Fantasizing About Franklin (As A 2)

That’s Armaan Franklin, previously having been 1-9 from the field, with his former team tied against Luka Garza’s #8 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes. Despite his previous shooting, the Hoosiers’ final play was to give him the ball, clear out, set a ball screen, and let him go to work. And go to work he did, threatening the blow by, getting his defender to create momentum toward the hoop, and then stopping on a dime for the sweet midrange dagger.

I’ve made the comment several times that Armaan Franklin’s natural position is at the 2, and recently I was asked to go into more detail about this. I don’t think this will be a big leap or will require that much proving – but I am both interested and perplexed by the number of fans who seem to think he’s best suited at 3 – or is even desirable as the primary option there. I hazard a guess that one or both of two things is happening here: losing sight over how thin the roster was at the SF position last year and that Armaan was forced to start there out of necessity; or sticking to the belief that the roster is either best suited (or inevitably will contain) both Reece and Clark at 1 and 2 next year. The latter might be true, but the former is certainly not.

In most of CTB’s offensive systems, the 2 and 3 position end up looking almost interchangeable in how they operate within the offense. Without spending too much time on the intricacies of the offensive system (there are many elaborate videos on YouTube breaking them down), the role of the guards is primarily to read the defense and react within the flow of the offense and screeners, OR to initiate pre-determined movement patters while simultaneously reacting and adapting to what the defense is doing in response. While the team and scheme will certainly cater to players’ individual skill-sets and function accordingly, the framework is there for both positions to flow and adapt. Below are some examples of Kyle Guy, playing the 2, and Armaan Franklin, playing the 3, looking for opportunities within the offense in virtually the same way:

Kyle’s making the baseline cut across the floor and Armaan is floating on the wing, but both are examples of them utilizing that pin down screen to free themselves up for a three.

Both would/will then play off of the fear of that pin down screen going for a three to curl into the lane and either take that midrange jumper or continue the drive.

Here’s both exploiting the overplay in response to the fear of their shooting by cutting backdoor baseline and finishing.

One’s against the zone and one’s to create space for the post player, but both would often spot up from well beyond the three point line in order to stretch the defense.

And here you have examples of both being willing to use the bounce to get to the paint and elevate for a jumper.

These are just a couple of examples, and there are many more – passing or driving off of the pick and roll, shooting off of flare screens, all of the things you’d expect a non-primary ball handling guard to do in CTBs mover-blocker/sides offense.

This obviously isn’t to say that Franklin is Guy. There are considerable differences in their games. Guy was a better pure shooter with a quicker release and had a greater willingness to take contested threes. Franklin is a more physical player who is more comfortable getting in closer to the rim – a great example of which were those baseline cut clips above where Kyle had to get creative and finesse a beautiful reverse layup and Franklin just went up and finished with power (and was fouled doing so without the call).

Differences aside, there are uncanny similarities in not only how they execute the offense, but in the types of shots they look for and where they thrive within it. And, if Armaan’s confidence in his shot toward the end of the 2022 season and this workout video with Justin Anderson over the summer are any indication, it looks like he’s pushing himself to continue to improve in those areas. Quick and confident outside shooting off of the move and off of the bounce.

So, the above might be arguing against a strawman – but I think it’s valuable to establish as a premise that Armaan’s offensive game translates to our system well and can mirror the role that former 2 guards played for us. A counterpoint here might be that I’ve actually just proven how interchangeable the 2 and 3 guard is from an offensive standpoint in UVa’s system since Guy and Armaan were not playing the same position but were ostensibly playing the same role within the offense. And that’s a fair rejoinder. All things considered, Armaan performed well in the SF position last season. His primary hinderance was his outside shooting percentage, which improved dramatically late in the year once the coaching staff caught the mechanical issue in his shot. It it’s likely true that we could maintain the status quo and he would have a better 2022-2023, building on his improvement with another offseason under his belt. But good is often the enemy of great, and I want to discuss why our upside is much higher with Armaan playing his natural position at SG.

Quietly Leaking Value

At 6’4″ Franklin is an under-sized SF by ACC standards (which we’ll talk more about in a minute). He was second on the team in scoring at 11.1 points per game because of the nature of his game and offensive skillset that I highlighted earlier. However, his offensive efficiency was fifth – dead last – among the starters on the team. Defensively, he fared better, with the 3rd best defensive efficiency metrics among starters on the team (behind Beekman and Shedrick). His defensive box plus/minus was also third among the starters (and was actually tied exactly at 1.1 with backup Kody Stattmann, to whom he was giving up 3 inches but most often defending the same players).

While it’s almost certain that if he was shooting throughout the year as he was after his shot correction, those numbers would be better, it also didn’t help that he almost always had players at his size or larger matching up with him in ACC play. I’ve talked about roster compression previously in my post about Kihei’s return decision, so I will try not to duplicate too much content (the Wake Forest game is very relevant, though), but the point remains. Across ACC play last season, matching up against every other team’s typical starting SF, Franklin was conceding almost 2 full inches per game (1.8) and was shorter than the starters of all but two teams, both of whom were the same height as he. Simply put, Armaan Franklin played an entire year in the ACC out of position, put up 11.1 PPG with a broken jumper for most of it, never once being taller than his primary defender. Conversely, if you were to slot him in at SG in those same games, he would have been taller on average by .2 inches – basically a push.

It doesn’t take a big leap of faith to assume that this would make a big difference for him (or that this seems to be an indicator that he is a perfect size fit as an ACC 2 guard). Earlier we briefly touched on his numbers under these circumstances. He held his own throughout the year – but famously our toughest matchup was against UNC, in which at shooting guard he could have been matched up against the 6’4″ Caleb Love but instead drew the 6’8″ Leaky Black. I think we can form some interesting observations from these two games, especially considering that UNC, also, returns most of their team.

In both games it’s hard not to love Franklin the player, just not his situation. He plays so tough and physical for his size in these, in fact, I think his physicality was generally underappreciated this season due to the fact that he was playing out of position; but it’s what allowed him to do so. In both of these games he did well defensively, holding Black to 0 points in the first contest and 6 in the second (and most of those were not with him as the primary defender) – but much of this was because UNC was so talented and Black was the 5th scoring option on the team. Both Bacot against Shedrick and Caffaro and Manek against Gardner were far greater mismatches that UNC consistently exploited. So much so, that Franklin actually took Manek as his primary responsibility in the second half of the ACC Tournament after he had consistently gotten free of and shot over Gardner.

In the first game he played really well offensively, given the circumstances, but everything he got was hard fought and he had to be at the top of his game/competitiveness. In the second game, he was in his shooting slump and didn’t have his confidence, but this allowed UNC some flexibility it otherwise wouldn’t have had. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of what I mean…

This is very early in the ACC Tournament game and, simply put, the play works. Armaan curls around Gardner’s screen, leaving Black trailing, and then draws Manek enough so that he can pass back out to Gardner who hits a pretty well-contested deep 2. It was good shot making by Gardner here. However, sometimes it’s within successes that we can see the issues. This play was much harder than it should have been. When Franklin catches the ball and curls, Black is completely behind him. As Manek attempts to sag while still covering Gardner, this would be a great opportunity for Franklin either to pull up for the midrange jumper or to further push his momentum and challenge Manek. Instead, you can see that Franklin is worried about Black’s length. He hesitates and glances behind him several times, trying to find Black, allowing him to recover and get back in front of him. Armaan was playing around Black’s ability to block his shot or contest his dribble from behind, and rightfully so, but it made it so that he was basically covered on a play that got him open exactly as it was designed to. Furthermore, and this is a slight tangent, the shot this generated was a long, contested, two point shot, one of the least efficient shots in basketball. Some of this is just Gardner’s game in general and how he plays, but if he had been able to extend his range there back out to the three point line, Manek would have had a harder decision defending Franklin.

As a contrast, this is a similar look from earlier in the season @UNC. Here Franklin catches off of the curl and builds on that momentum, driving to the bucket for a strong finish. But look at how hard that finish was – he got the advantage off of the curl and pressed it, but still had to finish over an incredibly hard contest from the 6’8″ Black, not to mention the help side contest from Bacot. This was an incredibly difficult shot and one among many plays that I’m sure was coloring his approach in the first play that I highlighted. Here’s a different take on this point from the same game:  

Under 5 seconds left on the shot clock here. Another curl screen to the middle, this time with Black in better positioning, so Franklin dribbles, initiates a pretty obvious push off, and still has to hit an incredibly challenging jumper over that lengthy contest. I’ve been highlighting some great plays by Armaan, and this is no different. It certainly illustrates that he is capable of playing the position in the ACC. But these are highly skilled offensive plays that aren’t sustainable offense. Rather, it’s much harder to come by than it should be and it isn’t efficient. Armaan was playing at an incredibly high level in this first game, and scored one point above his average, shooting 50% from the floor and the team still lost by 16. In the tournament game, he was 1-7 from the field, and the team lost by 20, scoring only 43 points in total. And that output wasn’t even a direct result of what I’ve been talking about, as Black wasn’t even his primary defender, but more on that soon. Point being, every player has fluctuations in how they’re playing over the course of a season. And against the highest level of competition, even at his best, he was still pretty well contained in this matchup at the SF position, and at his worst, he disappeared.

Before I go onto a couple of defensive examples and then flesh out the point more broadly, I want to reiterate the point of all of this – the conclusion above is not a fault or limitation of Armaan’s as a player in his natural position. It’s a limitation of playing him out of position at SF. He CAN do it and, depending on the matchup, can do it very well, but it’s not ideal. And it’s not ideal, because as the level of competition increases, his ceiling is further limited based on the size that he’s giving up, and the incredibly high level he has to play at in order to have any success.

Looking at defense is a bit different here because UNC did not run their offense through Black against us much. This was mostly because, as mentioned previously, they had plus matchups in other places (especially with Manek and Bacot) and those players were more skilled offensively than Black. But here’s a great example of how the size Franklin was giving up came into play in a very regular, subtle way.

Still on the first game here, this whole possession Franklin is just in off-side help position with Black camped out at the three point line. The offense doesn’t run through Black at all, the shot comes from the other side of the court, and the rebound gets deflected to Gardner; but look how hard it is for Franklin to box out Black here. He finds and identifies him before the shot goes up, and just straight up gets subtly shoved under the hoop. If the shot came off to the left, Black easily snags that board and probably goes back up with it, despite Franklin having been in decent help position throughout the possession and not being challenged with movement or help.

Another play where he’s boxing the off-side and in fine position, but Black’s size just makes it really difficult on him. Once again he gets pushed under the basket but uses his forearm to shove Black under the hoop as the shot came off. This isn’t called very often, but he could have been called for this. It certainly shows his toughness and physicality, but it also shows how he was losing the size battle and having to compensate for it. This is the kind of thing that let Caroline thrive on the glass against us to the tune of a +12 differential in the first game and a +14 matchup in the second. The length, getting deflections on the ball, making box outs difficult were all at play here – and this was a collective size issue across the board, not just a Franklin issue but we’re focusing on the SF for the purpose of this conversation.

Here are some other ways in which it cropped up:

A common aspect of the Pack Line, which we seemed to stray away from last year more than ever, is double teaming the post when it gets the ball. When that happens, the rest of the team has to rotate to force the open man to be the least threatening one and the farthest away from the play; with the end goal of recovering as a collective if the ball gets passed out of the doubled post. In this situation, Gardner dives to double the post on Bacot, which, given the sucess he had against us, is something that we would have liked to be doing as much as we could afford. Beekman then slides off of his man to cover Manek, and Franklin floats up to fill on Love. Unfortunately, this left Kihei Clark trying to cover Leaky Black on the help side while giving up 10 inches. Way too easy for Black to shield with his body there, catch, and score almost uncontested. Imagine a situation there where Franklin is able to be the help side rather than rotating off of his primary man. There’s no guarantee it stops the play, but it certainly makes it a much tougher catch and a more challenging shot (even if it would still be a size mismatch). And it’s this overall size compression, this being just an example, that hurt our ability to double the post as much last season. Our rotational coverage very successful contesting and recovering, so we had to limit our use of this tool in our traditional defensive bag.

In the ACC Tournament, UNC actually did something pretty remarkable against us last year. Franklin was in a shooting slump at that point in the year and wasn’t playing offense with any confidence. I mentioned earlier that he was 1-7 from the floor in this game, but this wasn’t a game where Black just smothered him. Instead, UNC noticed that Franklin hadn’t been an offensive threat of late and was struggling with his shot. As opposed to the first matchup, where Black contained a hot and confident Armaan to 12 points, they instead put the 6’0″ R.J. Davis on Franklin and put the 6’8″ Black on Kihei Clark, with the goal of shutting down his playmaking and facilitation. It absolutely worked. Davis’s quickness kept Franklin from attacking much off of the dribble and his shot still wasn’t falling. And what was Clark supposed to do against this?

Watch #1 Leaky Black through this entire possession. Watch how far off he sags in order to give help. When Beekman drives, he has a foot even with the hash of the lane to offer help, Clark is in the corner, and he’s still able to recover to keep the shot from going up despite that space. It’s not because he disrespects Clark’s shot, it’s because he has 10 inches on him plus reach and can effectively contest the shot despite that buffer. This allows him to roam and to provide defensive help while still giving a huge cushion in respect of Clark’s quickness. Also notice how uncontested and easy that rebound is for him as a result, and contrast that with how hard all of our guys were working on the other end to secure boards.

Now, Leaky Black is a bit of a defensive unicorn and Hubert Davis was both perceptive and innovative in how he used him defensively in this game. He offers the kind of defensive flexibility that De’Andre Hunter used to offer us. That being said, if Armaan Franklin wasn’t undersized at the SF position, UNC wouldn’t have been able to put RJ Davis on him, no matter how poorly he was shooting. Maybe they keep Black on Clark but then have to put Love on our 3, leaving Davis on Beekman, which would have been a plus for his ability to drive and create. But, likely, it would have forced Davis back on Clark. The point I want to make here is that it gave additional options and flexibility to our opponent, while also limiting the flexibility we had with our defensive scheme.

As an aside, I might have to do something else focusing on where this has impacted us with Gardner as well, but the difference there is that he is in his natural position, despite being undersized, via the way he plays the game. Nevertheless, these are the kinds of examples that I mean when I introduce this section as, “Quietly Leaking Value.” The stats tell one story, and a lot of how Franklin is viewed is through the lens of, “he wasn’t shooting well and then he improved in the postseason.” That’s all technically true; but there’s more going on here. When you watch the games, you see how hard it was for him to scrape and claw to achieve a positive result against the best competition at his position and how that trickled into other areas across the team. In fact, that ACC tournament game against UNC was our lowest point output of the season, and matched our worst point differential with the Houston game. It’s admirable that Armaan was able to do what he was able to – and a consistently improved shot throughout the season next year would certainly help; but let’s look now a little at what it might look like with him at his natural SG.

Everything In Its Right Place

Earlier I showed a defensive possession and I asked you to imagine what it would look like with Armaan at the 2 playing help side against UNC. Imagine no more! Here we have Kihei at the 1, Armaan at the 2, and 6’7″ Kody Stattmann at the 3. Instead of giving up 4 inches to Leaky Black, Franklin is guarding Caleb Love, who is exactly his same size. This series is everything I’ve been talking about on defense balled up into one possession. UNC executes a slip screen off of a pick and roll that works to perfection, freeing up their biggest and most physical player, the 6’10” 240 Armando Bacot, with what would have been a clear path to the rim. In great position, Armaan Franklin helps from the off side and completely impedes his progress. I don’t think I can impress this point enough – the 6’4″ shooting guard in this situation was able to stop Bacot’s momentum toward the rim. As Caffaro recovers, Bacot finds Franklin’s man, Love, on the perimeter. The 6’7″ Stattmann is able to run him off the line with his length, however, and still bother Love’s shot as he drives to the rim. In the chaos that ensues, Love is able to gather his own rebound which caroms directly back to him, but by this point Franklin has recovered and is able to bother his follow up shot attempt from behind enough that Love misses again. The rebound bounces back out to Franklin, and he’s able to start a fast break the other way that should have resulted in points.

If you watch that sequence and have a moment thinking, “this looks familiar!” it is because that’s how defenses under CTB have historically looked when we have the right size and rotations. Notice, Kihei Clark is still on the court as/is Jayden Gardner, so it’s not like we need universal size across the board. The only difference here is that Franklin is at the 2 instead of the 3 and we have length at the SF position. And Kody is by no means one of the better defenders that we’ve had – he just offered appropriate size/length where we needed it, as did Armaan as a very physical 2, making it so that there were fewer areas that we faced these collective mismatches.

Moving away from UNC, here are some examples that I’ve used in previous discussions from the game against Wake Forest earlier in the year.

To this point in the game (and not until he moved to SG), Franklin hadn’t yet scored. He was being covered by the 6’8″ Isaiah Mucius whose length, much like Leaky Black, bothered Franklin’s shot quality. The clip above is the most obvious example of this (others being Armaan mostly just being passive and not attempting to get any offense going with Mucius shadowing him). This play works really well on the pin down screen and he has an open three when he catches the ball. He hesitates, worrying about Mucius’s length and loses the opportunity, so he attempts to drive and exploit the close out. This also works, as he creates enough separation between Mucius and himself to take the pull-up jumper… but as he does, he unnecessarily fades away on the shot, clearly trying to make sure he has even more space between Mucius and himself, making the shot more difficult.

Zero points to his name and as yet to impact the game in any significant way, we move forward a little now after some substitutions with Beekman at the 1, Franklin at the 2, and Stattmann at the 3.

Franklin is now guarding and being guarded by Carter Whitt who is actually an inch shorter than he is. The body language in Franklin changes immediately when he sees this matchup, as does his aggressiveness. On defense, he just flat stones Whitt’s drive in the lane, leaving him nowhere to go. Then on the other end he goes into attack mode right away, curling off his screen and attacking the middle of the lane for his first points. This shift in his approach was obvious watching the game live, let alone on rewatch.

Beekman and Franklin just simply overpowered Wake’s guards during this stretch. Franklin, who had been playing so passively at SF, simply rips the ball away from Cameron Hildreth here and then transitions defense to offense on the other end, pushing the ball full court on his own, drawing defenders, and finding Kody Stattmann for the open three.

Another smothering defensive possession later, ending in a Beekman block, this is the very next trip down the offensive floor. Franklin again aggressively initiates offense and sets Caffaro up for a mismatch and then, after the miss, steps confidently into the open three. Franklin now just taking over the game and playing with so much energy and confidence. Wake is forced into a time out.

Now we’re on the other side of the time out, Wake has put Alondes Williams back into the game in an attempt to stop UVa’s momentum, but this is the very next offensive possession. Despite having Williams on him who, at 6’5″, is big for a collegiate shooting guard, Franklin aggressively hunts his shot and his aim is pure. 6’5″ is nothing compared to what he’s been dealing with all season, after all. It should also be pointed out that Mucius is back in the game now – but he’s having to guard the 6’7″ Stattmann instead of his previous role blanking Armaan.

And now you’ve got him hunting his shot off of the screen…

And now you’ve got him facilitating off of the curl…

I’ve discussed this stretch against Wake previously mostly focused on Igor Milicic Jr. and our opting to play with length 1-5; but Franklin was the star of this show. It’s probably the most prolonged stretch of the season where he got run at SG against quality competition, and he not only thrived, but took over the game. It should also be noted that during this stretch Reece Beekman guarded Alondes Williams, which allowed Franklin to be physically imposing on Daivien Williamson for a length of time, including all throughout this possession:

In Conclusion

I hope what’s coming across in this piece isn’t that Armaan Franklin doesn’t offer much to the team as a Small Forward in 2023. He certainly can, did last year, plays bigger and tougher than his size, and should have a much improved outside shot. The point that I’m hoping to convey is that keeping him away from his natural position of Shooting Guard is a missed opportunity for both he and the team to raise the ceiling of their collective play. We’re a better and more physically imposing defensive team with him at the 2 and he’s a much more confident and aggressive offensive player in those matchups as well. He has room to work without being suffocated by size and, in fact, often suffocates others.

There remain two main barriers to seeing this reality for 2023, however. One is the incorrect perception, in my opinion, that he would struggle as a second ball handler; which CTB values in his system. I don’t believe this is the case. Firstly, he was doing stuff like this last season:

But you also saw in some of those highlights above how, when called upon, he pushed the ball up the floor well; able to attack with purpose. The clip I led this piece with from his time in Indiana is them, at the end of a game against a top 10 opponent, needing a bucket, calling on Armaan to create his own shot off of the bounce. He played off of the dribble much more often there, initiating the drive downhill – quick examples below:

Just because he hasn’t been asked to do this with regularity here, doesn’t mean it’s outside of his skillset. Recall the would-be game winner against FSU where he pushed the ball up the full length of the floor into a mid-range jumper on the move. Heck, don’t recall it, watch it!

The other, more credible obstacle is, once again, who primarily fills that time at 3 next year? That proves to be a trickier question to answer for the second season in a row. I openly pondered in a previous piece whether Ben Vander Plas might be able to run the 3 on offense and the 4 on defense; but I’m hearing that he’s been primarily practicing pick and pops in practice this offseason. It doesn’t sound like that’s where he’s being slotted or the vision for his impact. In lieu of Leon Bond, or Ryan Dunn being ready sooner than anticipated or Taine Murray taking huge strides in both his defense and footspeed this offseason (none of which seem likely), we may be in the similar situation of seeing Frankling at SF out of necessity.

I’m here to say that, while this is certainly the most likely outcome, I will be watching and hoping for an alternative option to emerge. Nabbing Armaan Franklin out of the transfer portal only to miss out on seeing him play at the full extent of his powers, at his natural position for the bulk of a season, would be a true shame and a missed opportunity.

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