Fixing the offense

Much has been made about the offense and it’s struggles. In a way it’s a little ironic to complain about an offense that is currently ranked 45th in the nation according to KenPom. On the other hand, the offense could definitely be better. It’s too late in the season to change the offense completely, but there are minor tweaks that can be made to help the offense succeed more often.

This article is going to focus on one player, and how he can really help the offense: Keshad Johnson.

What’s wrong with Keshad Johnson?

In an overall sense, Keshad Johnson is a fine player. The AztecBreakdown composite metric ranks him as the 49th best player in the conference, which puts him in the top third of players in the Mountain West.

So overall, he is a better than average player. He strggules on the offensive end though due to a lack of high level offensive skills. He’s a good offensive rebounder, and can change the momentum of a game with his thunderous dunks, but skills like ball handling, playmaking, shooting from the perimeter, are all lacking. His defense is generally good, and makes him worth playing, but the team has it’s worst offensive rating when Keshad is on the floor, and that’s no coincidence.

The Adjusted Team OFfensive Efficiency column to the right is telling in regards to Johnson.

The point of this article isn’t to bash Keshad Johnson. He’s shown his work in the gym to try and improve his offensive game. Sometimes that work doesn’t translate for whatever reason. It is an indictment on the coaches, however.

The coaching staff, in general, has been great. That being said, their deployment of unskilled bigs, this season more than others, has left something to be desired. This article will focus on a couple small tweaks that the coaches could implement in order to help the offense perform better when Johnson is on the floor.

Vertical Gravity

“Gravity” is a player’s ability to keep defenders close to them. It’s usually talked about in the context of shooters. Players like Matt Bradley and Adam Seiko have great gravity, as defenders tend to not help as much when they’re guarding those players. When Keshad Johnson is outside the three-point line, he has no gravity.

There is another form of gravity though, and that is vertical gravity. Players that are high leapers and good at finishing alley oops, they have gravity because if defenders leave the player next to the rim they’re giving up an easy layup or dunk. Johnson, with his leaping and dunking ability, has vertical gravity. So what’s the best way to take advantage of it in a half court setting?

To start, the coaches should put Keshad Johnson in the weakside dunker spot. That is the spot on the low block on the opposite side of the floor as the ball.

In this picture, 1 has the ball, 5 is where Keshad Johnson should be.

The good news is, the coaches often put Johnson there already. The bad news is, they then often run pick and rolls with a big like Mensah or LeDee, and that big will roll down to the strong side block. That puts two defensive players right at the rim, plus whoever is defending the ball handler. It becomes very hard to score in that situation. The clip below shows (kind of) a concept that could work, however.

This video shows Johnson’s vertical Gravity, as the Air Force defender doesn’t stop Bradley’s drive for fear of Johnson scoring.

Notice Bradley gets all the way to the rim. He doesn’t finish but he does draw the foul. Notice Keshad’s defender didn’t leave Keshad to stop Bradley. That’s vertical gravity. And notice what LeDee does. He doesn’t roll to the strong side dunker spot right away. He waits for Bradley to drive before following for a potential offensive rebound. LeDee’s defender stayed with him, and Johnson and LeDee’s combined gravity gave Bradley an open lane to drive to the rim.

If LeDee executes a pick and pop instead of a pick and roll, or at least delays the roll as he did in the clip above, it could really help with the spacing. That doesn’t work if there are two bigs down low, but with just Johnson it could be successful.

As a bonus, it could give LeDee more opportunites on the perimeter. Perimeter play isn’t something LeDee has been consistently good at yet, but it’s something he’s flashed some ability with from time to time.

If LeDee finds his outside shot, or shows a capability to attack closeouts like in the clip above, then all of a sudden this offensive system will wreak havoc, as defenses will have to choose to let a player like Bradley drive the rim, or let a player like LeDee attack a closeout, or let a player like Keshad get an easy dunk.

This should be a relatively minor change, as it’s something they’ve already done in certain circumstances. There’s another change they could make that is something Keshad has already done in past seasons.

Creating Gravity where there is none

Keshad has no gravity on the perimeter, which isn’t a surprise. He’s shot only 21% from three this season. That’s up from 18% last season. Opposing defenses dare him to beat them by shooting, and it generally works out for them.

Because of this, Keshad’s defender is almost always in the paint, close to the basket. There is no need to guard him out behind the three point line, or even in the midrange (although Keshad has improved from about fifteen feet away from the basket.) Having that extra defender in the paint makes it harder for everyone else to score at the rim.

This shows how defenses guard Keshad. In this example, 4 is Keshad, while x4 is his defender.

So what can be done? If the defense won’t guard Keshad does he have to just sit by the rim the entire game? Luckily, the answer is no. There are ways to get defenders to stay close to Keshad even if Keshad isn’t a threat.

The easiest way is by setting off ball screens for shooters. The diagram below shows how it could work. In the picture, 2 does not have any gravity, so 2’s defender (x2) is in the paint, just like with Keshad. Imagine 3 is a player like Seiko, or Parrish, or even Bradley. If 2 sets a good screen for 3, then x3 falls a step behind, 3 gets the ball and a wide open corner three point shot. The Aztecs have a number of players who could drill those.

If the Aztecs do it over and over again, the defense is going to have to decide whether or not to keep giving up open three’s, or to keep Keshad’s defender closer so he can help on the screen. If they make the second choice there is one less defender in the paint. If they make the first choice, guys like Seiko will shoot open three after open three.

The good news about that is it is something Keshad has done before. The clip below is from the game at Wyoming in 2022. Notice Keshad’s defender all the way in the paint, so he sets a hammer screen that gets Trey Pulliam a wide open corner three. It was run with a Bradley isolation, but they’ve run it in tandem with pick and roll’s too.

If the starting lineup runs a pick and roll with Butler and Mensah, puts Bradley in the strong side corner so his gravity can keep the driving lane open, and has Johnson set a hammer screen for Trammell, that should result in a lot more open shots in general. If executed properly, either Butler will get to the rim more, Mensah will get easy dunks, or one of Bradley or Trammell will get open three’s, depending on where the defense sends help from. Executing it properly is easier said then done, but at least on paper it looks better than trying to drive the rim when there’s already two defenders down there.

Both of the proposed changes are relatively minor, and can be installed within a couple of practices. The whole system doesn’t need to be blown up, but a couple of tweaks would really help optimize players and put them in the best positions to help the team succeed.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the insights. Regarding Ledee, I think he is a pretty good set shooter even from the 3 point line from what I saw in the swish summer league and his ability to make free throws. But in games from 15 feet he always gathers himself to shoot a jump shot when no one is around him and he is not as efficient with a jump shot.


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