Examining the ACC’s Second-Year Point Guards: Jeremy Roach is ceiling-raiser for Duke’s offense

The 2021-22 ACC basketball season is right around the corner. One of the more intriguing themes of the league this year centers on the number of impactful second-year point guards. Look around the ACC, there are a lot of talented guards who enter the season as swing pieces for the overall hopes of their programs.

We’ll explore several of these players — starting with Duke’s Jeremy Roach.


Pick-and-Roll Playmaking

It’s important to remember, as Roach starts his sophomore season: For this to work in Durham, he doesn’t have to be a mega-watt creator for Duke’s offense. However, Duke does need him to touch the paint more this season with his dribble, and finish accordingly.

While the Blue Devils struggled on the floor during an up-and-down 2020-21 season, the offense was mostly fine. In fact, it was pretty good: Duke finished with a top-20 offense in terms of adjusted efficiency. The action seemed rote at times, but if Matthew Hurt was on the floor, things were mostly fine. According to Pivot Analysis, the Blue Devils scored 116.1 points per 100 possessions with Hurt on the court, as he mastered his Nowitzki-an style fadeaway.

With that said, the offense lacked genuine rim pressure and a pathway to creating fouls. This was where Jalen Johnson was supposed to erupt as do-it-all athlete on offense. Of course, that initiative never quite got off the ground.

There were some marginal improvements later in this season; Mark Williams (4.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes) emerged over the final 10 games as a legit pressure point on the basket.

For much of the season, though, Duke was overly-reliant on relatively difficult shot-making to sustain its offense. The Blue Devils ranked 336th nationally in free throw attempts rate: 23.4 percent, easily the worst number ever from a Mike Krzyzewski team in the KenPom era — dating back to the 1996-97 season.

Moreover, only 35.2 percent of Duke’s field goal attempts came on close 2-point attempts (No. 172 nationally), according to Bart Torvik’s shot data. That’s the lowest percentage for a Duke team since the 2016-17 squad, which was kind of a mess on offense despite the presence Jayson Tatum and Grayson Allen.

TeamPercent of FGAClose 2P%
2016-1733.2%65.4 2P%
2017-1839.1%65.9 2P%
2018-1941.1%69.6 2P%
2019-2044.4%60.3 2P%
2020-2135.2%64.5 2P%

This is partly due to the 2020-21 team’s lack of a pure power post presence (say that five times fast). Hurt was incredible last year (1.37 points per post-up possession, 71.4 FG%), but he did most of his inside-the-arc damage from the mid-post or falling away from the basket.

Duke’s primary ball handlers this season must do a better job getting downhill and into the paint, which will force opposing defenses to bend and open up second-side options — or lobs to Williams and Paolo Banchero.

These types of lobs to bigs in the dunker spot should be a staple of Duke’s half-court offense. When Roach gets dribble-penetration and help defense arrives, this should be the first look.

Again, Williams was damn good to close the 2020-21 campaign.

Roach has the ability to crack a defense with his handle and mix of speeds; he just needs to pick his spots and show even more of it this season.

According to Synergy Sports, Roach shot 59.5 percent at the rim in the half court, which is a solid number. Over 80 percent of his rim finishes came unassisted, too.

Roach was one of only three ACC players last season — 6-foot-2 or shorter — who shot above 58 percent on 2-point attempts, along with Jose Alvarado and (of course) Tyrece Radford.

Some of that 2-point efficiency is derived from Roach shooting a really good ball from the midrange as well. According to Synergy, Roach posted an effective shooting rate of 52.6 percent on off-dribble jumpers last season. This was a top-10 number in the ACC, among players with 30+ attempts.

From Duke’s continuity ball screen offense, this is a nice rejection from Roach; he sees Anthony Walker ready to show/hedge off the Johnson screen. Instead, Roach turns down the screen and rips through, right by Isaiah Wong.

Roach isn’t an otherworldly burner, but he’s quick and capable of beating guys 1-on-1 (without a ball screen). The second-year guard can get to the rim, ahead of the back-line help.

On the whole, Duke pick-and-roll ball handlers struggled to create their own offense last season: 0.63 points per possession (39.8 eFG%), per Synergy, which ranked dead last among ACC teams. Roach, however, was a bit of a bright spot here; as a freshman, he was the team’s top pick-and-roll ball handler, scoring 0.81 points per possession (50 eFG%).

This is notable given how much Duke runs pick-and-roll — out of its continuity sets or Horns.

With Roach, there were real flashes of his during his freshman year; Duke just needs more of it, along with improved decision-making. Roach averaged 2.9 turnovers per 40 minutes last season, which is a high number for player with a sub-20 percent usage rate.


Move It Around

Beyond the guards struggling to locate their own offense, Duke’s pick-and-roll attacked lacked punch last season. Pick-and-roll divers and pick-and-pop shooters combined to score just 0.92 points per possession (No. 10 ACC), although Williams helped matters late in the season.

Roach must be able to create good, easy looks for Duke’s play-finishers. Obviously, Williams is (literally) a massive target, but those high-percentage looks don’t materialize out of thin air. Unless it’s an offensive rebound put-back, someone has to set him up. Roach must be able to cause the occasional defensive breakdown.

As it important as it is for Roach to get paint touches with his handle, he should look to explore more as a passer, too.

That can be a fine line to walk, when also trying to cut down on turnovers; however, Roach showed flashes of making layered reads out of ball-screen actions last season.

These live-dribble skip passes aren’t easy — even if the ball handler has a good understanding of how off-ball/weak-side defenders are going to rotate. When Williams and Banchero, and Theo John, roll to the rim, it will force back-side rotations.

This skip pass to wide-open weak-side spot-up shooters, like Trevor Keels and Joey Baker, will be there for the taking. Can Roach hit them consistently?


Jeremy Roach: Spot-up Shooting

Roach will be asked to carry a fair amount of the playmaking equity; however, Duke has several other guys that will play with the basketball. Banchero is a stud and will run things from all levels of the floor. Wendell Moore Jr. has shown flashes as a slasher; plus, he’s looked bouncier than ever before in Duke’s preseason build-up. When AJ Griffin returns from injury, he’ll operate with the ball, too. Keels will also get his chances. These are a lot of really good options.

As important as it will be to make strides as an on-ball decision-maker, Roach must also be ready to function as a secondary, off-ball target.

During his freshman season, Roach shot 31.3 percent on his 3-point looks, while posting an effective shooting rate of only 42.5 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, per Synergy. This was a bottom-five number in the ACC last season, among players with 50+ attempts. (UNC’s Caleb Love ranked last: 34.5 percent).

Nothing is broken with Roach’s spot-up jumper, although his gather process is a little slow; there’s a bit of a windup after he catches and before he brings the ball up to his shooting pocket. If Roach can speed this up some, it could raise his overall spot-up efficiency — by cutting down on the number of plus-contests he sees.

Either way, if Roach can lift his 3-point shooting into the mid-30s from a percentage standpoint, then he’ll work on some possessions as a nice supplemental piece to Duke’s high-usage, high-wattage creators.

Of course, hitting those open jumpers is only half of the battle. The best spot-up players still need counters to hard closeouts. For instance, North Carolina’s Kerwin Walton, who also needs to speed up his release, is the best shooter in the ACC. Walton also has a quality pull-up game, though, to go to when opponents when run him off the arc.

Roach has a nice floater and a solid pull-up jumper. He should be able to get to those looks by playing off advantage created by guys like Banchero, Griffin and and Moore.

When Banchero or Williams isolate in the post, Roach can also get busy by moving without the basketball as a cutter.


Don’t Drop It: Screen-Roll Defense

When Duke’s defense has struggled in recent years, it’s largely come from issues in ball-screen coverages. Despite having tremendous length and athleticism, the Blue Devils can be a little leaky when they play drop pick-and-roll coverage and are forced to rotate around on the back side of the play.

Over the last decade, some of the best Duke defenses have problem-solved these issues by simplifying things on that side of the floor. The 2017-18 team, which featured the Marvin Bagley IIIWendell Carter Jr. frontcourt, flipped to a full-time zone defense halfway through the season, and finished with a top-10 defense.

(Bill Self and Kansas had a great game plan for Duke’s zone when the teams met in the Elite Eight, though.)

The 2014-15 national title team didn’t commit to zone defense nearly as intensely as the 2018 squad. However, that group also found success with zone. Mostly, it helped by removing Jahlil Okafor from frequent pick-and-roll defense responsibilities.

The 2018-19 team was loaded with athletes — Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones and RJ Barrett — and leaned on a switch-heavy defense to keep the ball in front, while attacking passing lanes on the backend. (Prior to the 2018-19 season, I bet on Duke using a switch scheme.)

(I think this Duke team, with Williams and Banchero, is a strong candidate to try some zone as well. That’s TBD, though.)

Unsurprisingly, it’s a lot easier to run potent man-to-man defense when you have a sturdy point-of-attack defender like Jones, who was a menace regardless of scheme.

From the looks of things, and just given its personnel, Duke likely wants to drop or play to the level of the screen in pick-and-roll coverage. When you have a 7-foot anchor like Williams, you’re not going to switch; you want the big fella in the paint. (The Blue Devils could look to switch more when they downsize and play Banchero at the 5, along with a combination of guards and wings 1-4.)

For this to work, though, it means strong on-ball defense and screen navigation from Roach.

Prentiss Hubb, a good pull-up shooter, hits the jumper here, but this is solid pick-and-roll defense from Roach. He gets a little caught on Juwan Durham’s screen; however, he’s still able to get over the pick and put up a strong contest on an early-clock long pull-up 2.

During the 2020-21 season, Duke initially tried to switch 1-5; that was clearly part of the plan with Hurt at center and Jalen Johnson as the de facto 4. While Duke had issues with its switch, things were even uglier at times when Johnson was asked to play drop.

Obviously, Williams will need to improve in this aspect of the game — taking a better initial position and getting into a stance to corral the ball. But Roach has to be able to get over in a more seamless fashion, especially when the screen is set this high. That’s too much space for a good offensive player like Trey Wertz; it’s up to Williams to keep him in front, but that’s a big challenge from above the 3-point line.

This breakdown forces Hurt to help on the Wertz drive, which puts Moore 1-on-2 as a help-side defender, with two good shooters spaced out. Dane Goodwin is too good to see a look like this, off the catch.

If Duke wants to be able to drop or play Williams and Banchero to the level of the screen, it’ll require improved rotation efforts when the ball starts to ping around after the first pass — along with forceful defense guarding the ball. Roach must be a table-setter of sorts for Duke, on both sides of the floor.


Double PG Lineups

During his freshman year, Roach played in a lot of 3-guard lineups — with DJ Steward and Jordan Goldwire. Roached played 658 minutes in his rookie season. Steward and Goldwire were both on the floor with him for 241 of those minutes, per Pivot Analysis. The Blue Devils were +52 in those minutes and finished with a +13.3 points per 100 possession net rating.

Over half of Roach’s total minutes came with Goldwire on the floor: +40 in 390 minutes. Roach finished with a 16.6 percent assist rate, third on the roster, just ahead of WMJ. (Goldwire and Johnson were top two in terms of assist rate: 22 percent and 20.5 percent, respectively.)

These moves largely came as a result of Duke looking to maximize perimeter playmaking options. Now, it’ll be interesting to see how often freshman point guard Jaylen Blakes shares the court with Roach.

The roster, however, is different this year. More on-ball creation should come from the wings and Banchero, certainly. Duke shouldn’t need to double up on point guards to drum up north-south creation, although it could be a wildcard of sorts for Coach K. Obviously, this will also depend on Blakes and his preparedness for ACC basketball.

Regardless, the development of Roach will likely factor into the overall ceiling of this team. Duke has the athletes and enough talent to be really good and win a bunch of games. If Roach makes strides as an initiator (when called upon) and spot-up threat, then he’ll provide another important offensive gear as a lead ball handler.


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