With Nysier Brooks and Earl Timberlake, is Miami ready to return to the ACC’s upper echelon?

The last couple of seasons have been tough for Miami basketball. Through a variety of early NBA departures — Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown — injuries, and stringent NCAA penalties (Dewan Hernandez), the Hurricanes fell off post 2018, all while the FBI college basketball probe hung overhead.

Prior to the 2018-19 season, Jim Larranaga built Miami into one of the ACC’s most consistent winners. With defensive grit, experienced rosters and a ball-screen dominant offense, Miami went to three straight NCAA Tournaments (2016-18). The 2015-16 club won 27 games — the second most in program history, behind only the 2013 ACC Championship team, which won 29. (The 2012-13 squad was the ninth-most experienced team in the country that year.)

Over Larranaga’s first seven seasons, Miami won an average of 23 games per year. In two of those seasons, Miami finished with a top 25 offense.

Faced with a depleted roster over the last two seasons, Miami managed to still score the ball with some efficiency, but struggled to complete and win games. Miami followed up a 14-18 season 2018-19 with a 15-16 record in the 2019-20 campaign.

In nine seasons with Miami, Larranaga has posted a losing record in ACC play just three times — two of those finishes occurred in each of the last two seasons.

Change could be around the corner, though; Miami has a talented roster set for next season. Early projection models are favorable, too. If the Hurricanes are to return to prominence, Cincinnati transfer Nysier Brooks must play a large role.


Back-line Defense

In each of the last two seasons, Miami finished top 75 in terms of offensive efficiency, per KenPom. That’s pretty good. This was due, mostly, to the ridiculousness of Chris Lykes and an offense that sought to avoid turnovers, while funneling possessions through its most efficient weapons.

The 2018-19 team was incredibly thin and lacked length. That year, the Hurricanes ranked 266th nationally in average/weighted height and 348th in bench minutes (19.2 percent). Of course, Miami’s average height takes a hit with Lykes — listed generously at 5-foot-7 — playing a high-volume of minutes. But that number speaks to a lack of size on the wing and at the 4 spot.

A year later, Miami was taller, on average, and used its bench more frequently (32.4 percent). However, it took a step back defensively. The Hurricanes were crushed on the glass, allowing their opponents to rebound 32 percent of their misses. Miami finished the season ranked 149th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, the worst ever under Larranaga.

With Brooks in place, there’s room for optimism, though. The 6-foot-11 Brooks is just one man, but he should work a floor-raiser for Miami’s defense.

Over his three-year career with Cincinnati, Brooks blocked 2.6 shots per 40 minutes. During his junior season, Brooks posted a block rate of 8.4 percent, which ranked top 50 nationally.

In the 2018-19 season, opponents shot under 41 percent at the rim on non-post-up attempts in the half-court against the Cincinnati defense, with Brooks as its rim protector. That year, the Bearcats finished with a top-30 defense in terms of adjusted efficiency. Overall, opponents shot a measly 45.1 percent on 2-point attempts against Cincy, a top-20 defensive number in Division I.


Impact of Earl Timberlake

The addition of Earl Timberlake to Miami’s rotation is significant, too. One of the most sought after recruits in the eastern United States, Timberlake — a top-25 prospect in the 2020 — picked Miami over a host of programs, including several other ACC teams.

A product of Dematha Catholic, Timberlake is one of the most versatile and athletic players in his class. This, in turn, unlocks a variety of things for Miami. The 6-foot-6 Timberlake is an industrious offensive rebounder and a monster in transition. His size and athleticism give Miami options at forward.

Brooks is penciled in as the team’s starting center; Lykes, now a senior, leads the backcourt. A good deal of the guard minutes will go to Isaiah Wong and Harlond Beverly, two rising sophomores that came on late in season. Kameron McGusty (23.8 percent usage rate) will be busy as well.

Timberlake could certainly see time as the team’s de facto 3; however, he could also prove quite valuable as a small-ball 4, next to Brooks, with three guards on the floor. Lykes is smaller, but McGusty brings size and Beverly adds length to the wing.

With those guards, Miami has at least four players that can play with the basketball, create off the dribble and run pick-and-roll. Larranaga could pick three of those guys, pair them with Timberlake and Brooks, and spread the floor with more play-makers than an opponent knows what to do with.


Additional Pieces

The Hurricanes have other frontcourt options as well. In his first season as a full-time starter, Rodney Miller proved solid. The 7-footer isn’t the most mobile of bigs (3.1 percent block rate), but he shot 63.5 percent at the rim in the half court, per Synergy Sports.

Miller is solid, but to fully access the upper limits of its pick-and-roll offense, Miami needs a 5-man with a little more pop athletically. In the recent past, Hernandez and Ebuka Izundu found lift here — drawing gravity to the rim after screening for a guard. (This is where Brooks comes in now.)

Anthony Walker really struggled with his shot (42.4 eFG%) as a freshman, but he’s 6-foot-9 and bouncy (7 dunks, 5.2 percent block rate) — he, too, could unlock some small-ball combinations.

While battling injuries (knee) this season, Sam Waardenburg failed to find the range from distance. After shooting over 38 percent on 3-point attempts across his first two seasons, the junior version of Waardenburg shot just 25 percent from downtown.

However, if healthy, the 6-foot-10 Waardenburg gives the Canes an experienced stretch big that can vacillate between the 4 and 5.

Timberlake isn’t the only signee in Miami’s 2020 class: 4-star power forward Matt Cross is also headed to Coral Gables. Cross, a top-100 prospect, adds some shooting and passing to the frontcourt.

Deng Gak suffered a meniscus tear in practice and had to undergo season-ending surgery in December. At 6-foot-10, Gak brings a shot-block presence to the rotation, too.


Screen Assists

One of the things North Carolina basketball became associated with under Dean Smith was the point-to-the-passer gesture after an assist. Well, Miami may have an adaptation for that: point-to-the-screener.

The NBA tracks a statistic called screen assists. Very simply: a screen assist is when screen from an off-ball player leads directly to a basket. The metric is, unsurprisingly, dominated by centers, especially those who are active in screen-roll, like Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert and Domantas Sabonis.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any official accounting for this in college hoops, except for the excellent work Adrian Atkinson does charting UNC basketball.

In the ACC: Miami, NC State and Pittsburgh are high-volume pick-and-roll teams. Miami ball handlers used 478 possessions this season, according to Synergy. In terms of both volume and frequency, Miami ball handlers used more pick-and-roll possessions than any other ACC club. The Hurricanes were efficient on those looks: 0.88 points per possession (48.2 eFG%) — No. 24 nationally.

Miami loves these double drag pick-and-roll looks like you see above. With Lykes and McGusty, Miami will screen and re-screen until they get the desired match-up. This is where Brooks must be active and nasty — a good motor and hard screens will create open looks all over the floor.

As Miami went all-in, again, on screen-roll action this season, the Hurricanes assisted on just 38.9 percent of their field goals — one of the lowest team assist rates (No. 351) in the country.

Miami scored 387 points this season in off-dribble jumpers in the half-court, fourth most in Division I. The Canes also scored 0.96 points per possession on these looks, which ranked fifth best nationally.

During the last two seasons, Lykes turned into an absurd shot-maker. Over 75 percent of his total field goals as a sophomore and junior were unassisted. Close to 84 percent of Lykes’ 2-point field goals came unassisted.


Variety On Offense

Lykes is the ringleader of this bunch; there’s no doubt about that. His center of gravity is so low to the ground; he plays with such freedom of motion. Lykes is an incredibly quick and twitchy ball handler. He seems to change directions and spin without ever needing to slow down.

As junior, Lykes scored 1.01 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll, No. 1 in the ACC (100+ possessions).

(Unrelated: Malik Williams is an excellent help defender.)

Going back to the 2007-08 season: on only 15 occasions has a player 5-foot-7 or shorter finished a season with a usage rate of at least 25 percent. Lykes accounts for three of those 15 seasons.

However, there’s now more firepower on Miami’s roster to support Lykes, a 5-foot-7 turbo booster, which should go a long way.

According to Bart Torvik’s site, Miami (currently) projects as the No. 1 offense in the ACC next season. An offense heavy on ball screens may not be great for an inflated assist rate, but it cuts down on turnovers (fewer passes) — Miami has three straight seasons with a turnover rate under 17.5 percent — and keeps the ball in the hands of the best players.

In his first season on the floor for Miami, McGusty also found success in a featured role. McGusty posted an effective shooting rate of 57 percent out of the pick-and-roll, which is a monster number. For next season, though, McGusty will need to shore up his spot-up shooting (44.4 eFG%) stroke.


The Young Guys

After a chilly start to his college career, Wong hit magma-levels of heat down the stretch. The Trenton native started to take and make plenty of off-dribble shots. Over the final 13 games of the season, Wong averaged 14.2 points on excellent shooting (48/40/93).

At this point, Wong — 0.82 points per pick-and-roll possession — is mostly a scorer. He posted a negative Defensive BPM this year, and he dished out just two assists per 40 minutes. But even if the numbers aren’t quite there, that doesn’t mean Wong (a 6-foot-3 guard) isn’t capable.

Wong had an effective shooting rate of 35.6 percent on catch-and-shoots this season. That needs to improve. With DJ Vasiljevic gone, Miami’s perimeter options must step up as spot-up shooters.

Miami can toggle the offense and move guys around; giving different players opportunities to administer screen-roll. During the 2017-18 season, the Hurricanes ran offense through Brown, Walker, Lykes and Ja’Quan Newton. However, finding a symbiotic balance — with efficient spot-up options — would be best.

And then there’s Beverly — a long, explosive athlete. Beverey battled turnovers and a streaky shot this season, but he has the chance to be an effective two-way player, with a strong stocks numbers.

He plays out of control at times (25.1% TOV rate), but Beverly can really get into gaps and attack downhill. Over 70 percent of his 2-point attempts came around the basket this season (54.4 FG%). When he gets a foot or two in the paint, Beverly can be a daring and electric passer: 22.7 percent assist rate in ACC play.


Rim Runs: Nysier Brooks

While at Cincinnati, Brooks posted up with some regularity, and as a junior, he shot 45.5 percent on post-up attempts (55 FGA), per Synergy. Brooks, at 240 pounds, has power and a strong lower body. He’s more than willing to finish through contact.

Miami can look to access some of that, too; however, Brooks will be best served in the half-court as screen-roll dive man.

Brooks is well-schooled as a pick-and-roll big — spinning on his inside foot to open up as a receiver. At times, he’s shown patience after the screen — sliding into space, as opposed to pushing straight to the rim. Brooks has good hands, which is one of the most important traits for this type of big. He has a solid catch radius and can snag passes in traffic.

According to Synergy, Brooks scored 1.17 points per possession on basketball rolls and slips as a junior, shooting 64.3 percent.

During his junior season, Brooks shot 60 percent at the rim in the half court (111 FGA), per Synergy. He finished the 2018-19 campaign with 28 dunks. In his three seasons with the Bearcats, Brooks averaged 1.2 dunks per 40 minutes.

Brooks is also a monster offensive rebounder. In over 1,400 career minutes with Cincinnati, Brooks posted an offensive rebound rate of 12.1 percent. As as junior, in a more featured role, Brooks put together his strongest effort: 13.8 percent offensive rebound rate, which ranked 34th nationally.

Along with Brandon Clarke and Tacko Fall, Brooks was one of 19 Division I players in the 2018-19 season to finish with a 12 percent offensive rebound rate and eight percent block rate.

Oh, Brooks can also run the floor, which will come in handy. With early rim runs in transition, Brooks can draw in extra defenders and flatten out early-clock defenses. This should open up driving lanes for Miami’s plethora of zippy ball handlers.


Conceptually Speaking

Miami has the frontline depth to play two traditional bigs if the staff desires. For some match-ups, that could make more sense: Waardenburg’s stretch game and Brooks fit together. However, it’s more fun to envision what this team could look like with a more dynamic 4-out approach. Think back to what Anthony Lawrence added to this roster a few years ago — a versatile defender who could screen and slip into space offensively.

(This is a gorgeous set: 1-4 high Iverson cut — into an empty-side double drag ball screen with roll/pop actions.)

Lawrence was an accomplished 3-point marksman at Miami: 142 career 3-pointers (37.8 3P%). It’s asking a lot out of Timberlake to step right in and be a plus-shooter. But even if he’s able to force closeouts and drive gaps, then Miami will be really tough to stop.

Look how well the 2017-18 team was able to space the floor.

Miami could get tricky and play those four guards at the same time with Brooks. The Hurricanes would be really small in those lineups, but offensively they would pack a serious punch. With Timberlake or the four guards, opponents will face more of a challenge blitzing or trapping Lykes off screens. There are just too many secondary play-makers on the floor.

If opponents are forced to guard Lykes, McGusty, Wong and Beverly one-on-one — or two-on-two in screen-roll with Brooks — Miami will get good looks.

This can work against a zone, too. Keep an eye on all of NC State team defense in this 2018 game. Hernandez screens for Brown; Al Freeman jumps to the ball and leaves Lykes open on the wing, which draws up Markell Johnson. Lawrence spaces to the weak-side corner, and moves Omer Yurtseven out of the restricted area.

All of a sudden, Torin Dorn is put in a precarious situation as Brown dribbles off the screen and Walker lifts up. Dorn must decide between tagging Hernandez’s roll or covering Walker on the wing. Instead, he tries to be in two places at once; Dorn is caught in no man’s land.

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