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A change of the (Point) Guard at Pick-And-Roll U: Markell Johnson and Cam Hayes

In college sports, we frequently see programs become synonymous with a certain position, player type or a style of play. For years, Arizona was Point Guard University, although Kentucky would like to lay claim to that distinction now. Over in football, various schools use these program-specific positional distinctions to help recruit. (QBU, WRU, etc.)

With basketball, we also see how certain programs — thanks to success and longevity with a coach — identify with a set playing style. Under Tony Bennett, Virginia is known for its Pack Line defense and blocker-mover/sides offense. Duke extends its man-to-man defense, aggressively denying passing lanes. Shaka Smart has his pressure-packed Havoc defense. UNC basketball enjoys a decades-long marriage with the secondary break and half-court box sets. More recently, the continuity ball screen offense has become increasingly pervasive in college hoops; however, Gonzaga gets credit as one of its primary adopters.

It may be time to think of NC State is a similar vein when it comes to spread pick-and-roll offense. Every team in the country uses some sort of ball-screen component in its half-court attack, but Kevin Keatts is — as the kids would say — about that life.

The Wolfpack may not split the atom on the offensive side of the floor, but so far under Keatts, NC State has posted a top-50 offense in all three seasons. Going back to his time at UNC Wilmington, Keatts has four straight top-50 offenses, including two top-25 units.

While limited aesthetically, the pick-and-roll helps keeps things simple: fewer passes, fewer turnovers, and the ability to target the money areas of the floor — rim finishes and spot-up 3-pointers — with your best players. It’s an offensive floor-raiser.

This brings us to an uncharted moment during the Keatts era of NC State basketball, though. By this point, Keatts has been around the proverbial block — coaching 101 games (65-36) over three seasons with the Wolfpack. However, as NC State gets set to welcome in its first major recruiting class under Keatts — five prep players, plus two transfers with eligibility for the 2020-21 season — there’s about to be a change at the team’s most important position.

For the first time in Raleigh, Keatts will enter a season without Markell Johnson embedded as his starting point guard, ready to unleash pick-and-roll fury. The torch now belongs to a package of players, including incoming freshman Cam Hayes.

 

The arrival of Keatts; the ascent of Johnson

As soon as Keatts launched his tenure with the Wolfpack, he handed the keys to the point guard position over to Johnson. After backing up Dennis Smith Jr. for one season, Johnson was given an opportunity to shine, and he ran with it.

Over the next three seasons, Johnson appeared in 90 of the team’s 101 games. In that span of time, only one teammate played more minutes than Johnson (2,649): Braxton Beverly (2,832). Since Keatts’ arrival, Johnson leads the program in scoring (1,044 points), assists (539) and field goal attempts (839 FGA).

(Going back to the 2017-18 season, Johnson is the only member of the program with 250+ assists over the last three years.)

While playing for Keatts, Johnson posted a career usage rate of 22 percent and an assist rate of 35.4 percent, plenty of which came from the pick-and-roll. Over the last three seasons of college hoops, only 13 players have played 2,000+ minutes with an assist rate of at least 35 percent. Johnson is included in that bunch, along with Cassius Winston and Ja Morant.

These are monster numbers. Replacing Johnson’s impact is a big ask, especially in an offense that puts so much onus on its lead guard.

 

Push-button: Pick-and-roll

Based off data from Synergy Sports, NC State’s pick-and-roll volume under Keatts is prolific. According to Synergy, NC State roll players — rolls, slips and pops — have used a combined 481 possessions over the last three seasons. That translates to 4.8 possessions per game.

According to Synergy, NC State scored 529 points on those possessions; this is good for 5.2 points per game. All of these numbers rank No. 1 in the ACC.

(Players like Omer Yurtseven and DJ Funderburk remained efficient, even with the high volume. NC State’s roll men scored a combined 1.1 points per possession in this three-year window.)

Of course, NC State creators found plenty of offense out of NC State’s ball-screen actions, too. In each season under Keatts, NC State ball handlers have ranked inside the top four of the ACC in terms of total pick-and-roll possessions and field goal attempts.

During Johnson’s junior and senior seasons — when he really evolved as a pick-and-roll engine — NC State ball handlers ranked in the top three of the ACC for pick-and-roll possessions and points per game.

In the charts below are pick-and-roll numbers from the last three seasons for NC State. This is just a small snapshot; not all of data is captured here. But it does provide a glimpse into just how productive NC State’s guards and bigs have been in screen-roll action since the 2017-18 season.

2017-18

 PossessionsPointsFGA
Ball Handlers
Total404268265
ACC Rank494
Per Game12.28.18
ACC Rank485
Roll Men
Total184212165
ACC Rank111
Per Game5.66.45
ACC Rank111

2018-19

 PossessionsPointsFGA
Ball Handlers
Total440339297
ACC Rank222
Per Game12.29.48.3
ACC Rank334
Roll Men
Total154154128
ACC Rank132
Per Game4.34.33.6
ACC Rank233

2019-20

 PossessionsPointsFGA
Ball Handlers
Total436337317
ACC Rank322
Per Game13.610.59.9
ACC Rank222
Roll Men
Total143163117
ACC Rank111
Per Game4.55.13.7
ACC Rank111

*Note: passes to spot-up players not included

 

Johnson’s impact

As Johnson emerged a fringy/deep NBA prospect the last three seasons, I wrote plenty about his pick-and-roll acumen. Johnson is a clever passer and decision-maker, with tons of little tricks and intricacies to his game. I spoke with Johnson last fall at ACC Operation Basketball; he works on his craft, studying pros like Chris Paul, a master of the pick-and-roll.

Johnson has seen every imaginable coverage at the college level; he has counters for most of them, too. Johnson can roast a switch by going to the rim or pulling things out and getting to his step-back/pull-up game.

If an opponent played drop coverage against him, Johnson could walk into a shot, or snake back across the grain. A three-level scorer and play-maker, this type of maneuver allows Johnson to string out defenders, look for outlets and get to his spots on the floor.

Johnson has continuously added skills while in college, and it’s impressive to see just how much his game has rounded out.

During his junior season Johnson posted an effective shooting rate of 55 percent out of the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy. That ranked 14th nationally among players with 100+ pick-and-roll possessions.

As methodical as Johnson can be with the pick-and-roll — wait for screen, read the defense, shoot a pull-up —  he has plenty of twitch and skills; and he likes to show them off, too.

Johnson is a little sticky with the basketball at times, but he has a bunch of slippery change-of-direction moves, like this lefty hesitation dribble, that allow him to unlock defenses and attack gaps.

Over the last three seasons, Johnson made a total of 374 field goals — 289 of which were unassisted (77.3 percent). Nearly 53 percent of his 3-pointers, going back to the 2017-18 season (73 of 138), were also unassisted. Inside the arc, though, is where is shot-creation gene really kicked in: 91.5 percent of his 2-point field goals were unassisted (216 of 236).

Johnson’s shooting struggles were well-documented his senior season; his pick-and-roll efficiency dipped as a result. Johnson scored just 0.7 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll this year, but his 146 pick-and-roll points still ranked third most in the ACC. The usage was still there.

 

Don’t hate the playmaker…

As a senior this season, Johnson became just the fourth ACC player since the 2007-08 season to post a usage rate of 25 percent and an assist rate of 35 percent. He’s an incredibly industrious player. This marked the second time in his career under Keatts that Johnson finished with an assist rate above 35 percent: 36.3 percent (No. 22 in the nation).

Johnson averaged just under eight assist per 40 minutes this season — an increase from a year ago. Plenty of those dimes came out of the pick-and-roll, too. According to Synergy, NC State scored 1.02 points per possession when Johnson passed out of the pick-and-roll to a teammate that finished the possession. That was a top-10 number nationally among players with 250+ possessions.

Led by DJ Funderburk (who was excellent this season), NC State roll men scored 1.28 points per possession on these looks (67.1 FG%). It’s unfortunate that Pat Andree dealt with nagging injuries this season; his floor spacing, in theory, could’ve been a wonderful tool for Johnson to work with.

In each of the last three seasons, NC State scored better than one point per possession when Johnson passed to someone out of the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy.

SeasonPossessionsPointsPPP
2017-182933111.06
2018-192442471.01
2019-203263331.02
Total8638911.03

During his sophomore season, Johnson ranked fifth nationally with an assist rate of 40.5 percent. That number jumped in ACC play, too: 44.6 percent. Going back over the last 13 seasons, only one other ACC player finished a season with an assist rate of at least 40 percent: UNC’s Kendall Marshall, who did it twice.

For a comparison: Chris Corchiani led the ACC in assists per game (9.6) back in the 1990-91 season. As a senior that year, Corchiani posted an assist rate of 38.5 percent.

 

Cam Hayes: What to expect?

Keatts has some options when it comes to replacing Johnson next season; depending on how things shakeout, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him go with a veteran to start the season. However, there will be a lot of hope riding on Cam Hayes.

A 4-star prospect, Hayes committed to NC State last September; he signed in November as a part of NC State’s top-10 recruiting class. 247 Sports rates Hayes as a top-65 overall player and one of the three best prospects in the state of North Carolina.

The 6-foot-1 Hayes is a pass-first guard, similar to Johnson when he first landed in Raleigh, too. Go through some of his tape, and you’ll find a prospect that knows how to work a pick-and-roll — pocket passes and re-screens to get closer to the rim for a floater.

However, the jump up to college ball is tough, especially in the ACC. Keatts puts a lot of pressure on his point guards to generate healthy offense; Hayes will be stressed next season. There should be plenty of talent on the roster, but it may be asking a lot for Hayes to generate offense that scores better than one point per possession when he runs pick-and-roll.

Shakeel Moore, another incoming 4-star freshman, could also get a crack at things, too.

Dating back to the 2007-08 campaign, though, only 29 ACC freshman guards finished a season 20 percent usage and 20 percent assist rate. Of that group, only 14 finished with an offensive rating above 100, including Dennis Smith Jr., Coby White, RJ Barrett, Ky Bowman and Bruce Brown. That’s a lot of NBA-level talent.

Bottom line: the bar is high. Hayes will need help from secondary options. Fortunately for NC State, the Wolfpack have some on the roster.

 

Devon Daniels: Is there another level?

As a redshirt junior, Devon Daniels turned into a real impact player for NC State. His 3-point attempts rate dropped, but Daniels altered his game — getting to the rim more frequently and settling for fewer awkward long 2s.

According to Bart Torvik’s site: during the 2018-19 season, about 51 percent of his 2-point attempts came around the hoop. This season that number jumped to just under 62 percent. As a result, his free throw rate spiked as well: 3.7 FTA per 40 minutes, up from 2.9 FTA per 40 last season.

Daniels proved to be a beast on the break: he scored 1.13 points per possession in transition, per Synergy — good for No. 8 in the ACC (50+ possessions).

According to Synergy Sports, Daniels shot 50.6 percent out of the pick-and-roll this season as well. NC State scored 1.07 points per possession when Daniels passed out of the screen-roll. He doesn’t have Johnson’s lethal combination of vision and passing touch, but he can drive and put pressure on the rim, which opens things up for NC State’s shooters.

In terms of usage, Daniels mostly stayed flat (21.5 percent); however, the 6-foot-5 saw his efficiency jump across the board. And while Daniels took on greater play-making duties, his turnover rate dropped: 17.4 percent.

 

Iverson Sets

With Johnson, NC State ran a lot of high 1-5 ball screens; spread the floor with three shooters, and let the point guard and center dance in the middle. NC State will mix in some roll-replace action off of these looks — Jericole Hellems (33 3P%) functions as a solid lift guy.

However, one of the other half-court concepts NC State rolls out a lot is a 1-4 high Iverson set. The Iverson cut goes into side pick-and-roll action. This allows the Pack to move around their mesh points and generate some empty-side looks.

The possessions starts with four played spaced wide in a line — with the 4 (Hellems) and 5 (Manny Bates) stationed at the elbows. Johnson pushes the ball right; Beverly cuts through to the weak side as Daniels slides across on the Iverson cut, off screens from Hellems and Bates.

On occasion, Keatts will move the pieces around some (primarily when opponents hard double or trap the 1-5 high ball screens). Johnson would start a possession away from the basketball and function as the option cutting across on the Iverson look.

There’s a screen-the-screener concept in these sets, too. After Funderburk screens for Johnson on the edge, he sets another screen for Andree, who kicks out to side the side ball screen for Johnson and pop/slip to the corner. Funderburk seals in the paint.

If the player setting the initial ball screen is a shooter, like Andree or Torin Dorn, they space out. However, if that player is a dive man, like Funderburk or Bates, they will roll to the rim after the angle ball screen.

 

Can a healthy Braxton Beverly provide a charge?

After battling a painful back injury during the 2019-20 season, a healthy and rejuvenated Beverly could help offset the loss of Johnson. Early on in his career, Beverly played on the basketball a little more; he posted a 19 percent assist rate his freshman season — 4.8 assists per 40 minutes. NC State scored 0.97 points per possession when Beverly passed out of the pick-and-roll (136 possessions), too, per Synergy.

This season, though, with multiple ball handlers in the rotation, and the back injury, Beverly dished out just 1.9 assists per 40.

Beverly doesn’t have the slippery breakdown skills that Johnson possesses; however, he can still help steward the offense. A combination Hayes, Beverly and Daniels — with plenty of Iverson looks mixed in — as the team’s engine room makes some sense. It may take a village to replace Johnson’s production.

According to Synergy, Beverly scored 1.14 points per spot-up possession (57 eFG%) this season, good forth sixth in the ACC (100+ possessions). But if he’s playing on the basketball more, than it’s hard to access those looks.

Beverly is an interesting fit with NC State, in general. He’s a good movement shooter, but he works in a fairly static offense. NC State plays with tempo (averaging well under 17 seconds per offensive possession with Keatts), but there aren’t many designs that involve shooters coming off pindowns and flares, looking to catch and shoot.

For his career, Beverly is a 36.5 percent 3-point shooter — with good volume. Over 68 percent of Beverly’s career field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc; of his 186 career 3-point makes, close to 91 percent (169) were assisted.

 

Thomas Allen & Dereon Seabron

NC State struggled shooting the basketball from deep (31.9 3P%) this season. Nebraska transfer Thomas Allen, back in his home state, should be able to help. During his two seasons in Lincoln, Allen shot 35.4 percent from downtown (144 3PA). The vast majority of those makes came off an assist.

During his final season of prep basketball at Brewster Academy, Allen went 115-of-239 from 3-point range (48.2 3P%).

Allen is more of a threat spotting up in the half court and on the break. His pick-and-roll chops are limited; Allen used a total of 28 pick-and-roll possessions his sophomore season, per Synergy. Allen scored 0.82 points per possession on those looks, though. It’s a safe bet that Allen will handle the ball in some of NC State’s Iverson sets.

The same can be said for redshirt freshman combo guard Dereon Seabron. A rangy 6-foot-7 wing, Seabron has the ability to play on the basketball, too. Similar to Allen, he was able to spend a year learning the system; if that translates to real in-game play-making, then NC State could access some fun, switch-y lineups.