s offense has never been built around isolation. Even in Fred’s last season, this number was under 10%.

About the only time we’ve seen isolation sets this year were the last couple minutes of the Gonzaga game and some end-of-shot clock situations. Why? Nobody on this team is as good in isolation as Niang was. Burton went on a tear for a few minutes on Sunday, but that’s not his typical efficiency. In fact, the team as a whole is only averaging 0.729 points per isolation possession — its lowest of all 10 offensive set types. That efficiency is 20% lower than last year. That’s why all the talk of ball and player movement is not just talk, there’s numbers to back it up.

Pick and Roll

The pick and roll is featured about 50% more than last year because the offensive keys have now been turned over to Monte Morris. He’s a really efficient point guard and can read the defenders in pick-and-roll situations very well. The problem this year is that Iowa State doesn’t have a forward like Niang capable of pick-and-popping to knock down a three.

Because of the lack of deep threat from the bigs, the efficiency of the pick-and-roll is suffering a bit (0.1 ppp), but a lot of that is due to ISU’s poor 3-point shooting. The big men are averaging about 1.5 ppp in pick-and-roll scenarios; it’s actually the guards that have been struggling to knock down shots on a switch where the defender goes underneath and leaves them open for a jumper.

Offensive Rebounding

This is the big surprise for me. Iowa State essentially lost Jameel McKay and Georges Niang, replaced it with Holden/Bowie/Burton/Young and have seen a pretty sizeable uptick in the offensive rebounding rate. A lot of that can also be attributed to the guards, who are also rebounding extremely well (especially defensively).

The Cyclones’ offensive rebounding rate is up about 7% and the Cyclones are scoring a few extra points per game this season because of offensive rebounding. While the offense isn’t quite as efficient as last year, if you give the 23rd-ranked offense three more possessions per game, you’re going to have a bad time. The nice part about offensive boards is that many are simply tip-ins, so you can imagine how efficient they are. ISU’s forwards are doing an excellent job of crashing the offensive glass.

Shot Selection

The last thing I’d like to talk about is the reliance on the three. In each of Fred’s first four years, Iowa State was always one of the highest-ranked teams in the country in regards to percentage of points coming from the triple. In his last season, ISU was more well-balanced (middle of the pack for both). In Prohm’s first season, the script was flipped and ISU was 37th nationally in terms of percentage of scoring from inside the arc. This year it’s gotten even more extreme and Iowa State is 7th nationally, scoring 61.5% of its points from 2-point land. Why?

Iowa State has three capable scorers from deep, but no reliable scoring threat from the post (Burton is better on the wing than in the post). That’s not to say Bowie and Holden can’t score, they’re just not typical back-to-the-basket big men. This allows the defense to space themselves so they aren’t as susceptible to cross court passes, and they don’t have to sag down to help in the post. This is why ISU is getting out more in transition and setting more screens in its half court sets.

Offense is harder to come by when you can’t either force the defense to collapse on your bigs or if you don’t have offensively skilled bigs to punish them for not doubling. Right now Iowa State can’t do either because they’re only shooting 33% from long range.

Think of it in football terms. Some teams run to set up the pass and some pass to set up the run. For ISU’s offense to really click it has to start knocking down outside shots to create space for cutting and its bigs to go one on one when they do have an advantage.

Until then, settling for the 23rd most efficient offense isn’t so bad. Iowa State is averaging one less point per game this season than last when you account for raw efficiency and tempo. Prohm has found a way to make it work with the pieces at play, and while there’s no denying Georges Niang would help, the Cyclones have done a more than adequate job of finding other ways to get the ball in the basket.

Additionally, Prohm seems to have squeezed more defensive ability out of this year’s squad. Ian will be around to break that down later today.