“Halfway” Check-In

Well, hello again! No specific game review this time, but given that we’re, roughly, halfway through the season if we get to play a few postseason games, it feels like a good time to check-in with some takeaways that I’ve been mulling while watching, digesting, replaying, pausing, replaying, pausing, replaying, clipping, and writing about the games.

#1. Smaller Ball is Legit

I like Smaller Ball much better than Small Ball, especially when Ryan Dunn is on the floor. CTB definitely found something starting at the end of the Pitt game when he played Shedrick alongside the four guards, but then fully against UNC in the second half. He’s been working on it ever since, marrying it exclusively with either the Triangle or 5-Out offenses, and increasing the utilization rate of Ryann Dunn as the four. As a result, the sample size is still very small, but these lineups, either with all four guards or with Dunn at the 4 – and BVP at the 5 have become our most efficient lineups this year, primarily through the offensive playmaking, shooting and spacing they generate. This brings me to core principle #1:

When Kihei Clark is playing, try to pair him with either Dunn or Shedrick as much as possible

Clark and Shedrick are a phenomenal pairing which I’ll talk about in a bit but, currently, with these offensive systems designed to clear out the middle being favored, that means playing Dunn as much as we can when we’re in them. Dunn, in general, is a better pairing with BVP than Gardner in these systems because Gardner is no threat to shoot from outside. Defenders still seem unwilling to leave him entirely out there like they do Shedrick, but I think that will change. Dunn does offer respectable mid-30s three-point shooting and has proven he’s willing to let it go from out there, and has also been very effective at diving to the rim and crashing the glass out of these offenses. The result is a much more clear middle on offense but, more importantly, he offers that length and rim protection defensively that just isn’t there otherwise when Shedrick is off the floor. This is especially important for Clark, who is tested the most in these lineups and whose defenders often try to get into the lane and shoot over him when they see the Small or Smaller Ball lineups on the court. Which brings us to:

#2. Don’t Give Up On Sides

It’s clear that the main reason Kadin Shedrick’s minutes have declined is the shift to the Triangle and 5-Out offenses. Defenders are willing to give him space to shoot in those offenses, sagging into the middle and defeating much of what they’re trying to accomplish. But our original starting lineup of Clark, Beekman, Franklin, Gardner, and Shedrick is still ranked as the third best in the country (with sample size) on http://evanmiya.com. Shedrick is a very good offensive player in the Sides offense as a screener and a rim runner. He works especially well with Clark, who is the best at creating an advantage and finding him to finish the job. Shedrick is an elite finisher around the rim when he starts with an advantage and is a great free throw shooter (currently THE best on the team at 82.6%). But he also does a good job of protecting BOTH Clark and Gardner on defense. Gardner is actually a really effective pairing with Shedrick as a mutual screener in sides, the ability to play high-low, not needing a ton of space to be effective offensively in the post, and as a double-trouble threat to punish opposing teams around the rim out of that offense. What he tends to concede on defense alongside BVP, he doesn’t around Shedrick.

You’re going to need Shedrick

I know that CTB knows this. He’s implied as much in both recent press conferences, actually mentioning Kadin by name, and he’s talked extensively about how players need to stay ready. But Small/er Ball is not always going to be an effective option, teams are going to scout and prepare better for those offenses, and there’s just too much benefit to having Shedrick’s presence on the floor against some teams. That starting lineup IS still a very effective weapon, and to be able to mix and match that in with the new stuff is going to be important. I say this because 4 and 5 minutes, respectively, after starting most of the season can be hard on a player’s confidence. He does look more in his head over the recent games when on the floor as a result. I’d like to see an effort to work this back in sooner than later (today hopefully!) because it’s going to be hard to expect to just flip the switch and be able to rely on him in big moments with these kinds of PT swings.

#3. Small Ball is Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnne….

Small Ball with Gardner at the 4 and BVP at the 5 is my least favorite options that we run. Unfortunately, this is our current starting lineup. I don’t think it offers the offensive benefits of Smaller Ball nor the defensive benefits of playing with Dunn or Shedrick. That being said, it can have its moments. Gardner seems to be getting more comfortable looking for his offense in a cleared-out post within the Triangle, and that is one advantage of playing him in that system. I’m not sure it’s really that much better for him than just playing alongside Kadin, though, as he traditionally doesn’t need the same space as the guards do to be effective around the rim. Either way, this part is very important:

If we’re in Small Ball, BOTH Beekman and Franklin need to be on the floor

Without the rim protection on the back end, our defense gets absolutely destroyed when we don’t have our two best perimeter defenders on the floor, helping to keep our opposition’s ability to get into the lane to begin with at bay. We also are way too prone to scoring droughts with this group when either are out. In general, I think this is by far and away our least effective core group that we’ve schemed up over the course of the year – but it CAN still be very effective and that’s entirely dependent on the correct guard pairings to support it.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I do think we caught lightning in a bottle with Smaller Ball, and the lineup of three of Clark, Beekman, Franklin, IMK with Dunn and BVP is dynamite. We should keep going to this regularly throughout contests… but rather than working so hard to fit Gardner into that group and limiting Kadin’s minutes, I’d much rather see us almost platoon the bigs and change up our systems when we do. It will never be SO linear but, generally speaking, group Dunn and BVP together to run the perimeter-based offenses, maybe 10-30 minutes a game depending on how it’s going (probably erring on the high side of that range), and then pairing Gardner and Shedrick together to primarily run Sides for the other 10-30 minutes of the game, depending. Obviously we wouldn’t need to be SO stringent about never playing BVP in sides or Gardner in the Triangle, etc., but the core concept would allow us to mix things up throughout a contest while making sure we keep Kadin warm and ready and building up that confidence as we head into the time of year where in some games Small/er Ball just might not cut it defensively.

Either way, these are just some developments I’ll be keeping a close eye on and hoping to see over the second half of the season. I love the innovation and adaptability we’ve shown as the season progresses – really accessing the strengths of players like Clark, Franklin and BVP, and I LOVE that we’re starting to see/remember what a force a fully healthy Reece Beekman can be.

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