Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 2: Ball Screens

Saint John’s (MN) and Pat McKenzie not “revolutionary,” but winning tons of games

It’s sort of ironic, given that this set of posts is meant to help coaches, players, and fans see what’s working for the best teams in the sport, but it’s time to point out an obvious truth: basketball is a copycat sport. If you want it in macro terms, look to the NBA. A decade ago, only 22.4% of all attempts were from three, with 33.8% being attempts from what we’d define as mid-range (from 10 feet to the arc). Today, these numbers have flipped: 35.9% of all attempts are threes, while just 18.8% are from mid-range.

Are teams any better at hitting threes? Not on a per-possession basis; the 3PT% league-wide has dropped from 36.7% to 35.5%. Are they worse at mid-range attempts? Actually, no; that’s improved from 40.1% to 40.7%. They’re small shifts, but noticeable ones. Does that mean teams should go back in time to what worked ten years ago? Of course not: we do what we do now for good, mathematical reasons. It’s the same thing with ball screens: rarely do you see something new, but the best teams are doing what they’re doing for good reasons.

That’s how Pat McKenzie and the Saint John’s (MN) Johnnies went 23-5 this year, and it’s how they’ve gone 84-26 in his four seasons. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but if you do what you do well, you don’t fix what isn’t broken.

When I first emailed McKenzie, he sheepishly admitted he’s like a lot of other basketball coaches: happy to copy what the best in the world are doing. “I can assure you we’re not doing anything revolutionary,” he says. Here’s some good news for McKenzie: it doesn’t matter if you’re a revolutionary. It only matters that you’re really, really good at what you do:

Not being a revolutionary doesn’t immediately equate him with a lack of deep thought, however. McKenzie sees basketball as art, with offense dependent on the skill of the painters – excuse me, players. “The more talent you have, you can just describe something. For example, you’d (ask them to) draw a dog. With more talent, you can let the artist take control and you know you’ll get a good-looking dog. The less talent you have, you know you’re going to have a more paint-by-numbers feel and you have to be more specific.” Unfortunately, I failed to ask McKenzie what type of dog this set reminds him of:

Dog jokes aside, what McKenzie’s built at Saint John’s (MN) is worthy of greater attention. McKenzie replaced the legendary Jim Smith, who won 786 games across 51 seasons with the Johnnies. Jim Smith is basketball to this school, and replacing someone of Smith’s caliber would be a fearful challenge for most. Clearly, the school saw something special in McKenzie, a lead assistant on Smith’s staff for his final nine seasons. McKenzie’s not only built on Smith’s legacy, but expanded it. The Johnnies just wrapped up their first back-to-back NCAA Division III Tournament appearances since 2000 & 2001, won the MIAC Championship for the first time since 2001, and posted the most wins in a two-season span (46) since 1979-1980 (48). Not too bad for a guy following a living legend.

It’s all the more fascinating that McKenzie deeply doesn’t believe he’s doing much of interest to others. “If you watch us play, I think you know what we’re gonna do or at least what we’re trying to do,” he says. Still, he turns that into a benefit: “(that) simplicity allows us to react and to play more freely and to attack.” The simplicity of the Saint John’s (MN) ball screen sets means nearly any coach could find help from them:

The simplicity of plays like that, which start from an empty-side ball screen and end with a flash to the free throw line, make them easy to coach. McKenzie’s theory, to me, seems as simple as he says: run it until they stop it. Here’s a near-exact replica of that play to the reverse side two minutes later:

Or this one, which features a pin action at the free throw line and a rapid ball reversal to a wide-open shooter for an easy three:

As McKenzie tells me, you can find these plays run just about anywhere. However, you can’t often find them run with the ruthless efficiency the Johnnies offer. “I don’t like overcomplicating or overcoaching things,” McKenzie says. “It’s that fine line between what’s going to be effective and how I can adapt and stay ahead of opponents.” Being the fifth-most efficient college basketball team in the entire country makes him seem like he’s ahead of his competition.

In terms of what types of shots McKenzie wants off of these looks, he wants the same ones most coaches do: a dunk or a layup. He was able to get those any number of ways this season, whether it was off of those same flash looks:

A ball-handler running downhill after rejecting the pick:

Or even the traditional roll half of the pick-and-roll:

To get these good looks and frequently score off of them is great. To do it after an offseason in which you heavily changed your offense is even greater. “This is the first year we really went with that offense exclusively,” notes McKenzie. “We had two posts, agile bigs that can catch on the move and make decisions really quickly, and it fit their talents really well.” Here’s an example of that with double-double machine Lucas Walford:

Being able to run an offense with great big guys is, obviously, nice. However, plenty of teams out there don’t have the luxury of a true post player. This is where spacing the floor comes in. “Most times, we were able to space the floor with five guys that were scorers, and that’s a pretty good sign that you’ll have a decent team offensively,” shared McKenzie. Take a look at the spacing on this missed three, because it’s still very good:

There were several available opportunities there, and Saint John’s (MN) worked the ball through the paint and around the perimeter to find the best one. That level of quality passing could excite any coach, but it especially excites McKenzie, the #6 assist leader in Johnnies history. “We have pretty clear, definitive looks on what’s the shot we’re looking for for each guy,” he says. Consistent, high-quality passes like the ones the Johnnies show on video will get those shots more often than not.

Despite a high-end hit rate from three – 40.6% – the Johnnies only attempted 35.5% of their shots from deep. As we’ve mentioned, they were much more likely to get to the rim (45.5% of all attempts). Surprisingly, it didn’t lead to a tall Free Throw Rate, but it did lead to a lot of good looks in the paint:

 

Don’t be surprised to see a relatively common offense grow in popularity. As mentioned in the introduction, P&R usage has increased 150% in college basketball over the last decade. McKenzie credits the NBA for this explosion: “I think those guys are so damn good and ahead of everything. It’s probably a case of trickle-down actually working,” he says. “If the smartest guys in the profession are doing it, you start wanting to do it.”

While McKenzie refrains from considering himself in that group of the smartest guys, I’d like to begin stating his case. It takes a lot of work, skill, and intelligence to build a consistent winner. To bring the program you’re at to heights it hasn’t touched in nearly two decades requires you to be really, really good at your job. McKenzie may not be a revolutionary, but he’s certainly a great coach with a simple, coachable offense to boot.

When I reached McKenzie a few weeks back to discuss his offense, his initiation of the conversation made me laugh: “There’s not much to talk about, I can tell you that. I think you’ll be satisfactorily…underwhelmed.” After further research and video review, I hate to say that McKenzie may be wrong: this is an offense worth admiring from afar.

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