How the Heat get Wayne Ellington open

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 5: Bam Adebayo
MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 5: Bam Adebayo /

Wayne Ellington has been perhaps the biggest surprise on the 2017-18 Miami Heat. After a summer filled with big money signings, it’s the guy making less than $6.3 million who’s helped to carry the Heat through injuries to some key players. He’s making 41 percent of his 3-pointers this season, but it’s not just the percentage he’s shooting that’s impressive; it’s how the Heat are using him and from where his shots come.

Miami’s offense sometimes relies on Ellington’s ability to knock down shots on the move and after a dribble or two, something that differentiates him from some of the other great shooters in the league.

Miami has several plays they like to run for Ellington to get him an open 3, though he’s shown an impressive ability to hit shots over close contests and after being forced into a dribble or two. In early offense, the Heat’s point guards will often look first for Ellington off a quick down screen:

It takes almost no time off the shot clock and can result in a wide-open 3 for one of the best shooters in the league, so there’s no reason why the Heat wouldn’t use this quick-hitter in their early offense. Teams across the league will run something similar for their best shooters and the Heat are no different. In semi-transition, defenses are often just getting matched up and can be caught slightly out of position — the Heat take full advantage of this, setting a quick down screen for Ellington to come off and knock down the 3.

If they can’t find anything quickly in their early offense, the Heat will go into a myriad of different actions all targeted to get Ellington an open jumper. The most basic of these is the classic “floppy” action, in which a shooter will begin the play under the basket before flying out to either wing, aided by down screens from the other three players on the floor.

Floppy works well because Ellington’s defender can’t cheat. He’s equally adept coming off screens to his right and left, so there’s no way for the defender to know which way he’s going to and cut him off, as can happen in a standard down screen. However, floppy does have its pitfalls: a team that’s comfortable with switching on those down screens can completely take it away. Miami is smart about which teams against which they use this set — they like to target immobile big men who can’t switch onto the speedier Ellington or small guards who couldn’t hang with the Heat’s big men in the post after a switch.

Above all else, Ellington’s shown a much-improved ability to catch and fire over defenders who are extremely close to him. After his defender trails him around the maze of screens set by Miami’s bigs, Ellington often has to shoot the ball with his man right at his hip, mere inches away from blocking his shot. He gets great elevation on his shot, which often is the difference between a strong contest and an open shot.

An easy action the Heat will use for Ellington is a slipped ball screen into a quick flare screen:

Ellington will come up to set a ball screen, but before the point guard even moves, he’s already gone, sprinting through to the other side of the court behind a flare screen for an open shot. If Ellington were to stay put and set that initial screen, most teams would switch it, since it’s a screen between like-sized players, which gives him the opening he needs. His defender slows up, anticipating he’ll have to switch onto the point guard, but the switch never happens because the screen doesn’t get set. Once his defender realizes what’s actually happened, Ellington’s already hiding behind a big man on the other side of the court and shooting an uncontested 3. Even if the defense successfully switches, Ellington will still sometimes get open behind that flare screen.

A variation of this flare screen action is perhaps Miami’s favorite play to run for Ellington, in which he covers just about the entire court in an attempt to lose his man:

Just like in the simplified version, Ellington will come to the top to set a ball screen, but will quickly slip it to receive a double flare screen. If he’s not immediately open, he’ll continue his circuitous path, looping under the basket and coming out the other side for a three on the opposite wing. If his defender can stay with him through the slipped ball screen and three off-ball screens, like Cory Joseph does in the first clip, then it still doesn’t matter, because Ellington’s already caught the ball and risen higher than Joseph can reach to adequately contest the shot. To make matters worse for the defense, he’ll sometimes slow up right under the rim and transpose the play into a floppy set, where his defender is chasing him but isn’t quite sure if he’s going to turn around and go back the way he came, as he does in the second and third clips above.

There are a handful of other plays the Heat coaching staff likes to run for Ellington, some of which we’ve only seen once or twice all season. Here’s an elevator/mousetrap play they ran against Atlanta back in October:

As the impeccable Andre Aldridge talks to Lyria Rissing-Collins on the Atlanta Hawks broadcast, Ellington sprints from the left corner out to the right wing, passing between Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson, who close the door behind him, trapping Malcolm Delaney in a double screen that he certainly felt the next morning.

Ram Slip is a cousin of the flare screen action I noted earlier. This time, Ellington starts under the basket and receives a ram screen, which is usually followed by a ball screen, but he slips out to the opposite wing:

He doesn’t even pause to fake the ball screen in this set; since his defender is already stuck behind him due to the Olynyk screen, he just continues right on his merry way to the right wing, where he finds himself wide open. Erik Spoelstra had a better chance of contesting that shot than Wesley Iwundu did.

The Heat don’t have the best passing big men and therefore don’t run a lot of triangle action, but when Dion Waiters was healthy and in the lineup, they would sometimes run things through him in the post, which birthed this great split cut action between Waiters, Olynyk, and Ellington:

After throwing the ball to Waiters in the post, Olynyk and Ellington do their best Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson impression, as Olynyk screens for Ellington in the Warriors’ patented split cut set. If both defenders go with Ellington, Olynyk is wide open on either a cut to the basket or a 3 of his own, but in this case, Jarrett Allen doesn’t switch out and Ellington gets an open triple.

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The Heat are very creative with their sets for Ellington, mixing up their sets continuously to keep the defense off balance. They’re able to use him in so many different sets because of how versatile his jumper is — he’s very capable off the bounce or with a guy right underneath him, going to his right or to his left, fading away from the basket or turning around right at the three-point line. He has no trouble sprinting full speed into a catch and transferring all that momentum into a vertical leap that leaves defenders too far below him to make a difference, even if they are within a foot or two of his body. All added together, the Heat are able to deploy Ellington across a variety of different sets in different areas of the court and he remains as efficient as ever as they continue to work their way up the Eastern Conference standings.