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ACC Analytics Preseason All-ACC, First Team: The next steps for Markell Johnson and Jordan Nwora

It may seem hard to believe, but there are actual ACC Basketball games on the horizon. In two shorts weeks, conference games will (somehow) already be here. This means it’s time to finish our third annual ACC Analytics Preseason All-ACC Roster.

This is a simple process with only a few requirements. First off, freshman aren’t included in the pool of eligible players. For this experiment, we base inclusion only off numbers produced on the college level. (To be clear, though, we have no issue with rookies being included on other preseason All-ACC rosters.)

Additionally, there’s a small minutes restriction: to be considered, players needed to record at least 300 minutes during the 2018-19 season. And finally, there are no positional requirements, either. The roster doesn’t need to be composed of two guards, two forwards and one center; basketball exists in a beautiful, position-less state right now. That should be reflected here, too. The goal is to select the top 10 returning ACC players, based off a mix of stats, two-way production and possible NBA prospects.

Here’s Part 1 of this year’s series, which centers on the ACC Analytics All-ACC Second Team.

 

Markell Johnson: NC State, Senior, PG

Markell Johnson is a success story. The way this guy’s career has evolved — from quiet backup to Dennis Smith Jr., to one of the most underrated offensive forces in college hoops and a legit NBA prospect — is pretty cool.

The marriage between Kevin Keatts and Johnson has proven to be fruitful. Keatts wants to play fast, which is to Johnson’s liking. In each of the first two seasons under Keatts, NC State has averaged 16.1 seconds per offensive possession (No. 35 in Division I last season), according to KenPom.

Johnson is a good athlete — quick with his handle, shifty changing directions, explosive at the rim (14 dunks, 58 FG% at the rim) — and a willing passer. (7.2 assists per 40 minutes for his career)

(Javin DeLaurier bails out poor transition defense from RJ Barrett and robs Torin Dorn of his soul at the rim, but this combination from Johnson to create the look is so nasty: crossover around Tre Jones, draws multiple help defenders and makes the drop-off pass.)

Last season, Johnson was one of three Division I players to finish with an effective shooting rate of 60 percent and an assist rate of 25 percent.

From the half-court setting, Keatts leans on spread pick-and-roll action more than any other head coach in the country. As the primary creator for NC State’s offense, Johnson has evolved into an excellent screen-roll engine.

In his first season with Keatts, Johnson, who ranked fifth nationally with an assist rate of 40.5 percent, dished out 10.1 assists per 40 minutes. During the 2017-18 season, the Wolfpack scored 311 points on 291 pick-and-roll possessions when Johnson was a passer, per Synergy Sports: 1.07 points per possession (55.4 eFG%).

Whether he used a screen or rejected it, Johnson remained a clever half-court playmaker during his junior season: 29.7 percent assist rate.

It was notable that, early on, in his junior season Johnson was ready to take another step as a pick-and-roll creator. The man who studies Chris Paul added more shot-making craft to his game, including a slithering snake dribble move that would have Draco Malfoy envious.

A multi-level scorer, Johnson shot 46.5 percent (55.1 eFG%) out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy. Once again, he proved rather adept at attacking switches. He’s a patient pick-and-roll creator, willing to take his time before attacking what he deems a mismatch. Due in part to his pull-up jumper efficiency, Johnson’s hesitation move has the ability to freeze defenders. That, in turn, can create lanes for Johnson to drive.

And with his ability to score from range off the dribble — 1.09 points per possession (54.7 eFG%) on off-dribble jump shots — teams can’t go under ball screens on Johnson (55 percent 3-point attempt rate). Switching those screens isn’t a great solution, either; Johnson’s shown the ability to blow up a mismatch with a slow-footed post player.

If opponents try to trap or double Johnson off screens, he’s plenty capable of diagnosing the situation and making the correct read.

Johnson can get to his spots on the floor — without the help of a ball screen, too. As a junior, Johnson scored 1.07 points per possession (55.2 eFG%) in isolation. During the 2018-19 season, he was the only player to rank in the top five of the conference in both catch-and-shoot (67.6 eFG%) and isolation efficiency.

When opponents adjust and send extra help defenders, Johnson is more than happy to simply find the open man — though he also appreciates the opportunity to show off his skills.

Over the last two seasons, since he became NC State’s starting point guard, Johnson has an assist rate of 34.8 percent, a 20.7 percent usage and a true shooting rate just under 60 percent.

 

Jordan Nwora: Louisville, Junior, SF/PF

Before the start of the 2018-19 season, Jordan Nwora lurked as a likely breakout candidate. In his first season with Chris Mack, that came to fruition: Nwora excelled as a high-usage combo forward, emerging as an All-ACC player and an NBA prospect.

A 6-foot-7 movement shooter, Nwora became an interesting hub of half-court offense for Louisville. The Cards move Nwora around, looking for ways to unlock his catch-and-shoot game: 7.6 3PA per 40 minutes (90 percent of his 3-pointers were assisted).

According to Synergy, Nwora posted an effective shooting rate of 64.1 percent on catch-and-shoots — No. 6 in the ACC (100+ FGA).

Mack and Louisville run good, deliberate half-court offense; during last season, plenty of those sets — out of 1-4 high or horns looks — involved actions with Nwora at the elbow. In total, Nwora got up 206 3-pointers, making 77 (37.4 3P%).

On occasion, Nwora will hesitate when he has a look from deep, which can cause issues — better defensive closeouts and contests. Nwora isn’t quite as comfortable attacking off the bounce, though he does have a little step-back shot in his repertoire.

However, when Nwora wants to get that sucker in the air, man, he can do so quickly — even over high-level defenders. According to The Stepien’s shot chart feature, Nwora hit 38.7 percent of his NBA-range 3-point attempts (155 3PA).

It’s probably unfair to label Nwora as a one-trick pony, though his 3-point shooting really is, up to this point, his most advanced skill. Nwora has, however, shown some ability to attack closeouts: 29 dunks last season. As a sophomore, Nwora scored 1.02 points per spot-ups possession on plays that involved him driving to the basket.

It’ll be interesting to see if we get more of this from Nwora this season, now. Nwora isn’t a super explosive athlete nor does he have a ton of shot-creation to his game (28.4 eFG% on off-dribble jumpers in the half court). Will he try to demonstrate more dribble-drive elements this season?

Up until this point of his career, Nwora hasn’t been asked to do much in terms of passing, which is reflected in the numbers: 1.5 assists per 40 minutes in his career. However, when Louisville runs passing possessions for Nwora, he can deliver.

Mack and the Cards love to use high-low action with Nwora — lifting the defense — and Steven Enoch. This is one of their two favorite looks to access that action: horns set, Enoch screens on ball and rolls to the block, Nwora slides to the slot and enter the ball to Enoch, with plenty of space to work.

On the defensive end of the floor, Nwora is mostly fine as a one-on-one and team defender. His production on that side is highlighted by his work on the defensive glass: 21.7 percent defensive rebound rate.

 

Tre Jones: Duke, Sophomore, PG

One of the top returning NBA prospects in college basketball, Tre Jones is primed for a big sophomore season in Durham. While the concerns with Jones’ shot are real, he’s still an elite on-ball/team defender and a wonderful playmaker — from the open floor or Duke’s half-court offense.

A human Slinky, Jones slides in front of opposing point guards with a smoothness. He keeps a wide, strong base, never losing balance. However, Jones isn’t looking to simply stay between his man and the basket. Defense presents an opportunity — the opportunity to quickly shift into transition offense. Jones wants to disrupt and cause havoc, which is exactly what he does with his hands — constantly looking to knock the ball loose: 2.2 steals per 40 minutes.

When Jones plays on-ball defense, his eyes are glued to the chest of his man and those hands remain active. (As I’ve said before: I watched Jones from press row all last season. I’ve never seen a one-on-one defender play with more focus than Jones. He’s unflappable.)

It was obvious from the jump: Jones doesn’t luck into steals by playing lots of minutes and being around the ball, nor does he juke the stats with needless, haphazard gambles. He calculates risk on the fly, and goes for gold when the moment presents itself.

Jones was one of just five Division I players — along with Virginia’s Ty Jerome and Shamorie Ponds (who Jones terrorized during a matchup at Cameron Indoor Stadium) — to post an assist rate of 23 percent, a sub-15 percent turnover rate and a steal rate of three percent.

In the open floor, Jones is an absolute demon with the basketball. There was no scarier sight for transition defenses in college hoops last season than Jones sprinting the floor, ball on a string, head up, with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett filling the lanes.

It’s such a simple concept, but in basketball the ball will always move faster than a player (except for maybe Zion); the quickest way from A to B is a pass. In the ACC last season, no one was better at hit-ahead transition passes than Jones — a precise decision-maker with Masters degrees in Advanced Angles and Projectile Motion.

If you’ve shot a basketball before, you know exactly how much fun it is to play with someone like Jones, a pass-first point guard who will make you look good as long as you run the floor.

While it’s enjoyable to discuss his defense and vision, it’s not possible to have a discussion of Jones without touching on his shooting — a primary concern. Jones, who posted a true shooting rate of 48.5 percent in 2018-19, shot just 27.4 percent (41.1 eFG%) on catch-and-shoot attempts, per Synergy.

Jones has counters, though. He can attack a closeout in the half court, or get to his floater — one of his shooting strengths — off the bounce.

He can get to the rim, too, and Jones is a clever finisher around the cup — capable of using his left hand and the rim to shield taller defenders: 57 percent at the rim in the half court, according to Synergy.

With Matthew Hurt adding some stretch to Duke’s frontcourt, the Blue Devils should be able to space the floor better this season. That, in turn, will provide wider gaps and seams for Jones to exploit.

Assuming Duke runs more pick-and-roll action with Jones in the 2019-20 season, he should increase his volume of finishes at the rim and get to the line more, t00. (Only 2 FTA per 40 minutes last season) Additionally, big guys like Vernon Carey Jr. and Javin DeLaurier should feast on drop-off passes from Jones.

While playing with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett last year, Jones had to play off the ball a lot in the half court. We saw this routine every game: Jones would bring the ball up, call something out, pass to either Williamson or Barrett, and depart to the near corner. Once he was there, teams could sag or play way off of him — in order to clog up the paint.

Jones will have the ball in his hands far more frequently as a sophomore, which could be a boon for the Blue Devils. At the least, teams won’t be able to sag off Jones, who averaged 6.2 assists per 40 minutes last season. He will have plenty of opportunities to orchestrate Duke’s offense — forcing rotations and making things easy for his teammates.

 

Mamadi Diakite: Virginia, Senior, PF/C

During Virginia’s run to the national title last season, Mamadi Diakite emerged as one of the more intriguing two-way center prospects in the country. While Diakite is best known for his work around the basket on defense, he obviously found his way on the offensive side of the floor, too. Diakite benefited greatly as the Cavaliers worked more ball-screen actions into their flow.

At this point, he’s one of the more appealing two-way center prospects in college hoops. During the 2018-19 season, Diakite was one of 21 players — along with Brandon Clarke and Jaxson Hayes — to post a 10 percent block rate, while shooting above 55 percent on 2-point attempts.

Let’s start on defense, though. On this end of the court, Diakite flashes a reported 7-foot-3.5 wingspan, which is ridiculous. As a junior last season, Diakite erased three shots per 40 minutes. In ACC play, though, that number jumped even higher: 3.7 blocks per 40 minutes. These are absolutely gargantuan numbers.

Diakite pairs that wingspan with a quick jump and excellent timing. He can attack the ball in the air, which allows him to avoid creating too much contract. Last season, Diakite committed just 3.9 fouls per 40 minutes — down from 5.6 as a sophomore.

The veteran center blocks shots in a variety of methods, too — one-on-one in the post, help-side rejections or further from the hoop on closeouts. Diakite is also rather adept at using his left hand to create havoc for opponents at the rim.

The other half of Diakite’s two-way impact, of course, extends to his improvements as an offensive piece. As Virginia reinvigorated its offense last season — using less mover-blocker and adding more European-style ball screens — Diakite took on a more central role. With Diakite as an important rim-running cog, Virginia’s offense ended the season No. 2 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.

Plays like this, which features Diakite and Jay Huff sharing the floor together, are important to monitor as this season approaches. For UVA to maximize its on-court skill level, those two will need to function as an impactful tandem this year in Charlottesville. Huff, who can also space the floor (45.2 3P%), had good moments in Virginia’s ball-screen sets, too.

According to Synergy, Diakite shot 87 percent on basket rolls (1.57 points per possession) last season, which ranked No. 3 in Division I last season (20+ possessions).

It’s inaccurate to characterize Diakite as much of a playmaker; he finishes possessions, instead. However, Diakite isn’t a straight dunk-bot; there’s some nuance to his game. For instance: take a look at his work in this baseline runner set — one of Virginia’s go-to plays for Kyle Guy.

Virginia spreads the floor and runs a high 1-5 pick-and-roll. This is as high as Virginia will screen a defender — just look where Diakite picks for Ty Jerome. After slipping out, Diakite rolls into space at the top of the key; when he see the ball swung, Guy sprints out of the near-side corner to run off a pin screen from De’Andre Hunter. Meanwhile, Kihei Clark sprints over the top to the opposite corner.

Diakite puts the ball on the floor and makes a confident pass to the corner for a fading Guy as Ryan Cline tries to cheat over the top of Hunter’s screen. Guy doesn’t stick the 3-ball here, but again, keep an eye on Diakite — this is a gorgeous vertical cut from the big fella.

Here’s a look at that same play design, again — this time with Jack Salt as the screener and connecting passer.

The key for Diakite this season could depend on how he handles stuff like this — more offensive responsibility with more defensive attention.

Tony Bennett will design plenty of stuff to get Diakite high-percentage looks; Clark’s dribble penetration will crack defenses and create easy spikes for Diakite from the dunker spot. Diakite should also look for points on duck-ins from Virginia’s mover-blocker offense, too.

When stuff breaks down, however, will Diakite be able to make the simple play again and again — without the gravitational pull of Hunter, Jerome and Guy?

 

John Mooney: Notre Dame, Senior, PF/C

After functioning nicely as an efficient scoring threat off the bench as a sophomore (57.7 eFG%), John Mooney transitioned nicely into his role as an offensive hub for Notre Dame. Mooney started 33 games for the Irish, and played close to 30 minutes per game — with a lot of usage: 24.8 percent.

Despite the high usage rate, Mooney rarely turned the ball over — 1.8 turnovers per 40 minutes — while averaging a double-double: 14.1 points and 11.2 rebounds. Mooney was an impactful rebound on both sides of the floor (10.3 percent offensive rebound rate); however, he was a marvelous position rebounder on defense for the Irish.

According to Bart Torvik, Mooney was one of seven Division I players last season with a 30 percent defensive rebound rate (15.1 total rebounds per 40 minutes). Of that group, he was the only player to also make at least 10 3-pointers: 34-of-91 3PA (37.4 3P%).

Going back to the 2008-09 season, Mooney is the only Division I player to hit those benchmarks in the same season.

Mooney mostly plays below the rim, though he did finish with 31 dunks last season. His post-up scoring numbers won’t blow anyone away, but he’s clever around the basket and fairly quick off his feet.

The 6-foot-9 Mooney, according to Synergy, shot 59.2 percent of put-back attempts after a short rebound last season.

Out of Notre Dame’s ball-screen game, Mooney showed some nice offensive versatility, too. Mooney scored 1.11 points per possession (54.7 eFG%) on pick-and-pops, according to Synergy; he also shot 57.1 percent on rolls to the basket.

With more seasoned talent around him this season, Mooney should be able to improve his overall efficiency while also remaining a high-usage weapon.

 

Read More on Markell Johnson

Kevin Keatts has the point guard he needs to run the show in Raleigh

 

honorable mention guys?

  • 3rd post: list, 1-2 stats, clips