Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Kansas

Kansas offense

Bill Self is an underrated offensive coach…

Ostensibly, Bill Self has a reputation as a top-five coach in the nation at minimum, and it’s probably higher than that. However, I’d be willing to guess that the average basketball pundit praises his defense more frequently than his offense. That’s pretty fair, of course; few things have been more constant over the last 17 years than Kansas having an excellent defense. Only once has a Self defense finished outside of the top 25 in KenPom, and only three of his 17 full-season defenses even finished lower than 18th. It’s not always the best group out there, but you can generally count on Self to bring a top-10 unit to the table more often than not.

All that said, I kind of get puzzled as to why no one talks about Self’s offenses as much as his defenses. Regardless of the actual shooting talent on the team, few coaches are better at scheming good shots within their offensive system:

And, in pretty much every year that isn’t 2020-21, has a roster capable of making a ton of shots inside the perimeter.

…but this offense has a lot of holes in it because they can’t score inside

While Self’s defenses have had all the accolades and the gaudy KenPom numbers (11 top 10 finishes), the Self offenses have been nearly as elite (8 top 10 finishes) and, until this year, could be counted upon to carry the team on poor defensive nights. It’s not really the case. Immediately after their season-opening loss to Gonzaga, in which they displayed a perfectly fine performance, Jeff Goodman sent a Tweet out that hurt a lot of feelings:

For a minute there, it looked like Goodman might be wrong. Kansas did beat Creighton, Texas Tech, and West Virginia in a three-week span and were up to #7 on KenPom before Texas came to town and set the arena on fire. That game felt like a microcosm of the Kansas problem at this point in time. As shown by Simon Gerszberg, Kansas actually got the better shots:

But watching the game live, the problem simply felt pretty obvious. Kansas has a couple of very good shooters in Christian Braun and particularly Ochai Agbaji (39.8% on the season), and we’ll get to them shortly, but there’s a bigger problem going here: there is no obvious go-to scorer inside the perimeter. Last year’s Kansas team took 45% of all shots at the rim and converted at a 64.1% hit rate. Both numbers are way, way down this year: 34.8% of all shots and just a 59.2% conversion rate. If you can’t score consistently at the rim, how is it supposed to open up the rest of the offense?

Seven times this season, the Jayhawks have shot 46% or worse on twos, which they only did seven times in all of 2019-20. David McCormack uses more possessions than anyone when he’s on the court, but he’s of average efficiency at best and is exclusively a post-up scorer:

The most obvious comparison is, of course, Udoka Azubuike. In his final season at Kansas, Azubuike was a wrecking ball of a player that could only be stopped if you forced him to shoot free throws. He went an amazing 144-of-169 (85.2%) at the rim, and the attention he drew there helped open everything else up for Kansas guards. McCormack is shooting just 44.2% on the season on all shots, and being just above 50% at the rim simply doesn’t cut it in this offense:

Self’s offenses have always been at their best when there’s a true dominant force down low to draw attention. McCormack is fine, but he certainly isn’t dominant. Because of this, the driving lanes for Kansas guards aren’t nearly as open as they were a year ago, which is forcing them to take a lot of tougher short twos:

There are good shooters, but no great shot creators

The other issue is this: while Ochai Agbaji, Jalen Wilson, and Marcus Garrett are all fun and solid players in their own right, none of the three are particularly great at creating their own shots inside the perimeter. Wilson comes closest, as he’s only been assisted on eight of his 38 makes at the rim:

But at the same time, there just…isn’t a Devon Dotson on this team. Dotson was a fantastic point guard for the Jayhawks last year and, at worst, one of the five best players in college basketball. Without Dotson and Azubuike, this feels like Diet Kansas. As we’ve mentioned, there’s some good shooters here, and I actually think this might be a better shooting team than 2019-20. Agbaji is killing it from downtown:

And Christian Braun, who shot 45.6% on threes his freshman season, is merely hitting 38.2% this year. That’s still a really good rate, and you don’t want to leave him open:

But neither is particularly good at creating their own shots. Braun comes closest, but he’s <50% at the rim. Agbaji has 43 threes, but only four of them are unassisted. Marcus Garrett, the closest thing to a point guard the team has, takes about two threes per game and is shooting just 9-for-35 on non-rim two pointers.

This unit does still rank out at #33 on KenPom. They don’t commit a ton of turnovers, McCormack and Wilson are both very good rebounders, and the only thing they’re truly wretched at is hitting twos. But considering 64% of their shots come from inside the perimeter, that seems like a bad thing to be mediocre at, no?

Here’s a quick scout of the Kansas rotation. Only players who receive at least 10 minutes per game in Big 12 play are considered. The first five players are projected starters. Positions in parentheses are from Bart Torvik’s algorithm.

  • #0 Marcus Garrett (combo G). Not a true point guard and probably better off as a 2-guard, but the closest thing KU has to a PG. Not a huge threat to shoot and 9-for-35 on long twos, but a fine enough finisher. Much more impactful on defense.
  • #30 Ochai Agbaji (wing G). Kansas’s best shooter, most consistent player, and key to the offense. Not really able to create his own shot all that often. Lowest turnover rate on the team. Largely a spot-up shooter with the capacity to handle the ball sometimes.
  • #2 Christian Braun (wing G). Kansas’s second-best shooter, but largely Just A Shooter at this time. Braun is under 50% at the rim, an awful finishing rate for anyone taller than 5’11”. Mostly a spot-up shooter, not a good ball-handler.
  • #10 Jalen Wilson (stretch 4). Critical to the Jayhawk puzzle. Wilson is the best on the team at finishing through contact, the best at drawing fouls, and is genuinely able to score at all three levels. Not a terrific shooter, but good enough that you have to close out hard.
  • #33 David McCormack (center). The Azubuike replacement. McCormack has only topped 30 minutes in two games all season, and in three of their last seven games, he hasn’t topped 20. Solid rebounder and rim protector, but just too inconsistent in the post.
  • #3 Dajuan Harris (pure PG). The actual closest thing KU has to a PG. However, a 28.4% TO% rate (!!!) and an overwhelming fear of shooting the basketball (when Harris is in, only 7.7% of KU shots are his own) limit his positive impact.
  • #44 Mitch Lightfoot (center). Lightfoot is a better finisher than McCormack and has at least made a three, but he’s less effective on the boards and commits two more fouls per 40 minutes.
  • #13 Tristan Enaruna (wing F). Solid on twos for his career (49.3%), awful at everything else (24.4% on 41 threes, 57.6% on 33 free throws). TO% of 26.7%. Seems happier driving to the rim than shooting, and almost always drives to his left.

NEXT PAGE: Movies set in Kansas, ranked: 1. The Wizard of Oz (obviously) 2. Winchester ’73 (if you haven’t seen this, it’s one of the best Westerns ever made) 3. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (largely takes place in Wichita)

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