Blake Wesley is going places. In particular, the Notre Dame freshman guard is going to the rim, time after time.
As a top-100 prospect, Wesley may not have all of the pre-college shine that comes with some of the ACC’s highly-regard rookies; however, the 6-foot-5 guard was an important recruit for Mike Brey and Notre Dame.
The Irish are just 3-3 to start the season; all three losses have come vs. top-65 KenPom teams and away from the Joyce Center, including a road matchup with Illinois. That’s not an ideal start, but the season is young and Notre Dame has terrific offensive personnel.
With the early emergence of Wesley, who is averaging 13 points per game, Notre Dame looks more explosive on offense than even some bullish preseason expectations.
As Notre Dame looks to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017, Blake Wesley could be this team’s X-factor.
Back in the 2020 recruiting class, Notre Dame had a chance to land another 4-star prospect with South Bend ties: Jaden Ivey, the son of Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Niele Ivey, who also happened to play college ball at Notre Dame (1997-2001). In the end, though, Ivey — now one of the top players and draft prospects in the country — picked Purdue over Notre Dame and Butler.
Wesley, who hails from South Bend, would be a different story, however. One year later, in the 2021 class, Brey and his staff landed Wesley, a player they’d scouted since he was in middle school. Wesley committed to Notre Dame over Purdue, Kansas State, Creighton, Maryland and Xavier.
Early on, this looks like a pivotal addition for the Irish. That notion extends beyond this season, too, when 4-star wing JJ Starling arrives in South Bend.
Notre Dame isn’t a particularly deep team; however, the Irish are experienced and return plenty of offensive talent from the last three seasons. Yale transfer center Paul Atkinson (68.6 2P%), freshman forward Elijah Taylor and Wesley are the newcomers to the rotation.
Notre Dame loses Juwan Durham & Djogo, but this will be a fun offensive team in 21-22
Top 50 last season: 3PA rate, 3P%, TOV%, eFG%, FT%, adj. efficiency
61 FG% on non-post-up FGA in half court (No. 21)
Laszewski, Goodwin, Wertz, Ryan, Hubb, Atkinson: very skilled personnel
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) August 10, 2021
As usual, Brey has his necessary components for an efficient offense: skilled shooters, high-level half-court scheme and a low turnover rate. Currently, Notre Dame ranks No. 17 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric.
Defense, however, will prove to be more of an issue. Nate Laszewski is an incredible shooter and a matchup concern for opponents, but he’s liable to give it back on the defensive end of the court.
So far, Notre Dame has played a fair amount of Laszewski at center, too. With the departure of shot-blocker Juwan Durham, this was likely to happen; when Atkinson sits, Laszewski is the team’s de facto center.
In fact, Notre Dame has played 52 minutes with Laszewski at center (not including the Chaminade game), according to Pivot Analysis. The Irish are +3 in those minutes. Those lineups will be incredibly challenging to defend.
Notre Dame ranks as a fringe top-100 defense, though, which won’t cut it. Some of that is due to a little misfortune with opponent 3-point shooting. Opposing teams have shot 44 percent from beyond the arc vs. Notre Dame, a bottom three number nationally.
Obviously, Notre Dame will need to do more to challenge those looks; however, some of that is also bad luck. Opponents won’t shoot 44 percent on 3-point attempts all season. That number will level off. Up to this point, Notre Dame’s defense has at least limited the number of attempts from beyond the arc: only 32.1 percent of opponent field goal attempts are of the 3-point variety.
Through the first six games of his career, Wesley already has two 20-point scoring outbursts: Cal State Northridge (21 points) and Illinois (24 points). The Illinois game was an eye-opening performance from Wesley, who shot 8-of-10 on 2-point attempts, while working as a non-stop drive machine.
Wesley can get places on the floor with his handle; he creates easy advantage and has the ability to get into the paint, again and again.
With Illinois primarily deploying center Kofi Cockburn in drop coverage, Wesley went to work, especially in the second half. After running a lot of Blocker-Mover and Floppy to start the game, Brey adjusted and continued to dial up pick-and-roll action for Wesley.
Playing in front of his first road crowd, Wesley fearlessly attacked the 7-foot, 285-pound Cockburn. Wesley has the strength to absorb contact, with the craft to finish in a variety of scenarios.
If Cockburn had the paint walled off, though, Wesley showed he’s capable of using his floater/runner game to punish drop coverage as well.
When Kofi sat, Illinois threw different coverages at Wesley; he was still capable of turning the corner. If additional help defenders entered the paint, Wesley was able to diagnose simple second-side reads and kick out for open shots.
Wesley’s handle appears to be rather functional, too. He can use that as a weapon to manipulate defenders; get them leaning one way, before snapping back with a crossover or ball-screen rejection in the other direction.
In terms of rejecting screens, Wesley looks very comfortable. As opponents start to gather more tape on the freshman guard, this will be something they work to take away.
Quick Numbers: Blake Wesley Finishing
This is a small sample, even with the Chaminade game included, but Wesley is shooting 65.5 percent on 2-point attempts to start the season. In the five games vs. Division I opponents, Wesley has 15 2-point field goals. Most of that scoring has come from his own dribble: 14 of Wesley’s 15 2-point field goals came unassisted.
Wesley can also use his off-dribble paint generation to draw a lot of fouls. While going up against Division I competition this season, Wesley has drawn 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes, currently a top-70 number nationally. Overall, Wesley is averaging 6.9 free throw attempts per 40 minutes, too. These are encouraging, positive indicators.
From Notre Dame’s Blocker-Mover offense: Wesley launches guard-guard screen-roll action with Dane Goodwin. Texas A&M switches the screen; however, Wesley uses his burst to at least partially turn the corner on Marcus Williams, then showcases his soft touch to finish without using the glass.
According to Synergy Sports, Wesley has scored 1.04 points per pick-and-roll possession (58.8 FG%) as a ball handler this season.
Defense: Focus On The Positives
During the 2020-21 season, the ACC was fortunate to see the arrival of several powerful freshmen point-of-attack defenders: Reece Beekman, Shakeel Moore, Scottie Barnes, Earl Timberlake and Kadary Richmond. Of course, only one of those players — Beekman — remains in the league.
Like most rookie guards, though, Wesley isn’t on that level. He’s susceptible to giving up dribble- penetration in 1-on-1 or pick-and-roll situations.
However, there have been some encouraging flashes from Wesley on the defensive side of the floor.
During this after-timeout play from Texas A&M, Buzz Williams tried to target the freshman guard, playing in just his fifth college game. The Aggies look to walk Quenton Jackson up — before sending him backdoor. Wesley doesn’t ball-watch. Instead, he does well to be in the initial passing lane, slide with Jackson and is prepared to take away the backdoor cut.
After the backdoor denial, Wesley shows off his strength and length in a 1-on-1 post-up possession with Jackson, a rugged scorer from the Big 12.
Wesley’s functional length is a real asset for him as a defender, it seems. He’s done well in some off-ball defense situations — closing out and working as a chase defender. On those possessions, Wesley put his arms to use. He can extend on closeouts and make himself wide when those players try to catch-and-go and attack the basket.
Wesley has just one block on the season, but it came on a 3-point attempt — after he bottled up veteran guard Trent Frazier of Illinois.
Keys To The Car
It’s early, obviously, but this is an impressive package for a potential primary creator on the college level — and beyond. Wesley looks like a prospect to monitor. For now, though: as Notre Dame’s season progresses, it’ll be interesting to see how Brey handles his backcourt rotation.
Since his arrival in 2018, the ball has mostly belonged to Prentiss Hubb. After some serious struggles his freshman season, Hubb settled in as a high-usage, high-assist primary guard. The upshot: Hubb has the ball in his hands a lot.
During the 2020-21 season, Hubb was one of only four ACC players to finish with 25 percent usage and an assist rate above 25 percent. (The other three: Scottie Barnes, Carlik Jones and Xavier Johnson, who is doing similar things this season for Mike Woodson at Indiana.)
Brey is a wonderful organizer of half-court offense — with plenty of off-ball motion and screening actions. Early on this season, Notre Dame has used a lot of Floppy, with a good chunk of it coming off this initial scissor action.
However, Notre Dame has lined up and run a lot of spread pick-and-roll over the last few years with Hubb, too. He’s been The Guy in South Bend. (Some of that may have come out of necessity — a lack of proven secondary creators, although Cormac Ryan helped last season.)
In each of the three previous seasons, Hubb ranked inside the top 12 of the ACC in both off-dribble jump shot attempts and pick-and-roll possessions. Last year, Hubb finished No. 2 in the ACC with 126 off-dribble jumpers, per Synergy. Hubb also used more pick-and-roll possessions — as either a finisher or a passer (311) — than any other player in the conference.
Now, what does this mean for Wesley, a promising player who also requires the ball?
It’s been a challenging start to the season for Hubb, who is just 3-of-25 on 3-point attempts (12 3P%) vs. Division I opponents. On the defensive side of the floor, he’s been a turnstile while trying to contain the basketball. Guys are driving right by Hubb.
This has understandably messed with his confidence. (I’m no body language expert, but Hubb looked rattled vs. Texas A&M and Illinois.) Hubb will shoot better as the year goes along; there’s plenty of data to suggest some (good) regression to the mean.
With that said, Brey and his staff may have to decide which player, as the team’s primary creator, raises the overall ceiling the highest. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to always been an either-or situation. Those two guards can and will play together.
According to Pivot Analysis, Wesley and Hubb have shared the floor for 62 minutes vs. Division I foes. The Irish are -4 in those minutes (-6 in 14 minutes together at Illinois), although the offense has scored at a nice clip: 1.13 points per possession.
Hubb is a good spot-up shooter; he can move and play without the ball. So far, Wesley has looked playable as spot-up target, too. Wesley has a quick release, with good lift. When he isn’t trying to stick his leg out to draw a foul, Wesley’s overall shot form looks good.
Plus, Notre Dame’s system offers up plenty of off-ball motion and guard-to-guard exchanges. There are schematic ways to better integrate two primary creators within the offense.
That synergy will be crucial for Notre Dame, too. If Brey’s club is going to be a threat in the ACC this season, the Irish must continue to work as a top-20 offense. That’s the roadmap.
Dane Goodwin Appreciation
Year after year, Dane Goodwin continues to fly under the radar as one of the ACC’s top guard/forwards and movement shooters. A 6-foot-6, 200-pound wing, Goodwin is the kind of player that can fit on any offense. He scores efficiently from all levels of the floor, yet he doesn’t need the ball (16.5 percent usage rate) to stress an opposing defense.
With his ability to run off screens and relocate into open pockets along the perimeter, Goodwin is a constant scoring threat.
Goodwin is a career 37 percent 3-point shooter. Over 43 percent of his career field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc as well. This season, both of those numbers are up. Goodwin is launching an impressive 8.9 3-point attempts per 100 possessions, while shooting 48 percent from deep.
Given his gravity coming off screens, Goodwin can draw a lot of defensive attention when he runs around a pindown. When the opportunity presents itself, Goodwin will find an open teammate if his screen usage draws two defenders.
Here, Notre Dame runs Floppy: Goodwin comes off staggered screens from Cormac Ryan and Nate Laszewski, a dangerous pick-and-pop target. When Goodwin curls hard, it forces Coleman Hawkins, an intriguing defensive forward prospect, to take a step in his direction. This leaves Laszewski open.
During the first six games of the season, Goodwin has scored 90 points on just 62 field goal attempts. This includes 15-of-16 shooting (93.8 FT%) from the free throw line. For his career, Goodwin is an 83.1 percent shooter from the line.
According to Synergy Sports, Goodwin has scored 1.5 points per spot-up possessions this season (71.4 eFG%), which ranks No. 4 among ACC players with 20+ possessions. (The top three in this category: RJ Davis, Casey Morsell and Al-Amir Dawes.)