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The Beautiful Partnership of Kevin Keatts and DJ Burns

You probably couldn’t find a worse fit for the style of basketball that Kevin Keatts cut his teeth with than DJ Burns. The spread pick-and-roll approach demands an athletic big who can rim run hard, play above the rim, and stretch the floor. Keatts also wants to switch one through five on defense. Burns cannot rim run hard, he cannot play above the rim, he does not stretch the floor much, and he absolutely cannot switch defensively. But for obvious reasons, if you can get a DJ Burns on your basketball team, you get a Burns, and then you leverage the outrageous matchup issues the man creates, system be damned. 

A lot has been made about Burns’ ability to score and distribute in the post, and enough simply cannot be said, but more should be made about the total 180 Kevin Keatts directed this year to build this team’s offense around the man. It’s a complete deviation from how State has lived in the past, and hopefully some winning as a result of it can put the utterly inane narrative that Kevin Keatts does not adjust and just plays “hero ball” to bed forever. 

State had guard issues early in the year. DJ Horne started the conference season 10/41 from the field. Michael O’Connell was certainly not the guy he was last week. The pick-and-roll sets were hitting at a pretty low rate, especially against teams that minimized tagger rotation, until Horne and Middlebrooks broke out a bit against Wake Forest. Keatts was keenly aware of the possibility for some inconsistencies here, and he split this offense into basically two distinct categories of sets: Burns post-ups and Horne/O’Connell PnR sets when Burns was not in the game. 

All year, the Burns sets have hit a higher rate than anything else. It is the most overt and consequential adjustment of Keatts’ tenure at NC State, and Burns posting a preposterous 17-for-23 stat line against UVA and UNC is the culmination of that work. 

It’s all in the alignment of the players. This is not simply feeding Burns and hoping he scores. It’s an entire offense that’s dependent on floor spacing and off-ball movement to exploit doubles. It was so effective in the ACC Tournament that both Virginia and UNC totally called off the double teams. Doubling in the post is a default for Tony Bennett. Nobody is better in rotation than the Hoos, and it was too much for them. And then Burns ate Jordan Minor and Armando Bacot alive. He is superhuman, and Keatts’ usage of him was an excellent piece of in-season coaching. It was a beautiful marriage that is not over just yet. 

It works like this. 

  1. State runs some sort of initiation movement to get the ball to the wing and Burns sealing in the short corner. These looks would vary, but their goal was just to initiate this alignment.

  2. Burns initiates the back down 16-18 feet from the basket in the short corner. State would intentionally set this up far from the basket. You often hear about post positioning and bigs trying to earn it so far under the basket that they don’t even have to make a post move. State never sought this for very intentional reasons.

    1. It made it impossible to front Burns. The only way to stop DJ Burns is to stop him from getting the ball. You can’t front a post player 18 feet from the basket. It’s too easy to feed over the top.

    2. It stretched the distance that needed to be covered in order to double. Teams would run doubles from different places. They would often float doubles as help from nearby shooters, but Burns had the opportunity to anticipate and read these things. With all of his options on one side, he could see the whole court and read the movement of the help defense. 

    3. Burns could execute this backdown. Generally, backing down from 18 feet is very difficult unless you have a massive size advantage. You might have noticed that Burns has a massive size advantage. 

  3. State empties the strong side and moves its four to the dunker spot under the basket. They didn’t always put someone in the dunker spot, but it was a common approach. The play then runs from there.

    1. Burns backs down his man and scores over him if no double comes. 

    2. If a double comes from the point, Burns kicks to open shooters

    3. If a double comes baseline from the dunker spot coverage, defenses would rotate a perimeter defender from the weak side to the dunker spot, and Burns would hit a vicious skip pass to the corner for three. It wasn’t just court vision for DJ Burns. It was the velocity and accuracy of his passes that made that skip pass a possibility. Very few bigs can execute that play consistently. 

Just look at this pass. Tennessee doubles baseline and rotates off Parker to Middlebrooks in the dunker spot. Leaving a skip pass over four guys across the entire court as the only option is a huge win for the defense. DJ Burns does not care.

There were variations of this. State would run cutting actions to the rim a lot. It would sometimes flare screen shooters back to Burns for open threes. It built out from there, but Burns in the short corner was the lifeblood of the Wolfpack offense. 

All year, Keatts did a good job with these players. Hopefully, winning the league will put some respect on that, but it shouldn’t have to. Completely redesigning the offense is noteworthy, whether Michael O’Connell hits a prayer to tie Virginia or not. Basketball is a personnel-first game, and Keatts built this team around a still pretty flawed group of personnel, leveraged his mismatches, and created an offense that was frankly better than it had a whole lot of business being. This point exists outside of the miraculous tournament run, although Burns shooting 62% and averaging 3.4 assists certainly magnifies it. 

There are a lot of components to the Pack's wild ACC Championship run, but the marriage of DJ Burns' incredible skillset and Kevin Keatts' organization around him is among the largest. There have been a lot of valid gripes about Keatts' seven years in Raleigh, but targeting a poor system fit like Burns, rebuilding the system around him, and winning a title doing so, can finally, hopefully, put an end to the false narrative that the man is a bad Xs and Os coach.


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