Why Auburn basketball's offense has gotten off to a hotter-than-usual start
The Tigers have been running-and-gunning through the first two weeks of the season. Here are three big reasons why they're clicking.
PG Aden Holloway (Steven Leonard/Auburn Tigers)
BROOKLYN — One of the most memorable minutes for Auburn basketball started with a defensive rebound by Chaney Johnson.
The Division II transfer hasn’t gotten his offense going quite yet — he’s currently averaging 2.5 points per game — but he’s been one of Auburn’s best on the glass so far this season. After pulling down a miss from Saint Bonaventure with 1:10 remaining in the first half last Friday night, Johnson kicked ahead an outlet pass to freshman point guard Aden Holloway.
A former McDonald’s All-American, Holloway has been nothing short of fearless since he made his debut for the Tigers a couple of weeks ago in South Dakota. He pushed down the floor and made a beeline for the basket, trying an acrobatic, double-clutch, scoop layup that didn’t quite have enough air under it.
But fifth-year senior Jaylin Williams, moonlighting as a small-ball center at this point in the game, ran the floor well and trailed Holloway down to the rim. He grabbed the offensive board and immediately kicked the ball out to JUCO transfer small forward Chad Baker-Mazara, who spaced the floor all the way down the right wing.
Baker-Mazara didn’t hesitate, firing a 3-pointer over a closing defender. He hit it.
On the ensuing possession, Williams poked the ball away from an uncomfortably dribbling Saint Bonaventure big man and raced up the floor for an uncontested windmill dunk that sent K.D. Johnson and the Auburn bench into raptures.
Saint Bonaventure ran a 1-5 pick-and-roll on what would be its final possession of the half, kicking out to the wing for a 3-pointer. It rimmed out and fell into the hands of Johnson, who looked up the floor and saw that Holloway had already started sprinting down the left wing as soon as the shot missed.
Johnson’s deep pass didn’t get to Holloway cleanly, but it didn’t matter. Baker-Mazara was zooming down the right wing again, using his length to help poke the loose ball back to Holloway near midcourt. That put Holloway right into a perfect angle of Denver Jones, the FIU transfer shooting guard that had filled in behind Holloway down the left wing on the fast break.
Holloway set up Jones for yet another 3-pointer. It was pure, and it was just before the clock ran out in the first half.
Auburn had stretched its lead from 12 to 20 in a minute of action, scoring three fast-paced buckets in a row to blitz a Saint Bonaventure team that wouldn’t come that close again the rest of the way.
“The last few minutes of the first half was pretty exciting basketball,” Bruce Pearl said after Auburn’s 77-60 win over Saint Bonaventure to claim the Legends Classic in Brooklyn. “You don’t always get on runs like that.”
The blistering final 60 or so seconds of the first half Friday night was a perfect snapshot of what Auburn basketball could be on the offensive end this season.
All five players on the floor had crucial roles in those points. Johnson corralled the rebounds to start two breaks. Holloway made it all go at the point guard spot. Williams had the key trailing rebound and assist before his show-stopping dunk. Baker-Mazara and Jones ran the floor well and were where they were supposed to be for their triples.
It was controlled chaos, with Auburn turning defensive stops into fast-paced offense in the blink of an eye.
And it was something that the Tigers wouldn’t have been nearly as comfortable — or as successful — doing just a season ago.
Through the first four games of the 2023-24 season, Auburn is putting up its best offensive numbers in several years. The points per game (82.0) is the top mark since Auburn averaged 86.3 to open the 2019-20 season. And that’s with Auburn playing a KenPom top-10 team in Baylor and another team hovering around the top-100.
The Tigers are also shooting a hot 38.9% from 3-point range, which is almost 14 whole percentage points than they did through the first four games of last season. It’s the best mark since Pearl’s second season on the Plains, back in 2015-16.
Perhaps most impressively, Auburn is averaging 20.3 assists per game. That ranks No. 10 in all of Division I basketball through two weeks, and it’s by far the highest mark through the first four games of any season in the Pearl Era.
Auburn is also No. 5 nationally in assist rate, recording one on 70.8% of its made baskets so far this season. The Tigers are in great company, too: Two of the only four teams ahead of them are No. 1-ranked Kansas and No. 2-ranked Purdue.
“I just think we’ve had great spacing, and we’re getting open looks,” Pearl said after Auburn had 22 assists in an 83-59 win over Notre Dame last Thursday night. “We’re getting open looks, and that’s what you want.”
What’s made Auburn so effective on offense this early in the season? After diving into the numbers, here are three big reasons why the Tigers are clicking like this right now.
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