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Meet NC State's Rebuilt Backcourt

NC State has added two new guards via the transfer portal, officially filling the roster spots left by the expiring eligibility of Casey Morsell and DJ Horne. Both additions bring double-digit scoring resumes, both bring size, and both bring some question marks that Keatts will have to answer.


The TLDR


Marcus Hill


Strengths

  • Skilled guard who gets to his spots in the lane

  • Good crossover, nasty spin move, good repertoire of moves to create leverage and angles

  • Decent passer, good at reading help and rotation


Question marks

  • Lacks burst off the ball

  • Poor perimeter shooter


Mike James


Strengths

  • Strong at the rim

  • Can get in the lane and finish through contact, gets to free throw line

  • Solid perimeter shooter


Question marks

  • Inefficient player last season

  • Can play out of control sometimes

  • Good shooter as a catch-and-shoot guy, but need to see more off the dribble


Meet Marcus Hill


Hill is a big guard, which Kevin Keatts loves. He’s listed at 6’4, and his size was an asset at Bowling Green last year. There is not a lot of explosiveness to his game off the bounce, and the strengths that pop on the tape are more in his ability to use angles and create space for himself. He uses his body really well in the lane. Crafty is the buzzword to describe him, and his tool box of moves helped him notch 314 attempts at the rim in 2023-24, which was first in the nation for guards. That’s an astronomical number that comes out to almost 10 per game.


That’s good news. State badly needed rim pressure out of the transfer portal. DJ Horne and Michael O’Connell combined for less than half of that last season, and O’Connell as the only returning guard put up just 55 shots at the rim the whole year. Hill made 143 unassisted buckets at the rim. At Bowling Green, he could get in the lane and score. 


The questions with Hill come less from his stats and more from his tape. How he gets his shots raises some flags for me about stepping up to the ACC level. As mentioned, he’s big and not super explosive. Bowling Green would post him up a decent amount because of his skill set in the lane and the size issues he could create against other MAC guards. Off the dribble, he was good at using crossovers to create angles and he had one of the better spin moves in America . He’s skilled with the ball and with his body, and he knows how to use that to get to his spots, and then could use his size to finish over people. Very rarely though did he actually beat defenders off the dribble. 


When it comes to these guards that lack explosion off the bounce, particularly ones that don’t shoot well, it can become very easy for defenses to switch ball screens and play a step off the ball, and hedge those ball screens should the big create too much of a mismatch. Hedging ball screens can prove effective against slower guards that can’t turn the corner and aren’t really a threat to do things like split. It does come with concessions though, mainly aggressive rotations. Michael O’Connell had some really effective stretches against such a defense, even as a guard who lacked burst, because his timing and reads were great, and Keatts did a good job putting him in actions that slowed the arrival of the hedging big. How Hill fares with a significant increase in on-ball pick-and-roll usage remains to be seen, but as a guard with below average pop off the bounce who shot 28% from three last year, there are some definite question marks as to how State could adjust to beat these types of defenses. 


Part of the issue trying to scout Hill for his fit at NC State is that he wasn’t a high volume ball screen guard. He was certainly on the ball a lot, but Bowling Green was not a super heavy pick-and-roll team. There are absolutely some positive glimpses of Hill operating basic ball screen sets on the tape, but definitely not a high volume of them. Hill’s assist numbers do reflect a guard who is not much of a distributor, but this is one area that I think he’s better than the numbers say. He reads help well, and he can move the basketball. If you want to be a pessimist on Hill, stop reading now. If you want to be an optimist, keep reading.


I think Hill actually has a lot of potential as a distributor. There is only so much tape publicly available because Bowling Green is a lot harder to find on YouTube than a power conference school, but there is some good stuff in what's available. Here is a flat pick and roll set with a basket slip. Hill makes the appropriate read with Toledo tagging hard with the at-the-level coverage, and he hits a solid skip pass for three points. These are the kind of actions he's going to find himself in next year.

This next one was a simple read, but I liked what Hill did here. Toledo was playing a lot of drop coverage, which can prove effective against a guy like Hill if you have the size, but it's vulnerable to a shooting big. Bowling Green got into a lot of these ghost actions in the second half of this game for this reason. Here is one.

You can see the Toledo big drop when the screen initiates. When the big ghosts the screen, Hill could kick this ball to him right away, but instead he engages the help in the gap which gets two defenders on the ball. It's a little thing, and it doesn't affect the play a ton because the defender does a pretty good job, but the help can lose track of the shooter and end up in a difficult closeout here, and by coming back to the middle, Hill has an easier skip pass to the wing should the wing defender rotate. It's a smart play.


While I do get some pause from how he profiles in NC State’s system as a ball-dominant guard, I'm inclined to trust Kevin Keatts, who did a really good job with Horne and O'Connell getting both into the right kind of ball screen and DHO actions. He really did a phenomenal job last season orienting his action distribution away from the weaknesses of his guards, and there are definite weaknesses this coming year too.


Ram pick-and-roll was really popular set for O'Connell because it created extra space against hedging defenses for him to deliver pocket passes or skip passes to combat aggressive roller tags. I'd expect this to be a really popular action again with Hill and O'Connell. Keatts got Horne into tons of zoom actions, which limited what was asked of him as a passer and got him downhill off the DHO. Horne made it hard to go under the DHO and chop off the driving lane because he could just fade back toward the wing and hit a three. Keatts will have to mold the system again, and definitely in a different way.


Meet Mike James


Mike James is another big guard, but he profiles differently than Hill. James mostly played on the wing for the Cards, and he was very rarely in ball screens. I do suspect an uptick here is coming. James is a rim attacker with a pretty reliable jump shot, and he noted in this interview with Pack Pride that Keatts told him he’s a better ball handler than he’s shown and that he wants to put him in more pick-and-roll actions. 


I think this makes a lot of sense for James, who is more of a true downhill guard. He gets to the free throw line a lot, and his rim attacks are far less surgical than Marcus Hill. He’s a load, he can finish through contact. The junior is also a reliable three-point shooter at 35% for his career, which is good. His efficiency numbers in general were pretty poor last season, but it’s hard to read too much into numbers when it’s not really clear at this point what kind of role he might fill, and he also played for a carcass of a basketball team.


Likely, James is off the ball more than he’s on it, and he can thrive in that spot as a sufficient floor spacer who can attack closeouts. But that role really has to be determined by what happens on the floor during the season. There is a feeling that his on-ball reps may be higher than expected. He is definitely the most downhill player on the roster.


Here's James in a spread pick and roll with fellow Wolfpacker Brandon Huntley-Hatfield.

James has some definite ability to get downhill, and he takes some legit contact here at the rim from a guy who is in perfectly legal guarding position and is able to finish anyway. That's a plus that you just didn't really have with any of this year's guards or even Smith and Joiner.


James' combination of length and strength bodes well for him on the ball, and my hope is that some player development can hit the bullseye here, because there are things to really like potential wise. If James ends up just a 3&D guy, he can be a really good one, but the ceiling is definitely higher.





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That’s a great read.

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AlecLower
AlecLower
01 mag
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Thank you! Preciate you reading.

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