Duke has maintained its offensive efficiency with a whole new style.
The trendlines in college basketball are unmistakeable. Across the sport, teams are changing the way their offenses function by trading 2s for 3s in an effort to chase the most efficient shots possible.
Since KenPom began tracking tempo free stats in 2001-02, the average 3-point attempt rate — a measure of the percentage of shots teams taken from behind the arc — for Division I has risen from 32.1 to 37.5 despite only a marginal increase in accuracy.
A quick look across the Sweet 16 would seem to confirm the effectiveness of the emphasis on 3-point shooting and the spacing that comes with it. Six of the remaining teams — Villanova, Michigan, Kansas, Purdue, Clemson and Nevada — take more than 40.0 percent of their shots from deep. Gonzaga is just four hundredths of a percentage point away from the mark while West Virginia sits at 38.3 percent. Most of those teams sport four guard lineups designed to spread out defenses and make them uncomfortable.
Noticeably absent from the grouping is Duke. Just 35.9 percent of its shots have been 3s, which is different. In recent seasons, the Blue Devils have become one of college basketball’s poster children for the 3-point and small ball revolution. From Jabari Parker in 2013-14 to Jayson Tatum in 2016-17, head coach Mike Krzyzewski has capitalized on playing small ball power forwards who can shoot.
This season, things are different. The late breaking re-classification and commitment of Marvin Bagley III last summer shifted Duke’s priorities. With two projected lottery picks available in the frontcourt and few wings on the roster, the only decision was to go big.
Hoop Lens maintains possession data back to the 2011-12 season and its database allows a user to review various lineup combinations for both effectiveness and usage. So, I ran the numbers to see just how much Duke’s lineup construction has changed over the years by counting up the percentage of possessions the Blue Devils have played with two bigs on the floor:
That Duke is playing more lineups with two bigs in them this season is probably not a surprise. You’re waiting for the punchline. So, here it is: despite those fluctuations in size and in the face of the offensive stylistic changes typically associated with them, the Blue Devils have posted a top 10 offense by adjusted efficiency in each of those seasons.
There’s more than one way to play efficient offense in college basketball.
Duke’s offensive evolution over that stretch provides a guiding light. Synergy charts every team’s offensive possessions by play type, providing an outline of how an individual team plays, which also means we can plot their evolutions over time. Here’s a look at how the Blue Devils finished offensive possessions over the last seven seasons:
In 2015-16 and 2016-17, Krzyzewski’s offense heavily emphasized isolations for its wings. Last season, just 14 teams finished a higher percentage of their possessions in isolation. In 2015-16, it was only 12. From Brandon Ingram to Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum, Duke took advantage of having a variety of impressive individual scorers.
“We keep learning more about him, so we keep changing things — I’m not saying big-time, but subtle changes — to use his abilities,” Krzyzewski said of Ingram during the 2016 NCAA Tournament while discussing his role in the offense.
Nowadays, though, the Blue Devils have traded their isolations for post ups, taking advantage of the talents of Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr. 11.8 percent of the team’s possessions have ended in the post this season, the second highest mark in the last seven seasons and a top 50 mark in college basketball. Although post ups tend to be one of the least efficient ways to finish a possession, Duke stills ranks in the 93rd percentile nationally in halfcourt offense.
Of course, not all offense happens in halfcourt settings. This roster also takes advantage of transition opportunities at the highest rate of any Duke team over the aforementioned span. Compared to prior rosters that played big, that’s an anomaly.
Bagley is the fulcrum around which everything — the post ups and the transition plays — pivots. He’s finished 14.2 percent of the Blue Devils’ transition possessions this season, the highest for a Duke big dating back to at least 2011-12.
“[H]e runs the court so well, and…it really opens up a lot for us in transition, whether he gets the ball or not. Because someone has to get down there and guard him,” Grayson Allen told the media following Duke’s win over Rhode Island. “[A]nd that’s why we get threes. That’s why he gets early posts.”
The Blue Devils’ recent offensive diversity isn’t necessarily an option for every team in Division I. Not all of them have a Marvin Bagley III. Schools who don’t land elite recruits often have to travel other pathways to offensive efficiency, but the programs that do have more flexibility to choose. High ball screens and 3-pointers might be all the rage, but they aren’t the only way to succeed in college basketball. Duke’s proving as much.