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Changing on the fly: NC State finds new balance with Jericole Hellems, Cam Hayes and Shakeel Moore

NC State’s win over Wake Forest back on Jan. 27 had the makings of an important “get-right” game for the Wolfpack. The victory was much-needed at the time: it hit the brakes on four-game losing slide. However, that night came with a very real cost, too: the unfortunate season-ending ACL injury to Devon Daniels.

As NC State got ready to face the second half of its ACC schedule, the Pack would need to adjust to life without Daniels, unquestionably the top playmaker and offensive creator on the roster. The initial results weren’t encouraging — four defeats in five games, as the Pack plummeted to 8-9 after a home loss to Duke.

That stretch of games was notable for a few reasons, though. For starters, NC State played against zone defenses in three of those five contests: Syracuse twice and Boston College. As the Pack looked to reorient their offense minus Daniels, there were fewer opportunities to try stuff against man-to-man defenses.

I actually think this helped NC State during the first Syracuse game, which NC State led by nine at halftime and scored 1.09 points per possession, overall. Working without DJ Funderburk, too, NC State could simply run its zone offense, which static: Jericole Hellems at the nail and Manny Bates as a target at the rim.

Instead of trying to run high-volume screen-roll offense, NC State could simply work the ball around the zone, while looking to puncture its soft spots.

Hellems finished with four assists (and five turnovers); Bates scored 17 points on 7-of-7 shooting at the rim (five dunks), to go along with four offensive rebounds and four blocks.

Moving forward, though, meant NC State making the best of a tough situation. In order to find success (and more ice cream), NC State needed everyone to contribute: new half-court sets; improved guard play courtesy of Cam Hayes (really taking some nice steps forward), Shakeel Moore and Dereon Seabron; shot making from Hellems; Braxton Beverly’s movement shooting and ball handling; and smoother synergy between Bates and DJ Funderburk.

Win Streak Offense

During this recent four-game winning streak, NC State has scored a combined 1.11 points per possession. The Wolfpack scored above 1.0 point per possession in all four games; this includes three performances above the 1.1 points per possession line.

Now, the competition hasn’t been exactly fierce; Wake Forest and Pittsburgh (initially a strong defensive team) have seen the wheels fall off in recent weeks. The win in Charlottesville is nothing to sneeze at, though. Despite playing a predominately half-court game against the ‘Hoos (UVA 13.3 TOV%), NC State put up 68 points, scoring 1.13 points per possession.

This marked the most efficient offensive performance a Keatts-led NC State team has posted against Virginia. Going back to the 2017-18 season, when Keatts took over in Raleigh, this is the first time that NC State scored above the 1.0 point per possession line vs. UVA.

In fact, the only time a Keatts-coached team has scored better than 1.0 point per possession against Virginia came during the 2017 NCAA Tournament — Keatts’ final game with UNC-Wilmington (1.08 PPP).

 

1-4 Iverson: Devon Daniels

One of NC State’s go-to formations under Kevin Keatts is a 1-4 set with an Iverson cut from one of the wings: switching sides of the floor while running across two consecutive screens from the big men at the elbows. While this cut takes place, the other wing mirrors this action with a side-to-side cut underneath the formation.

Once the primary wing clears to the opposite side, NC State has a variety of different maneuvers to launch into; however, these actions usual revolve around some ball-screen concept.

With Daniels, the Pack wanted to set up shop and run side pick-and-roll/pop as much as possible. Daniels scored 0.97 points per pick-and-roll possession (53.8 FG%) during the 2020-21 season, according to Synergy Sports.

Daniels was used in this capacity frequently as a redshirt sophomore and junior. Without Markell Johnson, though, Daniels became The Man for NC State. During the first 12 games of the season, Daniels led the Wolfpack in usage rate (26.2 percent), while dishing out 3.7 assists per 40 minutes — two big jumps from one season ago.

 

1-4 Iverson Counters

In the absence of Daniels, NC State has continued to run offense from this set — usually with Beverly or Seabron. (Seabron has a knack for creating offense in transition; he’s had several impressive grab-and-go takes. But there have been flashes in the half-court, too, which is really encouraging.)

However, NC State and Keatts continue to add small wrinkles to this offensive formation. Let’s take a glance.

 

Elevator Gut ATO

During the home win over Pitt, Keatts dialed up this after-timeout (ATO) beauty: a 1-4 Iverson set with an elevator door screen in the middle of the floor for Beverly. Keep an eye on Beverly: as Hellems clears across on the Iverson cut, Beverly sells as if he’s clearing to the weak side. However, once the veteran sniper gets to the middle of the lane, he shoots up through a small gap at the free throw line — before Bates and Funderburk shut the doors on Ithiel Horton.

Beverly even manages to draw contact from Horton, who needlessly commits a foul on his late closeout.

Look how Keatts reacts once Beverly’s shot splashes through the net. Think he’s happy about that ATO play working to perfection?

 

1-4 Flip/Re-screen — “Ricky”

Once again, NC State utilizes Beverly as a movement shooter to deviate from the routine 1-4 Iverson action. Beverly sprints as he’s in a hurry to get to the opposite side of the floor; Horton thinks it’s safe to go under the screens and meet Beverly on the opposite wing.

That doesn’t happen, though. As soon as Beverly comes off Funderburk’s screen, he hits the brakes and fades back to his initial spot. Funderburk flips his position and chip/re-screens Horton, who is way out of position to contest another Beverly triple.

According to Synergy Sports, Beverly has a sizzling effective shooting rate of 75 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts this season — third in the ACC behind Sardaar Calhoun and Anthony Polite of FSU.

 

Under Reverse

NC State has also used the wing running across the Iverson screens as dummy/decoy motion; instead of entering the ball to the top side, the point guard will change sides and pass out to the guard that went under the formation.

NC State has scored 0.93 points per possession when Beverly has either used a pick-and-roll or passed the ball out to a teammate that’s finished the possession.

 

Slice Pindown STS

From the first play at Wake Forest: Seabron comes across on the Iverson cut with Carter Whitt in trail. Hellems, instead of clearing to the weak side, sets a slice screen for Bates to the strong-side block, which Ody Oguama fights through. The action isn’t done just yet, however. As soon as Hellems clears his screen, Funderburk slams down to set a pindown — screen-the-screener (STS) action. Hellems curls the screen beautifully for a wide open midrange look.

Iverson Wedge Slip

This specific action is nothing new, either. With Hellems taking on more usage/scoring equity in recent weeks, though, it’s a good way to move the St. Louis product into one of his favorite areas on the floor.

As soon as Beverly comes off Funderburk’s elbow screen, DJ turns left and sets another off-ball screen for Hellems, who set the initial Iverson screen for Beverly. Hellems uses that Funderburk screen to get his defender (Jalen Johnson) behind the play before he races into empty-side action with Beverly.

Hellems (37 FG% on long 2s) doesn’t actually set a screen, though; he slips out to the corner, which scatters Wake Forest’s defensive switch.

He did the same thing here vs. drop coverage from Sam Hauser.

Over the last 10 games, Hellems has a usage rate of 24 percent, while averaging 15.1 points on 11.2 field goal attempts per contest (46.4 3P%). Hellems is one of the unsung heroes in the ACC this season. He’s turned into an excellent player.

 

Wedge Pick-and-Roll / Roll-Replace

When NC State upset Virginia on the road last week, one of the key offensive packages for the Wolfpack revolved around a little twist to their normal spread pick-and-roll offense. NC State utilized pre-ball screen wedge action.

Early in the game, with NC State grooving on offense, Seabron sets a little chip screen on Jay Huff for Bates, who launches into the pick-and-roll with Cam Hayes. Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman switch; Huff drops and Trey Murphy III tags Bates on the weak side. Seabron doesn’t stop moving after his screen for Bates. As Bates rolls, Seabron replaces and lifts up along the perimeter. Hayes throws back, Bates seals and gets the post entry pass from Seabron.

 

While UVA doubles the post, Funderburk cuts from the corner to the dunker spot, which draws in Beekman and leaves Hayes open beyond the arc. Clark is too late to rotate out; Bates, who continues to improve as a passer, hits Hayes for a 3.

Here’s the same look on the next possession: this time, however, Huff shows high as Hayes dribbles off the screen from Bates. There’s no switch from Clark and Beekman, who sinks in the paint to tag Bates on his roll, which Murphy does, too. Hayes reverses it back to Seabron (replace action), who attacks a scrambled UVA second-side defense. Murphy helps off the near corner, and it’s a catch-and-shoot 3 for Hellems.

Later in the first half: more wedge pick-and-roll, with Hellems as the initial screener for Bates. Virginia defends this well: Murphy lurks as a helper for Clark, while Justin McKoy (less fearful to leave a non-shooter like Funderburk in the corner) tags Bates as Huff recovers.

Virginia’s defense sputters, though, when Beekman and Clark botch another off-ball switch after Seabron’s entry pass to Bates on the block. Seabron cuts through; Clark is caught off guard needing to switch, which makes for an easy post pass from Bates and a dunk for Seabron.

During the second half, NC State ran more wedge screen-roll and roll/replace action. This time, though, it’s Beverly setting the initial screen and replacing off an empty-side look. Virginia defends that action well, but the second-side handoff pick-and-roll with Hellems and Seabron draws a foul from Murphy. (Virginia, with two like-sized defenders, should probably just switch this action.)

The Wolfpack used this wedge look at times earlier in the season, too, including the road loss at Saint Louis — with Daniels as the screener.

 

Cross Pindown STS

In recent weeks, NC State has taken a page of out the Milwaukee Bucks/Mike Budenholzer playbook and used a lot of Cross Screen/Down Screen (Pindown) screen-the-screener (STS) action. This design has become an ATO staple, or used even at the start of a game/half.

It’s simple, really. One big guy goes high — between the foul line and the top of the key — while the other post player goes low. Essentially, the 4 and 5 split the defense horizontally. Hayes will throw the ball to the high post and immediately chase after his own pass for a handoff. As that happens, Hellems sets a cross screen along the baseline to bring the low big to the strong-side block.

NC State can throw the ball into the post here, or look for Hellems off the next action: a pindown from the high post (Bates).

 

If the post or middle pindown don’t produce a shot, then NC State can flow into spread pick-and-roll actions. This works best when Hellems is the de facto 4 and the Pack space it better with a 4-around-1 look.

According to Pivot Analysis, NC State is +32 in 133 minutes with Hellems on the floor during this four-game streak. In the wins over Virginia, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh (Feb. 17), NC State scored 1.25 points per possession with Hellems on the floor.

Look how much Pitt’s defense moves before the pick-and-roll action takes place. That type of movement can create gaps along the back side.

Over the last five games, Moore has really started to show even more flashes as a playmaker: 22.8 percent assist rate (17.1 assist rate for the season).

This is a good way for NC State to get both Bates and Funderburk in the middle of the floor, which makes it harder to keep NC State’s offense pinned to the initial side. It can also help create some high/low action when Bates’ defender guards him tightly and doesn’t sink deep into the paint.

 

Other STS Actions

Over the last few games, NC State has used multiple half-court setups to choreograph these screen-the-screener looks. Here are a few more.

 

Box Set Zipper Flare Slice Pindown STS

This is about as much off-ball movement as NC State’s offense will ever show in a single possession. The Pack start out their home game against Virginia in a box set; Beverly comes up on the zipper cut off a screen from Bates and then a flare screen from Hellems. Allen, starting out on the opposite block, sets the slice screen for Bates and then comes off the down screen from Hellems.

 

Horns Slice Pindown STS Pick-and-Roll

Similar design for the first play at Virginia — this time it’s out of a Horns set, though.

 

1-4 Iverson Slice Pindown STS

Again, NC State uses this type of action on the first play of the game — now at Wake Forest.

Buckeye

Back on Feb. 3, NC State lost at home to Virginia. It was a tight game. It was also NC State’s first game against a man-to-man defense without Daniels. Right off the jump, NC State started to mix in what’s known as “Buckeye” action.

The Pack starts off in another box set look with Beverly exiting to the wing off screen from Hellems, who begins the possession at the elbow opposite of Bates. After Seabron passes to Beverly on the wing, he cuts off a back screen from Bates — to a side of the floor that’s been cleared out. If the pass is there, this can be a lob over the top to Seabron.

NC State, however, has used Buckeye to get Bates involved in the pick-and-roll with some motion and roll/replace action. That can complicate coverages for opposing defenses.

Look at this catch from Bates; this dude just continues to get better and better.

(Also, gulp, this isn’t exactly vintage weak-side defense from Virginia.)

Buckeye action offers a lot in terms of variety; the first three steps will look the same, but after that, there are numerous possibilities that open up. This is advantageous for an offense.

For instance: on this possession, NC State doesn’t go middle pick-and-roll with Bates. With the weak-side emptied out, Bates flips and sets a wide pindown for Beverly. Huff has to shade over slightly, which gives Bates an opportunity to carve out room on the block. The floor is spaced; no double comes from Hauser.

According to Synergy Sports, NC State recorded 18 post-up possessions during this game against Virginia. They entered the evening averaging under six post-up possessions per game.

At this point in the season, NC State now averages 6.7 post-up possessions per game, which accounts for nearly nine percent of the team’s total offensive possession types. Clearly, the Pack wants to establish Bates and Funderburk on the block, especially without Daniels to help carry the load.

If this action looks familiar, well, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the Louisville Cardinals run it since Chris Mack arrived.

Louisville utilizes so many different manipulations of Buckeye. At times, it’s functioned as a de facto base offense for the Cards.

Mack will even dial this up to get Louisville into its continuity ball screen offense, which features slips and “77” cuts.

The name for this play type comes, of course, from Gibson Pyper (@HalfCourtHoops) — the absolute best at online basketball X and O’s.

As Gibson notes, Thad Matta ran Buckeye a lot while at Ohio State (2004-17). It’s fairly pervasive in 2021 college basketball, too — mostly along the Matta coaching tree, though there are exceptions.

While Mack was never an assistant coach for Matta, he joined Sean Miller’s staff at Xavier, before Miller took the Arizona job. Miller was an assistant for Matta; so, too, was Archie Miller. Both Arizona and Indiana run this action as well.

 

Nikola Bates?

Entering this season, I was concerned with how NC State’s offense would function with Bates and Funderburk together on the floor — and no Markell Johnson. Things didn’t exactly get off the a strong start; those complications worsened without Daniels, though there have been improvements over the last two weeks.

At this point, Bates and Funderburk are arguably NC State’s two best players; they have to play, and they must be productive in their minutes on the floor. With that being the case, there’s only so much minutes staggering NC State can do: one of Bates or DJ on the floor with Hellems as the 4.

That can be tough when those two players don’t necessarily complement one another perfectly. When State plays those two at the same time, it means two non-shooters are on the floor; that clogs the wheels on some spread pick-and-roll looks. The Pack become easier to keep on one side of the floor. Plus, there’s less room inside the paint.

However, Bates, who has shown passing flashes at time this season, has experienced the two best passing games of his career within the last two weeks. Through the first 16 games of the season, Bates had a total of six assists. Over the last four games, Bates has six more assists — three at Pittsburgh, three more at Virginia.

There’s very little processing delay here as Bates shows some decent feel for the double team before hitting Seabron for the cut layup.

This brief stretch has included some impressive post-to-post passing as well.

As Bates goes forward as an NBA prospect, whatever passing he brings will almost certainly be marginalized. Big men must be special passers to actually get some type of playmaking equity in the NBA. Down the road, Bates makes sense as an NBA center because he offers a discrete set of skills: elite rim protection and pick-and-roll finishing.

Bates doesn’t have to be an actual passing hub for NC State’s offense, though. He’s not Nikola Jokic; this isn’t what he does best. However, these simple reads — see double, then pass — help the offensive flow. The passes extend possessions, bridge sides of the floor and create instant scoring opportunities.