Mix & Match: How Miami guarded Jabari Smith, attacked Walker Kessler

Miami entered its Sunday evening matchup in the Round of 32 with 2-seed Auburn as a seven-point underdog. The Tigers scuttled some over the final four weeks of the season; however, led by Jabari Smith, who projects as a top-4 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, and All-American center Walker Kessler, Bruce Pearl’s club loomed as a formidable foe.

Despite a noticeable size disadvantage, the Hurricanes, as they’ve been all season, were unfazed. Paced by Isaiah Wong’s 21 points, Miami controlled this game wire-to-wire and used a second-half run to win big, 79-61.

Here’s a look at how Miami pulled off the upset — with a focus on the defensive efforts of Jordan Miller on Smith and how Miami attacked Kessler, one of the premier shot blockers in the country.

Miller Time: Miami’s Trap

It was clear from the jump this season that Jordan Miller, a transfer from George Mason, was a critical addition for Jim Larranaga. The 6-foot-7 forward can guard all five positions, although he’s best defending 2-4.

Over on offense, Miller also provides enough playmaking and finishing juice to help open the court for Miami’s 5-out attack.

As the Hurricanes leaned into their undersized identity on defense, they made up for a lack of rim protection (8.8 percent block rate) and rebounding (No. 265 nationally in defensive rebound rate) by trapping ball screens and hunting for steals.

There’s an obvious tradeoff to this approach, but Miami now ranks No. 10 nationally with a steal rate of 13.0 percent. Four different rotation players average better than 2.0 steals per 40 minutes, led by Charlie Moore (2.5 per 40) and Miller (2.4 per 40).

6-foot-10 center Sam Waardenburg is frequently the screen defender; he’s asked to trap and slide his feet 22+ feet from the basket.

Meanwhile, Miller plays like an old school sweeper in soccer. He’s tasked with showing help and filling gaps when the action swings and Miami must defend 3-on-4.

During the ACC Tournament, Miami’s trap coverages forced Duke to rework its offense. Duke adjusted, and then Miami made a counter adjustment. It was a fun chess match, back and forth.

Ultimately, the Blue Devils prevailed. However, it’s obvious how this less-conventional approach to pick-and-roll defense can flummox an offense, especially in a tournament setting, with limited prep time.

At 6-foot-10, Smith is an otherworldly shooter (42.2 3P%), but Auburn’s roster is bereft of any real secondary shooting. In fact, the Tigers rank No. 273 in Division I in spot-up efficiency: 0.86 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports.

This component left Auburn vulnerable to the trap. When there’s less shooting and floor spacing to cover, it’s easier for Miami to trap and scramble back — without suffering too much obvious damage.

As a team, Auburn shot just 5-of-26 on 3-point attempts (19.2 3P%) and scored a measly 0.84 points per possession, the lowest single-game offensive output this season.

Clamp Down: Jordan Miller vs. Jabari Smith

Jordan Miller earned his defensive reputation in the ACC this season, but it wasn’t necessarily for his work as an on-ball stopper. Instead, Miller excelled in decision-making scenarios: rotations, back-side help in pick-and-roll coverage and making post entry passes a living hell for opponents.

Currently, Miller is one of only six ACC players with 3.0 percent steal rate and 2.0 percent block rate — along with Virginia’s Reece Beekman.

Miller really is excellent with how he times his contests of entry passes into the post.

Put all of this together and you have why Miller was named Second Team All-Defense for the ACC by ACCSports.com.

To upset Auburn, though, Miller needed to do all of that stuff, while also heading up the 1-on-1 challenge vs. Jabari Smith.

Once again, Miller showed he’s plenty capable of handling skilled hybrid forwards in isolation.

To be clear, this was exceptional defense from Miller.

Smith was a wrecker on defense (3 blocks), but he struggled with his offense and finished with one of his worst games this season. The one-and-done phenom was limited to 10 points on 3-of-16 shooting — 1-of-8 3PA, 2-of-5 2PA at the rim — and two turnovers.

You won’t see too many people block a 3-point attempt from Smith. Miller, however, times this contest beautifully.

With added context, Miller’s performance looks even better, though.

I went back and charted this game, isolating every possession where Smith either shoot the ball, turned the ball over, drew a shooting foul or recorded an assist.

On the possessions with Miller as his primary defender, Smith shot just 1-of-11 on attempts from the floor (0-of-7 3PA).

This included Miller showing the ability to chase Smith — a gigantic, athletic movement shooter — around screens.

Here, Smith comes off a pindown in Auburn’s Spread Flex action. With his high release, Smith gets the ball in the air, but look at the contest from Miller.

Basketball is a make-or-miss game, and a strong contest can make all of the difference.

If you don’t take away Smith’s airspace, he gets way too comfortable and can bomb over the top of a defense all day long.

As gifted as Smith is, there are some limitations, too. Smith is less adept at handling the basketball, especially in tight spaces. For now, this is a big differentiator between Smith and Duke’s Paolo Banchero, another top-3 prospect for the 2022 draft class.

Banchero has the ability to face the basket, jab step and get rolling downhill. Duke’s star rookie will utilize spin moves, stutter rips and step-thru’s to create finishing opportunities. 

Smith started to draw fouls at a greater rate as the season progressed: 5.4 fouls drawn per 40 minutes in SEC play (41.9 percent FTA rate). However, he struggles with his handle. Smith finished the season with only 14 dunks.

According to Bart Torvik’s shot data, less than 15 percent of Smith’s field goal attempts were 2-point attempts around the basket.

With this in mind, Miller could push Smith’s pick-up point to outside the lane and sit on the jumper.

The success of this approach still relies on Smith missing jumpers, which is risky; however, a diet of elbow face-ups or pick-and-pop jumpers is more palatable when it isn’t accompanied by consistent rim pressure.

Smith did, however, show some willingness to adjust. In the the second half, he flashed a little bit of craft and NBA-type foul-drawing skill when he caught Miller with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. As Miller recovers here to Smith on the pop, he sticks his left hand in on Smith. As a counter, Smith launches his shooting motion right into the contact from Miller and earns three free throws.

Notice that Miami doesn’t trap the ball handler when Smith sets the screen in the middle of the floor. A trap in this scenario would force a weak-side stunt to lunge at Smith, who would have too much space to launch a pick-and-pop 3-pointer.

When Auburn used Smith as a screener, one of the other things Miami’s defense did was switch those actions.

With Miller out of the game on this possession, Waardenburg has the Smith assignment. As Smith screens for Wendell Green, Wardenburg and Moore switch. This puts the 5-foot-10 Moore on Smith, who stands a foot taller. Smith doesn’t look to post Moore up, though. Instead, he clears to the weak-side block, which allows Miami to switch behind the play. Anthony Walker switches to Smith, while Moore grabs Jaylin Williams in the corner.

From the first half: here’s that same ball screen switch on Smith. This time, though, Green smokes Miami’s defense with a gorgeous skip pass.

Before a Waardenburg closeout can arrive, Williams catches the ball in the corner and has plenty of time to launch. Williams was a sub-30 percent 3-point shooter this season, but he made the Hurricanes pay on this possession.

In general, though, this was a wonderful team effort on defense from Miami. Larranaga’s club — when it needed it most — played arguably its best defensive game of the season.

Creating Discomfort: Walker Kessler on 4s

All season long, Walker Kessler terrorized opposing offenses with his rim protection. Kessler, who leads the country with a 19.1 percent block rate, anchored Auburn’s defense, a top-10 unit in terms of KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric.

This, however, is where Miami’s 5-out/spread pick-and-roll offense can cause problems.

Sam Waardenburg isn’t just a garden-variety stretch-5. Waardenburg is a volume 3-point shooter (42 3P%), who handles the ball in Miami’s Delay offense (5-out handoff actions).

His assist rate has jumped to just under 12 percent this season.

He can also put the ball on the deck and attack a hard closeout. Waardenburg leads Miami with 25 dunks this year. During his three previous seasons on the floor for Miami, Waardeburg — who has battled injuries — recorded a total of 11 dunks.

During matchups with Duke this season, Waardenburg and Miami caused problems for All-ACC center Mark Williams. Williams is the closest facsimile (11.9 percent block rate) to Kessler in college hoops; both are elite rim protectors who want to dominate the paint and put a lid on the basket.

This becomes tricky with Waardeburg’s ability to stretch the floor.

It’s simple, but Waardenburg’s shooting forces these defenders to cover more ground and spend less time where they’re most comfortable: in the paint.

To counter this, Bruce Pearl had Kessler spend much of his time guarding Miller — not Waardenburg. Smith was assigned Waardenburg, which allowed Auburn to switch on ball screen actions.

By doing this, Auburn could keep its defense out of rotation vs. pop actions with Waardenburg. Smith had issues on offense in this game, but his defense, including his work as a switch piece, was rather impressive.

At times, you could see the vision. Miller can shoot from deep, but he’s at his best while patrolling the baseline and looking for opportunities in the dunker spot.

In turn, this allowed Kessler to defend closer to the rim — his comfort zone.

Despite the proximity of Kessler to the rim, the Hurricanes were still able to pick at certain matchups: use Delay, clear the middle of the floor and let one of their awesome guards go to work or make reads.

On this possession: Moore gets into a second-side handoff with Kam McGusty, gets downhill, draws help and sprays out for a Waardenburg 3.

Of course, Isaiah Wong was able to get busy, too. He’s a big-time shot-maker. If you give Wong time and space, he can really make a defense pay. Wong is shooting 53.7 percent on 2-point attempt this season — with over 80 percent of his makes coming unassisted.

According to Synergy Sports, Wong has scored 1.14 points per isolation possession and 0.93 points per pick-and-roll possession this season. That’s super efficient shot creation.

The Hurricanes could also allow Miller to work 1-on-1, with plenty of space, against the 7-foot Kessler, too.

Miller is now shooting 71.1 percent at the rim this season, per Bart Torvik’s shot data.

When the matchups got scrambled in Miami’s secondary offense, and Kessler landed on Waardeburg, Miami could put him in the action. By doing this, the Hurricanes forced Kessler into some tough screen-roll decisions on defense. 

Kessler still managed to block two shots in this game, but one of those rejections came when he switched out on a 3-point shooter.

Miami could also attack Kessler in space by lifting the defense and turning Miller into a passer. Here’s an after-timeout look from the first half: Miller runs pick-and-pop action with Moore and dribbles to his left. While this happens, McGusty lifts as if he wants to receive a handoff from Miami. Instead, McGusty plants and cuts backdoor, while Miller threads a pass behind Kessler.

No one is at the basket to contest this shot.

The Hurricanes ran the exact same backdoor action with Miller and McGusty in the first half, too. This time, though, backup center Dylan Cardwell — another dangerous rim protector (11.4 percent block rate) — was on Miller.

This time of backdoor/after-timeout (ATO) activity is nothing new for Miami. McGusty, Wong and Miller all make for good backdoor targets, too. Here’s a flowing ghost screen set with Deng Gak and Miller lifting the defense and McGusty playing into space on the back side.

Miami is still a heavy pick-and-roll offense, but for the first time since the 2018-19 season, the Hurricanes are on pace to finish with a team-wide assist rate above 50 percent.

If that happens, it’ll be just the second time that’s happened during Larranaga’s tenure at The U.

Read More on Jabari Smith and the NCAA Tournament

How Notre Dame’s offense exposed Rutgers and Alabama