vs. Virginia Tech 1/18/2023

Another great and comfortable win, this time over an in-state rival. It was very cool to see Ty Jerome stop in for the game, and even cooler to see Steph Curry attend with him. Just good vibes all around in this one.

After the last game against FSU, I focused on Small and Smaller Ball and how Kihei Clark played within it, as well as looking at Dunn’s contribution to that lineup. For this game, we’re going to get to return to a continuation of those themes. We’re going to talk about how Clark is such a positive matchup vs. Sean Pedulla, take a look at Ryan Dunn’s role within the lineup as a Small Ball 4, and also look at some of the defensive struggles when neither Shedrick nor Dunn are on the floor. Let’s get into it:

Woe Is Pedulla

Kihei Clark absolutely dominated his matchup with Sean Pedulla on Wednesday night. I’ve talked in the past about how Clark is often a matchup specific player, especially on the defensive end, especially when he doesn’t have quality rim protection behind him (more on that to come later). Pedulla is a great example of the kind of player that Clark dominates. He’s a very skilled and talented player, but he is not a quick player nor, at 6’1″ a tall player, or an overly physical player. As a result, and within the new offenses, Clark could absolutely exploit him on the defensive end – he simply did not have the quickness or athleticism to stay with him – and on the defensive end, Clark could get under him and pressure him without much of a threat of the blowby, and his contests were still relevant enough that Pedulla didn’t have the ability to simply create space and elevate over him to shoot. It’s not that Pedulla had a terrible game on the offensive end at 10 points on 44% from the floor, but much of that was within the flow of the offense, and wasn’t directly at Clark’s expense. Furthermore, it’s a situation where Clark was able to defend his man individually very well, without requiring much help on the back end or commitment from other players, which is huge for this team, especially when playing Small/Smaller Ball. Not only was this a plus defensive matchup for Kihei, but it was a nightmare of a matchup for Pedulla defensively, as he really just had no hope of staying in front of Clark, which did wonders for our offense. Let’s take a look at offense first.

The clip below is the first play of the game. This is the Triangle with our Small Ball starting lineup. The ball rotates around, eventually getting to Clark. Gardner comes over and sets a ball screen for him, and Kihei very easily gains access to the lane. This is also a really great pass to BVP who is open, but only for a brief window and catches the pass between two VT defenders. The thing to start watching here, though, is how much Pedulla ends up trailing Clark after that one simple screen.

This next clip was one of my favorites from the game because of the handle displayed. When he catches the ball it’s well inside the three point line. The gap he initially shoots off of the dribble is between Pedulla and Mutts who is trying to help. He takes the initial contact (which could have been a foul), maintains his balance, and then throws down just a NASTY dribble to go by Pedulla and finish with a reverse layup around the hoop. This one wasn’t just quickness in the open floor, it was quickness in a confined space, and still he was elusive.

This next one I think really highlights the issue for Pedulla, though. It’s just way too easy. The whole lane is wide open due to the spacing of the lineup, and Clark just FLIES by Pedulla in the open court with an explosive crossover. Mutts is there but can’t have depth because he has to be able to contest BVP so he can’t really get involved in the play. This is the same look we saw against FSU, but with even less resistance from Clark’s primary defender.

The next clips below is another credit to the offensive design (as are many of these) really allowing Kihei room to operate and the ability to score around the rim without shot blocking OR finding others. Clark has ALWAYS been great at getting the ball into the lane. Where he’s often struggled in the past is that he’ll get around the trees and have nowhere to go with the ball – having to either force a bad pass or shot. With the Triangle and 5-Out offensive systems, he is very rarely running into the same issue. Watch this one unfold – Pedulla again trailing far too easily off of BVP’s ball screen. BVP’s man being unable to stay in the play because of the threat of the shot. Meanwhile, Dunn is cutting through baseline so his man’s back is to the ball. Franklin is setting the screen and his defender, a guard not a forward, is the lone defender in the lane. When he’s drawn to help on Clark, Franklin is there for the pass and dunk and there’s no length around to attempt to contest. Again, drawing their size to the perimeter.

The next clip below was really fantastic both because of how easy Kihei made the drive look again after the ball screen, but also because he had the awareness to take this shot when he did to allow for a 2 for 1 (which ended up with the Reece drunk to end the half). It’s simple yet devastatingly effective; Sean Pedulla can’t stay in front of Clark (not many can but he was especially poor at it because of his inability to cover or use length/athleticism to get back into the play and contest the shots) so clear the space near the hoop (have the right players on the floor to allow for that) and let him get in there:

I should also note with the clip above that, certainly for this matchup against VT, I think the above lineup was our most effective of the Smaller Ball options. Clark, Beekman, Franklin, Dunn, and BVP.

Second half now for the clip below. This was my other favorite play of Clark’s of the night. The dribbling is just so shifty. He clearly knows that Pedulla cannot stay with him, and the finish here – high off of the glass – is such a confident shot from a player who is clearly feeling it. This one was really the first of the clips I’ve highlighted where there’s been a big in the lane to challenge the shot, but Clark has already had so many reps and is playing with such confidence that he’s still able to make VT pay:

The last clip I’ll show from Clark on offense is below. This one highlights both how out of sorts Pedulla was and how complete Clarks’ game has become. It’s just a jab step and a three toward the end of the shot clock, which was especially notable because, prior to this, Clark had been on a cold streak from outside. Notice how dramatically Pedulla reacts to the jab step; it staggers him. This is not super common from those defending Clark who often are able to use their length to shade a shot while giving themselves time to recover/allowing defenders behind them to help contest, if necessary. Because Pedulla doesn’t have that same length or athleticism, he’s not as effective with the contest here and because he’s been beaten off the dribble all night and gotten very little effective help on the back end, he felt like he had to react to the threat of the drive. This is the kind of thing you often see confident players do TO Clark – RJ Davis this year, Marcus Sasser last year…. Kudos to Clark for this decision but also, again, the smarts given the game situation and the confidence to knock down the shot when they hadn’t been falling.

Pulling it all together. Yes, Kihei Clark has been playing his best offensive basketball this season. Yes, this matchup with Sean Pedulla also is uniquely advantageous for him. But, this is also the most complimentary offense (and likely offensive personnel) we have ever run to take advantage of his offensive skills, and that’s really starting to come to fruition over the past few games.

Defensively, let’s look at a few examples of where he made Pedulla’s life miserable. This first clip below is one we’ve seen a few times this year. It usually comes from a player he’s considerably quicker than, can anticipate, and when he is unafraid of being blown by. The best part of this is, and it continued all night, is how Pedulla is having to start the offense and play with his back to the floor most of the time due to Clark’s pressure. Another nifty part of this is how effortlessly he slipped under the screener before picking Pedulla’s pocket and going the other way.

This kind of play is certainly great because it leads to easy points and gets the crowd into it, but the more lasting game effect is that it makes Pedulla uncomfortable about his handle all game. It forces him to play with less visibility because he has to be much more aware of keeping possession of the ball just when dribbling.

This next clip is just vintage Clark defense when faced with this kind of player. I’m reminded of his time against Payton Pritchard from Oregon. He is just HOUNDING Pedulla, to the point where they get tangled up inadvertently but Clark is still right in his face when he stands up. You can see him push Clark away from him in frustration prior to getting the ball. Then, Clark is just all over him on the dribble. Again, Clark is an excellent technical defender, he just often gives up either size or both size and strength. He’s giving up neither here in a meaningful way re: how Pedulla is able to play him. When his ability to contest and physically match his opponent is relatively equal, there’s a lot of Beekman in his defensive game (which we’ll see a little later as well). Perhaps just as impressive is how seamlessly Clark transitions from the great defense on Pedulla to switch to the much taller Maddox at the end of the shot clock, but how quickly Clark gets into his body and carries the momentum, forces Maddox to maintain his momentum, fading away from the hoop. It’s a hard shot anyway, but Clark still gets a good swipe contest to create real distraction. This might have been his best defensive possession this season, IMO.

Last defensive clip below and hopefully will be obvious why I call it, “shades of Reece.”

How many times have we seen Reece do that? Sliding before retreating backward while raking at the ball as the opponent presents it in attempt to shoot. It’s a sign that Kihei’s athleticism and confidence felt dominant and was trying to impose his will on Pedulla, successfully. As an offensive player, this kind of thing just FEELS oppressive, too, especially if you don’t get a call on it and think you should. It feels suffocating. It erodes confidence.

Anyway, as I said, any time Clark is a defensive plus on his own without any rim protection behind him – any time the opponent doesn’t have someone who is capable of playing bully ball with him or is comfortable elevating over him from outside/in traffic, it’s a huge plus for our defensive scheme. Not only do we not need to commit the resources necessary to help in his matchup, it means there is one less drawback to playing smaller. I mentioned last week how we should try to pair Shedrick or Dunn with Clark as often as possible. I still believe that’s true defensively as a whole, which we’re about to talk about, but it’s less of a need specifically in relation to Kihei in THIS kind of a defensive matchup.

Small Ball Defensive Limitations

Now I want to highlight, again, some of the defensive limitations we face when neither Dunn nor Shedrick are on the floor prior to focusing on Dunn more to close the article. Even more, there was one particular lineup we played on Wednesday that got destroyed defensively. More on that momentarily.

First, let’s talk about the new starting lineup, which is our old Small Ball lineup of Clark, Beekman, Franklin, Gardner, and BVP. The base problem with this lineup is that it offers no rim protection. Offensively, Gardner started to find a rhythm with some cleared out space and there was some progress here but, defensively, it just feels vulnerable. This clip below features VT’s first points of the game. Mutts gets the ball in the post on Gardner but is pushed out pretty far from the block, several feet outside of it. He’s not really in a very threatening position and there’s time for help side defenders to react if he starts to make a move on Gardner. Instead, around the 8 second mark of the clip, BVP decides to run across the lane to double Mutts. It’s a long distance to travel and Mutts has his head up, so it’s not a surprise, and there’s lots of time for him to survey the floor to make a pass. Beekman is kind of caught in no man’s land and doesn’t make the best rotation, but Basile starts a cut, catches the pass, and gets fouled at the rim by BVP trying to get back into the play. I don’t think this is the correct rotation, normally we wait until the post players get the ball a little deeper before sending the double team and Mutts wasn’t a huge threat yet from that positioning with where our help side defenders were. But, even if it was the correct rotation, it still shows our vulnerability/challenge when defending inside with this group.

This next clip below is the beginning of a 9 point run in the first half where VT went from down 7 to up 2. It coincided with a scoring drought that was a result of not getting much going and settling too much for contested jump shots. I’m going to focus on the defensive side of the ball, though, as I think this might be our absolute worst defensive lineup (that might get PT). The lineup has Gardner and BVP at the 4 and the 5, Clark, Franklin, and IMK. Neither Dunn nor Shedrick on the floor to protect the rim, and our best perimeter defender (and best defender in general) in Beekman also off the floor. This lineup got torched and simply subbing Beekman off for IMK while leaving the Small Ball front court in tact was a compounding issue. In this clip, you see Pedulla push the ball up the floor on Clark. He just kind of gets a long running start so there’s no real quickness involved, just pure straight-line speed. He keeps coming and eventually jump stops on the block with BVP coming over to help. The light contact he makes with BVP, who is attempting to stand straight up, throws him off balance, and Pedulla is able to pivot away from BVP and the hoop and just shoot over Clark. The head of steam Pedulla was able to get was uncharacteristic of this game and had to do with the lack of rim protection and how non-threatening BVP was in help.

The next clip below is the same lineup, as the next two will be after that. IMK gets completely screened off of his man such that BVP has to leave his, Basile, to support. Basile dives to the hoop and Gardner is there to initially “tag” him but has to get out to Mutts as the ball is rotated back to him on the perimeter. Franklin isn’t able to get into any kind of disruptive help position on Basile by the time he gets the ball, and BVP hasn’t yet been able to recover.

Next clip below is literally just IMK being unable to recover back to his man in time to offer a formidable contest after showing to help on the drive.

The last clip, and the last play this lineup saw together on the floor, again IMK struggling to get around a screen and Maddox being comfortable and athletic enough to take the midrange jumper over him.

So, we’re going to look at some examples below with the starting Small Ball lineup back on the court, but the first thing I wanted to highlight was this Small Ball minus Beekman lineup to say that we need to immediately fire it into the sun. Not only is it the worst possible defensive lineup that we can field, the offense was stagnant with Clark being the only true creator and Gardner still gumming up the middle of the floor, and IMK not being a major threat off of the dribble unless the rest of the defense is preoccupied. If you take out this 9-0 run with this specific lineup (and after this shot, Beekman came back on the floor for IMK and we immediately scored), the rest of the game we outscored them by 19 points. Sure enough, on evanmiya.com, this lineup has 34 offensive and defensive possessions and is BY FAR and away our least efficient at -40.6 adjusted team efficiency margin (the next closest qualifier is -8.6). This should not be considered a viable option/Small Ball variant moving forward.

Okay, back to traditional Small Ball with Beekman. This has still, on the whole, been a positive lineup for us, but it’s not without its defensive challenges and I’m going to showcase some of those.

In the clip below, we see just how punishing and how little the margin for error is with this lineup. Most of the position is spend with good defense on the perimeter, first Gardner then Beekman hounding the ball handler. At one point, Beekman threatens the dribble handoff, forcing the ball to leak out unthreateningly on the ground prior to having to be re-collected. But, in just an instant, Gardner takes a swipe at a pass to Mutts, who uses the opportunity to slip by him with a straight-line drive to the hoop. Gardner doesn’t have the speed or length to get back into the play and none of Franklin nor BVP is going to be able to provide any helpside from their positioning. It’s a really easy bucket because of a single misstep.

Here’s one of Pedulla’s other good plays but it comes way too easily. He’s able to lose Clark for enough time coming around a dribble handoff screen to shoot right down the lane, but BOTH Gardner and Franklin are there and neither can step up to effectively contest the floater. This is primarily where Gardner’s reach becomes a liability.

Here’s another one later in the game after Dunn has been on for a while and playing very well. As soon as he comes off, no longer guarding Mutts, Mutts looks to take advantage of Gardner again, this time faking the dribble handoff and exploding to the hoop for the dunk. Just a quick call out, this is probably our second worst defensive lineup as Beekman is still in, but IMK is in for Franklin. But it’s worth noting that this was AS SOON as Dunn came out, Mutts immediately looked to take advantage.

And lastly, in the clip below you have easy offensive rebounds, getting deflected around, collected, and then the easy finish in the lane over IMK and with BVP being right there but unable to make an impact on the shooter. The player who finishes this shot is Michael Collins Jr., a 6’4″ Freshman. It’s entirely too comfortable and easy for him.

So, to wrap this section up, our original Small Ball lineup is our current starting lineup. It’s not bad, but I definitely don’t think it’s our best lineup such that it should be what we start with (even though we did well out of the gate in this one). Without either Dunn or Shedrick on the floor, everything around the rim becomes just too easy for our opposition. At the very least, if we’re going to play Gardner and BVP together without a rim protector, I think we have to be pretty militant about keeping both Beekman and Franklin on the floor to support them as they’re our best perimeter defensive advantages. The foursome of Clark, IMK, Gardner, and BVP concedes WAY too much on defense without offering close to the offensive advantages we’d need to compensate such as when we move to Smaller Ball.

“Death” Lineup Dunn

I briefly wrote about this on Twitter, but I like the philosophical comparison between our Smaller Ball lineup and the old Golden State Warriors “Death” lineup. Their lineup consisted of smaller players who were very skilled at shooting and playmaking but between Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, could also defend much bigger players effectively. The concept was that any advantage you’re giving up in size, you’re making up for in skill, and the uniqueness of some of their players on defense also helped to negate the size impact. I like Armaan Franklin as our Iguodala, and have touched on his impact as a player who plays much bigger than he is – but BVP is no Draymond Green from a defensive standpoint. Enter Ryan Dunn, who as a 6’8″ guard/wing, provides a lot of similarities to the Draymond role. He was up to 25 minutes in the VT game, from 17 against FSU and just 1 minute against UNC, illustrating the increased role CTB has been entrusting in him within this shift in system structure. Let’s take a look at some of why that might be below, offering a guard skillset and threat, but being able to rebound and defend at a the forward position. We’ll start with his defense, which is the main reason to include him in this Smaller Ball grouping.

In this first clip, he’s actually matched on Basile, their center, not even Mutts, but he’s only conceding one inch of height. He’s able to drop hedge multiple times and recover back to the credible three-point threat, who decides to try to take him off of the dribble and back him down. Again, this is a Center vs. a player likely intended to be our long term Small Forward. Dunn is much quicker than Basile and he just keeps good positioning throughout and then absorbs the shot with a disheartening block that results in a turnover. For comparison, it’s almost a lot, at least to me in watching this, that neither Gardner nor BVP would have been able to block this shot. Against either of them, he likely would have been able to, at a minimum, get this up on the rim with a chance for it to go in. A great highlight of Dunn’s length AND mobility throughout this entire defensive possession.

In this next clip below he’s on Mutts now and it’s so good. Please remember, again, how on no fewer than two plays above, Mutts left Gardner in the dust going to the rim. Here, Dunn stays inside him, using his left arm to help impede the progress to accompany his slide. Mutts pivots to take a midrange jumper and the contest is so strong that it forces an airball from like 3-4 feet inside of the free throw line.

This next clip below is another good defensive stand on Mutts in the post, contesting a shot such that it forces another airball from close distance:

Now here on the next clip below, just a really invasive attack on BVP’s man in the post where he’s able to get his hand on the ball and force the steal. This is one of those token plays where you’re just kind of supposed to reach in here a little to make life uncomfortable for the post player, but instead he’s just able to use his reach to get in there and force the turnover.

Another great example of the difference with him on the court defensively, in the below clip he recovers off of a pick to get behind Mutts. This could have been an in-game adjustment, but BVP is in the proximity but, unlike the first clip of the game where he came to double for Gardner, he leaves Dunn alone on Mutts. Mutts is able to find Basile on the hoop, who then tries to go up with a reverse layup, but Dunn’s length bothers that and forces the miss as well. Compare and contrast this with many of the easy buckets around the hoop I showed earlier when Gardner was in the game.

And finally, in the clip below, one of the final defensive stands of the game, look at the freedom with which Dunn abandons Mutts at the three-point line, drops down to help Clark in the lane, deflects Pedulla’s pass attempt, and secures the steal. The game was in a good place before this, but this play effectively “iced” the game.

Again, he just offered a presence around the rim and was disruptive with his length. Here’s a bonus offensive clip below, illustrating exactly how/why he can be a value add there as well. He just kind of hangs out at the wing. Franklin clears out, allowing Reece the ability to drive to the hoop, and Gardner hangs out on the opposite block to present a passing option. Dunn literally just creeps toward the rim after Beekman starts to conclude his drive, crashes the glass, and gets the easy finish.

Sure, Ryan Dunn is a Freshman who has a lot of room to grow and improve his game. His upside is phenomenal but, even as he is now, he’s a unique solution to their desire to run a Smaller Ball lineup. He missed both threes he took this game, but he was willing to launch them and he commanded the defense stay on him. He offers the spacing that’s necessary to run both the Triangle and the 5-Out, he offers the defense that no one else on the roster can replicate exactly like he can, and the rim protection only Kadin can offer. He is Draymondesque when it comes to this system, and his increased playing time illustrates that CTB is starting to see that as well.

In Conclusion

It’s never this linear and you have to be willing to have different guys play different packages, but I almost feel like they should primarily play Gardner and Shedrick together, run Sides on offense when they do, and play that style of game… and then switch and run Dunn and BVP together with the Triangle and 5-Out. They’re complimentary styles where Dunn offers Smaller Ball the athletic defender they need without compromising the offensive spacing (Gardner provides neither in those lineups). Shedrick can help protect Gardner on defense while that offense doesn’t require the same spacing concepts and both benefit out of it (that lineup with Beekman, Clark, and Franklin is still ranked 3rd overall on EvanMiya.com). It would give you the ability to change up systems dramatically and mix and match personnel depending on the opponent and game flow. In the meantime, I’ll just settle for keeping the Small Ball Minus Beekman lineup off the floor entirely.

2 p.m. tip off against a larger Wake team tomorrow – we’ll see how some of these concepts carry over!

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