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Iowa State Basketball: A Lesson In Good Offense

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Steve Prohm and the strength of the Iowa State offense

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Arkansas-Little Rock v Iowa State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Basics

If you follow basketball at all, you have probably heard some announcer say, “the lost art of the mid-range” or something to that effect. There’s a good reason for that mantra. In general, mid-range shots are inefficient shots, and as more coaches have learned that over the past 10 or so years, those possessions have transformed into increased 3-pointers and attempts around the rim.

There’s enough data available now through any number of websites that concludes what are and aren’t effective shots on offense. The consensus is that the best shots in basketball are layups (or anything within about four feet from the rim) and catch and shoot threes. There was a great article awhile back about Dan D’Antoni establishing an identity based on these precepts at Marshall. Free throws are obviously highly efficient as well for anyone in college who can shoot over 50% from the stripe.

By far the worst shot in basketball (with the exception of one taken by Steph Curry) is a jump shot off the dribble. This rings true for the Cyclones as well. Coach Steve Prohm’s squad is averaging 0.97 points per possession on every trip they have made to the offensive end per Synergy Sports. On possessions that end in an off-the-dribble jump shot, that rate plummets to 0.81 points per possession. That may not sound like much, but the Cyclones shoot jump shots off the dribble 22% of the time. That difference will add up over the course of a game and a season.

The Point of Running Offense

The whole goal of running plays and sets is to create offensive advantages in your team’s favor. As a fan you hear everyone talk about that silly word: movement. Pundits and couch sitters alike throw this buzzword around all the time. They mention how movement of players and movement of the ball create better offense. Well, the reality is that saying movement generates better offense is a sweeping generalization that is not necessarily true.

You can pass the ball around and move your guys around like some noon ballers in a pickup game, but that concept is not going to automatically get a team great shots. The movement has to be with a purpose. The purpose of movement is to manufacture advantages for the offense based on the strengths of your players.

What does an offensive advantage actually entail? An advantage is setting a ball screen for Monte Morris and him dribbling at the big with a head of steam if his guy gets caught on a screen. An advantage is Naz Mitrou-Long’s man getting hung up on Iowa State’s baseline screen action and getting an open three. An advantage is a small guard switching onto Deonte Burton and Burton receiving the ball in the low post with the little on his back. An advantage is Matt Thomas pump faking his man out of position and getting a more open three or dribbling into the paint for more.

These are all advantages for Iowa State and the point of running offense is not to simply create movement, it is to create these types of advantages on as many possessions as possible. The coaching staff’s job is to provide the optimum offensive structure, whatever that may look like, for their players to create the maximum number of advantages throughout the game.

The Plan

Prohm had to center this year’s offense around the strengths of his team combined with the above knowledge on shot efficiency. The Cyclones do not have any players that can consistently get to the rim and finish whenever they want. The most obvious advantage for Iowa State is and should be looking for is one that leads to an open three. Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas are two of the best 3-point shooters in the Big 12 and form one of the best shooting tandems in the entire country. Monte Morris can also can threes with regularity and Deonte Burton has shown throughout his career that he can step behind the line as well. This year, Donovan Jackson has emerged as a long range sniper, shooting 42% from deep. As a team, the Cyclones are in the 98th percentile of NCAA teams in converting catch-and-shoot jump shots per Synergy Sports. That is an amazing stat and one that needs to be a focal point on O.

What type of offense is Prohm supposed to run to get the most out of his 3-point threats? At the beginning of the year, he spoke at length about not wanting to run sets and letting his guys play with a ton of freedom on offense. As we saw in the Advocare Invitational, in the game against Iowa and in the beginning of the Big 12 season, the Cyclones were not creating enough good shots with that freedom.

There was not enough offensive structure that allowed the players to create advantages leading to open threes. Many times in the beginning of the year, the five guys on the floor would move around and run some ho-hum action without a purpose. This would lead to a switch onto Morris or Burton and the Cyclones would play one-on-one.

An isolation one-on-one play is one of the least effective possessions, unless you have a clear mismatch, in all of basketball. As mentioned above, the Cyclones do not have a reliable drive and finish guy, thus many of those possessions early in the year were not ending well. What made it worse was that whoever was in the one-on-one spot was trying to get their own bucket at all costs. The best they often could do was settle for a long jumper off the dribble, when a juicy drive and kick against the mismatch was not even considered.

The Adjustments

In the past, the Cyclones could just dump it down to Georges Niang and he would create an efficient look out of nothing. They don’t have a player who can do that anymore. I previously wrote about how Iowa State would have to overcome that loss here and how Monte Morris isn’t that type of player here. As the season has gone on, Prohm realized that he needed to provide more structure for his guys to get better looks. Iowa State has been running more set plays in the past two months than they were at the beginning of the year.

These plays have been incredibly effective and are creating looks that I was dreaming about last summer. The Donovan Jackson three to seal the game against Kansas is something we hadn’t seen with regularity until that game. Watch how Morris gains an advantage on the drive and instead of trying to finish or force a dump to Solomon Young, he kicks out to a shooter to take advantage of Iowa State’s greatest offensive strength.

Since then, we have been seeing different versions similar to that sequence pop up on a ton of possessions. On Iowa State’s first bucket of the game against Texas Tech tonight, Naz slices through the lane and instead of tossing up an ill advised runner he kicks it out to a wide open Matt Thomas.

Coach Prohm has put in a baseline runner set that he runs a lot for Long, Morris and Thomas. This set is incredibly useful because if the defender goes over the screen, Iowa State will fade to the corner for an open three as Naz beautifully does below.

If the man defending Young, or whoever is setting the screen, steps out to help, the Iowa State big will slip for a dunk or a layup. The only option is to trail the Cyclone guard around the screen, which opens up Pandora’s box for a defense. Watch how three players panic when Morris dives into the paint with the ball. Kenny Thomas gets caught eyeing Monte and Naz slides for a wide open bomb.

Morris could have also taken his dribble harder towards the rim for a finish, but given the advantage he gained and the strength of Iowa State’s offense, I would argue he made the most efficient play available there.

Three of these plays were taken from the first five minutes of the Texas Tech game. It’s clear that Chris Beard’s team was not ready to defend the actions they saw at the beginning because this Iowa State offense is much different than the one they saw in Hilton Coliseum back in December.

The Antidote

Running more sets in general is not the antidote for Prohm. The antidote is that these sets now provide the structure to take advantage of the team’s greatest weapon. To go along with that, I think it has instilled in the players a knowledge about where their shots are going to come from and what types of looks are most efficient for them.

Earlier in the year, the issue was not that the players weren’t “buying in,” like a contrarian high schooler, to what Prohm wanted. The issue was that they didn’t completely comprehend what great shots were, because the freedom to choose shots as they saw fit was not leading to the best offensive opportunities. As the season has gone on, incorporating more structure that leads them to more efficient shots and thus success, has allowed the Cyclones to develop a deeper understanding of what good offense looks like according to everybody’s strengths. Team chemistry, learning to play with new players and Prohm preaching what he wants obviously play a part as well, but the main catalyst is the understanding of good offense.

The Cyclones realize now that to run fantastic offense, they don’t have to take a guy one-on-one. They realize now that unless they have a layup or shot close to the rim, generating an opportunity for a catch-and-shoot three will work just fine. Every single time. Those are the best opportunities for this team, and if either of those looks don’t become available quickly enough, then they can create whatever look they can get with a low shot clock.

The Game Changer

I would be a lunatic not to mention Solomon Young when talking about Iowa State’s recent offensive spurt. Since Prohm gave him more minutes, he has done so many things that the Cyclones were lacking offensively. He has been finishing plays that need to be buckets at a much higher rate than any bigs were earlier in the year.

Young been setting excellent on-ball and off-ball screens in the minutes he has gotten. Watch the clip where Naz fades to the corner again (it’s the third clip). Young slides his screen out at the last second, (without setting an illegal!) which forces the TTU defender to take an extra step or two back under the screen to close out. This creates an ADVANTAGE by giving Naz an even more open three, which increases his percentages.

Not only does Young set the pick, but watch what he does after. Seriously, watch the clip again.

He rolls into the middle of the paint and has decent position for an offensive rebound if Naz would have missed the shot. Honestly, if you watch all four clips again you will see Solomon Young actively fight for an offensive board in each one. Young’s offensive rebounds have been huge and have gotten the Cyclones precious extra offensive possessions that they were not getting at the beginning of the year.

All of those little things are exactly what Prohm has talked about wanting from his big guys since the beginning of fall practice. It’s not a coincidence that Iowa State’s recent success has occurred while a big has practiced what Prohm has preached.

Readers and fans, please do not get too over anxious with Young yet. There have been people calling for the guards to throw the ball into Young in the post and that looking him off is a horrible crime. Throwing it in the post is absolutely NOT a good idea. This topic has been covered before, but just because Young has become a useful Big 12 big does not mean he should get opportunities in the post. Under no circumstance does Iowa State have to throw the ball into the post to get better offense.

First of all, a post-up one-on-one with a big defending, unless you are Georges Niang, is about as efficient as a guard taking his man one-on-one. If Young has a small guard on him on the block, then maybe take a look at it, but he is not going to shoot a high percentage against a big.

A flock of Cyclone fans claim that it will take pressure off the guards or draw the defense in to open up perimeter looks. Let me clear this up. Throwing it into the post most definitely will not accomplish either of those goals. If the ball goes to Young in the post, the defense will stick like absolute glue to everyone on the perimeter and dare Solomon to score one-on-one. A look in the post will in essence close down any avenue to a good look for Iowa State and force our offense into an inefficient post move.

Even if defenses were to help down on Young, which they wouldn’t do, he would have to effectively pass out of a double team or a stunt and recover. He has one assist total on the year and would not do well.

Either Prohm has been preaching to not toss it down low or the back court has consciously not done it, because it’s tempting to pass the ball when you see an open teammate down there. But the Cyclones have done a great job of moving on and hunting for better shots.

Having Young develop his post game to be good enough against Big 12 competition is an off-season project and I hope for the sake of next year’s squad that he becomes capable.

The Caveat

No matter how many great sets Prohm runs or how many times his offensive structure allows the Cyclones to create advantages, there will be possessions where the defense covers everything. The defense will have played their scheme at least good enough to where ISU doesn’t get a look that plays to our strengths.

As I said earlier, last year’s team could find Georges and let him dominate someone for a bucket. This year’s squad doesn’t have that guy and oftentimes has to settle for a Morris or Burton take-em situation. Many, many times this turns into an off-the-dribble jump shot. As much as I rant against off-the-dribble lobs and midrangers, these shots are better than hoisting a 100% no-chance three or taking a shot clock violation. Thus, I have to live with some amount of mid-range chucks, but the fact of the matter is that they have been occurring much less frequently lately. And that is improvement I can live with.

The Coach

A ton of props are due to Coach Prohm and his staff. They realized that the freedom offense earlier in the year wasn’t working as well as they surmised. Watching that Iowa game was brutal and by far the low of the season. I had no idea how the Cyclones were going to get better offensively. Credit to Prohm for dumping new oil in the machine and churning out a much improved product.

Earlier in the Big 12 season, Iowa State was lingering around 109 to 110 points per 100 possessions according to KenPom’s offensive ratings. Now, with the Texas Tech game included, they are all the way up to 116.7 points per 100 and have cracked the top 30 in the country. That is a massive jump for a team to make while playing in one of the toughest conferences since the turn of the millennium.

That compliment is about as impressive as it gets.