There isn’t a single ACC men’s basketball team that’s experienced a more disjointed 2020-21 season than Wake Forest. It’s only the start of rebuilding effort for Steve Forbes, but this season — amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — provides a set of challenges that no one is quite equipped to handle. Forbes and Wake Forest are working to make the best of a tough, unprecedented situation.
Hired nine months ago from East Tennessee State, Forbes was first tasked with assembling a roster, in piecemeal fashion. That’s not easy under normal circumstances; a coaching change usually begets roster turnover, which Wake Forest experienced. Needing to do this in the midst of a ranging pandemic, however, certainly didn’t make matters easier.
The timeline for all of this is crazy. Forbes entered 2020 as the only new head coach in ACC men’s basketball. He wasn’t able to meet his players until late July. Less than four months later, the season started, and with that (quickly) came plenty of concern.
After playing only two games, the program was hit hard with COVID-19; Wake Forest suspended team activities for nearly a month (Nov. 30-Dec. 20). “It spread like a wildfire,” Forbes described in a recent radio interview, as Wake Forest was forced to cancel or postpone five of its first seven games. After 33 days in between contests, the Demon Deacons played only one game in the month of December: a Dec. 31 win over Catawba.
Assuming good health for everyone in the program, there are positives to go over for the Demon Deacons — despite a four-game losing slide. With that in mind, let’s jump in and examine a quick snapshot of where things stand in Year One of the rebuild.
The departure of All-ACC center Olivier Sarr, who transferred to Kentucky, cost Wake Forest more than just interior production: points and rebounds. Sarr is an efficient hub of offense; he can post-up, roll to the rim and stretch defenses with his jumper. He would’ve given Wake Forest a foundational element for its offense.
As Wake Forest shifts to a new era of offense, the Demon Deacons have leaned heavily on their system and a collective approach to offense.
It’s only a seven-game sample, in the weirdest season ever; so take these numbers with a grain of salt. But the Demon Deacons rank 50th nationally in effective shooting (53.8 eFG%), 20th in 2-point shooting (57 2P%) and 44th in 3-point attempt rate: 43.7 percent of their field goal attempts are of the 3-point variety. These are positive indicators.
This team is on pace to post the highest 3-point attempt rate of any Forbes-led roster, too. Going back to his time at ETSU, Forbes has never had a team eclipse the 40 percent threshold in terms of 3-point attempt rate, though some have come close.
Without Sarr, Wake Forest has managed to find efficient post offense as well. According to Synergy Sports, Wake Forest has scored 1.0 point per post-up possession (51.6 FG%) this season, another top 50 number nationally.
These stats don’t come by accident, though. Over the offseason, as Forbes built his roster, he retained and added crucial pieces — with an eye on offense.
The Additions: Shooters Gonna Shoot
The first line item for Forbes came with player retention; roster maintenance is the most important part of a college coaching job. Sarr left the program; however, plenty of others stayed. Around the time that Sarr committed to Kentucky, several key guys chose to remain in Winston-Salem and rebuild: Isaiah Mucius, Ismael Massoud, Ody Oguama and Jahcobi Neath.
At 6-foot-8, Massoud is a critical frontcourt spacing element (39.3 3P%) for Wake Forest’s offense. Oguama is shooting 58 percent on post-up attempts, per Synergy.
Forbes, however, needed to look outside the program for additional offense, too. First, it was Jonah Antonio from UNLV. Less than a month later, it was Jalen Johnson from Tennessee. In between those two commitments, Forbes got Daivien Williamson to commit to Wake Forest, too. Williamson, of course, played for two season under Forbes at ETSU.
It’s early, but all three of Antonio, Johnson and Williamson have effective shooting rates above 52 percent. Antonio (41.7 3P%) has been a real asset, so far.
Forbes also helped Houston Baptist grad transfer Ian DuBose, who pledged to Wake Forest in late March when Danny Manning was still the head coach, remain committed. (The same notion applies to Virginia Tech transfer Isaiah Wilkins.) DuBose got off to a strong start this season, but the 6-foot-4 guard hasn’t played since Nov. 27; he’s out indefinitely for medical reasons.
New kid in class
On top of all this, Wake Forest is working to turn a good portion of its point guard duties over to Carter Whitt, who graduated high school early and is now suiting up for the Demon Deacons in what should be his final season of prep basketball
With the step up in competition, unsurprisingly, Whitt has struggled with his shot and handle. However, Forbes is pleased with Whitt’s progress. Plus, it’s way too early to make any snap judgements, especially given the learning curve.
Carter Whitt is an impressive pickup for Wake Forest. Gives them a skilled PG w/ good decision making who shoild stabilize their backcourt once he arrives.
— Ross Homan (@Ross_homan1) September 21, 2020
Whatever Wake Forest gets from Whitt this season is gravy. He’s still supposed to be in high school, and the Deacs are just now starting to build this thing from the ground up. For whatever it’s worth, Whitt has shown some impressive flashes out of the pick-and-roll.
Finding Continuity, Somehow
One of the many components Forbes brought with him from ETSU is a ball screen continuity offense. This is a simple offense, but it features constant movement and side-to-side action. That activity level makes it tough to guard — for any defense.
Watch Wake Forest move the ball and force Virginia’s pick-and-roll defense to cover a lot ground: slot, empty-side ball screen, back to the slot. Rinse and repeat this process until there’s a lapse in coverage and someone is able to spring free.
As Oguama screen and rolls, Virginia’s Jay Huff hedges; Wilkins waits for Huff to start his retreat and threads a bounce pass to Oguama. This isn’t a vintage Tony Bennett defense this season, and the rotations are off on this possession. However, that type of lifted side-to-side action (OO is the only offensive player in the paint when the pass is thrown) is tough to guard.
During Wake Forest’s road loss at UVA, the Demon Deacons ran a fair amount of continuity ball screen (CBS) action. This may have been done to drag Huff (4.4 blocks per 40 minutes) away from the rim and get him moving in space. With Huff showing or hedging on screens, Wake Forest could play behind the vacated space.
The Demon Deacons lost the game, but they managed to score nearly 1.4 points per possession in the first half, according to Pivot Analysis, thanks in part to the strength of their CBS action. (Honestly, given how rough times have been the last decade for Wake hoops, they should probably hang at “1.4 PPP at UVA, 1st half, 1/6/21” banner in the rafters of the LJVM).
Going up against Duke’s switch-heavy defense, Wake Forest moved away from CBS during the loss at Cameron. (One way to attack a switch defense with CBS is to seal/post the empty-side ball screen switch and look for high-low action. Virginia has done this before against Duke.)
However, Forbes brought it back on a couple of occasions against Louisville, including the first possession of the game.
Later in the first half, Wake Forest added a little wrinkle to its CBS activity. Keep an eye on Johnson. As the ball is moved to Massoud, Johnson slips undetected across the formation. If Quinn Slazinksi tried to communicate a switch to Dre Davis, it was too late before that directive was noticed. As a result, Johnson drains a 3 over a late closeout from Davis.
Step Up or Drop Step?
For the road matchup at Duke, Wake Forest had something special cooked up for its spread ball screen attack. In an effort to counter the on-ball/pressure defense of guards Jordan Goldwire and Jeremy Roach, Oguama and Massound set high step-up ball screens early in the shot clock.
Look where Oguama is when he screens for Whitt.
With Matthew Hurt and Jaemyn Brakefield on the floor, Duke switches a lot of ball screens 1-5 this season. However, with the defensive big man not coming up to the level of the screen, Wake guards could use these step-up screens to get downhill against a switch.
Whitt wasn’t the only guard who found offense out of the step-up screens; Williamson shook loose for some scoring, too. Again, just look where Massoud — a legit pick-and-pop weapon — is when he screens for Williamson.
The outcomes of this strategy weren’t always pretty on a possession-to-possession basis. Guess what: Duke has athletic personnel and aggressive guard play on the defensive end of the floor. It can be hard to score against future NBA players. That doesn’t change the fact that the idea behind the strategy was sound.
When Duke tried to “ice” those high step-up screens — dropping Mark Williams or Hurt and having the screened guard get back to the ball handler in rearview pursuit — Wake Forest attacked the advantage created against a bent Duke defense.
Four days later, when Wake Forest hosted Louisville, the Demon Deacons showed off a few small adjustments to their ball screen offense: shake action and a reverse side duck-in.
First off, check out where Mucius sets his screen for Williamson and how it compares to screen locations in the Duke game. As Williamson dribbles off the screen, Antonio lifts up along the arc, closer to the ball handler; this is shake action. Williamson swings the ball to Antonio; the next read is simple but requires good timing. Oguama goes from chilling in the dunker spot to quickly ducking in for a post catch.
Oguama has a 20-30 pound weight advantage over JJ Traynor, and he uses this advantage to clear out space, while Antonio fires in the entry pass.
Here’s that shake action, again: this time, however, it’s true four-around-one offense as Oguama screens, dives to the rim and looks to post.
After a good battle with Jae’Lyn Withers, Oguama draws a foul.
Williamson had a really nice floor game against Louisville; he ran a clean offense and created some off the dribble, which is exactly what Wake Forest needs. On this possession, Louisville shows two on the ball after the screen, which Williamson drags out and veers back. Johnson cashes in with another 3-ball.
This may seem like simple stuff, but given the fragmented nature of Wake Forest’s season, these types of game-to-game adjustments and execution are encouraging.
Horns is another base package in Forbes’ offense: two (post) players at the elbows, two other off-ball players stashed in opposite corners. Lots of teams run Horns; it’s a wildly pervasive setup on offense. However, there are a variety of actions to run off the initial design — based off system and personnel. That’s where the true variation comes into play.
So far, Wake Forest has utilized Horns to help establish Oguama around the basket, while playing off the movement shooting of Antonio, Massoud and Johnson.
Here’s a quick look at a couple of the Horns sets that Wake Forest will look to run.
Horns Twist + Shake Action
Chicago action: pindown into a dribble handoff for Antonio
Horns Pindown Away, Flip Pick-and-pop
This is good action for Massoud’s pick-and-pop gravity.
Horns Pindown Away, Flip Pick-and-pop
Per Synergy: through seven games, Massoud has attempted 16 field goals off pick-and-pops
Horns Pindown Away, Flip Pick-and-pop Continuity
Baseline runner action (Johnson) into ring-around-the-rose, ball reversal and post-up
Baseline runner action, movement 3-pointer for Antonio
Baseline runner action (Johnson) into cross screen punch post-up
Baseline runner action (Antonio) into cross screen punch post-up
(As always, huge tip of the hat to Half Court Hoops for far greater insight into these play calls, designs and actions.)
How they roll over in Spain
As Wake Forest tried to mount a comeback late in the game at Duke, Forbes dialed up one of my favorite actions: Spain pick-and-roll. Countless teams across various levels of basketball run Spain, but essentially it’s stack pick-and-roll — with two screeners in the middle of the floor. The first screener sets an on-ball pick and rolls to the hoop, while the second screener sets a back screen on the first screener’s defender and then pops out above the arc.
One little wrinkle: Forbes adds a third screen before the pick-and-roll action take place — wedge action. Watch here as Massoud screens for Antonio screens, which puts DJ Steward behind the action. Antonio then screens for Oguama, which puts Hurt behind the play.
Before the ball-screen action takes place, Wake Forest has already screened twice and moved the defense around some.
Here’s the same action — on the very next possession. This time Wake manages to get a favorable matchup: Oguama in the post vs. Roach. However, Oguama is overly reckless on his interior move and whacks Roach with an elbow.
Florida State runs a similar version of wedge Spain pick-and-roll.
During the Louisville game, Wake Forest utilized this Spain concept, again, including one possession that produced an open weak-side 3 for Williamson.
Wake Forest and Forbes: Moving Forward
When it comes to evaluating this season of Wake Forest basketball, it must go beyond wins and losses; the analysis simply can’t be strictly results based. The top priority is ensuring that everyone stays as safe and healthy (as humanly possible) during a pandemic-filled season. In terms of actual basketball, though, the focus should land on player development, chemistry, defensive improvements and the offensive system.
Wake Forest isn’t build to win many games this season. Even with that understanding, though, there’s still a lot to gain.