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Iowa State Basketball: Offensive Offense

What’s wrong with the Cyclones’ offense?

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

Before we get too much into the intricacies of Iowa State’s offensive woes this season, I think it’s important to take a look at where this team stands against other Prohm-coached teams. Steve Prohm is a huge proponent of instituting offensive principles rather than strict sets that allows his players to operate with a lot of freedom.

This freedom could be a positive or a negative depending on how the players utilize the principles and select their shots. If players are out “looking to get theirs” or are settling for bad shots when they’ve identified a mismatch, it’s going to go poorly. Players can’t predetermine what they’re going to do, they must make decisions and reads based on the positions they get the defense in.

Fans assumed that a lineup consisting of a bunch of seniors and specifically senior guards would be able to capitalize on these principles like Georges Niang was able to do last year, but through 13 of the season, fans have yet to see the offensive fireworks that they had hoped for. So here’s how this team compares to past Prohm teams.

Offensive statistics of Prohm coached teams.

As you can see, these numbers are career lows in 4 of 5 categories and second to last in the other. Not great, but the question is why. Let’s take a look. Rather than tell you how bad it is and how to fix it, I’m going to show you both bad and good examples of things Iowa State has done this season. Contrary to popular belief, there has indeed been some good moments for Iowa State’s offense this season.

All of these problems are correctable, but the execution and shot selection has to be better to get the results the coaches and fans are looking for.

Screen Technique

While the Cyclones have much bigger issues than screen technique, it’s a fundamental problem that leads to a lot of other offensive miscues. Iowa State runs a lot of ball screens, and has done so for the last six seasons. The pick and roll is a play that puts defenders in conflict when run properly. When your screens are not effective, it negates the element of conflict and eases the pressure on the defenders. I wish this was a singular player issue, but the reality is that it’s not. Both the screeners and ball handlers have struggled this season, and that lack of consistency is causing the Cyclones problems.

Example #1 - No Shoulder Rub, No Read
Failed screen technique can be just as much a failure of the ball handler as it is the screener. You’re taught since grade school to rub shoulders with the screener as a ball handler. Close the gap for the defender and force him to chose - chase around, or drop under the screen. If he goes under, you have space to shoot or drive. If you don’t close this space, the defender can follow you over the top easily and there is no conflict.

Gap is not closed, no help defense is needed, and you end up with a contested 15-foot jump shot 11 seconds into the shot clock. That’s poor execution and poor shot selection. Analyzing further, the hesitation step Monte makes at the point of the screen further compounds the struggles. The ball handler must aggressively rub off the screen and force the defenders to make a choice instantly. By hesitating, he lets his man recover. This leads one to believe that Monte didn’t read this P&R scenario, he was taking a shot no matter what.

Example #2 - Good Read, Bad Finish
Burton is the best pick man in the pick and roll for ISU because he is a capable deep threat. While Bowie can shoot, he and Holden are not as potent as Burton from long range. In this example, we see the conflict that Burton puts on a defense when he sets a good screen.

You see Naz hesitate at first because he’s looking for a three, but the screen has put his defender in conflict. He chooses to go over the screen (which is how you stop the ball handler from getting an open three), and the help defender sticks to Burton to prevent him from getting an open look. Naz makes the correct read to drive, and look at how open he is. Matt’s defender obviously can’t help on the drive because that would leave an open look at a corner three. If Holden’s defender steps up, it’s an easy dump down for a dunk. Great play, missed bunny. We’ve seen that this year, right?

Example #3 - Good Screen, Bad Roll
So who sets really good screens? Solomon Young does. Notice how he gets low, sets his feet, widens his stance, promptly rolls and gets the defender on his back hip. Imagine this play as Niang/McKay, not Naz and Young as you watch.

Niang would throw this up for a lob to McKay all day long. Young doesn’t look prepared for that and instead opts to try and position against his man for an offensive board. It’s like the senior guards don’t trust the roll guys on these P&R’s. If Young rolls to the rim hard this should be an easy lob, but he doesn’t for some reason. That’s a catch 22 that we’ll discuss in our next topic.

Rim Running and Lack of Trust in Bigs

All off season, we saw quotes from Coach Prohm about how the big men had to continue to work on their rim running. I can’t sit here and say they’ve been great, but at the same time, they aren’t being rewarded when they do run. Jared Stansbury tweeted the following, which is maybe the best way possible to explain the point.

Take Example #3 in the Screen Technique portion. Solomon Young has to roll hard to the bucket. Similarly, Naz has to make that pass to reward that behavior. Rim running is often a term used in full court, transition situations, but it applies to half court situations like this as well. If Young rolls hard, that’s a lob play. He has to do it and the pass has to be thrown. When it’s not thrown, Young has no incentive for rolling hard, and is less likely to do so in the future.

Example #1 - Transition Rim to Rim
Here we will look at a full court transition situation. Darrell Bowie makes a solid defensive stand on Cordell Pemsl and sprints down the floor and gets great position.

Not only does Burton not make the pass, once Bowie’s man has recovered, Burton drives into Bowie and his man. Instead of passing early over the top for the layup, Burton keeps for a layup in double team traffic. There were never a look to pass.

Iowa State’s bigs are not the focal point of this offense, but they have to be rewarded for effort and they have to be utilized to help open up space for the guards. By not making these passes, ISU’s guards are hurting themselves long term.

Shot Selection

Thus far this season, this is my biggest problem with Iowa State’s offense. A lineup that features six seniors should not be struggling with what is a good shot and what is not. I’m almost positive that Prohm isn’t advocating that his players take contested 17-footers, but we’ve seen it on far too many occasions. Just look at the previous GIFs. There’s plenty of examples there. I had to split them up so this section wasn’t 400 GIFs long.

Example #1 - Dribbling Into Trouble
Take a look at our first example. You don’t see the following: Monte uses a ball screen and doesn’t even look at Bowie who would be isolated 1 on 1 with Dom Uhl. Then Naz gets a ball screen from Young and just completely disregards it and kicks to Bowie in the corner. Total discombobulation and frustration. So what happens next?

Bowie actually does a decent job drawing a double team and kicking to find an open Morris. Instead of stepping into a rhythm three, Monte dribbles into a contested mid-range jumper. Why? Control what you can control. Sure, the rest of the possession sucked, but don’t compound the issues with a disadvantageous shot.

Example #2 - Team Shot Chart
As you can imagine, I’ve rewatched a lot of basketball games to create these GIFs and trying to find decent examples. If you rewatch the Iowa game, ISU actually does a better job in the second half of getting better looks. They don’t always make them, but they did take better shots. The Cyclones scored just 0.784 PPP in the first half and scored an even 1.000 PPP in the second. Look at the difference in shot charts.

1st half on left, 2nd half on right

In the first half, Iowa State got just 9 shots around the basket and settled for a lot of mid-range shots and contested 3’s. In the second half, there’s just three mid-range shots and 19 around the basket. As far as 3’s go, density is key. Higher density of attempts typically means the offense is working to get shots in a particular location, like the corner or wing. If the 3-point attempts are scattered around the perimeter, it typically means the offense is settling for 3’s. This isn’t always the case, but there certainly is correlation.

Example #3 - Why Shoot This?

After Morris is forced to heave a three with the shot clock winding down, Bowie makes a winning effort to tip the ball to Thomas for an offensive rebound. If you look closely, Young also has good position. After Thomas gets it, he dribbles into a contested mid-range jumper.

Look at how good of position Young has when this shot is launched. We’re just seconds into the shot clock and a big man has great position down low. Get him the ball! It will almost certainly generate a higher percentage shot than what was taken.

When the team isn’t shooting well, the least they can do is continue to generate the highest quality looks they can. The problem with Iowa State has been that when they get frustrated that they’re missing shots, they force bad shots which just compounds the issues.

Poor Shooting

Some of the offensive struggles can be strictly attributed to poor shooting when they do get quality looks. Keep in mind that they haven’t done a good job of shot selection in general (as described above), but when they have done the work to get a good shot, they’re often missing their mark.

Iowa State is shooting a putrid 35.9% on unguarded shot attempts in the halfcourt. Good for 205th in the country. In contrast, last year’s version of the Cyclones shot 44.3% in similar situations (23rd nationally). Both last year’s team and this year’s team are generating about five unguarded situations per game, and that percentage difference equates to a point and a half point drop off per game. Sure, that seems insignificant, but two points is two points. Also, as 99% of these looks are 3-pointers, knocking those down would help stretch the defense to open up passing and penetration lanes.

Zone Offense

I would expect to see an uptick in zone against the Cyclones after what has been put on tape thus far this season by Iowa State. A zone can be used for a variety of reasons, but in particular it can be used to make it difficult on an offense to get the ball in the paint. It forces an offense to work the ball around, get players moving and pass accurately in tight windows. If they are unable to do that, offenses tend to settle for a boat load of contested three point attempts.

Iowa State is averaging .903 points per possession against man defense and just .828 against the zone. That’s especially poor when you consider you’re shooting more 3’s against a zone than you would a man. So your points per possession would naturally be higher if you knock down a decent percentage. However, when your offense doesn’t space the floor properly, you do yourself no favors, as we can see in our first example.

Example #1 - Bad Screen, Good Read, Bad Decision

This is off a baseline out of bounds play (BLOB), and many teams zone on BLOB sets. Iowa State, and Coach Prohm have been excellent in these situations 1.089 points per (30th nationally), but this set is executed poorly.

One problem is the screen is set below the 3-point line. Thomas is a 3-point shooter. He doesn’t close the gap between he and Burton because he’s looking for a 3.

The defender chases, so Thomas makes the correct decision to curl, but he stops and pops for a contested mid-range jumper. The better decision would have been to continue driving, force Monte’s defender to help (as he wants to) and kick to Morris for a look at a corner three. Poor execution on the screen from Burton, and poor execution and shot selection from Thomas.

Example #2 - That’s Better

I wanted to use this example because it’s different than what we saw last year, or even early this year down in Florida. Against Gonzaga, Prohm frequently used Burton at the free throw line in the middle of the zone. This is exactly how Georges was used the last three years and Ejim prior to that. Good passing big men help destroy zones from this particular position. Burton hasn’t shown that same passing ability consistently. Enter Monte Morris.

Morris does a good job making himself available to Naz, and makes a perfect pass to the weak side for a wide open look. Clang. Players skill sets are utilized better here, and that’s a solid coaching adjustment to utilize Monte instead of Burton in the middle, but that shot has to go down.

Isolation Offense

Often called “hero ball,” isolation offense typically gets a bad rap. The reality is, that it’s not all bad. If you’ve run some offense and get a mismatch off of screens and cuts, it can be extremely beneficial to run some isolation sets. It’s one of the sets that allowed Niang to thrive. The problem comes when no offense is run prior and the ball “sticks” in one player’s hands and they try to do it all themselves.

Example #1 - Bull Babb

In this example, there is good ball and player movement that is not shown in this GIF. The result is Wagner, who was initially guarding Bowie, isolated at the top of the key against Nick Weiler-Babb. Give me Babb all day in this matchup.

Iowa State worked the ball and got an advantageous one on one matchup. That’s not hero ball, that’s good isolation basketball. There is a difference.


This article could really be broken up into a different article on each topic. I had about 20 GIFs that I didn’t use, that I’ll potentially use in future pieces, which are hopefully based around how Iowa State’s offense has evolved over the season. Keep in mind that everything shown here is correctable. Shots can be created and made, screens can be better executed, bigs can be rewarded.

What we’ve seen thus far isn’t necessarily selfishness or hero ball, although we have seen that intermittently. I believe what we’ve seen is a lack of trust in teammates and offensive system. 52 Trap called it a ‘disconnect’. That works for me too. What it boils down to is taking and making the best shots. Seniors shouldn’t be pulling up or dribbling into contested mid-range jumpers. It’s time to buy in and execute.