A shockingly comfortable win on the road against FSU is not something we, or any ACC team, has gotten used to in recent years. It was a good feeling that what likely would have been a “trap” game for us in any season, or just one in which we didn’t matchup as well given their size advantages across the board, came and went without much fretting. A comfortable win from beginning to end. And yet, counter-intuitively, Kadin Shedrick only played 5 minutes in the contest and Jayden Gardner only played 19 minutes. Francisco Caffaro played none. Meaning, we were at least in Small Ball for 35 minutes of game time and were actually in Smaller Ball lineups for over half of the game (sometimes actually with Gardner at the 5 instead of BVP).
I wrote after the game that I was happy for the comfortable win but that I was left with a feeling of disquiet that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Before re-watch, trying to digest that feeling, it was that we’ve clearly made a strategic choice to move away from our best defensive lineups while playing our best offensive ones. As a fan of UVa hoops in the CTB era, this is an uncomfortable feeling. We’ve been conditioned over the years that offense can come and go but that defense is what you hang your hat on and what keeps you in games. So, this shift is partially a sign of great adaptability identifying the limitations of the roster and playing to the strengths, but is also concerning as it does feel like we’re going to need Shedrick’s, especially, presence and length inside as the season progresses. Perhaps, just like bringing him off of the bench last year for Caffaro, this shift will be beneficial for his play, just as it was last year. Unlike last year, however, where he was still always seeing close to half game action at least, this year he’s been dipping into the low teens and, now, single digits for PT. I wrote at the dawn of “Smaller Ball” that I loved the creativity of the lineup, but I didn’t love that we felt so desperate that we HAD to go to it, because of what that signified.
Interestingly, though, one thing that the FSU game illustrated was how our opposition has to adjust to US when we play Smaller Ball. Their 7’4″ Center, Naheem McLeod, who made Kadin look small when he was in and was a challenge to deal with on the boards, only played 8 total minutes, which is around half his average on the season. I will spend a little time speaking to this.
My first impression upon watching the game was that Kihei was having a strong offensive game but that FSU’s game plan was, once again, targeting him on defense on the other end. I’m going to spend a good deal of this piece assessing that initial appraisal to see if it checks out.
Lastly, we got a lot more Ryan Dunn in this game, 17 minutes worth, and I will spend some time looking at how his presence in a Smaller Ball lineup changes things. What might that mean for the future of this playstyle?
It’s clear that, stylistically, Shedrick and Gardner are losing time when it comes to the Smaller Ball strategy. Neither are a threat from outside the three-point line and, therefore, do not extend the defense in the same way that allows such clear driving lanes to the hoop with limited help-side contests. To his credit, Gardner’s mid-range game, though not nearly as efficient this season, is still threat enough that he can create some better spacing than Kadin, which might explain the preference in his minutes, along with his greater threat at scoring in the post when the possession is cleared out. That being said, Saturday seemed to be as much a matchup situation as it was Shedrick not being at his best. He had a steal, almost had another, generated a foul while posting up, did give up a pretty bad foul. UVa was plus 4 during his 5 minutes on the floor. It certainly wasn’t bad enough for a 5 minute benching without any other context. But, in addition to the offensive context above, FSU also brought in McLeod while Shedrick was on the floor. Uniquely giving up 5 inches, everything was tough on the defensive glass while he was in. We saw this thundering board and finish below:
That was an eye-opener, but there was also this play below that retained possession on another miss:
We secured plenty of other boards while the two were in, but everything felt hard, and Kadin was really pressing to box McLeod out and keep him away from the ball throughout. So wouldn’t this have been even more of an issue while Shedrick was off the floor? Maybe. The short answer is that it wasn’t because McLeod only saw a few minutes of run when Shedrick wasn’t on the floor.
The reason was this clip below and similar offensive possessions where McLeod was forced into action guarding BVP on the perimeter and either struggled recovering/assessing where he should be, OR ended up getting isolated one-on-one against one of our primary ball handlers. Here you’ll see BVP and Beekman play a little two-man game on the perimeter with the Smaller Ball lineup and McLeod on the floor. FSU loves to switch ball screens and watch how early on McLeod gets switched to Beekman and how far away from the hoop he’s having to defend/how unnatural he looks. The end result is him getting lost as to who he should be recovering to and contesting, and his footspeed being too slow to do much about it. BVP gets free for a fairly open look at the top of the three-point line, but with both FSU defenders attempting to recover to him, he finds Beekman for the EVEN more open and clean look and the made three.
Given that McLeod isn’t a one-on-one offensive scoring threat in most cases, and is much better served as a force around the rim, Leonard Hamilton obviously made the decision that he couldn’t afford to keep him on the floor much to defend this kind of action against our smaller lineup. The offensive benefit of having him hit the glass, in his mind, wasn’t worth the defensive cost of having a 7’4″ center chase three-point shooters all around the arc.
This is a potentially huge realization and benefit in the right matchup. Some bigs are going to have fewer issues with this type of defense but, either way, it keeps the paint clear, and certainly is a way to help neutralize any size disadvantage we might be conceding even when Shedrick is on the floor. In this case, with Shedrick on the floor in this specific game, we were conceding size and physicality on the inside while giving FSU a place to stash McLeod on defense where he could still be bothersome in the lane. Rather than trying to fight fire with fire, going to Smaller Ball made it so that FSU couldn’t even put him on the floor without the risk of bleeding points on the defensive end. It’s an effective and proactive strategy that was cool to see work out in a way I wouldn’t necessarily have anticipated.
A Lens On Kihei Clark
So far, through two games, the defensive concessions from playing Small Ball have not come from giving up a ton of points to post players, or even a TON of second chance points. The primary concessions have been to opposing guards, who have been able to get into the lane with less fear of having their shot blocked or contested. Against UNC, this was primarily true of Clark’s assignment, as between RJ Davis and Caleb Love, Clark was primarily responsible for conceding 18 of UNC’s 29 second half points in that game after the shift to Smaller Ball. After that game, in which the offensive flow primarily came from BVP, Beekman, and Franklin working off of each other in the Triangle offense, I wondered how much Clark’s spacing/offense was necessary within this offensive system and if there was any solution to keeping the floor spread while still adding to our ability to defend.
In the FSU game, Clark was a much more integral part of the offense, leading the team in assists and regularly creating either his own shot or looks for others; at times effortlessly taking advantage of the space created within the offense. On the other end, however, it still appeared that FSU made a concerted effort to take advantage of his size and lack of supporting rim protection, on the defensive end. I decided to test the accuracy of this assessment by conducting an exercise in which I assessed and pulled every point that he had a direct contribution toward creating, and every point he had a direct role in conceding, to weigh what that balance was.
I’m going to keep a running tally in each category and then combine the totals at the end. For the purposes of this, I looked only at actual points created/allowed. For example, creating an open but missed jump shot for a teammate would not appear, nor would a foul where the opponent made neither of the free throws or a possession where the opponent got a great look but missed (all of which happened in this game). I will have some thoughts on the totality of those kinds of plays at the end, but wanted to limit this portion strictly to tangible results on the scoreboard. To be clear, I’m aware that because of this limitation, this isn’t going to be the FULL picture. It’s not going to capture turnovers, missed shots of his own, forced misses, turnovers created (unless they directly led to points the other way), etc. It’s just designed to pressure test direct impact to the game score. If the frame of reference will help, I could also rotate a few future games focused on other guards out of this lineup, especially those with high touch ball volume like Beekman and Franklin, to really paint a full picture. I’m starting here, with Clark, because it was the highest volume on both ends and I wanted to test the assumption about the offense created vs. conceded that I had off of the initial eyeball test on first watch.
*Alright, everyone, trigger warning, this is going to be a detailed look at Clark’s scoring contributions/allowances in this game. There’s going to be some praise in here, and some critical thoughts, please only press forward if you can handle both!
Rather than rotating back and forth, I’ll focus entirely on offense first, then on defense afterward. *Note, he had 6 assists in the game and I’ve included 5 in this analysis. One of them was during Shedrick’s 5 minutes on the floor and the purpose of this analysis is to look at his play in either the Small or Smaller Ball lineups with the spacing/no rim protection. It was also a simple pass to BVP on the wing where BVP paused for a full beat and collected himself, noticed that his man was standing too far back in his set defense, and fired away. Here is the play in question so that there’s no questions over anything being omitted, but when we’re in our standard lineups, the entire dynamic is shifted and the purpose of this examination isn’t really in play:
Okay, so the below clip is his first bucket of the game with the team down 4-1. We’re just in Small Ball at this point with both BVP and Jayden on the floor and still running our Triangle offense (which we did the majority of the game). As both post players move to the high post to offer screen options for Beekman, Clark exploits the space on the backside with a quick blow-by drive from the wing. FSU’s help defense is too slow in their awareness/rotation to help contest the layup. This was a common trend and a huge area of exploit for Clark in this game; winning one-on-one when FSU was out of position to be able to provide help at the rim. Plus 2 points.
This one is probably a little generous. He was credited an assist on this play and I wanted to be fair to the scoring. It’s really just an entry pass to Gardner whose man over-extends, and then Gardner makes a quality individual move with multiple dribbles across the lane in-between two defenders for the score. There wasn’t really an advantage created by the pass, and I probably wouldn’t have scored it an assist if I was the scorekeeper, but I suppose you could make the argument that the pass cause the defender to try to get the steal and then… created momentum for the turn and drive through the lane? Plus 2 – 4 total.
The next play is still in Small Ball. He makes himself available in the corner on a pass from Beekman down the baseline. He’s a threat to shoot, so the defender bites on his pump fake. He then drives toward the lane to draw a defender, and kicks it out to BVP for the open three. Plus 3 – 7 total.
The next clip is already in the second half, which is a good indicator of where the bulk of his contributions happened. This is back in the Small Ball lineup, which was our starting lineup for the contest and also what we brought out of the half. FSU switches the ball screen on the outside so that Gardner’s man is isolated on Clark. He doesn’t quite have the same amount of room that Smaller Ball affords, but is still able to exploit the mismatch with a nifty reverse layup on the other side of the rim. Plus 3 – 9 total.
In the below clip, another great blowby off of the wing, this time an and-1 without securing a switch. No real Triangle action in the middle, even, just all of the guys hanging out around the perimeter and Clark exploiting the one-on-one. Plus 3 – 12 total.
ANOTHER blow by on the wing from Clark, another play with everyone around the perimeter. Notice, McLeod is on the floor but he’s nowhere near in position to contest the shot having to stay out on BVP. Plus 2 – 14 total.
This time, Clark drives in from the wing but FSU (McLeod still on the floor) decides to play more off of our other players. This is the full Smaller Ball lineup with IMK, BVP, Beekman, and Arman. THREE defenders respond to Clark, compensating for the success he was having punishing on the drive, so he very quickly identifies and finds Franklin for the wide-open three. Notice again, Franklin was around the elbow when Clark begins to drive and his man is one of those who drops to help. Immediately, Franklin bounces out past the three-point line to make himself available for the punish. Really great adaptation and how you can see a play evolve when the defense attempts to adapt. Plus 3 – 17 total.
Here’s another below, and keep this one in mind because the fact that it’s Dunn who converts the three (who we’ll talk about later) is pretty exciting. Also, exciting how Dunn hits this off a quick bounce. FSU may not have fully read their scouting report because Gardner is the Smaller Ball 5 right now, not BVP, but his man is still attached to him outside of the three-point line. Dunn’s man seems a little more wise, as he drops and responds to Clark’s drive, but Clark does find Dunn and he makes the shot confidently. Plus 3 – 20 total.
Finally, we have a really nice look from Clark to BVP on a play where I’m not sure how he got so open. It looks like FSU just loses track of him entirely, perhaps having been used to stacking the perimeter and this time falling asleep, but BVP alertly dives and Clark immediately identifies it and finds him for the easy bucket. Plus 2, 22 in total.
So, there we have it. Kihei Clark directly contributed to 22 of our 67 points, 33% rounded up, out of Small Ball or Smaller Ball lineups in this game. One third of our total points in the game just from these sets (25 points in total). And, specifically, he took over the second half with 15 of those 22 coming then. Most of these were basically just clear outs, isolating a side either through Triangle action or literally just hanging out in a 5-Out formation and allowing him to use his quickness to go to the hoop. Let’s take a look on the defensive end.
Alright, we’ve seen how much he greased the wheels on offense in this one, let’s take a look at the other end. In this first clip, Caleb Mills uses transition to pretty easily get level with Clark off of the dribble, use his body to shield him off, draw BVP to help, and dish to his man for the easy layup. Minus 2 points.
This one jumped out pretty early because Mills takes Clark off of the dribble and misses, but he’s able to tip and track down his own rebound because of our lack of size in the game. The team resets with the ball eventually finding its way back to him, and he drives it hard into the lane again, this time finishing. Minus 2 – 4 total.
This time Clark is on Matthew Cleveland who spends the entire first part of the possession trying to post him. Clark does a good job discouraging the pass to him but eventually the ball gets cycled back around to him. All Cleveland does here is start backing Clark into the lane and he has to take a swipe at the ball to attempt to disrupt. He misses, and Cleveland just takes the opportunity to hit the jumper. Minus 2 – 6 total.
On to the second half, Clark gets positioned in off-side defense but loses track of Mills and doesn’t box him out. Mills crashes the glass for the easy rebound and uncontested put back. Minus 2 – 8 total.
The next clip below is BVP’s man slipping a screen and rolling to the hoop. Kihei is the “tagger” in this situation tasked with stopping progress toward the hoop, but just doesn’t offer much resistance. Minus 2 – 10 total.
This next one is just Mills using his size to get into the lane and his patience to turn in after creating the advantage and drawing the foul. He hit both free throws. Minus 2 – 12 total.
This time in the clip below, Clark darts down to help disrupt the dribble drive on Franklin’s man, but when the ball is kicked back out to Mills, he simply drives past Clark down the middle of the lane and there’s no one on the back end able to step up to impact the free man. Minus 2 – 14 total.
This next clip FSU just gets the ball in transition and Chandler Jackson, also 6’5″ just takes his time, backs Clark down, and hits the little hook shot over him. Minus 2 – 16 total.
Here in the clip below, just a dribble hand off screen in transition. Clark isn’t able to fight around the screen or impact the shot with a contest. Minus 3 – 19 total.
The last clip below, Mills just kind of perseveres in keeping his dribble and is able to use his size and length to wrap around Clark for the layup, with no help side coming. Minus 2 – 21 total.
So, this is the other side of the coin. Clark was significantly or entirely responsible for conceding 21 of FSU’s 58 total points, 36% in total, while defending in Small Ball or Smaller Ball. The net-net was positive 1 point, and -3% of respective offensive outputs.
What does this mean to me? Well, clearly Clark is an explosive and effective part of the offense in these lineups. He’s able to maintain integrity around spacing, and he’s able to exploit that space via driving to the hoop and scoring or facilitating for others. On the other hand, he is the priority point of attack the other way and our opposition’s least path of resistance. There were several more plays in this one that I didn’t highlight where an FSU player created a quality advantage off of these kinds of drives but just weren’t able to convert an open look inside. I’ve documented in the past how much Clark benefits on defense, disproportionately to others, with quality rim protection behind him. In fact, many plays where Kadin “takes himself out of position” are ones where he’s trying to help block or contest a shot on Clark’s man making these similar plays. Skilled and talented shooting guards like RJ Davis and Jamal Shead are always going to be a test for Clark because of their ability to elevate and shoot confidently from outside, and their ability to use their quickness and physicality to get into the lane. But big guards like FSU’s Mathew Cleveland, Caleb Mills, and Darin Green Jr., whose game plan is to slowly work Clark into the lane, using their size, are NOT nearly as effective when Shedrick is in there as a shot blocking threat.
If Clark had an explosive game and a high utilization rate within these offenses, much more so than against UNC, but also gave all but one point back on the other end, we should then have to ask two questions. Would it be possible to get reliable offense from other places in this Small/Smaller Ball offense? And, what would an alternative defensive solution look like that would keep the same offensive principles in tact? I think the answer to both of these questions lies within…
Ryann Dunn – Smaller Ball PF
Ryann Dunn is a versatile piece looking for the right place to shine. He has a guard skillset on a 6’8″ frame. It makes a lot of sense that he would help the Smaller Ball lineup defensively with shot blocking/bothering and rebounding as long as he could maintain the advantages created through the offensive spacing concepts. Let’s first take a look at the defense.
I want to take a look at this defensive possession in this very lineup concept. Beekman is at point, IMK at SG, Franklin at SF, Dunn at PF, and Gardner is playing the 5 instead of BVP. FSU has McLeod on the court, so there’s no lack of size. FSU is having McLeod hang out in the short corner/block area with four spread around the hoop, but doesn’t have a clear place to focus their drive. This is Caleb Mills attempting to work on Franklin now. In some of the clips earlier, we saw a few clips at how he was able to use his size and physicality to create space and opportunity in the lane vs. Clark. Not here. Franklin is able to stay in front of Mills and shut down his angle, not offering the same path or passing lanes, making his dribble difficult. Isaac McKneely is able to take the opportunity to pounce from the weak side for an aggressive steal, and the run out the other way is punctuated by the long and springy Dunn on the dunk. Compared to what we just watched, this is a predatory defense with no obvious place for ball handlers to attack.
The look above illustrated the improved and daunting defensive presence with that lineup, but the clips below also help to illustrate how he helped to make FSU’s finishing around the rim more difficult when he was on the floor. This is the Smaller Ball lineup (I’m still calling it that for now with Dunn at the 4, although we probably need a new name and “Done For” doesn’t seem to be catching on!) with Beekman, Clark, IMK, Dunn, and BVP. Mathew Cleveland has the ball in transition and attempts, as many teams do against Virginia, to use the opportunity to create something at the basket. Dunn picks him up just outside of the three-point line, slides with him, and simply engulfs the shot, blocking it softly and easily to BVP. Cleveland is 6’5″, their best player, and recall how impactful his size was in earlier clips. Dunn pretty easily negates all of that on this play not just with his size but also with his mobility.
Here’s another great look with the same lineup on the floor. FSU pushes the ball in transition and Kihei gets beaten baseline. BVP comes to help, but bites on the pump fake and jumps out of the play. Dunn, who was up by the elbow guarding Cleveland, quickly rotates down to help, and is able to block Darrin Green Jr.’s shot out of bounds from behind.
Even on this play, below, with the same lineup except for Franklin swapped with IMK, when he gets beaten off of the backdoor cut, he’s still able to recover and erase the shot at the rim without fouling.
It’s not Shedrick levels of rim protection, but what Dunn brings in this area is still very impactful and much more disruptive than what either BVP or Gardner (or one of the other guards, for that matter) offer.
So, I probably don’t need to do much more convincing around the concept that the Smaller Ball lineup is considerably better defensively when Dunn is at the 4. The question remains, can he offer the offensive support the team would need to give him more minutes there? If this game was any indication, yes he can.
When Dunn is on the floor in the Triangle offense, they tend to play him as one of the two wings, not a screener. This is the position that IMK and Clark tend to play when they’re on the floor. The role is primarily to be available to shoot open looks, to get the ball to the cutters in good positions, and to use the cleared-out backside to drive from the wing to the hoop. We already saw the three that Dunn hit in this game, making himself available, taking a dribble, and launching it confidently. This is viewed as a weakness of his game and isn’t something he has shot at high volume – he’s only shot 8 on the season – but he has hit a very respectable 37.5% of those attempts. It’s unclear what that average would do at a greater volume, and if he started being given and missing these looks with regularity over the span of a game, I imagine you’d have to sit him at that point; but he’s been good enough so far certainly that teams can’t just leave him alone out there, which is the most important part of the Triangle offense. Teams can’t be able to cheat off of you from outside to help with the inside action. So far, so good there.
The clip below is another look at the Triangle offense in Smaller Ball. Interestingly, with Clark, Beekman, IMK, Dunn, and BVP on the floor, they put Clark in the Triangle and Dunn on the wing still. I’m not sure that’s the most effective approach because Clark really is a killer on that wing and Dunn seems more potent around the hoop but, either way, this clip demonstrates that he does have the ability to take advantage of that cleared out wing off of the bounce. With a quick motion, he beats his man off of the dribble and draws the foul. I’d have liked to see him go up with the shot there to get to the line, but he did also find Beekman on the pass so if the foul hadn’t been called, there was still a quality opportunity created.
This is also a nice wrinkle to have in the arsenal and I want to call out the offense in this clip below. This is not the Triangle, it’s the true 5-Out offense (and some of the clips with the Clark blow byes earlier were actually out of this set, while some were still the Triangle). Notice, no real screening action is taking place in the middle, all five players are spaced around the perimeter. The lineup is Clark, Beekman, IMK, Dunn, and BVP. BVP is in the corner (not the middle of the court as he is with the Triangle). Reece attempts a cut into the lane and Kihei looks for him but decides against the pass and moves it to BVP in the corner. Reece pulls back out, bringing his man with him. As his man is vacating, BVP takes his man off of the dribble baseline, causing Green Jr., who was guarding IMK to drop into the lane to help on the drive. Cleveland, who was on Dunn, drops to help and has to decide between helping on IMK or Dunn. He decides to try to cut down on the passing lane to IMK, as you don’t want to leave him open outside. In response, Dunn just dives right down the lane to the hoop, BVP finds him, and it’s an easy and monstrous dunk. Really great offensive design to exploit the strengths of this group. Between
Really great offensive design to exploit the strengths of this group. Between the shift to the primary use of the Triangle to now incorporating more 5-Out, I’ve been really thrilled and impressed with our offensive evolution and adaptation.
Last Dunn clip below, just to highlight that he will also sometimes just give you these kinds of athletic feats of effort, which goes a long way toward compensating for the lack of size Smaller Ball typically generates, while injecting momentum into the team. This is the 5-out look again that doesn’t yield the best shot this time, a contested mid-range jumper from the baseline, but Dunn crashing the glass and being tenacious around the finish were just what the situation needed.
All-in-all, having Dunn on the floor in these Smaller Ball lineups, definitely helps improve the defensive presence and ability without trading out many of the offensive concepts. He is not as good of a shooter as the other four guards, nor is he as effective creating off of the dribble as Clark, Beekman, or Franklin, but he can still knock down shots, still threaten to drive through clear paths, doesn’t hurt the spacing concepts, and brings with him the ability to play above the rim on both offense and defense that the lineup very much needs.
So what’s the lesson, what is the takeaway? For one, I still hope we see a lot more Kadin in the future, and I think we will. The Clark/Shedrick pairing is a good one. Clark is the best at augmenting Shedrick’s offense; creating space for him to be a rim/runner and finisher, and being able to get him the ball in those situations. Shedrick is very good at helping to protect/insulate Clark on defense. It’s a symbiotic relationship and I really like playing both together.
From a Smaller Ball standpoint, adding Dunn into the mix seems like a crucial augmentation that we should lean on much more often. I’m not advocating for a strict one-for-one situation with Clark, nor do I think that’s realistic. You still want Clark’s creation and ability to spark the offense that we saw above and Dunn also helps protect Clark on defense, though not as well as Shedrick does. Playing him in larger minutes for whoever among the four guards isn’t shooting well seems like the best option. That being said, if the Triangle offense against UNC showed us anything, Beekman, Franklin, and BVP can be mercilessly effective running offense together as long as they maintain their space. So, it is an opportunity to give Kihei some rest minutes to fortify the defensive side of that lineup, from time to time. At the very least, reducing the number of minutes where KC is on the floor and neither Shedrick nor Dunn are there to support him seems preferable, because we do lose much of the significant (and it is VERY significant giving him that much space to work with) advantage he creates on the offensive end without that rim protection to back him up on the defensive end.
Alright. Time to eat some Turkey Wednesday!