Make Pitt Happen: Justin Champagnie emerges as a Player of the Year candidate, while Pitt knocks off Duke

Justin Champagnie looked poised to follow up a strong freshman season; the 6-foot-6 forward came roaring out of the gate, rebounding everything in sight and emerging as one of the top prospects in the ACC. However, things took a nasty turn when — just prior to Pittsburgh’s Dec. 22 game vs. Louisville — it was announced that Champagnie would miss the next 6-8 weeks with a knee injury. Some worried that Champagnie would be out until the start of the 2021 ACC Tournament.

Pitt competed hard that night, but fell to Louisville, 64-54, sans Champagnie, Au’Diese Toney (ankle) and head coach Jeff Capel. Capel missed the game after testing positive for COVID-19, adding another ominous layer. The season continued to seemingly slip away; more positive tests occurred within the program, and Pitt was forced to postpone games against Duke and Notre Dame.

When the Panthers returned to the floor Jan. 6 at Syracuse, Pitt was without several players due to COVID-19, along with Champagnie. Xavier Johnson led the way with a gritty road win. By the time Pitt was set to play another game — 10 days later — it came, ironically, against Syracuse. This time, however, Champagnie was back, well ahead of schedule.

Champagnie has dominated in the two games since his return: back-to-back home wins over Syracuse and Duke. The Panthers are now 4-1 in ACC play; the lone loss coming without Champagnie and Toney. Buzz is starting to center on the play of Champagnie, who continues to evolve as both an ACC Player of the Year candidate and an NBA prospect.

Before Pitt returns to the floor next week vs. UNC, let’s examine the jaw-dropping numbers produced by Champagnie, while also taking a look at how the Panthers attacked Duke’s zone and adjusted down the stretch for Capel’s first victory over Mike Krzyzewski.


Championing These Thoughts, Powerfully

Here’s a snapshot at where things stand statistically with Champagnie’s, through eight games.

    • Per game averages: 20.3 points, 13.0 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 1.1 steals, 4.6 FTA
    • Shooting numbers: 32.3 3P% (25.6 percent of FGA are 3PA), 60 2P%, 57 eFG%, 58.5% true shooting, 73.6 FG% at the rim, 8 dunks
    • Stocks — steals + blocks: 5.5 percent block rate (8.4 percent block rate in ACC play), 2.0 blocks per 40 minutes, 1.9 percent steal rate, 1.4 steals per 40 minutes
    • Rebounding: 11.7% offensive rebound rate, 27.9% defensive rebound rate (No. 28 nationally)
        • Only Division player in the country under 6-foot-7 with: 11% offensive rebound rate, 27% defensive rebound rate, 5% block rate
        • Champagnie and Charles Bassey of Western Kentucky are the only two D1 players, regardless of height, with 11% offensive rebound rate, 27% defensive rebound rate, 5% block rate and 20+ 3PA
    • Possession numbers
      • Put-back: 1.52 points per possession (78.9 FG%)
      • Post-up: 1.0 points per possession (50 FG%)
      • Spot-up, no-dribble jumper: 1.15 points per possession (57.5 eFG%)

Since returning from injury:

      • Per game: 27.5 points, 15.0 rebounds (4.0 offensive rebounds), 3.5 blocks, 1.5 steals, 6.5 FTA
      • Shooting: 63.6 FG%, 65.4 2P%, 57.1 3P%
      • 4 dunks

Pitt with Justin Champagnie on the floor this season

      • Panthers with Champagnie on the court: +85 in 266 minutes
        • Offense: 117.4 points per 100 possessions
        • Defense: 99.1 points per 100 possessions
        • Net rating: +18.3 points per 100 possessions
      • Panthers with Champagnie off the floor: -4 in 134 minutes
        • Offense: 91.2 points per 100 possessions
        • Defense: 93.1 points per 100 possessions
        • Net rating: -1.9 points per 100 possessions
      • Panthers with Champagnie and Xavier Johnson on the floor together: +85 in 213 minutes
        • Offense: 120.7 points per 100 possessions
        • Defense: 98.1 points per 100 possessions
        • Net rating: 22.6 points per 100 possessions
      • Panthers with Champagnie, Johnson and Au’Diese Toney on the floor together: +69 in 187 minutes
        • Offense: 119.4 points per 100 possessions
        • Defense: 98.6 points per 100 possessions
        • Net rating: 20.8 points per 100 possessions


(Efficiency numbers courtesy of Pivot Analysis)


Cracking The Zone

For the first time all season, Duke started a game out in a zone defense — to matchup with Pittsburgh. In the previous game, Pitt saw a zone, too: scoring 1.34 points per possession in a blowout win over Syracuse. Pitt did a lot of heady stuff in that game, including half-court offense: setting flare screens at the top of the zone, playing through Champagnie at the nail and screening for Johnson dribble-drives.

The Panthers even utilized their weave pick-and-roll action, which is normally run against man-to-man.

That’s all fine and dandy; however, it seems rather unlikely that the Panthers were been totally prepared to see the Blue Devils shift to zone. That said, Pitt didn’t need much of an adjustment period for Duke’s 1-2-2 zone.

Once again, Champagnie was invaluable at the nail — turning and facing. Champagnie splashed midrange jumpers and looked diagonally for cutters.

Of course, Champagnie did similar things vs. Syracuse’s 2-3. (During the two wins over Syracuse, Pitt rebounded over 40 percent of its missed field goal attempts. Duke’s zone did a better job keeping Pitt off the offensive glass, though. The Panthers rebounded only 22 percent of their missed shots.)

In general, Pitt consistently created passing angles and gaps by screening the top of Duke’s zone and reversing sides of the floor with guard-to-guard passes or skip passes for spot-up looks.

On some of those possessions, the Panthers overloaded one side of the floor. With only two on the back line, Pitt could target the baseline and dunker spot for cutters.

From the first half: while Terrell Brown screens for Johnson on the wing, all three Pitt players not involved in the screening action are spaced to the weak-side of the floor. Femi Odukale is in the slot; this puts DJ Steward in a tough help situation as Johnson dribbles off the screen and into Jordan Goldwire. Johnson whips a pass to Odukale and instantly Pitt has a numbers advantage: 2-on-1 vs. Steward or 3-on-2 vs. Steward and Jaemyn Brakefield.

Odukale could’ve made the extra pass to Ithiel Horton for a spot-up 3; however, he drives back into Duke’s help. This is a dangerous pass over the top of 7-footer Mark Williams, but Odukale finds Toney, who drives Brakefield for an and-one — his third and-one of the season.

The Panthers ran this overload/ball screen look several times in the second half as well. And it would’ve produced two layups if not for some ridiculous recovery efforts and blocks from Jalen Johnson, who was freaking awesome.

And again — with Champagnie occupying space in the middle.

Switch It Up

Trailing by six at the under-8 media timeout in the second half (7:32), Duke flipped its defense; the Blue Devils exited the zone and went man-to-man. As they have for big chunks of the season, the Blue Devils switched 1-5 in man defense.

After 30-ish minutes of efficient zone offense, Pitt kept things simple as it adjusted to Duke’s defensive alteration. Pitt tried a little high-low action out of a box set (one of their go-to’s).

But for the most part, though, Capel had the Panthers space out the floor, look for an opportunistic switch and attack.

Watch here as Duke switches every ball screen and most off-ball exchanges. Johnson even performs a little scramble switch with Steward at the 5:20 mark; he moves to guard the bigger Abdoul Karim Coulibaly, while Steward kicks out on Horton. However, when Toney slides down to the post, Steward and Roach switch again.

Toney posts the smaller Stewards and draws a foul, which results in two made free throws.

On the very next offensive possession, now in the bonus, Pitt spreads the floor in a 1-4 low set. Champagnie lifts up to set a ball screen for Johnson, who gets the switch with Hurt and draws another foul.

Here’s the next trip down the floor: before finishing the game playing exclusively man-to-man, Duke mixed in one final zone possession. The Panthers were ready. As Coulibaly comes to set a screen for Johnson, Hurt lifts up; XJ catches him off his line with a lob, the zone’s back line is exposed.

Champagnie finishes the play with a nice catch and lefty finish. He’s super clever around the hoop and plenty capable of using either hand.

During the next half-court possession, Duke returns to its man-to-man defense. Once again, Pitt goes 1-4 low into pick-and-roll with Johnson and Champagnie. Pitt wants Hurt switched on Johnson. There’s an obvious speed advantage for Johnson, but Hurt always competes on these switches. XJ settles for the pull-up jumper.

Man In the Middle

It was fitting, though, as the Panthers worked to close things down, that Champagnie was central — literally — in Pitt’s offensive attack. Following a Duke timeout with 2:08 left to play, Pitt emerged with a little offensive wrinkle: spread the floor, 5 out, around Champagnie.

Up only two points, the ball is placed in Champagnie’s hands in the middle of the floor — where it would be harder to help off Pitt’s wings if the sophomore from Brooklyn wanted to drive against Hurt.

After passing to Champagnie, Johnson sprints right and goes into a little split exchange with Horton, which Duke switches. Champagnie swings it to Johnson and sprints in his direction for a would-be ball screen; however, XJ rejects the screen and finishes with touch at the rim after a Euro-step around Jeremy Roach.


As all of that is happening on one side of the floor, keep an eye on Toney and Odukale, who perform a little low-to-high occupying action. That may seem innocuous, but remember that Wendell Moore Jr. is the back line help defender who leaves his feet to contest Johnson at the rim.

Down on the other end, Duke answers with a layup from Hurt.

With the game clock dwindling, Pitt takes its time entering the same 5-out set. Duke’s defensive matchups are slightly different now, though. Moore is on Champagnie; Hurt has Toney. Pitt runs the same split action with Johnson and Horton. Once more, Champagnie swings it to Johnson, who refuses the ball screen and drives baseline. However, as Hurt comes over to help, Johnson makes the correct read — hitting a cutting Toney for an electric, game-sealing dunk.

Build Out

It wasn’t just the playmaking at the nail and defensive event creation that stood out for Champagnie against Duke and Syracuse. Champagnie was excellent on his rotations as a help defender and took on the challenge of guarding Hurt, Johnson and Quincy Guerrier — three of the best frontcourt players in the ACC.

His fingerprints were all over the Duke game, which is really a microcosm of the season. This Pitt team was built by Capel and his staff; however, it’s taken on Champagnie’s identity. The Panthers are excellent on the offensive glass: 35.6 percent offensive rebound rate, No. 19 nationally, per KenPom.

Pitt gets to the free throw line a bunch, too: 23.8 free throw attempts per game (No. 27). The Panthers rank inside the top 50 nationally in free throw attempt rate: 39.5 percent.

With Capel at the helm, Pittsburgh has improved defensively all three seasons; the Panthers currently rank 36th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.

These are all absolutely characteristics of Champagnie, including the semi-shaky efficiency at the charity stripe (64.9 FT%). Pitt, as a team, has connected on just 64.3 percent of its free throw attempts. (Xavier Johnson continues to be a good free throw shooter, though: 80 FT% this season. I can’t get on board with his jumper, but there some are positive indicators.)

The twisted nature of Pitt’s own season is evidence enough: we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions too soon, especially given the current (nightmarish) state of the pandemic. But Pitt is playing good ball; there’s a formula here, led by Champagnie, who will only get better. (Fingers crossed the 3-ball continues to improve.) Defend, rebound, get to the foul line and play hard as hell.


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