Blake Wesley is here. So, too, is Notre Dame.
The 2021-22 season got off to an inauspicious start for Notre Dame. Preseason expectations were high for Mike Brey’s club; however, the Irish dropped five of their first nine games. One of the losses was especially puzzling: falling by 16 points at Boston College, with the offense stuck in second gear.
Even one of the early-season victories — a home win over High Point — was too close for comfort. For a team with postseason potential, in the midst of an NCAA Tournament drought, this was disheartening.
Since then, though, the Irish have popped; they’ve won nine of their last 10 games. With Wesley as the catalyst, the offense has hummed. During this stretch, Notre Dame has scored better than 1.1 points per possession in five of the 10 games.
Currently, Notre Dame ranks inside the top 40 nationally in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency. As usual, Notre Dame gets it done with proper floor spacing, ball movement (54.2 percent assist rate) and turnover avoidance. So far, the Irish have turned the ball over on less than 16 percent of their possessions, a top-30 number in the country.
Notre Dame also ranks 42nd in 3-point attempt rate (44.6 percent), 31st in 3-point percentage (37.2 3P%) and 55th in effective shooting (53.3 eFG%). These are all very healthy numbers.
At 13-6 (6-2 ACC), Notre Dame ranks just 72nd in the NET — with only one Quad 1 win (Kentucky). Starting next week, though, Notre Dame will have opportunities to boost its resume. Matchups with Duke (home) and Miami (away) are Quad 1 games.
For this to work, though, Brey will need Wesley and his offense to keep on spinning.
Set The Stage
Prior to Wesley’s emergence as one of the top draft prospects in the country, this Notre Dame roster looked really good on paper. The “senior” class of Dane Goodwin, Nate Laszewski and Prentiss Hubb — along transfers Cormac Ryan, Trey Wertz and Paul Atkinson — is loaded in terms of offensive talent.
Wesley, however, is Mike Brey’s ceiling-raiser. The freshman guard’s game-breaking abilities take this team to another level. It’s a testament to the veterans on this roster, and the program’s culture, with how quickly Wesley was accepted as the team’s primary creator.
To be clear, integrating a ball-dominant guard into a scheme, with a veteran roster, isn’t always a cut-and-dried procedure. However, that’s exactly what Brey and his staff have been able to orchestrate. As always, timing is everything.
To begin the season, Hubb — an All-ACC selection last year — got off to an awful start. Over the first nine games, Hubb shot a frigid 27.9 percent from the floor and 19 percent on his 3-point attempts. Hubb’s turnovers increased, too. Honestly, it kind of looked like a regression to his freshman-year performance.
Subsequently, Hubb’s rebounded. During ACC play, he’s shot 38.5 percent from beyond the arc, while posting a minuscule 7.1 percent turnover rate. Hubb also drilled a game-winner to defeat Pitt.
— NCAA Buzzer Beaters & Game Winners (@NCAABuzzerBters) December 29, 2021
Those early-season struggles, as concerning as it may have felt in the moment, opened the door for Wesley to gain more playmaking share. Wesley stepped through and never looked back.
At the moment, Wesley (32.1 percent usage) is the only high-major freshman with a usage rate above 30 percent.
There are 13 high-major freshmen with a usage rate of at least 24.5 percent, though. That list is a who’s who of some of the top rookies in college hoops: Paolo Banchero, Jabari Smith, Kennedy Chandler, Aminu Mohammed, Bryce McGowens and Matthew Cleveland. (It also includes some of the better second-year freshmen, too: Jalen Cook, Justin Lewis and Azuolas Tubelis.)
Continuity Ball Screen
One of the ways Brey’s molded this roster together is by leaning in on Notre Dame’s continuity ball screen (CBS) offense. Given their personnel, this side-to-side motion ball screen approach is an excellent look.
With Wesley and Hubb, Brey has two primary ball handlers. Ryan and Wertz are big wings who can also play with the basketball. All four of those guys are averaging more than 2.0 assists per 40 minutes.
Instead of a “Your turn, My turn” approach to organizing spread pick-and-roll, these continuity sets inspire pace and ball movement.
The action starts with an empty-side ball screen to one side of the floor — between the 4/5 and one of the guards. The ball handler will probe to the middle of the floor. If the lane is open, it’s simple: go to the rim, shoot a pull-up or kick to an open weak-side shooter.
That’s what happens here with Wesley. With Louisville over-helping at the nail on Wesley’s drive, both Hubb and Goodwin are open.
Of course, the ball handler can also reject the empty-side screen and drive baseline. This can open things up for shots at the rim or catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.
If those initial reads aren’t there, it’s no problem. The opposite forward/center will lift up through the middle and catch the ball near the slot. That player can either look for his shot, or reverse the ball to the opposite side and run the same empty-corner screen-roll action. Laszewski is very good in this role.
Up front, Laszewski and Atkinson pair so well with one another. Laszewski is one of the best shooters in the country — period. Over the last two seasons, he’s shot a combined 44.3 percent on 3-point attempts. He ranks inside the top 75 nationally this season in 3-point percentage (45.5 3P%) and true shooting rate (63.8 TS%).
During the 2020-21 season, Laszewski ranked top 10 nationally in both effective shooting and true shooting, according to KenPom.
Here, Wesley and Laszewski engage in empty-side pick-and-pop action vs. Kentucky. The Wildcats have guard Tyty Washington switched on Laszewski. When Laszewski screens for Wesley, both guards stick with Wesley. As a result, Laszewski is open for the 3.
According to Synergy Sports, Notre Dame screeners are scoring 1.36 points per possession (72.4 eFG%) on rolls to the rim or pop actions this season. This ranks No. 14 nationally and is tops among all ACC teams.
Atkinson has carried plenty of weight, too. The Yale transfer is shooting 63.3 percent on his 2-point attempts. Baked into that cake: Atkinson is shooting 86.7 percent when he rolls or slips to the basket.
Atkinson is usually the second big man to catch the ball within the side-to-side action. He’s rather adept at finishing those second-side, empty-corner looks.
Atkinson can also use these looks to get to his post game, where he’s been awesome, too. Notre Dame ranks No. 6 nationally in post-up efficiency — 1.08 points per possession — led by Atkinson (54.8 FG%) and Goodwin (57.1 FG%).
Once opponents start to key in and go through the process defending the pre-screen motions, Notre Dame can counter.
Here’s the first play of the game vs. Clemson: Notre Dame is set to run its standard continuity ball screen look. Instead, Brey has Wesley (an underrated cutter) slip to the bucket. With the defense lifted, there’s no one at the rim to stop Wesley.
Atkinson can really pass for the high post, too. He currently has an assist rate of 13.2 percent, which is a career best.
Continuity, In Multiple Forms
Notre Dame really flexes its offensive connectivity, though, when it uses ball-screen motion to trigger beautiful freelance basketball. The floor is wide open; players can flow from the scripted actions into various cuts and relocations, while the ball pings around.
This cut from Hubb is what eventually leads to an open 3 for Goodwin, one of the most efficient shots in the entire ACC.
That type of unspoken communication is what every coach wants. The more guys play together, the more reps the receive, the better of a feel they have for playing with one another. This is how a team performs better than the sum of its parts.
Given Brey’s limited rotation, it’s reasonable to assume that the roster will become even more attuned to one another. Basically, they’re going to play together a lot this season.
The Irish will even disguise their continuity looks — starting in one offensive setup, then shifting to CBS. Notre Dame starts this possession vs. NC State in Horns look; however, things quickly flow into motion ball screen.
According to KenPom, Notre Dame’s bench accounts for only 22.9 percent of the team’s on-floor minutes, which ranks No. 322 nationally. This is a seven-man rotation; only two players account for that near-23-percent sliver.
Assuming everyone remains healthy, and out of foul trouble, this is a scary proposition for opposing coaches.
South Bend Small Ball + Blake Wesley
For now, Brey seems to have settled on his go-to lineup of Wesley, Hubb, Goodwin, Laszewski and Atkinson. That group is +19 in 122 minutes of action, per Pivot Analysis: 115.3 points per 100 possession on offense.
According to Evan Miya’s adjusted efficiency metric, that lineup ranks No. 5 in the ACC (among lineups with 150+ possessions) with a net rating of +23.3 points per 100 possessions.
The guards and wings are interchangeable, though. Wertz and Ryan can sub for anyone. No matter who’s in the game, the 10-legged groove machine keeps on clicking.
Brey is also savvy to stagger Atkinson and Laszewski. This system helps augment potential stamina or foul concerns. It manages the minutes.
Those two have played 306 minutes together this season (+29), according to Pivot Analysis. Laszewski has played 240 minutes (+15) without Atkinson. Conversely, Atkinson has played 167 minutes (+39) without Laszewski.
Notre Dame loses the slightest amount of defensive rim protection when Atkinson sits, although that’s a bit of a stretch. Laszewski has a slightly lower block rate, but he’s physical and usually in the right place positionally on defense. That’s usually enough.
However, the Laszewski-only lineups on offense allow the Irish to play legit 5-out basketball. It forces defenses to cover every nook and cranny of the half court.
Obviously, this opens up lanes to the basket for Notre Dame’s guards, which turns into shots at the rim or kick-out 3s.
According to Synergy Sports, Notre Dame ranks No. 13 nationally in spot-up efficiency: 1.07 points per possession (56.7 eFG%).
Special Teams: BLOB
Baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB) plays are great opportunities for teams to utilize quick-hitters on offense. With Goodwin, Notre Dame can be especially dangerous on these BLOB plays.
Goodwin is an elite midrange player; he can can to his jump shot off movement or isolated in the mid-post. According to Bart Torvik’s shot data, the senior sniper is shooting just under 51 percent on long 2-point attempts. (He’s also shooting 48.8 percent from downtown.)
Brey and Notre Dame leverage Goodwin’s midrange proficiency with a simple BLOB set that features Goodwin running off a set of staggered screens and curling for jump shot in the corner.
This is simple basketball. Goodwin makes it look so easy, too.
Even if Goodwin isn’t open for a catch-and-shoot jumper off the staggers, the Irish can still trigger secondary offense.
Louisville’s Dre Davis applies physical chase defense here vs. Goodwin; Laszewski pops out to receive the inbounds pass. This turns into empty-corner pick-and-pop with Goodwin handling the ball. Laszewski forces a hard closeout from Malik Williams and finishes at the rim.
Of course, Notre Dame has counters for when an opponent starts to key on Goodwin’s movement in this set. The players setting the staggered screens can slip or dive to the rim vs. an unsuspecting defense.
With North Carolina switching 1-5, Notre Dame has Laszewski slip the second screen. As Armando Bacot switches out on Goodwin, Laszewski dives to the rim, catching D’Marco Dunn off guard.
The Irish can run cutters from multiple angles off this action. During the win over Kentucky, Wesley was able to cut behind Sahvir Wheeler for a dunk — with five sets of UK eyes glued on Goodwin.
Kentucky’s Keion Brooks and Kellan Grady switch on the play, which covers Goodwin; however, the rim is wide open for Wesley.
From the Illinois game: Brad Underwood’s team takes away the initial look for Goodwin — thanks in part to center Kofi Cockburn helping vs. Goodwin’s curl. While Cockburn sags in the paint, Ryan sets a pin-in screen for Laszewski, who pops out. Illinois switches the action, but Da’Monte Williams is overly-aggressive with his closeout, which opens the lane for Laszewski.
Notre Dame can also play off Goodwin’s gravity by having him fake the stagger look, then running a different action.
From the Virginia Tech game: Goodwin looks as though he’s set to run off the staggered screens. He stunts in that direction — as does Wesley. Instead, Goodwin snaps back in the other direction, off a screen from Laszewski, while Wesley curls into the corner off a single Atkinson screen.
The Irish will look to free Goodwin up on BLOB action with the use of a single off-ball screen, too. If the chase defender or the switch defender isn’t ready, Goodwin will quickly load up another midrange jumper.
Once again, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, though: Notre Dame can play off Goodwin’s shooting gravity.
When an opponent overcorrects, which is what happens here with Kentucky, then the screener can dive-bomb to the rim. Three Wildcats lunge at Goodwin; Atkinson rolls to the bucket for an easy dunk.
Atkinson is shooting 67.5 percent at the rim this season.
Notre Dame’s big guys — Laszewski and Atkinson — are such good scorers. They both makes for dangerous screeners for Goodwin.
Another way for the Irish to involve multiple wings in the set, and feature Goodwin’s movement shooting, is their Floppy action. This isn’t anything too provocative; it’s simple single-double action, which has been run in South Bend for years.
On these sets, Goodwin gets to pick a side; he’ll either come off the single down screen or use the double screens.
Goodwin can read coverages and curl into the paint for jumpers or fade for 3-pointers.
Notre Dame will get to its Floppy action of BLOB plays, too, which is just one more way for Goodwin to burn teams in these scenarios.
The Irish will also use some high-post scissor action to launch Floppy. Hubbs gives it to Laszewski on the wing here; Wesley cuts across Atkinson, stationed at the nail. Hubb follows, cutting in the opposite direction, which creates that scissor action.
The scissor/Floppy setup can then flow into spread pick-and-roll or a post-up. Once again, the floor stays spaced and guys make plays. The scripted action works to kill some clock and move the defense.
The broad college basketball universe tends to associate the Blocker Mover offense with Virginia. That’s understandable; few coaches, in any, run Blocker Mover with greater frequency than Tony Bennett.
Mike Brey has run Blocker Mover for years now, too, although Notre Dame has its own variation of Blocker Mover.
Whereas Bennett and UVA use their “Sides” offense to create catch-and-shoot jumpers or post duck-ins, Brey and Notre Dame look to loosen up the defense, then run spread pick-and-roll.
Invariably, the ball starts in the left slot. After the first pass, the point guard will run off a flare at the opposite elbow, while the other off-ball guard comes off a pindown along the near-side block.
These screening patterns create that aesthetically-pleasing wheel action. It can also lead to some rather impressive bits of ball movement.
More importantly, it scrambles up a defense, forces rotations and eats some clock. When it’s time to go, Notre Dame can run empty-corner pick-and-roll or just attack 1-on-1.
The floor is spread so beautifully, too, especially when the Irish are in their small-ball lineups: four guards/wings around one of Laszewski or Atkinson.
With a surplus of perimeter talent and experience, Notre Dame has a handful of guys that can beat you off the dribble (looking to pass or shoot) or spot-up.
This is really hard to defend. Notre Dame forces opponents to cover the entire width of the floor — late into the shot clock.
BlakeBall: Blake Wesley Raises The Ceiling
Blake Wesley has the ability to simplify everything, though. That’s one of the great luxuries of having an advantage-creator like Wesley: he’s talented enough to create efficient offense outside of the system.
During this second-half possession vs. Louisville, Notre Dame runs its Floppy action, which the Cards cover up. With nine second left on the shot clock, the possessions diverts to spread pick-and-roll for Wesley: go make a play. Louisville switches Malik Williams on Wesley, who gets a crack of space and lets the 3-ball fly.
Here’s another continuity ball screen set, which Notre Dame uses to flow into empty-side two-man action with Wesley and Laszewski. Louisville switches, then switches back. Wesley, however, uses his post game and size advantage to overpower Jarrod West, spinning away from a soft double-team effort.
Wesley and Laszewski make for a dynamic two-man operation. Laszewski has the ability to stretch the floor and shoot off movement. Wesley can get a piece of the paint and draw fouls at will. They can interchange spots on the floor and play off one another.
Always in attack mode, Wesley fearlessly goes north-south with the basketball.
Wesley is a little more reliant on his jumper than two of the ACC’s other powerful downhill creators: Alondes Williams (Wake Forest) and Dereon Seabron (NC State). However, there’s so much good, low-hanging fruit with Wesley’s self-creation offense. He plays with a lot of confidence in his pull-up jumper.
Notre Dame loves to run this staggered side ball screen action for Wesley, after he comes across on the Iverson cut.
Wesley is drawing 5.0 fouls per 40 minutes this season, a top-200 number nationally, according to KenPom.
Over 30 percent of Wesley’s field goal attempts are 2-point attempts around the rim; he’s shooting 55.1 percent on those looks, with 79 percent of his rim makes coming unassisted.
With his long arms and funky in-between rhythm dribble game, Wesley is able to slink around defenders and get into gaps.
Generally speaking, Wesley gets to where he wants on the floor. There’s plenty of finishing craft and creativity around the basket, too.
During the win over North Carolina earlier this month, UNC started the game guarding ball screens by dropping their big guys or playing them to the level of the screen.
Led by Wesley, Notre Dame’s continuity offense crushed those looks — with ease.
Later in the game, Hubert Davis opted to switch on ball screens, which left his post players on an island to defend Notre Dame’s roster of talented guards.
Wesley made the Tar Heels pay.
To that point: 25 percent of Wesley’s 3-pointers this season have come unassisted. He’s very comfortable with that shot. Given his ability to pressure the rim, Wesley can get to those pull-up or step-back looks when he please.
However, he’s plenty of capable of catching fire from the midrange, too. Here, Wesley catches Armando Bacot on a switch and gets right to his jumper.
Wesley has some inconsistencies from a shot mechanics standpoint. He’ll kick his legs out or finish his jump with uneven feet. When his lower-body mechancis are sound, though, Wesley and his high release point can light you up.
For the season now, he’s shooting just under 46 percent on long 2-point attempts. Over 90 percent on his long 2-pointers have also come unassisted.
The Illinois game, which served as Wesley’s initial breakout performance, was a masterpiece in terms of attacking drop pick-and-roll coverage.
Wesley got to the rim plenty in that game, including some nice finishes through contact. He also flipped in some gorgeous buckets from other regions of the paint.
When Wesley plays like this, Notre Dame jumps a level on offense, which says a lot. For this season to end with a postseason appearance, Wesley must continue to make strides as an offensive creator.