The post-up is dead.
That’s been the opinion of most of the basketball intelligentsia ever since the Golden State Warriors revolutionized the NBA behind the 3-point barrages from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson with Draymond Green as a small ball center. Villanova relatively cruised to an NCAA title in 2018 with 6 different players that shot over 36% on more than 100 3-pt attempts in a season. Virginia won in 2019 with 3 main perimeter threats that each shot at least 40% on triple digit attempts.
It’s incredibly difficult to win the numbers game in this day and age unless you are able to reliably knock down shots from the perimeter. And yet the Huskies have averaged close to 10 post-up possessions per game in every season since Coach Hopkins arrived in Seattle. That’s about 3-4 more than the average team in college basketball. That’s not entirely Hop’s fault however.
When Hopkins took over as head coach he inherited a roster with Noah Dickerson on it. One of the best low post scorers in the country. Dickerson averaged 0.98 points per possession (ppp) on post-ups per Synergy Sports his junior year and 0.88 ppp in his senior year. Those totals ranked in the 91st and 63rd percentile nationally.
Then Hopkins recruited a generational level low post talent in Isaiah Stewart who averaged an astounding 1.1 ppp in his single season in Seattle which ranked in the 93rd percentile. That kind of raw efficiency means that Stewart attempting a post-up is one of the better things you can do on any given possession.
The unfortunate problem for Washington’s offense though: what happens when you can’t get Stewart the ball? Once Quade Green went out due to academic ineligibility it killed Washington’s spacing and allowed defenses to funnel all their attention to stopping Stewart inside. Help defenders constantly shaded to the post and cut off entry passes and when they did go through Stewart found himself immediately double and triple teamed.
I unfortunately don’t have the stats to back it up but the numerous times Washington passed the ball around the perimeter for 20 seconds looking for an opening before being forced to put up a contested jumper or turn it over every game probably outweighed much of Stewart’s efficiency. That isn’t to say that Stewart had a negative effect on the offense because he clearly didn’t but Hopkins tried to build the strategy around the team’s best option and the rest of the roster didn’t fit that vision.
Stewart’s presence (and Dickerson before him) constantly in the paint cut off driving lanes for players such as Naz Carter and Jaden McDaniels while Jamal Bey, RaeQuan Battle, and Hameir Wright were often unable to hit open shots to force defenders to play them honest. After finishing 112th in offensive efficiency it was clear that something had to give.
Many hoped for an assistant (or head for a very small minority) coaching change to infuse the offense with new life but personnel moves suggest that may happen anyways. Hopkins has consistently put the ball in the hands of his best offensive weapons during his time at Washington whether it be Jaylen Nowell, Noah Dickerson, or Isaiah Stewart.
Maybe Nate Roberts or Bryan Penn-Johnson take a massive leap this off-season but it seems likely that the lack of a demanding inside presence will force the Dawgs to take a new offensive approach. That is likely to be the case even if neither of the incoming transfers are granted immediate eligibility.
It all starts with PG Quade Green who we knew was a great shooter when he transferred from Kentucky and who lived up to the hype in the half season he played. Green shot 63.6% on catch and shoot opportunities which was #1 in the country among players with at least as many attempts. Green shot 10/14 from deep on the left side of the court and 5/6 from the corners. It’s unlikely that he would have continued to shoot nearly 45% from deep over an entire season but he instantly causes a gravitational shift when he’s on the floor.
With expanded playing time Nahziah Carter attempted more 3’s last year than in his first two seasons combined and at this point appears to be fairly locked in as a consistent 35-37% shooter. He still has some extra steps in his mechanics that require more space than you’d like to get his shot off. Oddly enough though Carter was 2/15 shooting from the corners and nearly 40% from anywhere else. He also was a 40% shooter when he didn’t need to take a dribble. With someone able to get him the ball on the wing Carter can be a credible threat from deep. And without Stewart or Dickerson clogging the lane it makes defenses worry even more that Carter will drive past them for a posterizing dunk.
Hameir Wright is an incredibly limited offensive player but he he shot over 40% from beyond the arc in Pac-12 play on nearly 60 attempts. He also shot better than 30% from each of the 5 zones behind the 3-pt line last season so he met that minimum benchmark from everywhere on the floor. While Wright is on the court it essentially guarantees that the Huskies will be able to have at least 4 credible shooters in the game at a time.
After Green’s ineligibility it made Marcus Tsohonis take over the point guard spot and despite not being known as a knock down shooter coming out of high school he had a great start in that regard. Tsohonis shot 41.2% on 3-pointers including 11/18 on the right side of the court. He was a bit of a rarity in that he actually shot better off the dribble and ranked in the 96th percentile nationally in that respect. If he can keep up anything close to those numbers then it helps him to stay at point guard, a position which has to create their own shot more often.
RaeQuan Battle was known as a lights out shooter entering the program but ultimately struggled as a freshman, shooting just 26.5% from deep despite several standout games. That may be more about shot selection though than ability. Battle shot 37.5% on corner 3’s and nearly 37% on unguarded catch and shoot attempts. Those numbers plummeted to 18.2% on shots off the dribble and 26% on guarded catch and shoot opportunities. If Hopkins can get him to reign in some of those attempts and only take open shots then he’ll quickly become a net positive on offense.
After a solid freshman year in limited minutes Jamal Bey lost confidence in his shot as conference play went on as a sophomore. Similar to Battle he was fine as a shooter in the right situation but struggled outside of it. Bey also made 37.5% of unguarded catch and shoot looks but only 21% when guarded and a dreadful 14% off the dribble. With hopefully Green and Tsohonis taking more ball handling responsibilities it should allow Bey to play more on the wing where he has the space to ensure he’s set before taking shots.
The last two returners are Nate Roberts and Bryan Penn-Johnson who most likely will split time at center. Bryan Penn-Johnson is a true center who loses utility the further away from the basket he goes. However, he’s not likely to demand post touches and should be used primarily setting screens in the pick and roll for Quade Green with the ability to catch lob dunks at the rim. Nate Roberts had a late growth spurt in college and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him occasionally step out and make a shot from deep like Isaiah Stewart or Sam Timmins this year even if it isn’t a huge part of his game.
Washington has added 3 players since the season so abruptly ended plus one who sat out last season and all of them look to have the potential to become at least average shot makers.
J’Raan Brooks is a bit of a tweener 3/4 player based on his body type but in his limited playing time at USC he showed the potential to stretch a defense. He knocked down 35.3% of his 3-point shots as a freshman and also shot 50% on midrange jumpers. That put him in the 74th percentile among all players in points per possession on jump shot attempts. If he splits time at power forward with Hameir Wright it keeps a 4th shooter on the floor at all times.
It’s reasonable to be skeptical that Erik Stevenson will be a plus as a shooter. He’s made just 29.1% of his 3-pt shots in two seasons on over 300 total attempts. At a certain point you are what you are. But it should be noted that Stevenson had to play miscast as a point guard during large portions of that time. Except in maybe occasional stretches he won’t be asked to be the primary ball handler at Washington.
Stevenson made 35% of corner 3’s which are normally occasions where you’re getting passed the ball. He knocked down 45% of unguarded catch and shoot opportunities compared to just 29% when guarded. Based on his role in the offense almost two-thirds of his shots were guarded. Flip that ratio and Stevenson shoots 39% on catch and shoot tries instead of 34%. It will take buy-in from Stevenson but there’s still upside as a shooter there if he takes this transfer as a learning opportunity.
Former West Seattle star Nate Pryor shot 35% from deep during his sophomore season at North Idaho Community College after shooting an abysmal 23% as a freshman. The sample sizes are too small to tell which one of those is most likely to occur in the future but it’s not crazy to think that Pryor could be at least an average shooter.
Finally, we have the transfer-in of Cole Bajema from Michigan. He only played 37 minutes and took 13 shots in his freshman season which aren’t a big enough sample size to make any kind of larger inference. But every indication was that he could be a 40%+ shooter when he got to college and the sneak peak we got in Ann Arbor certainly did nothing to dispel that notion.
Washington went jumbo for much of last season by playing lineups with Jamal Bey at point guard or Jaden McDaniels at small forward which made for a long, smothering defense. It also resulted in lineups that were completely bereft of shooting. The most commonly played lineup over Washington’s final 5 games in 2020 was: Elijah Hardy (15.2%), Jamal Bey (25.4%), Naz Carter (36.6%), Jaden McDaniels (33.9%), and Isaiah Stewart (25.0%). You’re going to have a tough time scoring while playing that lineup together even if it includes a pair of 1st rounders and a likely future 2nd rounder because of the spacing issues.
Replacing Elijah Hardy’s shooting percentages with Quade Green’s is a monumental upgrade on its own but Green also showed a much better ability to get his teammates the ball in a position to succeed. You’d also hope the shooting guard spot whether manned by Bey, Battle, Bajema, or Stevenson can shoot closer to 35% taking fewer off the dribble shots. Those two upgrades and the team as a whole is looking at an extra 2+ makes per game while also replacing some terrible shots with better possessions that have a higher chance of success.
And in Coach Hopkins’ zone defense every made basket gives the D a chance to get set and dramatically increases the chance of getting a stop. Opponents over the past 2 seasons have scored 0.79 ppp in the half court against the Huskies and 0.94 ppp in transition. Eliminating 2+ transition opportunities per game can by itself save the Huskies a bucket every few games.
How many times this season would an extra 3-pt make and one fewer transition layup by the opponent have resulted in a win? Obviously in-game situations change with different scores but Washington lost 8 games by 4 or fewer points. Even winning half of those changes the final record from 15-17 to 19-13 and on the bubble
Some will look at last season’s team and say they finished last in the Pac-12 and lose a pair of 1st round picks off the roster with no incoming freshmen. What chance of success could they possibly have? That’s not an unreasonable take.
However, this also looked like a surefire tournament team with Quade Green on the floor and they are expecting to get him back. I think the odds are better than not that Erik Stevenson ends up being eligible. But even if he isn’t the more apt comparison is taking McDaniels and Stewart off the team that went 11-4 in their first 15 games and adding Tsohonis, Battle, Roberts, and BPJ (none of whom were really playing) plus an extra year of development for the rest of the roster.
Maybe the losses in defense and rebounding are too great to be overcome despite a roster that makes more sense together on offense. But having a very good shooting team overcomes a lot of deficiencies and even in Hop’s first year with Noah Dickerson as the primary center the zone allowed for a top-75 defense. No matter what Husky fans should expect to see a more modern offense next year that is capable of winning a game that isn’t a rock fight. And if they don’t...then the blame shouldn’t go to the players.