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Attacking From The Middle

NCAA Basketball: Duquesne at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Remember the Pittsburgh Panthers (7-2) offense, or at least the results, during that 6-0 run to start the season? Heck, even the first half against the Iowa Hawkeyes. That hasn’t been the case since, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Teams now have a lot more tape to review, and are beginning to figure out how one-dimensional Pitt is.

Freshman guard Xavier Johnson has proven he can get to the rim at will; he went into the game last night attempting 54.5% of his shots at the rim. But his drives are mostly of the “all or nothing” variety, and he’s finishing less than 50% on those attempts (this isn't a complaint). Ideally, his ability to penetrate would lead to easy drop passes to a big, or open three-point attempts for the players on the perimeter.

However, the Panthers start only one big, who is always setting screens on the perimeter and is seldom in the paint when Johnson actually drives the ball. Additionally, every player in the starting lineup not named Johnson went into the game last night shooting less than 22% from long distance. That’s not a great combination.

Good teams are able to hurt you from all over the floor: At the rim, from mid-range, and from beyond the arc. I know some of you are cringing at the mention of mid-range because it’s an analysts nightmare. However, I am not talking about heaving long two-pointers in front of an NBA three-point line. I am talking about utilizing and attacking from a space other than one that has become predictable and one that the team is inefficient from.

The good news for Pitt is that they’ve shown flashes of what I am talking about during their first six games.

This is three plays taken from the game against the Central Arkansas Bears last month. Pitt has a lot of players who are good in read-and-react situations, but not necessarily great at seeing how passing lanes will open up as a play develops. By penetrating to the middle of the floor, help defense will generally come from an opposing player on the wing or directly in front of the ball handler.

In the first sequence, when junior guard Malik Ellison drove off the ball screen all five players were in front of him (5 second mark). He opted to kick the ball back out to senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame who was absolutely on fire from three-point range to open the season.

The spacing in the second clip created great driving and passing lanes. By the time Wilson-Frame makes the pass to freshman guard Au’Diese Toney (19 second mark) there are four defenders in the paint collapsing on Wilson-Frame. Toney instinctively attacked the rim off the catch, which left no time for a defender to recover and make a play on the ball.

While the last clip is another example of how the Panthers can get Toney involved with off-ball activity, it’s also unlikely to happen against good competition. I included it because dribble handoffs are sometimes run in conjunction with the high ball screen that the team likes to run. Forcing defenders to make a decision is a good thing. Here, Toney kept moving after his handoff as no defender went with him. All five defenders got sucked around the free throw line or above it.

Pitt had similar success attacking from the middle of the floor against the Saint Louis Billikens. The first sequence is another one featuring Ellison making a good decision against a collapsing defense. Honestly, after Toney didn’t receive an entry pass from Ellison he seemed unsure of where to go. Still, he ended up as the de facto big and recipient of a nice pocket pass from Ellison that he was able to take and attack the rim from the middle of the floor.

The second sequence is a good offensive possession, and one that the Panthers should try to replicate going forward. I like the idea of Johnson being off the ball for a possession here and there, as he’s also one of the teams most reliable shooters.

Back to the clip, Saint Louis collapsed with all five defenders which allowed for Ellison to cut from the weak side unabated and into N’Dir’s vision for an easy dunk. Ellison could have just spotted-up for a three-pointer, but instead flashed into the middle for the floor. He unlikely would have made the triple, but went for the dunk instead.

In the last sequence, Ellison flashed to the space, in the middle of the floor, where junior forward Kene Chukwuka cleared (notice how he exits his screen, good job, Kene). He provided an outlet for Wilson-Frame who was double-teamed, turned and attacked the rim.

Again, the point isn’t that Pitt needs to take mid-range jumpers, as none of the sequences above featured any. Rather the Panthers need to at least try and attack from an area of the floor other than right at the rim. Sure, a layup or dunk carries the highest probability of conversion. But you simply can’t take every shot from there, and as competition becomes stiffer, those attempts will be much harder to come by, consistently.

- Stats courtesy of Hoop-Math.

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