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Unlocking New Strengths: How Noah Locke, Matt Cross can revamp Louisville’s perimeter offense

Much has been made about the NCAA transfer portal this offseason. College basketball is dealing with an unprecedented reality, which has produced record-setting player movement across the sport. It’s a wild time to follow the sport.

While each individual team deals with the portal differently, the outcomes impact every program. This is all one interconnected system.

Some ACC teams have used the portal to satisfy roster needs. Desperate for a stretch component in the frontcourt, UNC added Brady Manek, a 6-foot-9 pick-and-pop stud from Oklahoma. With Sam Hauser and Jay Huff headed to the NBA Draft, Virginia found offense with ECU transfer Jayden Gardner.

Others have sought the portal for talent adds in the form of “prospects in distress.” NC State is set to return most of its rotation; however, Kevin Keatts landed two former 4-star prospects — Greg Gantt of Providence and Virginia’s Casey Morsell.

Gantt and Morsell struggled at their initial schools, but there’s still a lot of promise in these developing players. If NC State can help Morsell or Gantt find new levels of production and efficiency, then it’s a major win for all involved parties.

One offseason ago, Louisville grabbed arguably the top guard in the portal: Carlik Jones of Radford. Jones wasted no time transitioning the ACC; he became Louisville’s primary creator and one of the top pick-and-roll weapons in the country. (Of course, the Cards also added Charles Minlend from San Francisco, but a sprained MCL prevented Minlend from having any real impact this season.)

Amidst the hysteria of college hoops in 2021, Louisville continues to mine high-end talent from the transfer portal — more than any other ACC program. Despite losing David Johnson and Jones to the professional ranks, the players Louisville landed from the portal this offseason should help the Cards upgrade on offense.

 

Add Space

This process started before the season even ended. Back in February, Miami transfer Matt Cross, who left the Hurricanes midseason, committed to Louisville. Cross is a significant addition for Chris Mack’s club. The Cards weren’t done there, though.

While the public awaited for draft decisions from Jones and Johnson, Louisville landed point guard Jarrod West, a veteran pick-and-roll engine from Marshall. This, too, is a real boon for the program.

West marks the fourth straight year that Mack has added an immediately-eligible point guard to his roster: Christen Cunningham, Fresh Kimble, and Jones.

Finally, in mid-April, Louisville received a commitment from one of the more coveted shooters in the transfer portal: Florida’s Noah Locke.

These additions certainly lessen the sting of losing previously-signed freshmen Eric Van Der Heijden (Ole Miss) and Bobby Pettiford (Kansas). Or at least that’s the case for next season’s roster.

By going the transfer route, Louisville adds three proven offensive pieces, including one (Cross) with a great deal of untapped potential. The Cards needed to beef up their perimeter shooting arsenal. Well, the law firm of Locke, Cross and West combined to shoot 40.5 3P% on nearly 300 attempts this season.

 

Space Savers

Going back to his time at Xavier, Mack’s teams finished seven straight seasons (2014-20) as a top-50 offense in terms of adjusted efficiency, according to KenPom. During each of Mack’s first two seasons with Louisville, the Cards ranked inside the top 30 nationally in offensive efficiency.

The 2019-20 club finished 12th nationally in efficiency, one of the best marks in recent program history. (It really is a bummer that this team didn’t get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. They were really good.)

Given the amount of offensive skill that left the program in 2020 — Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton, Ryan McMahon, Steven Enoch — some regression was to be expected. Unfortunately, the crater Louisville landed in was rather deep, and the fall hurt on the way down: No. 92 in adjusted efficiency.

 3P%3PA RateeFG%Jump Shot eFG%
2018-1934.2 3P%43.7% FGA50.9 eFG%48.3 eFG%
2019-2037.6 3P%38.0% FGA52.6 eFG%49.6 eFG%
2020-2130.8 3P%30.3% FGA47.8 eFG%40.6 eFG%

Only 30.3 percent of Louisville’s field goal attempts in the 2020-21 season came from beyond the arc; that’s the lowest 3-point attempt rate of any Mack-coached team since Xavier in the 2013-14 season.

According to Synergy Sports, Louisville posted an effective shooting rate of only 40.6 percent on jump shot attempts this season, which ranked 320th nationally — just ahead of Kentucky (40.5 eFG%).

Much of this can be attributed to the team’s reliance on inefficient off-dribble attempts. The Cards ranked 340th nationally with an effective shooting rate of 28.9 percent on off-dribble attempts in the half court.

Some of this is Jones and Johnson simply not making shots; however, the lack of gravity from spot-up threats allowed for opponents to roll extra attention to Louisville’s go-to guards. Teams could focus two on Jones in the pick-and-roll and sag off perimeter shooters.

Louisville tried a variety of actions involving Johnson and Jones together to spice up the offense; these efforts included roll-replace action with Johnson lifting from the baseline to above the arc, while Jones operated the screen-roll.

Too many of those possessions, though, ended in suboptimal fashion: inefficient midrange jumpers.

Mack frequently called for Jones and Johnson to work together in Ram Ghost action. This entailed one of the forwards/centers setting an off ball screen in the paint for either Jones or Johnson, while the other dribbled up top. The off-ball guard (with a trailing defender due to the Ram screen) would then lift as if they planned to a set a guard-guard ball screen. Instead of screening, though, they would veer out in the opposite direction.

Even when those possessions produced paint touches, the results weren’t always there — due in part to teams clamping in off the wings to help in the restricted area.

Here’s a look at Louisville’s Chin pick-and-roll. Keve Aluma meets Jones at the level of the screen and allows Wabissa Bede time to recover in rearview pursuit. As this takes places, keep an eye on Virginia Tech’s help defenders, those not in the ball-screen action: it’s boxes and elbows. When Jones tries to drive, the defender that’s one-pass away (Hunter Cattoor) digs before closing back out to Samuel Williamson (25 3P%).

 

Stuck in the middle

While eager to see Louisville’s pick-and-roll offense — with dual initiators Jones and Johnson — I expressed concern last offseason over the exits of Nwora and McMahon.

Sure enough, Louisville’s pick-and-roll volume grew, significantly: 21.9 percent of Louisville’s possessions were used/finished by screen-roll ball handlers or roll men, per Synergy Sports. This marks a sharp increase over the two previous seasons.

 Ball Handler Possession FrequencyRoll Man Possession FrequencyTotal Possession Frequency
2018-1910.7%5.6%16.3%
2019-2010.3%3.9%14.2%
2020-2116.9%5.0%21.9%

This was more than Louisville parting ways with two high-volume 40-percent 3-point gunners. McMahon and Nwora were elite movement shooters: guys that could run around screens and move without the ball, while hunting for jumpers.

That type of movement and screening cascades value all over the floor; it loosens up defenses, and creates easy advantage by forcing rotations, help and mistakes.

 Catch-and-shoot eFG%Catch-and-shoot FrequencyOff-screen efficiencyOff-screen frequency
2018-1955.1 eFG%35.4%1.07 PPP3.3%
2019-2056.0 eFG%31.6%0.68 PPP6.3%
2020-2150.6 eFG%26.3%0.35PPP1.1%

After two straight seasons of 55+ eFG% on catch-and-shoot FGA, that number dropped to 50.6 eFG% in the 2020-21 season, per Synergy. The Cards scored under 0.82 points per spot-up possession.

On top of that, Louisville’s volume of possessions coming off of screens — a strength of Nwora and McMahon — dropped. According to Synergy, only 1.1 percent of Louisville’s possessions this season were used via a player coming off of an off-ball screen.

It’s no wonder Louisville struggled on offense; despite two very talented guards and a key frontcourt finisher (Jae’Lyn Withers), Louisville was too reliant on the pick-and-roll. There was no real alternative. It may seem reductive to think along these lines, but Louisville couldn’t lean on its motion offense due to the lack of movement shooters. The post game was gone, too, with Enoch playing professionally in Spain.

(Johnson was Louisville’s most frequent post-up target. The Cards looked to post DJ up occasionally off UCLA action. Withers is a very good interior finisher, but he’s better used as a cutter, roll man or spot-up target, for now at least.)

 

Ryan McMahon: Underrated

During his time at Louisville, McMahon played for three different head coaches: Rick Pitinto, David Padgett and Mack. Regardless of who was calling the plays, though, McMahon’s shooting prowess was elite. With that said, the play-caller/player partnership between Mack and McMahon was pretty special.

Across the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, only two ACC players shot at least 37 3P% on 300+ combined 3PA: Nwora and McMahon.

Over 89 percent of the 121 3-pointers McMahon made during his junior and senior seasons came off an assist.

In two seasons with Mack as his coach, McMahon launched 306 3-point attempts (82 percent of his total FGA): 12.7 3PA per 100 possessions. McMahon drained 121 of those attempts — good for 39.5 3P%.

According to Evan Miya’s efficiency numbers, Louisville was 23.3 points per 100 possessions better with McMahon on the floor in the 2019-20 season. (In the 648 minutes with McMahon and Nwora on the floor together, Louisville was +308, according to Pivot Analysis.) In fact, McMahon led the ACC in Miya’s BPR metric — just ahead of Florida State’s Devin Vassell.

Dre Davis is already a very useful player, but his jumper wasn’t ready this year. Mack briefly tried Josh Nickelberry (21.9 3P%) in a spot-up/movement shooter role, which didn’t last long.

This, however, is where Noah Locke comes into play.

 

Noah Locke: Quick Stats

As soon as Locke sets foot on Floyd Street, he should have the green light to let it fly. During his time with Florida, Locke became one of the premier spot-up targets in the SEC. While playing next to talented lead guards — Andrew Nembhard and Tre Mann (a top 20 prospect in the 2021 NBA Draft) — Locke worked as a spacing agent.

Locke is a career 40.2 3P% shooter (55.7 percent true shooting rate): 537 3PA, around 12.5 3PA per 100 possessions. He’s an efficient, high-volume 3-point sniper. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of this damage has come off the catch.

According to Bart Torvik’s shot data, 200 of Locke’s 216 career 3-pointers have been assisted — a nearly 92.6 percent clip.

Locke gets little lift on his jumper (keep an eye on his feet), which could be a bit of a concern against closeouts. This also speaks to some of his limitations as a pull-up shooter. (He can make the occasional pull-up 3 out of pick-and-roll, though.)

However, in terms of his spot-up skills: Locke has a quick, smooth release with good wrist action.

One of the things that made McMahon such a powerful offensive pierce was his deep range. Not only could McMahon make above 40 percent of his looks, but he could also credibly shoot from well beyond the arc. Locke has some of that in his game, too.

This type deep of range does wonders for creating space in a half-court scenario. It may not seem like much, but any additional spacing for an offense is a major boon.

Dribble Drive?

During his time with the Gators, Locke showed little in terms of his ability to drive, pressure the rim and distribute. He’s limited in terms of his offensive dimensions. In nearly 2,600 career minutes, Locke recorded only 60 assists and 95 FTA. Locke has career assist rate of 4.7 percent, which goes along with a 12 percent FTA rate — both of which are rather small numbers.

Locke went just 7-of-15 on close 2PA this season, per Bart Torvik’s shot tracking: less than seven percent of his total FGA. When he does attack a hard closeout, Locke appears more comfortable getting to his floater, as opposed to driving all of the way to the cup.

 

On the rare occasion that Locke drives rim, he may resort to half-post techniques — putting his hip into his defender to create some separation, instead of just driving by. Even then, Locke may still need a seal screen deeper in the lane to generate airspace.

According to Bart Torvik’s shot data, Locke recorded one career dunk during his three seasons in Gainesville.

Locke also has an unfortunate tendency of killing his dribble mid-possession.

This can stall actions, forcing the offense to play later into the shot clock. Or even worse: it can produce live-ball turnovers.

By no means is Locke a finished product. With a less chaotic offseason on the horizon, development gains could come from unexpected sources.

Locke’s out of the floor to shoot the ball, though. The role is a little narrow, but it’s also wildly important. Offenses need guys that don’t turn the ball over and make 3-pointers. If Locke comes in and continues to shoot the long-ball at an efficient clip, he’ll be a valuable player for the Cards.

In the 2020-21 season, Locke was the only player in the SEC with an offensive box plus-minus (BPM) of 2+, sub-10 percent assist rate and sub-15 percent FTA rate.

 

Inside the Playbook: Slice Ricky

The comparison isn’t perfect, but Locke serves as the closest facsimile on this roster to the set of skills McMahon provided. This could re-open aspects of Louisville’s playbook, including one of Mack’s go-to sets for a 3-pointer off movement: Slice Ricky. (In basketball terminology, “Ricky” stands for a re-screen.)

It’s simple quick-hitter, in terms of design. Louisville starts in diamond-like base with McMahon stationed on the bottom. McMahon launches the action by coming off a pindown from the center (Malik Williams), which occurs around the block; he then receives a pass from the point guard, who cuts through to the strong corner.

One of the two forwards (Sutton) lifts from the free throw line to above the arc and receives a pass from McMahon. After his pass, McMahon quickly sprints off a slice screen from Williams; however, instead of cutting through, McMahon plants and does a V-cut back off Williams, who flips the angle of his body before re-screening.

Here’s that look again.

On other occasions, McMahon wouldn’t even use the slice screen from Williams; he’d just V-cut back out and quickly get his shot off.

Locke may not be as twitchy as an off-ball mover as McMahon, but he has the movement skills necessary to utilize this action.

When opponents covered the initial re-screen look, McMahon pitched it back out and cut to the opposite wing off Slice Stagger. McMahon continues to move; he cuts again off a slice screen from Williams and then a weak-side pindown from Nwora.

Here’s another look at that, too.

Going up against NC State’s 1-4 switch scheme, Louisville used McMahon’s off-ball gravity to free up others. When the smaller Markell Johnson switches with Devon Daniels following Nwora’s screen, Nwora ducks in for an open paint touch.

The duck-in can come from the opposite block, too.

Matt Cross: Upside

Before adding Locke, Louisville could feel better about its 3-point arsenal for next season with the commitment of Cross. His numbers at Miami may not blow anyone away, but Cross is 6-foot-7 and a very good shooter — with some underrated ancillary skills.

In Miami’s spread ball screen offense, Cross was used primarily as a stretch-4 — with some playmaking equity. Cross shot 40 percent on 3PA this season (20-of-50 3PA), while displaying impressive movement abilities, which I wrote about back in January.

With his size, shot balance and a lightning-quick release, Cross can be a major threat as a pick-and-pop target — screening or slipping into space beyond the arc for catch-and-shoot 3s.

Look how quickly Cross gets this spot-up 3 off: the ball is barely in his shot pocket. There’s no wasted motion, no reload. Just catch and fire.

Again, it’s important to remember: Cross is 6-foot-7 and has these types of movement shooting skills as a freshman. This is fairly advanced. Now, Cross will get to play in an offense that does a nice job featuring shooters who understand how to utilize screens.

Given his ability to screen, pop and force hard closeouts, it’s important that Cross have catch-and-go counters. Opponents can’t closeout short on Cross; they have to meet him at his spot, which creates opportunities for Cross to break contain.

Cross isn’t a statue once he catches the ball. He can put it on the deck, attack closeouts and even look to play-make for others.

On this possession, Miami runs double-high pick-and-roll for Harlond Beverly with Cross as the small-ball 5. With Aamir Simms in drop coverage, Cross is open on the initial pop action; when Beverly kicks it back, Simms is forced to hard close to Cross, who is set up deep, on the logo. Cross jabs and uses his first step to dust Simms (a strong defender), pro hops in the lane, avoids the charge and hits Kam McGusty in the dunker spot with a drop pass.

This type of PJ Washington-inspired short-roll playmaking is really encouraging. When Cross drives, guys like Williamson, Davis, Withers and Williams must be pass-ready. Hard cuts could turn into easy, high-percentage finishes.

It’s unlikely that Cross will turn into a high-volume pick-and-roll initiator, but he showed flashes of playing both sides of ball screen action this season.

This comes off movement — pitch into pick-and-roll — while going to his dominant hand. Cross is still able to see over the top of Clemson’s switch here (no help in the paint), and he puts good touch on this loft pass to Nysier Brooks.

 

Cross-over Role

It will be interesting to see how Mack divvies up minutes between his group of hybrid forwards: Cross, Davis, Williamson, JJ Traynor and Quin Slazinski. Louisville is really deep here. Cross makes everything easier with his shooting, but all of these guys can really play. Incoming 4-star small forward Michael James could factor into this equation, too.

Louisville will likely have one of Withers or Williams on the floor for the majority of games; however, the Cards dabbled with some small-ball lineups in 2019-20, and could trot out the Cross-Davis-Williamson/Traynor frontcourt with two guards. (Traynor played a fair amount this season as a undersized 5.)

In terms of size, Cross is almost identical to Nwora: both 6-foot-7, 225-pounds. It’s not a stretch to project Cross being featured offensively in ways similar to Nwora: scripted half-court designs for catch-and-shoot 3s.

I believe Cross is best served as the team’s de facto stretch-4, although the pieces are so interchangeable with Davis and Williamson, especially, that positional distinctions will matter less on a possession-by-possession basis. Cross will be featured differently on offense because of his jumper and stretch element.

On the other side of the floor, the Cards can matchup defensively however they see fit. When two guys from this group share the court, they should make for easy switch partners on various opponent actions and exchanges.

 

Easy Offense: 4-Out Ghost

Now that Jones is gone, Louisville may still look to add another ball handler to the roster; however, Jarrod West should be able to run this show. The Marshall transfer played in 124 games for coach Dan D’Antoni and one of the premier pick-and-roll offenses in the country.

He’s a career 37.6 percent shooter from downtown, which is a solid clip considering how many off-dribble shots West launched. Nearly 43 percent of West’s 3s this season were unassisted.

During the 2020-21 season, West was one of only nine players with 25 percent assist rate, 3 percent steal rate and 40 3P%. He was joined on that list by future NBA Draft picks Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and Deuce McBride.

Replacing Jones won’t be easy, but West has good skill and an impressive resume. (I do have a slight concern if West and Locke are the starting guards: who will be able to put pressure on the rim from the backcourt? El Ellis could be the team’s best bet.)

There may be a bit of an adjustment for West as he transitions from a high-volume pick-and-roll offense — with little off-ball movement — to Mack’s motion attack. However, with West’s ability to organize and run pick-and-roll, along with his spot-up shooting (65.9 eFG% on catch-and-shoots this season), the fit looks pretty good. Plus, the Cards run lots of screen-roll.

Louisville’s 4-out Ghost/slip screen seems like an obvious way to blend West’s handle (or Ellis) with Locke and Cross.

Dwayne Sutton lifts as if he’s going to set a ball screen for Johnson during the 2020 win at Duke. Instead, he slips out before arriving to set the screen — again, this is Ghost action.

This action can be a headache to defend, especially for switch defenses that struggle to communicate the Ghost action. Right before the two defenders should switch — at the screen — the would-be screeners slips out in another direction.

This is a simple, read-and-react way to generate open catch-and-shoot looks from deep or create gaps for driving the ball.

Of course, either Locke, Cross or Ellis would work well as the player running the Ghost maneuver.

Central to the rotation

If not for injuries, there’s a chance Williams is already on the fringes of an NBA roster or getting ready for the draft. Unfortunately, he’s caught some really tough breaks over the last two years.

There are ways to celebrate the return of Williams, to be clear. He’s seen it all, while emerging as one of the coolest dudes in college hoops and a powerful, vocal leader. It was a bummer to see him out of action for the vast majority of the season, but at the same time: it was also neat to see Williams get hyped on the bench when Withers would make a big play. That’s culture.

However, it does make for some awkward substitution math with Louisville’s frontcourt rotation. Assuming good health, Williams and Withers could enter the season as Louisville’s starting 5 and 4, respectively. According to Pivot Analysis, Louisville was +1 in 36 minutes with Withers and Williams on the floor together this season.

The staff may want to play bigger and see Withers spend less lime on the floor as the lone big. That’s understandable. Over the course of the season, though, the Cards may be best served to turn that duo into a platoon.

Roosevelt Wheeler may have some say in the matter as well, but having Williams and Withers share the 40 minutes per game at the center position — one on, one off — opens up so much more lineup flexibility.

Both Withers and Williams can stretch to the 3-point line — to some extent. Withers, in particular, has interesting upside as a shooter and space playmaker. Play those guys together, though, and it potentially hinders offensive spacing, while also making it tougher to access lineups with some combination Cross, Williamson, Davis and Traynor. Williamson and Davis taking steps as spot-up shooters would help ease some of these tensions, too.

It’s good to have depth, but this roster may require some juggling from Mack.

 

Other sets to keep an eye on

Corner Rip

This is one of Mack’s go-to sets. Some teams are ready for it, others aren’t. However, it can be a good way to create pressure on the rim without a ball screen — while also involving Cross or Locke as screeners. Good shooters make the best screeners.

 

Buckeye Spain

This is one of my favorite versions of Buckeye action that Mack/Louisville run. After the ball gets reversed back to Darius Perry on the second side, Louisville sets up to run stack pick-and-roll; Williams will set the initial ball screen, while Nwora sneaks in from the weak side and sets a back screen for the rolling Williams (before popping out).

Cross is perfect for the role Nwora fulfills on this play.

 

Chin Ricky

 

Hammer

 

Iverson Throwback

 

Iverson Pindown

 

 

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