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5-on-5, ACC hoops: Aamir Simms pushes Clemson, David Johnson nails things down, Shakeel Moore at the point of attack

It’s a new year (thankfully) and time for a whole bunch of ACC basketball (fingers crossed). Before games start back up this week, here are five things to keep an eye on with 2021 ACC Basketball on the horizon.

 

Aamir Simms: Back and better than before

As a junior, Aamir Simms emerged as one of the most dangerous playmakers in the country. A 6-foot-8 stretch-5, Simms scored from multiple levels of the floor (40 3P%, 64 FG% rim), while also operating as the primary hub for Clemson’s half-court offense. Without Marcquise Reed, Brad Brownell inverted his offense around the passing and finishing of Simms: pick-and-pops, empty-side ball screens and high-post facilitation.

Now a senior, Simms has taken his game up a notch: 13.1 points (60.6 FG%), 5.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game.

Simms is the only player in the county currently hitting these benchmarks:

    • 3 percent block rate (3.9 percent)
    • 2 percent steal rate (2.6 percent)
    • 20 percent assist rate (21.6 percent)
    • 40 3P% (10+ 3PA)
      • Simms: 7-14 3PA, 50 3P%
    • 10 percent offensive rebound rate (11 percent)

With Simms on the floor this season (227 minutes), Clemson has outscored its opponents by 95 points. The Tigers have a monster net rating of +26 points per 100 possessions with Simms on the court, too, per Pivot Analysis.

In minutes with Simms on the bench, Clemson, as a team, has en effective shooting rate of 41 percent. That’s not great — to put it mildly. However, with Simms on the floor, Clemson’s effective shooting rate jumps to a healthy 54 percent.

Simms will be a matchup concern for most college centers; he will stress damn near every team with his ability to stretch the floor, handle the ball and facilitate from outside the arc. He can do all of this while also anchoring a defense that ranks No. 2 nationally in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom.

Adding to the challenge of guarding Simms: the 6-foot-8 senior can move in any direction after he screens (or slips) for a Clemson guard. Opponents can’t just sit on the pop or the roll. Casually show high on a screen, and Simms will slip to the hoop for a spike in Clemson’s continuity ball screen offense: six dunks (79.4 FG% rim).

Watch Simms operate out of Chin action against Purdue: after screening off ball for Clyde Trapp, Simms slides over and sets a ball screen for Nick Honor. This puts 7-foot-4 freshman center Zach Edey in a stressful drop coverage situation. Edey does well helping on Honor with a fairly high drop; however, with Isaiah Thompson in rearview pursuit, Simms is open atop the key.

Aaron Wheeler is tasked with the weak-side stunt; that’s textbook pick-and-pop defense. Simms is such a talented passer, though, which complicates matters for Wheeler. As soon as Wheelers lunges in the direction of Simms, Olivier-Maxence Prosper does what’s called a 45 cut — cutting behind the defender who stunts at the pick-and-pop target.

Wheeler can’t fully commit to Simms; he’s too good of a passer. Simms can hit Prosper for a cut layup if that window presents itself. Or he can shoot the ball. Edey gets stuck in the middle ground; as a result, Simms splashes an open 3.

Opponents that switch ball screens 1-5 may have a better shot against Simms. However, there aren’t too many college teams that will feel comfortable with that arraignment. Switch your point guard on Simms, and he’ll look to post up. Double team him in the post, and Simms will kick out to an open shooter.

Florida State is the only ACC team that switches 1-5 all game, every game. When Clemson played FSU last week, though, Brownell had something cooked up for the matchup. The Tigers routinely went to an almost Four Corners-style spread offense.

From these sets, Clemson eschewed its normal ball screen actions; instead the Tigers looked to spread out FSU’s deny defense and drive gaps. In terms of scoring, the concept’s success rate wasn’t high; FSU is a great help defense, too. However, this clever tactic helped Clemson generate some north-south traction against Florida State’s switchy defense, including situations when Simms was able to go 1-on-1 against a slower center.

 

Manny Bates + Shakeel Moore: Point of attack and at the back

In recent weeks/months, I’ve written and rambled on plenty about the incredible rim protection of Manny Bates. The redshirt sophomore is more than just a guy that blocks a lot of shots, although he does that at record-setting levels.

As a back-line help defender, Bates has elite instincts and timing; his foul rate has dropped slightly this year, too. Part of the sophomore leap for Bates, though, comes with his pick-and-roll defense. Given the time off between competitive basketball games, Bates was mostly solid as drop pick-and-roll defender last year. While he didn’t always use proper positioning, Bates was comfortable guarding ball handlers in space.

During the 2020-21 season, Bates has mostly picked up where he left off guarding screen-roll. There are still some imperfections; however, he also has moments defensively that make you wonder just how special he can be on that end of the floor.

Unfortunately, Bates left NC State’s win over Boston College early in the first half — with a lower body injury. Before Bates departed, though, the 6-foot-11 center put together a defensive possession that forced me to rewind the game action, multiple times. Watch Bates blow up every single thing Boston College hopes to accomplish:

Bates starts the possession in drop coverage against the pick-and-pop action with Makai Ashton-Langford and Steffon Mitchell. He closes down Ashton-Langford’s drive, then recovers to Mitchell on the pop — with a weak-side stunt from Devon Daniels.

Mitchell rotates the the ball and, off a dribble handoff (DHO), enters second-side pick-and-roll with Jay Heath. Again, NC State funnels these actions into Bates, who slides over to corral another ball handler. Heath gets an angle and tries to quick-shot Bates, but Manny can eat stuff like this all day.

These are the defensive possessions you love from Bates — functional movement, efficient drop coverage and destroying whatever hope remains with a strong contest.

When Bates sat against Saint Louis and UNC, things got really shaky for NC State’s half-court defense. (The drop-off is far less stark with DJ Funderburk back, though.) According to Pivot Analysis, NC State is +75 in 155 minutes with Bates on the floor this season: allowing under 92 points per 100 possessions.

Opponents are shooting under 50 precent at the rim and below 29 percent from midrange with Bates in the game.

Bates is averaging 6.2 blocks per 40 minutes this season; he ranks third nationally with a block rate of 15.6 percent.

Elsewhere, freshman guard Shakeel Moore has provided NC State with elite event creation at another station of defense: steals.

At 6-foot-1, Moore is a freak athlete: strong, with long arms and twitchy vertical pop. Along with Nick Honor of Clemson and Virginia’s Reece Beekman (who is awesome), Moore is one of only three ACC players 6-foot-3 or shorter with a defensive box plus-minus of 4 or better. It’s early, but Moore has the makings of an elite point-of-attack defender: strong base, fluid hips and quick feet.

Currently, he leads the nation with a 7.6 percent steal rate.

Moore can be incredibly disruptive off the ball, too. Opponents must be mindful of his location at all times: throw an errant pass in his direction and Moore will take it the other way. Like a defensive back in football, Moore hits another gear when decides to break on a ball.

Watch how easy he makes this switch-and-steal look against a Boston College SLOB play — just incredible burst and reach/extension to deflect this pass.

 

Miami rookies make names for themselves

The start of the 2020-21 season has been a bit uneven for Miami. Following the weekend loss to Clemson, Miami is now 0-3 in ACC play. Less than a month ago, Miami also lost a home game to Florida Gulf Coast. So, not ideal.

It’s not all bad news in South Beach, though. Earl Timberlake has arrived, playing 77 total minutes over the last three games. Early on in his college career, Timberlake has made plenty of mistakes — 5.7 turnovers per 40 minutes. But there’s so much to like with Timberlake; let’s focus in on the good.

At 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, Timberlake is an explosive athlete. His movements are kind of crazy; Timberlake skulks around the court, ready to snap into action when needed. The early flashes of team defense are quite encouraging, too.

Outside of the movement — and funky/flat shot release — what stands out most is his passing ability, especially when he gets to drive downhill with his left hand. That’s when he’ll turn some heads as a live-dribble passer. Timberlake looks really comfortable when he receives the ball in a handoff exchange (going to his left), and then enters pick-and-roll action.

During the Clemson game, Jim Larranaga moved Timberlake all over the floor. At times, Timberlake was the team’s de facto center — guarding Aamir Simms and diving to the rim out of screen-roll action. However, Timberlake got time on the basketball, too. The Hurricanes asked Timberlake to initiate pick-and-roll in the half court; he was more than happy to oblige.

From this Horns set: Miami clears the strong-side corner with Harlond Beverly running the baseline. Clemson doesn’t switch the 4-5 pick-and-pop with Matt Cross (more on him in one minute), which allows Timberlake to drive. Timberlake draws help and kicks back out. Instead of passing and standing around, though, Timberlake relocates to the corner as Cross attacks the Simms closeout, which opens up the slash-and-kick 3-pointer.

Here’s more two-man game with Cross. Timberlake initially looks to post the switch with Clyde Trapp. However, he passes back to Cross and runs another DHO. Clemson mismanages the mesh point, which opens up a lane for Timberlake. There’s some tunnel vision involved on this drive, for sure, but look at the force he brings to the rim. Timberlake draws the block and earns free throws.

 

Speaking of Cross, he looks like a real player as well. Over the last two games, Cross has drained 7-of-10 3-point attempts; he’s now shooting 45.8 percent from downtown (11-of-24 3PA) this season. Miami has found a new stretch-4/5 to help unlock more spread pick-and-roll elements.

 

Cross is smooth — both as a shooter and mover without the basketball. His footwork is tight as he slips into space and launches from deep. With his stretch abilities, Cross should force plenty of closeouts. Going up against Clemson, he looked rather adept putting the ball on the floor and making plays in space — handing out seven assists.

Cross even got to run some of his own pick-and-roll action. Not too shabby, eh?

Going back to the 2010-11 season, Cross is just the 7th Miami player to hit three or more 3-pointers and dish out seven or more assists in the same game. Cross joins Chris Lykes, Anthony Lawrence, Bruce Brown, Angel Rodriguez, Shane Larkin and Malcolm Grant with that distinction.

David Johnson: Nails It

As I wrote last month, David Johnson has emerged as one of the top NBA prospects in college hoops this season. Johnson’s 3-point stroke looks good, plus he’s shooting with more frequency and accuracy from deep. He’s also flashed a some post-up game on offense — off a little UCLA cut. On the other side of the floor, Johnson continues to evolve as a frisky team defender.

During Saturday’s 12-point win at BC, Johnson was the best player on the floor. Johnson scored 20 points, while shooting 4-of-6 from deep and dishing out three assists. The box score numbers are impressive, but Johnson’s impact went beyond that. The sophomore guard played a crucial role in detonating Boston College’s zone defense.

Louisville has several ways of cracking a zone’s code; however, Johnson at the nail — working the middle/free-throw line area — is arguably the best option. (Chris Mack tried other guys at the nail, too. Louisville also looked to set ball screens vs. BC’s zone, or flares on the top defender to free up weak-side shooters. There are plenty of options.)

Last February, when Louisville scored 1.2 points per possession in a victory over Syracuse, Johnson was deployed at the nail as well.

It was a masterful performance from the rookie guard. During that outing, Johnson dished out seven assists — with no turnovers.

Boston College’s zone is different from the Syracuse 2-3; the Eagles station three defenders up top and utilize some matchup principles. However, the middle of the zone can still be exposed. This is where Johnson found a groove.

Louisville did a nice job moving without the ball around Johnson — looking for cut layups. When Louisville was able to lift BC’s zone and attack a thinned out back line, Johnson found Jae’Lyn Withers in the dunker spot for a layup.

At 6-foot-5, Johnson is a tall guard and one hell of a passer. He’s built to cave in this type of zone defense.

Johnson also looked to score at the nail. Steffon Mitchell, one of the best defenders in the ACC, matches up with Johnson on this possession; however, Johnson doesn’t panic. He faces up, swings through and scores on top of Mitchell.

Later in the game, Johnson scored again from the nail. This time, however, no defender stepped hard to Johnson. With a little bit of space, Johnson showed good touch lofting a floater over CJ Felder’s head.

Of course, it’s not a bad idea to move Johnson around as your zone-beating talisman, and let him snipe open spot-up 3s, too. (Man, Johnson’s 3-point stroke looks really good. There’s great balance, along with elbow-wrist action.)

Right now, Louisville isn’t operating with a full deck of cards; the return of Malik Williams can’t come soon enough. I still wish this team had a little more movement shooting, but if Carlik Jones and Johnson are out there together, Louisville has a chance against just about every team.

 

Virginia: Open in the middle

There have been a few bumps in the road as Virginia has searched for its two-way identity this season. On the offensive side, Virginia has mixed things up. UVA opened the season with a new offensive scheme: a 5-out motion system lifted from a Division III team (St. Joseph’s College) in Maine.

(For more tidbits like this, consider subscribing to the Hoop Vision newsletter put together by Jordan Sperber. It’s a must-read if you’re a college hoops junkie or just like basketball.)

After the loss to San Francisco, though, Virginia returned home and went back to basics. During the November win over St. Francis (PA), Virginia’s offensive mix was almost exclusively blocker-mover.

Later, when Virginia narrowly avoided an upset loss at home to Kent State, the Cavaliers relied on the 5-out motion offense, along with some spread pick-and-roll.

As Virginia picked up its first ACC win of the season, though, the Cavaliers went back to their “middle thirds” offense — or “inside triangle” as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski described it in 2019.

This concept is nothing new. Tony Bennett has used this action for years now in Charlottesville. While blocker-mover and the continuity ball screen approach formed the backbone of Virginia’s offense two seasons ago, middle third/inside triangle was pivotal during the 2019 national title run as well. In particular, it was really good action for De’Andre Hunter. (Note: Dre Hunter looks like an improved player for the Hawks this season.)

Over the offseason, I mentioned how I thought Sam Hauser would fit nicely into this action — as a facsimile of sorts to Hunter — while paired with Jay Huff. Both big guys can post-up, shoot from deep and play off one another.

Virginia went to thirds/inside triangle on a couple of possessions against Kent State (by my logging), but the Notre Dame game saw more activity, including on the first possession of the game.

UVA can really open up the floor with Tomas Woldetensae and Trey Murphy III (81.3 eFG% on spot-up FGA), now in the starting lineup. With those two snipers keeping help defenders honest, the middle is open for Hauser, Huff and Kihei Clark to interact.

Clark, Huff and Hauser (3-of-8 3PA) each finished the Notre Dame game with usage rates of 23-24 percent, as UVA scored 1.11 points per possession.

Here, Hauser misses this 3-point try, but this is great movement and a great look for Hauser — back screen for Huff to post, with a slip out.

According to Pivot Analysis, Virginia is +35 in 61 minutes with Hauser, Huff and Muphy on the floor together this season. Feel free to sound the Small Sample Size alarm, but in those minutes, Virginia has a net rating of +37.8 points per 100 possessions. UVA has scored over 1.37 points per possession with those three on the floor together.

During the Notre Dame victory, Virginia scored 1.4 points per possession with Huff, Hauser and Murphy on the floor at the same time: +9 in 17 minutes of action.