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NC State MBB: Thoughts After 10 Games

Ten games deep into the men's basketball season, NC State is 7-3 and still very much in flux. This is a very different team than last year's, and State is trying to make the pieces fit as they become available. We still don't really know what this team might look like at the end of the year because of all of the fluctuations in player availability, but we know more than we did 10 games ago. Let's talk about what we do know.

Playing Through Burns

Keatts made a concerted effort out of the gate this year to play through DJ Burns. This is a deviation from his history as a spread pick-and-roll coach, but it makes obvious sense. Burns is elite in college basketball at two things: scoring as a back-to-the-basket big, and passing out of the post. It was a priority to build offense around this, a process that was expedited by a lack of rim pressure created by the team’s guards. 

That’s the progression of this team from the last. Jarkel Joiner and Terquavion Smith, particularly Joiner, were dominant guards in a spread pick and roll offense. Both were explosive off the bounce, could shoot from the outside, and could finish at the rim. Smith was hit-or-miss in the mid-range, but Joiner was nails.

State simply doesn’t have this right now. It only has bits and pieces in each player. More on this later, but this is not a roster build for spread pick and roll, thus, the importance of DJ. State has still brought a heavy dose of its basic high pick-and-roll, side pick-and-roll, and 77 pick-and-roll, but the offense has shifted away from that to accommodate the roster. 

The Pack has ran this off-ball action a lot. 

Burns sets a pin down screen for Morsell, who elevates to the point, and then can shoot or feed Burns if the shot is not there. State runs this many times a game to get Burns the ball. Usually, this is a post feed, but in this example, DJ didn't have great position and Morsell could take his man off the dribble, so State got deeper into the action than it usually does.

We’ve also seen some evolution of the side pick-and-roll with ghost actions to turn Burns into a passer. 

Vanderbilt was icing side ball screens. Icing means forcing the ball handler toward the sideline and out of the middle. You can’t ice high ball screens, but it’s a popular defense for side ball screens run from the wing area. Vandy’s on-ball defender is anticipating the screen and stepping over it to drive the ball-handler away from the middle.

State runs a lot of side pick-and-roll, so it sees this a lot. Keatts responded to it with these ghost actions, which will almost always get the big wide open because the ice requires anticipation from the defense. Here, State forces a rotation that leaves Morsell wide open in the corner. 

Here, the defense does not rotate as aggressively, so Burns just goes and scores.

Here is some off-ball screening action while playing through DJ. At a high level, State wants to feed Burns and then revolve around him as option one.  State loves to empty out the side for Burns. Here it begins with that, but State flare screens O'Connell back to the ball for a wide open three.

It doesn't feel like Burns has played as well as he did last year, but stasticially, he is still shooting 54% from the field on a high volume of shots. However, against power-conference competition, that number sinks to 43%. Teams have started to figure out how to double him more effectively, really starting with Virginia last year. It's gotten harder for him to just wreck fools now that he is the focal point of everything, but he had a strong game against Tennessee. This was a wicked skip pass.

Burns had a 15 and 5 stat line against Tennessee. It was his season-high in assists. If Burns settles into being the guy, State has the shooters to make this work.

Lack of Rim Pressure

Beyond Burns, State is a pretty good jump shooting team. Horne and Morsell are both really strong shooters, and while Taylor has not been such historically, he’s shooting over 45% from three so far this year. This group can rain some triples, but its problems start where that ends. 

State doesn’t really create enough rim pressure with its guards. A great pick-and-roll guard has to be able to do a lot of things well, but before anything else, he has to be able to get downhill and attack the basket. State had this last year, but it doesn’t really have it right now. 

Horne is getting the most reps on the ball. He is more of a pure shooter than anything else. The senior is shooting almost the same percentage from three as he is from two, and he’s made more triples this year than two-point shots. He has a pretty good first step and he is not short on quickness, but he’s small and he’s not a great finisher around the basket. Truthfully, he would be better off the ball, but I’m not sure you have anyone who would be better on the ball. 

Keatts is very obviously searching here. That’s the reason for the cycling minutes for Michael O’Connell, LJ Thomas, and DJ Horne, and it’s the reason why Kam Woods played immediately. Woods has a bit of an extra gear compared to the other guards. 

O’Connell is a lesson for fans in the definition of a true point guard. In the modern game with modern offenses, a point guard has to be able to score. O’Connell is a good passer and has superior court vision to any other guard on the team, but he’s been a failed experiment to this point because he offers no scoring punch. He can’t shoot from the perimeter, and he’s taken 14 two-point shots in 10 games. 

Kam Woods’ future aside, that’s what this team is going to be offensively. This is not a spread pick-and-roll team, and it will need to continue to play through Burns, who scored or assisted on half of State’s baskets against Tennessee. 

I think this is why you don’t see a ton of minutes for Middlebrooks, even though he’s good at some things. He and Burns together doesn’t make a lot of sense. It hurts the floor spacing to have a second big who has no jumpshot, and Middlebrooks by himself just takes your offensive lynchpin out. 

I like Ben. He adds a rim run element to the pick-and-roll that Burns does not. Burns short rolls to post up. He doesn’t move well enough for true pick-and-roll to the rim. Middlebrooks moves pretty well for a big, but them on the floor together doesn’t work that well. It’s a little different with Mo Diarra, because whether or not you believe it yet, Diarra can shoot well enough to help space the floor. 

Mo Diarra is Key

Diarra really is the secret here. He is a very important piece and his injury is particularly annoying. He’s only played over 20 minutes in three games this year, but he’s averaging 14.3 rebounds per game in those three games. He’s not just an elite rebounder, he’s a versatile defender who can switch on ball screens, and he has a budding jumper as a potential pick-and-pop threat. Diarra is very good, and if his body could get its crap together and stop being injured, we would all really appreciate it.

I think State beats Tennessee with a healthy Diarra. The Pack shot the same percentage as the Vols, had the same number of turnovers, and had an advantage at the free throw line. It gave up 14 offensive boards, though, which led to 11 more shots for Tennessee than State took. Diarra does a lot of things well, and his rebounding makes a difference on Saturday night. His absence is gigantic. It's not just a rebounding thing either. Diarra is a great defender as well. He adds shot-blocking and an ability to guard on the ball that State does not have with its other bigs.

From Afar

State has some pretty important pieces that it has not been able to get into the flow of things yet. It really is impressive how much turbidity Keatts' roster situation is routinely saddled with. Diarra and Rice should have been day one guys. We have no idea when either will be 100%. The Kam Woods thing is what it is but it's pretty clear Keatts would like to have him on the floor, and we have no idea how long he'll be eligible.

This team will have its flaws all year. DJ Burns will be a defensive liability all season, and none of the guards are magically going to become Jarkel Joiner. That isn't changing. If State can get to a point where Rice and Diarra are playing heavy minutes though, that is something that could change the dynamic of the team. I don't think there is enough there without them. What Rice's game is at this level is still a bit of an unknown, but Diarra makes them better on both sides of the court.


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