Oregon’s women are lapping the field
Regrettably, I don’t watch nearly as much women’s basketball as I should. It isn’t nearly as TV-friendly as the NBA or men’s college basketball, but that’s no excuse. Plenty of women’s teams are doing incredible work on offense, with diverse influences and a wide range of ideas going on. The foremost of these, at least in college, is Kelly Graves and his Oregon Ducks:
Chances are that if you’re a basketball fan, a Shea Serrano fan, or both, you likely know who Oregon is. You may not know the depth of their offensive successes, though. Oregon, at the highest level of women’s college basketball, lapped the field offensively. Their 1.224 PPP was the second-best by any Division 1 men’s or women’s team behind Gonzaga (1.226), and the distance between Oregon and the tenth-best women’s offense is the same as the distance from first-place Northwest Missouri to 33rd-ranked Minnesota State Moorhead in men’s. It’s a massive gap. For a team to lap the field that convincingly requires talent, of course – meet the indomitable Sabrina Ionescu:
And her friends, Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard:
However, what they’re doing isn’t exclusively dependent on having great talent. It comes from great coaching, too. Graves, if he isn’t already, will soon be recognized as a legendary figure across all of college basketball. He’s won 508 games at the sport’s highest collegiate level across three schools and 22 seasons, got Saint Mary’s to the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament, took a Gonzaga program from essentially nothing to seven NCAA Tournament bids in eight seasons and an Elite Eight run, and, as the capper, has taken Oregon to three straight Elite Eights and a Final Four. Prior to Graves’ arrival, the program had never reached the Sweet Sixteen.
Graves, for his part, puts a lot of praise on the players themselves. “We’re blessed to have the kind of personnel we have . . . Not everybody has a Sabrina or a Cazorla or a Sabally, but I’ve been blessed to have those kind of players that can play in this system. That’s the key to me,” he says. The other key, of course, is the system itself. A system that produces opportunities like this is a good one:
Graves’ offensive philosophy is simple: “Space the floor, go hard, and get the best shot we can get.” Oregon lived up to that name and more in 2018-19. The Ducks made 41.5% of their three-point attempts, in part because 55.7% of their catch-and-shoot threes were unguarded, per Synergy. That’s a phenomenal rate for any team, much less one that every opponent knows is starting four players that shoot 41% or better from three. Yes, that’s four players, because the spot-up looks this team gets are lethal:
This starts with quality shot selection, which is preached every day by Graves in practice. “The right people are taking the right shots. We rarely take a bad shot. We’re big believers that it’s our shot, not your shot or my shot,” he says. Confidence in your players allows for extraordinary confidence on the court:
“I think our kids really understand their roles and what they’re supposed to do within our offense,” says Graves. From my own review, it seems to be clearly right to me: Oregon runs their ball screens with ruthless efficiency, demolishing the field behind them. In fact, Oregon’s 1.112 PPP figure, which rules the women’s college basketball field by a full 0.109 PPP, offers the same distance from #1 to #2 as it does from #2 to #45. Only an offense that produces wide-open looks from both inside and outside can do this:
“We play unselfishly and we’re the best passing team in the country. If you combine that with being the best shooting team, you’re gonna have a pretty efficient offense,” quips Graves, laughing. Considering Oregon also demolished the field in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.88, he’s not lying. It almost makes it surprising that Oregon didn’t win the national title this year, but that’s okay – they’re fully loaded for another run this coming year and they’ve already reached levels of success never seen before at the school.
Considering coaching is, per the coaches themselves, a copycat world, you’ll likely be tempted to implement some of the Oregon ball screens in your own offense. Here’s what Graves suggests in terms of why it clicked for his team first: “We vary our looks, we vary our entries, we’ll dribble handoff, we’ll rescreen a lot, we’ll do what we call pitch actions (instead of setting a side ball screen, we fire to the post and cut off it). We’ve evolved as teams catch up to what we’re doing. We just keep moving! We’ve got really smart guards that just keep the ball moving.” Maite Cazorla, a remarkably smart and efficient point guard, defines this for Graves:
“Maite Cazorla fell into our hands a little bit, and she’s as good a player as I’ve ever had that runs the pick-and-roll, including Courtney Vandersloot,” says Graves. Cazorla’s understanding of the ball screen is what sets Oregon’s offense apart from others, per Graves. With players like her on the court, “we’re the ones that dictate the possession. We can put you in whatever we want.”
Watching Oregon basketball is a fun, entertaining study session of both high-level talent and high-level coaching. If you watch Oregon for a few games, though, you’ll notice an unusual play. It’s a pick-and-roll with a secondary passer, and it works beautifully nearly every time. Graves calls this the Plus-One. “Let’s say you’ve got two guards on one side of the floor with a help defender. Sometimes they’ll leave one defender on that weak side to defend two players. If they don’t get to the secondary player for the kickout, the roller is open down low.” Ruthy Hebard, who Graves singled out as a player he wants to get even more opportunities for, is often the recipient of the Plus-One:
It’s no surprise that Graves adores his team and how well they run his system. In fact, it’s a near-ideal match of personnel and philosophy. Graves’ system defines a role for every player on the court and emphasizes each player’s strengths while also allowing for less athletically-blessed players to get better shots. “You can do a lot with a good pick-and-roll action. Quite frankly, we need to do it. I don’t have jets. I don’t have kids that can get past an elite defender any time they want (with their speed). They need help, and that pick provides the help,” says Graves.
Lastly, I thought Graves had good words for young, struggling, or young and struggling coaches. When I asked him how he tweaks and differentiates his own offense from others for better results, he responded “watch video consistently and note where you’re struggling, and think of ways to combat that.” Here’s a specific example from Graves: “During Sabrina’s first year, teams started to trap her, so we had to come up with ways to beat that. You don’t want to take the ball away from Sabrina just because teams trap her. We’ve thought of different ideas and worked on them and kept evolving.” Graves even gave me a specific influence on his coaching: European basketball. “They’re ahead of us in terms of a lot of offensive strategies,” per his studies.
What Oregon’s doing would be remarkable no matter what the circumstances were. For Kelly Graves and Oregon to be doing this in a conference that hasn’t won the national championship in 27 years is miraculous. Oregon will return all but two players from a Final Four team next year, including a player who would’ve likely been the #1 pick in the WNBA Draft had she chosen to leave early. They’ll be serious national championship contenders. That moment won’t have arrived without years of preparation, coaching, practice, and adjustments on the fly from a coach and his staff. Oregon’s ball screen offense is an offense that any team – men, women, professional, collegiate, high school, middle school – should draw serious inspiration from.