The Difference Between NCAA and NBA Offenses

Posted by on January 12, 2015

Nitpicking the number two ranked offense in the entire country feels wrong. Duke has scored over one point per possession in all but one game this season (UConn on a neutral floor). In yesterday’s loss at North Carolina State, Duke’s defense was the clear problem. NC State scored 1.24 points per possession. Duke didn’t light the world on fire with 1.07 against a pretty weak defense, but most of the struggles could easily be explained by 7-27 on three-point attempts.
Duke simply has too many weapons to have real offensive concerns. The point of this post is certainly not to argue anything to the contrary. However, yesterday I also watched the opening quarter of one of the best (and hottest) offenses in the NBA. The Hawks are 22-2 since Thanksgiving with the leagues best defense in that span, but also an amazingly fun offense to watch and study. In fact, the Hawks make Coach K’s offensive sets look like they are from a CYO team. Thus the point of this post is really to show the extreme differences in offense between a great offense in the NBA and a great offense in the NCAA.

Okafor against the NC State double team

North Carolina State doubled Okafor on post touches the entire game. The Wolfpack doubled with their 4-man, having him completely turn his back on his man to attack Okafor. Duke’s base alignment is four on the perimeter (point guard, two wings, and a trail post) and one inside (lead post). Duke was hardly creative in finding different ways to feed Okafor. Instead, the same basic situation occurred over and over again in the game. Take a look below:
You can see North Carolina State’s rotations (and Okafor’s potential reads) very clearly. Kyle Washington’s (#32) job is to get over to Okafor as quickly as possible with hands high. A lazy double team will allow Okafor to easily find the open man. NC State had the most success yesterday when Okafor had to put the ball on the floor away from the pressure.
Offensively, with Amile Jefferson on the court (trail post) Duke did the same thing every time against pressure. The three guards spaced along the three-point line while Jefferson dove to the basket. In the image above, you can see Jefferson starting to make his cut. This led to some pretty good spacing on Duke’s end. Greg Anthony commented on the broadcast about Duke struggling with spacing, but I tend to disagree. Instead, I think it was Duke’s predictability that led to some NC State success.
North Carolina State knew what to expect on almost every single play because of Duke’s lack of improvisation. Yet you could also see why the Wolfpack have struggled to get stops this season. Watch the full play that was detailed above. Ralston Turner and Anthony Barber (despite being in reasonable position) react way too slowly to Okafor’s skip pass as Duke misses an open three:
I’m only showing you one instance here, but this was the same scenario over a dozen times on Sunday. Duke always handled it the same way with Jefferson cutting to the basket. However, with Winslow at the 4 he did stay on the perimeter to spot up a few times. Unsurprisingly, this change of pace gave the Wolfpack some trouble. Coach Gottfried even said, “It’s difficult to double Okafor when Winslow is in the game.” With Jefferson, NC State at least knew almost exactly what each Duke player was going to be doing. Okafor’s passing ability and NC State’s bad rotations still led to some open looks for Duke, but Coach K’s lack of variability enabled NC State to stick with the double team throughout the game.

How the Hawks feed the post

NBA and NCAA offenses are night and day from each other. There are many factors that help explain why (lack of experience, shot clock, control freak coaches, etc.), but regardless of the reason the differences are very evident. I watched the first quarter of Wizards-Hawks yesterday to focus on how the Hawks move without the ball on post-ups. Of course the Wizards weren’t double teaming the post like NC State, but it was still no surprise to see just how much more sophisticated the Hawks offensive reads and progressions were compared to Duke.
The Hawks only ran a few post-ups early against the Wizards and yet they had more player movement than on any Okafor post-up. Take a look at the two GIFs below:
From Duke’s perspective, any player movement needed to happen quickly before the double team really has time set up. The Hawks weren’t even double teamed and look how quickly Teague and Korver are reacting. The first play results in an easy basket for Teague. The Wizards are able to stick with Korver despite all the weakside action in the second play, but this leaves Horford with tons of space to operate against Gortat. Horford mishandles the ball and the Hawks have to reset, but it still shows the stark contrast between Duke player movement and Atlanta player movement.
The Hawks are unpredictable and decisive. On the other hand, many NCAA offenses limit creativity and lack fluidity. Maybe it’s just not necessary to achieve such a high level of execution for a team with so much fire power (relative to other opponents) like Duke. Like I said earlier, it feels ridiculous to critique the number two ranked offensive in adjusted efficiency. On the other hand, maybe we see Duke’s lack of creativity catch up to them against powerhouse ACC defenses in Louisville and Virginia.

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