During the post-game press conference on Monday, Leonard Hamilton, head coach of the Florida State Seminoles, jokingly admitted that perhaps his team should have played zone the entire game. If you’ve watched the Pittsburgh Panthers (12-5, 2-2) play of late, then you know the reason: The freshman guard duo of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens have been living at the rim - and the free throw line as a result.
As Pitt stares down a matchup on the road against the Syracuse Orange tomorrow, a team that will play the 2-3 zone better than nearly everyone in the country, it’s becoming increasing important for the Panthers to diversify their offensive portfolio.
Keep in mind, that diversification realistically can’t come in the form of another ball-dominant player. That would disrupt their current offensive rhythm, and that’s not something you want to tamper with at this point of the season, especially if you don’t have to.
In other words, they need someone to step up on the offensive end within the flow of their current scheme. Enter freshman guard Au’Diese Toney, and the corner three-pointer. Granted, Toney is shooting just 27.7% this season, but he’s shooting 33% during ACC play (small sample size alert).
The corner three-pointer is an important part of the offense because Johnson and McGowens generally penetrate through the top of the circle, or slightly to either side towards the wing. The player in the strong side corner, often Toney, is the first player in their vision aside from a designed roll target. Since the driver can see Toney’s defender in his immediate vision, it’s a read-and-react situation as to when they should drive and finish or kick it out to Toney. Second, the passing angle is rather routine, it’s to a stationary target more or less, and often it’s the only pass available depending on how deep into the lane the driver gets.
Pitt could probably attempt a shot beyond the arc from the corner on nearly every possession so long as there is some form of dribble penetration, or if the defense is set to try and stop it. Basically, it comes naturally and within the flow of their offense.
Now that we’ve briefly (I could talk about this for an hour) discussed why the corner three-pointer is a vital part of Pitt’s offensive attack, let's take a look at all 12 triples that Toney has hoisted during conference play.
When I first started looking at these attempts, I wanted to see if I could find inconsistencies in his form. For the most part, Toney has his hands ready and set with proper footwork as he receives a pass that he intends to shoot. If he doesn’t catch it lower than his waist, he’ll take the ball down in his pocket before rising to shoot - that’s proper form. He releases from a 90 degree angle, without movement in his shooting elbow, maintains strong follow through, and puts a natural rotation on the ball.
Now, there are times when I wonder if his leading left foot creates a situation where his shoulders don’t square and that results in a push from his left shoulder rather than allowing for his mechanics and repetition to take over. That’s why I paused the clip, as Toney’s misses tend to go long. Hence, why I think he might sometimes be pushing, just enough for them to go long.
With that said, let me just say that I am not a shooting coach, but there isn’t anything mechanically wrong with what I am seeing from Toney. The fact almost every one of his three-point attempts looks like this speaks to comfortably and repetition.
Another takeaway from the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels is that Toney tries connecting from beyond the arc early in the game and/or half. I think this is head coach Jeff Capel’s way of letting teams know that you have to at least respect it.
Again, both of Toney’s triples against the Louisville Cardinals were long, and both were generated from penetration or a defense that geared up to stop players from getting into the lane.
On the road against the North Carolina Wolfpack, Toney splashes both of his three-pointers. His off-ball movement, first flashing into Jared Wilson-Frames vision for the skip pass, then his back-pedal to receive a quick kick-out from Johnson demonstrates that Toney and the team certainly work on getting this shot off in practice.
He obviously was hunting for this shot on Monday against Florida State. Again, nothing is really going to jump out with a sample of 12, or might just be a complete anomaly, but let’s take a look at some shot distribution:
Positions on the Floor:
- Corners: 3-9 (33%)
- Wing: 1-1 (100%)
- Top of Circle: 0-2 (0%)
- Drive and Kick: 2-7 (28.5%)
- Uncontested: 1-2 (50%)
- Skip Passes: 1-3 (33%)
Doing a cross frequency probably further muddies the water on a 12 shot sample, so I think keeping it basic makes sense. As all of Toney’s makes from beyond the arc have been assisted, even the uncontested attempts are via a pass. Only the one straight-away attempt against the Seminoles came outside of the flow of the offense. Again, Toney’s triples, makes and misses, come within the flow of the offense.
I am not sure Toney will ever be an elite three-point shooter, but he has a chance to be an above average one. If he can get to the point where he connects on 40% of his semi-contested looks from the corner via dribble penetration, it will go a long way in forcing teams to play Johnson and McGowens honestly. Is that achievable this season, not sure. But given his work ethic and the constant growth spurts this team goes through, I wouldn’t be surprised.