At his introductory press conference in April, new VCU head coach Will Wade established the offensive framework for the 2015-2016 Rams.
“We’re going to be an aggressive, attacking team. So, we’re going to get out and attack in transition. We want to get the ball in the paint as much as possible – off the bounce, off the pass. We want to shoot close 2s, we want to shoot free throws from getting fouled, and we want to shoot 3s.”
From that excerpt alone, it’s abundantly clear that Will Wade values efficiency.
- Transition field goal percentages tend to skew higher as the offense can get looks before the defense is set
- The charity stripe is theoretically where players will convert at the highest rates
- Close 2s offer the distinct advantage of proximity
- 3 > 2
A recipe with familiar ingredients, the gameplan is squarely in accord with modern thinking on the game. With the offensive punch list, Wade established a clear direction for a new era of VCU basketball.
Perhaps most notably as a byproduct of HAVOC, creating offensive opportunities in the transition game has been a staple of the Rams’ formula. The high-intensity turnover inducing style, in part, helped generate 580 transition looks, or 27.1% of all VCU’s field goal attempts in the 2014-15 season. The Rams converted at 51.4 eFG% on those transition chances – good for more than a 3.5 percentage point increase over their conversion rate on non-transition field goal attempts, according to hoop-math.com.
With some new defensive looks afoot, it’s possible that the transition opportunities will regress slightly. While a willingness to occasionally mix in zone on the defensive end will be a welcome sight at the Stu, the staff will be forced in these instances to weigh the implications on the stated goal of attacking in transition. Generally speaking, a zone defense is less effective at securing rebounds, halting a team’s potential to get out and run in the open court. That said, in his two years at Chattanooga, Wade’s teams produced an average of a not terrible 24.1% of all field goal attempts through transition. With a squad accustomed to getting out and running, a defense rooted in tumult, and hard-nosed glass cleaners in the frontcourt, it’s likely we see plenty of early offense from the Rams again this season.
Basketball offers no more efficient means of scoring than standing at the line for a couple of freebies. Of course this assumes you make the gimmie. Of course that assumes you get to the line. Neither skill was a relative strength of Shaka Smart’s VCU teams. To be fair, over the course of the previous six seasons the Rams were simply an average free throw shooting team converting on 68.9%. Not great, but close enough to respectable.
There is more room for growth in the (arguably more important) area of getting to the line. The ’14-’15 Rams were Smart’s most adept squad at drawing shooting fouls with a free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of 37.3% (37.0% was average in D1), however VCU was typically below average in this category from 2009-2015. Will Wade’s two Chattanooga teams boasted consecutive seasons with an above average free throw rate at 44.6% and 43.8% (35th nationally) respectively. Under Wade, the Mocs saw their highest rate of trips to the line since 2009.
Oral Roberts transfer Korey Billbury should offer a needed boost here. Although he’s capable of knocking down a 3, the 6’3’’ 200lb guard is best equipped to put the ball on the floor and getting to the rim. Last season Billbury finished with a healthy 39.8% free throw rate and drew 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes, according to kenpom.com. Jonathan Williams leads all returning Rams in fouls drawn per 40 at 4.4. JeQuan Lewis may be the most important Ram in this category – not only is he proficient at drawing fouls, but he’s also an 80% free throw shooter. And imagine the additional trips to the line Melvin Johnson could earn if he starts penetrating like this with some frequency…
In the 2014-2015 season VCU attempted 2,139 shots. I logged all of these and have taken a crack at visualizing them in the chart below.
You can see that getting shots inside was a relative strength. VCU took 41.1% of all shots in that area, and made 52% of such attempts. Taking shots near the rim is a pretty self-explanatory objective. So when coach Wade said, “We want to shoot close 2s…” he’s also letting you know what 2s he doesn’t want. Specifically, one would imagine, the long variety. VCU attempted 106 long 2s last season – 8.7% of all shots – and made 64 (34.4%). That’s nearly the exact percentage at which they made 3-pointers, 34.3%. Putting situational context aside for a moment, hoisting a shot worth two points that has roughly the same chance of going in as a shot worth three, is not a good decision.
As a percentage of overall attempts, Davidson (45.6%) was the only team in the Atlantic-10 to take more 3-pointers than VCU (39.9%) last season. And while the Wildcats were pouring in the long ball at a near 39% clip, the Rams were just an average 3-point team converting on 34.3%. But take a look at those corners – a blistering 41.9% combined from both corner 3 spots! VCU made more 3-pointers in the left corner than they did from any other spot beyond the arc, and Melvin Johnson led the Rams with 14 on an insane 50% shooting.
It shouldn’t be a shock that the Rams’ highest 3P% would come from the corners, and how these shots are manufactured helps expose an area of needed improvement for this year’s squad.
Though they finished second in the A-10 in 3-pointers taken, VCU was also second to last in assisted 3s, according to hoop-math.com. Those corner 3s, where the Rams torched opponents, are significantly more dependent on an assist than just about anywhere else on the court. The corner is a tremendously difficult area of the floor to defend, so offenses that move and share the ball are able to take advantage, often finding shooters with their feet set, ready to fire.
Although he wasn’t a traditional, table-setting point guard, when VCU lost Briante Weber they also lost their top 3-point assist man. Despite missing nearly half the season, Weber assisted on 46 3-pointers. JeQuan Lewis was second on the team with 39, and he performed admirably in Weber’s absence. Lewis is a lightning-quick scoring threat with the ability to penetrate and bend the defense, clearing space for spot-up shooters in vulnerable areas around the arc.
The climate of modern basketball would suggest that VCU should continue to shoot 3-pointers at the rate they did in 2014-15 – if not more. But what we also know about the game is that a field goal attempt derived from a pass tends to be more efficient than individual shot creation. The Rams will need to improve on the conference’s twelfth best assist rate (A/FGM) for this offense to reach its potential. Treveon Graham is gone – VCU can no longer rely on the humble hitman to rescue subpar possessions from inefficiency.
With Weber and Graham, VCU has lost their best 3-point assist man and best 3-point shooter. But Will Wade’s approach to the game should help to assuage the loss of that production. The plan is simple: attack efficiently.