Discover more from The Auburn Observer
Film Room: How Auburn basketball's offense zoomed into a new era vs. Baylor
Bruce Pearl watched a lot of Euro ball this summer, and he emerged with an offense that could maximize both the new and old talent.
SG Denver Jones (Steven Leonard/Auburn Tigers)
DENVER (NOT JONES) — Near the halfway point of the first half Tuesday night against Baylor, Auburn point guard Tre Donaldson brought the ball up to the middle of the court as Bruce Pearl sent in the play call from the sidelines.
The possession started with All-SEC center Johni Broome corralling a defensive rebound off a Baylor miss. As he moved down the floor, the 6-foot-10 Broome wasn’t looking to command his usual spot in the post — where he did most of his damage in two seasons at Morehead State and his debut campaign at Auburn.
Instead, Broome stopped at the top of the 3-point arc, planting himself at the dead center. He set a high ball screen for Donaldson. But, instead of rolling to the basket like most big men in that situation, Broome flared back out to the top of the key and received a pass from Donaldson.
Broome then made a hard-charging dribble with his dominant left hand. On that side of the floor, transfer shooting guard Denver Jones — who started the play down by the baseline — made a break for the top. Transfer power forward Chaney Johnson had come over to set a “pin-down screen” for Jones.
Even though the screen wasn’t a stonewall blocking of Jones’ defender, it did the job. Soon, Jones ran up to take a dribble handoff from Broome, with the space between them minimized so that a trailing defender couldn’t cut off anything. Broome finished the handoff with an additional screen to give Jones even more room to operate.
With his defender now steps behind him, Jones drove full-speed to the basket. Baylor’s center, who was tasked with guarding Broome, couldn’t slow Jones down. Jones finished with a driving layup — the same one in the lead picture of this newsletter.
As Auburn got back to defend Baylor’s next possession, ESPN play-by-play man Roxy Bernstein noted that Jones was known for being a shooter more than a slasher. This is something Pearl noted in the preseason, sharing that Jones had worked really hard to improve his athleticism and become more of a true three-level scorer.
ESPN color commentator Fran Fraschilla then responded with an interesting tidbit about Jones, Pearl and Auburn’s offense as a whole.
“The reason he was able to attack the basket is because, now that Auburn is gonna play those big guys away from the basket — you saw the handoff that set up the drive… Bruce watched a lot of European basketball this summer,” Fraschilla said. “And he said he learned some things.”
And those European study sessions, combined with Auburn’s offseason roster revitalization project, look like they’ve led to some new elements on offense that could take the Tigers to the next level this season.
One of those lessons, if Auburn’s offensive performance in its tough loss to Baylor on Tuesday night is any indication, is utilizing more of what is called “zoom” action.
The zoom action basically boils down to two parts: First, there’s an off-ball pin-down screen, like what Johnson did to initially spring Jones free to move up towards the ball.
Second, there’s a dribble handoff, like what Broome gave to Jones, that naturally creates even more space for the new ball-handler — as the defense has to quickly navigate consecutive “stagger” screens and attempt to stop a ball-handler who now has a ton of momentum and space to operate.
The zoom actions were crucial parts of a new-look offensive strategy from Auburn that employed plenty of five-out sets. Instead of primarily planting Broome on the low block like an old-school big man, the Tigers wanted to get the ball in his hands away from the basket.
It’s a natural step in the evolution of Broome, who has gone from back-to-the-basket mid-major center to a more modern big man in the SEC. His late-season surge in 3-point shooting and face-up play carried into a successful summer of NBA Draft season, where he was one of a select few to get a late invitation to the Combine.
Broome carried that into the opener against Baylor, where he hit two of his three 3-point attempts and finished with a pair of assists. He also flashed his skills as a playmaker, putting the ball on the floor and helping facilitate the offense.
Here’s an example from Pearl’s classic flex offense. Jaylin Williams replaced Broome down low, as the center worked to get open at the top of the key. It was a four-out look like Auburn has often run under Pearl, but this time, it had Broome on the outside and Williams on the inside.
Williams then set a simple back screen for Jones, allowing him to make a flex cut. Though it may seem fundamental, credit Williams for setting a solid screen and causing a brief miscommunication across the back line of the defense.
For a moment, the eyes of both defenders were on Jones, and both attempted to tag the cutter. This left Williams by himself around the left block, and Broome, who kept his eyes up to see the entire floor, is easily able to locate him and sling a nice diagonal pass for an easy assist and bucket on Williams’ dominant side.
Baylor made a mistake on the defensive end, and Auburn made it pay with a big-to-big pass that showcased the development of Broome’s game over the offseason.
Broome is more of a finesse big man than a power center, similar to the ones who thrive in the European game and are becoming increasingly more popular in the pace-and-space NBA.
And that’s not a knock on his skill set, because Auburn showed Tuesday night that it can use his Euro-like game in a more efficient offense.
Remember, Fraschilla said Pearl spent the summer studying the overseas game, and he found plenty of ways to utilize that in a new-look offense.
Auburn used zoom action to create 10 points in the first half alone: A 3-pointer and a driving layup each for Jones and freshman phenom Aden Holloway.
The Tigers went back to it several times in the second half, mixing in different variations and tweaks to finish with 80-plus points against a strong opponent.
And it was zoom action that created Holloway’s first points as an Auburn Tiger: A 3-pointer through contact.
The play started with a ball to backup center Dylan Cardwell at the top of the key. On the wing, transfer small forward Chad Baker-Mazara faked like he was going to run up to Cardwell — potentially for a dribble handoff — and then cut back to set an off-ball pindown screen for Holloway.
Holloway got the handoff, took one left-handed dribble to get to his spot and let it fly. The 3-pointer didn’t even hit the rim, purely ripping through the net.
Zoom action also got Holloway, who has tremendous quickness off the dribble, attacking the basket against a defense that was understandably worried about his threat to pull from anywhere.
This play started with Holloway pushing the pace in Auburn’s secondary break — a way to speed up the tempo and look to attack without it being a full-on fast break — off of a Cardwell defensive rebound.
Like Broome from earlier, Cardwell planted himself at the top of the key. By the time he got the ball, Auburn was effectively in a five-out offensive look.
Auburn ran the same play from the Holloway 3-pointer right here. This time, Chris Moore came up to fake the move to the ball and cut right back for the pindown screen.
That freed up Holloway for the dribble handoff, and the point guard, driving left, was easily able to veer across the lane and get to a crafty right-handed finish at the rim.
Later, at the end of the first half, Auburn went with another Zoom action that created a corner 3-pointer for Jones — even though he wasn’t the primary option on the play.
Donaldson started the play by getting the ball to Cardwell, again, at the top of the key. Cardwell dribbled up before turning to hit another dribble handoff. This one was to Moore, who got the pindown screen from Johnson.
Moore flew around the corner and right down the lane, causing Baylor’s entire defense to collapse toward him. With Donaldson now over on the left wing, his defender wasn’t able to cut off the drive from Moore.
That left the backside help defender in charge of guarding Jones in the corner to abandon his post and stop the ball. It left Jones wide open for a corner 3-pointer that he buried to give Auburn a 9-point lead heading into halftime.
The beauty of this five-out attack for Auburn is two-fold. First, Auburn has the confidence in its big men to handle the ball at the top of the key, dribble if necessary and distribute the action to others. Broome was a natural fit for this. Cardwell doesn’t look like he would be on paper, but he finished the game against Baylor with four assists and zero turnovers in what was a highly efficient night of work.
Second, Auburn’s offseason roster reload that brought in Holloway, Jones, Baker-Mazara and Johnson gives the Tigers an offense that has both shooters to space the floor effectively and slashers who can take full advantage of that real estate. Last season, the Tigers didn’t have much of either, leading to an offense that had to really grind it out for quality looks in the half-court.
Against Baylor, Auburn’s off-ball players did a great job of spreading the floor and making sure that Baylor’s defense couldn’t simply pack things inside. Having shooters who can keep their defenders out of more valuable help positions changes the whole gravity of an offense.
On top of that, Auburn’s increased depth and athleticism have led to a more cranked-up offensive pace than what the Tigers played with last season — a pace that is more vintage Pearl. This obviously comes out in opportunities off of opponent turnovers and long rebounds, but it can sometime show up in other ways.
For example, early in the first half, Johnson quickly got the ball out of the net following a Baylor layup. He inbounded the ball to Donaldson, who immediately turned and saw Moore beating everybody back down the floor on the right-hand side.
The former high school quarterback led Moore with a long hit-ahead pass, and the Junkyard Dawg finished off the play with a nice layup.
That’s a fast-break bucket off of a made basket from an opponent. You won’t see that very often, but Auburn has the capability to do it. The Tigers also went to this up-tempo secondary break after made Baylor free throws — and there were a lot of them.
It all goes back to an Auburn offense that not only has better shooters at its disposal, but more players with speed and an attacking mindset on offense.
One of the most impressive examples of this mentality came on a play that didn’t even count.
On this play, Jones caught the ball from Holloway on the left wing and worked his way back toward the top of the key, where he is about to get a screen to his right from Cardwell.
Jones’ defender was already leaning toward that action, so the FIU transfer planted and decided to reject the screen. He put the ball on the floor with his left hand, exploding toward the basket for a baseline drive. All his defender can do was foul at this point, and Jones showed everyone what he would’ve done without the whistle by hammering home a vicious dunk.
Additionally, watch how Chaney Johnson snuck down to the weakside post, which opens even another option. If the defense had rotated well, Johnson could have set a “hammer” screen to further help the corner 3-pointer coming open for Baker-Mazara.
By now, you might be able to see how Auburn can tweak and run different variations off of these types of looks.
One of those ways included a handoff without an off-ball pin-down screen that is simply called a “get” action.
Here, Cardwell worked up high into the five-out look and took a pass from Holloway. As soon as Holloway gave it up, he started to work to get it back, running behind Cardwell for a handoff.
Holloway’s defender did not look ready for that. Look at where his feet are when Holloway makes the catch.
Holloway had his defender on skates, and he knew it. He worked to drive downhill before creating some impressive separation before a pull-up shot from midrange.
Basically everything goes right for Auburn on this play except for the ball going through the net. Even though it was a miss, it showed even more of the skill set that makes Holloway such a dangerous offensive weapon — it’s not all bombing 3s for him.
Having go-to actions that you can run efficiently are important. But the best offenses have to put in counters, always thinking one step ahead of the defense. Jones inverting the expectations of a defender already anticipating a ball screen is one way to do it. Holloway using a simple get action is another.
And yet another way to do it is to go back to the old stuff that you know works.
At this point in the second half, Auburn had spammed dribble handoffs all game. Holloway had just gotten one on the above get action. Baylor was now trying whatever it took to slow them down instead of spending all its time chasing Auburn’s ball-handlers at full speed.
When the ball swung to Williams on the left wing, Baylor could have easily expected another handoff. So, instead, K.D. Johnson exploded to the basket on a back cut, which he has done time and time again with great efficiency at Auburn.
It’s a perfect setup, as Williams — a former high school point guard — is a great passer for someone of his size and position. He is able to whip a nice lefty bounce pass to hit Johnson in stride, and the result was an easy reverse layup for the veteran shooting guard.
Also, note what Holloway did in the opposite corner. By “lifting” (moving up) out of the weakside corner, he drew the last defender away from his help position on the baseline.
It’s the opposite of what happened on Jones’ 3-pointer to end the first half. Depending on what the defense does, you can have a good look at either a drive to the basket or a kick-out triple. The important thing is that Auburn looks like it has the personnel to truly be threats for both, making it a pick-your-poison situation for help defenders.
That efficient Auburn shot-making cooled off down the stretch against Baylor, and the Tigers committed a few too many turnovers in the final minutes to truly keep up with a Bears offense that was getting to the free-throw line at will.
To Baylor head coach Scott Drew’s credit, the Bears did a better job of guarding the Tigers’ flex actions in the second half, with more active hands against the dribbles and improved movement into the driving and passing lanes.
While Auburn will be disappointed that it couldn’t hold onto a lead and come out with a huge win away from home against a team like Baylor, the offense was faster and more efficient than what the Tigers showed most of last season.
Part of that is Pearl and his staff finding new ways to take advantage of their returning talent. Part of that is having the shooters and slashers to create a spread-out offense that will cause fits in even the most disciplined defenses.
(There were other impressive new elements of the offense that we didn’t get to in here, including a very European, read-heavy, continuous-motion “flow” motion offense. It’s, honestly, way too complex for me to break down, even with assistance from my brother and go-to basketball Xs and Os expert Tyler — who was a massive help in writing this piece.)
With all the Zoom actions, the five-out looks, the pumped-up pace and the new twists on some tried-and-true Pearl moves, Auburn set quite the tone for the new season Tuesday night in South Dakota.
For the first competitive game together — against a highly rated opponent — there was a lot of good on the offensive film that could carry into a more successful 2023-24 campaign on the Plains.
We’ll have both the mailbag and the premium podcast episode out tomorrow morning to preview Auburn football’s road game at Arkansas this weekend. (We’ll talk some basketball in both, too.)
And you’ve still got a little bit of time to send in your questions for the mailbag to the1andonlyJF@gmail.com.