Over the course of this week, I’m doing a four-part series looking at the major issues plaguing this 1-4 Kentucky team. On Tuesday, I discussed the lack of basic leadership qualities on the court, which you can check out here. Today, the topic is the offense and how to pull it out of the depths of despair.
Among the endless stream of problems ailing Kentucky hoops, being unable to put the ball in the basket is right at the top. I’ll run through some key areas I think the offense is lacking and offer some thoughts on how this five-star roster can improve going forward. Starting with…
Aside from Immanuel Quickley morphing into 2006 J.J. Redick in late December, last year’s team was miserable from beyond the arc. And the same can be said for Tyler Herro’s hot-streak in league play during 2019.
So far, the current team is 273rd in the nation in attempts, 306th in makes and 308th in percentage. Those are hideous numbers. Somehow, they are better than the numbers in ’19 and ’20. Kentucky is taking and making about the same number of threes, although they’re nearly 200 spots lower and 10 percentage points worse at converting them (24.7% on the year).
Okay, so it’s not terribly alarming, especially when you consider that the previous two teams shot horribly out of the gate but improved their accuracy as the season got on. Maybe it is alarming that Calipari teams consistently refuse to shoot them, but usually, the fact that we can get to the free-throw line (we’ll talk about this in a minute) and get easy twos with uber-athletes make threes a little more obsolete in Lexington.
The difference is whether this year’s team has that Tyler Herro or Immanuel Quickley. We were led to believe BJ Boston was that guy. Calipari tabbed him as the best shooter in preseason practice. He hasn’t been. The only reasonably efficient shooters on the roster are Devin Askew, Davion Mintz and Terrance Clarke.
Mintz is a reliable catch-and-shoot guy, Clarke can be up and down, and Askew doesn’t do much with the ball in his hands, but he’s knocked down 4 of 10 from three and that’s how he stays on the court along with defense.
Now, BJ Boston can be a good shooter, he just currently isn’t.
I think he’s going through the same issue Tyler Herro had as a freshman. As ball-dominant high school players capable of getting easy buckets off the bounce, Herro and Boston didn’t need to be spot-up shooters in high school. They were more comfortable with Harden stepbacks than firing threes off a pass.
Herro’s a naturally gifted shooter, and so is Boston to a lesser degree. Tyler adapted by making more one-dribble moves off the catch before shooting. He also simply got better and more comfortable spotting up beyond the perimeter. I expect a similar progression arc for Boston as the season continues and he grows cozier off the ball and better at creating open shots against college defenders.
The free-throw line is one of the primary engines for Kentucky offenses over the past few years. Here are the per-game stats from the 2018-20 teams at the line:
(FTA = free throws attempted; FTM = free throws made)
- 2018: 25.6 FTA, 17.5 FTM, 69.8%
- 2019: 23.2 FTA, 17.2 FTM, 73.9%
- 2020: 22.7 FTA, 18.2 FTM, 79.7%
And this year’s team:
- 2021: 16.6 FTA, 11.8 FTM, 69%
They don’t get to the line as often as a John Calipari team should. They should get to the line 20+ times — easily — based on sheer talent and size alone. Heck, last year’s team led the country in made free throws.
Free throw shooting — how often you shoot them and how often you make them — is one of the most telling stats in basketball. NBA Draft pundits insist that college FT% is often more predictive of future three-point shooting success than a player’s actual three-point percentage.
Do you want to know if a player is aggressive? Well, how often does he get to the line? Once or twice a game? Not aggressive enough. 7-8 times? You’ve definitely got a superstar.
Kentucky’s poor shooting at the stripe and inability to get there frequently is indicative of two of their biggest issues: three-point shooting and lack of aggression on offense.
Kentucky isn’t good enough at getting to the line to be this bad of a three-point shooting team — and vice versa.
Let’s talk about aggression…
Eddie Gran thinks this offense is boring. UK hoops needs its own Liam Coen.
Most times down the court, Kentucky’s offense starts with 8-10 seconds of Askew aimlessly dribbling, followed by another 10 or so seconds of three-man weaving four yards behind the arc, before someone either turns it over or forces up a bad shot.
It’s like there is no plan. I’m sure there is one, it’s just been poorly and lazily executed.
Guys aren’t whipping around the court off the ball, cutting, screening, diving to the hoop, darting through defenders trying to get an open look. On the ball, they’re doing even less. Paying more attention to Cal screamin’ than the 12 seconds they have left on the shot clock.
Yes, the inexperience, extra lack of continuity because of COVID-19 and everything that came with it is surely a factor for the newest team in college basketball. That doesn’t exclude the terrible decision-making, lack of spacing and total inability to get easy buckets.
There aren’t obvious fixes in this category other than the coach sending his kids out there better prepared, more motivated, and hungry to go out and fight on a basketball court. Kentucky isn’t those things when they take the court compared to their opponents and it’s clearly shown.
The main problem people point to here is playing Olivier Sarr and Isaiah Jackson together. For the record, I think they can co-exist and still present the best overall lineup, but not with the current way those two play.
As of now, it’s a lane-clogging festival. Each guy stands no more than 12 feet from the basket unless they’re setting screens. They need to set more screens. That’s how to space non-three-shooting bigs. Stagger screens, pick-and-rolls, all of it.
Isaiah Jackson is a remarkable athlete who’s fast for his size and can fill the lane for alley-oops and putbacks. I’d have him almost exclusively outside the paint, running around the court like Immanuel Quickley, except setting screens instead of shooting threes. Constantly trying to get other guys open while always looking for a backdoor cut. Plus, teams can’t just sag off a screener unless they have an elite on-ball defender, because most times they’re forced to switch.
As for Sarr, continue running pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop with him. They’ve been employing some of the same stuff they used to get Nick Richards open midrange looks and…it’s working.
Next time, my friends. When my computer and I reconvene, we’ll be tackling the question: who will emerge? Like Immanuel Quickley in 2020, PJ Washington in 2019, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in 2018, who is the guy who will elevate in the second half of the year and bring his teammates with him?
Check back in the next day or two!