Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 7: All of Our Friends

Emory is super-smart, both academically and athletically

Emory basketball, like several other programs in this piece, is likely a program you haven’t spent much time thinking about. This is by design. Emory University is most well-known for its incredible hospitals, being a top 25 academic school in America (per U.S. News & World Report), and birthing a variety of famous alumni. In a city rich with excellent schools, Emory stands out. Also, their basketball program is really good, too:

Jason Zimmerman and Emory are 197-70 since 2009-10. They’ve made seven straight Division III NCAA Tournaments, the second-longest streak there is. They’ve won their conference four times in seven years. Oh, and he’s done all this at a program that went 23 years between NCAA Tournament appearances. “It’s always been a great place to coach basketball. Now, I think it’s a great place to play basketball. We take great pride in it,” says Zimmerman. Heck, I would too:

Last season, Emory went 20-6, winning 11 of their 14 University Athletic Association games prior to falling in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. While they fell short of their ultimate goals, they left their place in the record books to the tune of 92.9 points per game. That would’ve smoked the Division I field by over five points per game. “We’ve always played fast since I’ve been here in my 12 years, but we now have more versatile guys and we have really, really potent offensive players,” says Zimmerman.

What really sets Emory apart, though, is their insane volume of shots:

Of the 20 teams I covered as being the most efficient in men’s college basketball in April, Emory had the third-highest Shot Volume – a simplified calculation of how many opportunities you’re giving yourself every 100 possessions. Emory ranked in the top 20 in D-III in both turnover percentage and offensive rebound percentage, which is hard to do. “We rebounded offensively this year better than we have, which helped us a lot by getting more possessions,” says Zimmerman. As for turnovers, Zimmerman thinks it has a lot to do with Emory’s pace. “It’s like a race car driver – if the driver ever sits in the car and says he’s pretty comfortable, he’s probably not going fast enough, right?”

“We shoot it before we turn it over,” Zimmerman tells me as he laughs. (He’s very similar to Whitman coach Eric Bridgeland in this way.) “We’re not throwing 15 passes a possession if we can get a good shot in the first pass.” It’s worked really well for Emory, of course. Despite making only 36% of their threes this season, their combination of potent offense and strong crashing of the boards made them one of the very best basketball offenses out there.

It all dates back to Zimmerman’s years at Davidson under Bob McKillop. “My foundation was fostered and developed at Davidson,” notes Zimmerman. “I think McKillop is one of the best people in the business.” Something Zimmerman picked up along the way that he’s instituted at Emory is the idea of a constant flow. The Eagles’ offense can be broken down into three stages: the primary break in transition:

The secondary action, which is Emory’s half-court motion offense with constant movement:

And their late shot-clock offense, which aims to further frustrate opponents by nailing them after 26+ seconds of quality defense:

To Zimmerman, a good possession either takes under eight seconds or over 20. “We think a lot of bad shots happen from that 8-to-20 second range in the shot clock,” he says. It’s an uncommon thought, but certainly one worth thinking about. Per Hoop Math, the average Division I team had a 55.4% eFG% in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock; on all other possessions, it was at 49.7%. The average D-1 team hit just a 45% eFG% in the final ten seconds. Zimmerman wants to change that, and it helps that his Emory team had a 93rd-percentile rating in overall half-court offense this season.

Largely, Emory basketball is about having fun and being a fun team. It’s an admirable goal, obviously. “It’s all about enjoying what you’re doing, even in just one offensive possession,” says Zimmerman. It’s a simple system to pick up on, but an incredibly hard one to stop. “A lot of people say this about both Davidson and us: you’re really easy to scout, but really hard to play against,” Zimmerman told me. It’s a great compliment to receive, and, hey, you might as well make it the program’s slogan. Emory Basketball: Easy to Scout, Hard to Stop.

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