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Men’s basketball’s shift to motion offense key to season’s success

Freshman guard Lonzo Ball has powered the UCLA into a Golden State Warriors-esque offense, highlighted by crisp ball movements and fewer pick-and-rolls. (Jintak Han/Assistant Photo editor)

By Matt Cummings

Dec. 11, 2016 8:03 p.m.

The Golden State Warriors set the world on fire last year, and they did so while shunning the modern darling of the basketball world: the pick-and-roll.

En route to their record-breaking 73 wins, the Warriors ranked dead last in the NBA in pick-and-roll usage, getting just 15.6 percent of their offense with ball screens.

By avoiding a play that keeps the ball stuck in one area for several seconds, the Warriors were moving the ball as quickly as anyone in the league.

Steve Alford was watching. The UCLA coach’s teams had leaned heavily on the pick-and-roll over the last two seasons, with last year’s squad turning to it on over 20 percent of its possessions.

The Bruins had been decently efficient, but Alford, knowing his team would be stocked with more talent than ever before in his tenure, decided to make a change.

“The last couple years, we’ve been ball screen, ball screen, ball screen – I got kind of tired of watching it and tired of teaching it,” Alford said after Saturday’s 102-84 win over Michigan.

Inspired by the success of the Warriors and the similarly oriented San Antonio Spurs, Alford looked to implement a system focused on ball movement.

“They’re towards the bottom in pick-and-roll usage, and yet they’re two of the most efficient offenses on the planet,” Alford said. “It really is about cutting, about moving, it’s about running motion again.”

The change has been dramatic, with the Bruins devoting just nine percent of their possessions to the pick-and-roll this year, per Synergy Sports.

Among major-conference teams, only four squads allot fewer possessions to the ball handler in the pick-and-roll.

UCLA’s ball handlers have actually been effective in pick-and-roll situations, ranking in the 87th percentile nationwide, per Synergy Sports.

But the Bruins’ other offensive options, and the ball movement that comes with them, have been even more effective. They rank in at least the 88th percentile in spot-up shooting, cutting action, off-screen shooting and isolation play.

Nearly every offensive statistic is staggering. UCLA is second in the country in points per game behind the Citadel, but even that is selling this offense short.

The Bruins are first in the country in offensive rating, and they’re by far the leader in both true shooting and effective field goal percentage.

Michigan shot lights out in the first half Saturday, connecting on an absurd 12 of its 16 3-point attempts, and yet the game was tied 50-50 at halftime because UCLA’s offense had played slightly above its averages.

Sure enough, the Wolverines’ offense regressed in the second half while the Bruins steamrolled their way over the 100-point mark for the fourth time in their first 10 games.

“That’s how special offensively this team is,” Alford said. “Through 10 games, it’s as phenomenal an offense as I can think of in my career.”

Even he couldn’t have imagined his team would be putting up the kind of numbers it is, but Alford knew he had a wealth of talent at his disposal coming into the season.

That’s why he felt comfortable making the switch to the motion-based offense.

“We’re about eight-deep right now in guys that can pass, shoot and dribble it,” he said. “So I wanted to get away from the ball screen, where the ball can get heavy on one side and stagnant, and you end up just watching two guys play the game. We want to touch it in the hands of all five.”

He used a similar system in his first year in Westwood, when he had a roster stocked with four legitimate NBA players in Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Zach LaVine and Norman Powell.

“We ran a lot of motion that first year with the talent level that we had,” Alford said. “Because we had bigs that can pass, shoot and dribble it, and we had good guards that could do the same.”

Over the past two seasons, the cupboard was much more bare, and the coach was forced to stray from that system.

This year’s team, though, is likely even more talented than the one from 2013-14.

Six different Bruins are currently averaging over a point per possession, according to Synergy Sports: the five regular starters, plus bench spark plug Aaron Holiday.

And, of course, running the show is freshman point guard Lonzo Ball.

As Matt Giles of FiveThirtyEight suggested this weekend, Ball, with his rare combination of size, passing and shooting, “could be the greatest college pick-and-roll player ever,” but UCLA hasn’t utilized him in that way. He uses less than one possession per game as the ball handler in a pick-and-roll.

Instead, the Bruins have allowed Ball’s prodigious vision and creativity as a passer to flourish in a more free-flowing attack.

Take, for example, the final of Ball’s season-low four assists Saturday night against Michigan.

Standing on the right wing as senior guard Isaac Hamilton dribbled towards him, Ball burst into a back cut and received a pass from Hamilton. Reaching out to snag the ball, he had to leap in the air to avoid stepping out of bounds. After hanging under the basket for what felt like a second, seemingly not knowing what to do, the point guard flipped the ball smoothly to freshman forward Ike Anigbogu for a layup.

Ball does represent the Bruins’ closest approximation of Stephen Curry in the new Warriors-inspired offense, but he’s far from the same player as Curry – he’s bigger, for one, and his game is more oriented around passing. He doesn’t display quite the same dazzling dribbling skills that Curry does, and he doesn’t yet look to get to the basket as often.

He is, though, similar to Curry in this sense: He’s a superstar point guard that doesn’t hold the ball, and, as a result, he commands an offense that hums and zips the rock around as smoothly as any in the nation.

Even as he led the NBA in scoring with over 30 points a game last season, Curry only held the ball for an average of 3.8 seconds per touch, which was by far the lowest number among players who saw the ball as often in the front court as Curry, per’s player-tracking statistics.

And it was far below the average for other elite point guards: Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard all averaged around 5.5 seconds per touch, and Kyrie Irving came in at 4.7.

That type of advanced data is not publicly available at the college level, but one can imagine Ball would have a mark more similar to Curry’s than to the other top point guards.

In transition, Ball is constantly looking to throw the ball ahead, and in the half-court, he’s mostly either trying to launch a three or move the ball along.

What’s the result of such a talented point guard flicking the ball around rather than letting it stick in his hand?

Well, if you’ve watched the Warriors, you probably have an idea.

The result is the best offense in the country.

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Matt Cummings | Alumnus
Cummings joined the Bruin as a freshman in 2014 and contributed until he graduated in 2018. He was an assistant Sports editor for the 2015-2016 academic year and spent time on the football, men's basketball, baseball, cross country, women's volleyball and men's tennis beats.
Cummings joined the Bruin as a freshman in 2014 and contributed until he graduated in 2018. He was an assistant Sports editor for the 2015-2016 academic year and spent time on the football, men's basketball, baseball, cross country, women's volleyball and men's tennis beats.
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