- Ky McKeon
Arizona State has been the darling of the young NCAA season. The Devils boast arguably the best Tournament resume in the land, propelled by their quality wins over San Diego State, Kansas State (neutral), Xavier (neutral), St. John’s (neutral), Kansas (away), and Vanderbilt. Bobby Hurley’s squad was picked to finish 6th in the Pac-12 in the preseason polls coming off two straight disappointing seasons in which they stumbled to 15-17 (5-13) and 15-18 (7-11) marks. So what’s been the difference maker for the Sun Devils thus far? How have they achieved such lofty success? I aim to answer those questions in this deep dive.
ASU has improved dramatically on both ends of the floor this season. Offensively, the Devils rank 4th in the country in adjusted efficiency per KenPom and are scoring the 5th most points per possession in the country in halfcourt situations (1.044), 3rd most against the press (1.391), and 37th most in transition (1.207) (per Synergy). The first thing you should immediately recognize when watching ASU play basketball is their uncanny ability to shoot efficient shots. To wit, here is their shot chart against Vanderbilt:
Hurley has clearly embraced an analytical approach to the game, preaching to his kids to shoot layups or three-pointers – none of that junk in between. The Devils rank 300th in the country in percentage of points scored off 2-pointers (per KenPom) and rank 328th in 2-point jumpers attempted (per Hoop-Math). Conversely, ASU gets to the line at a torrid rate (3rd best FT rate in the country per KenPom), a consequence of their relentless rim attack. The Devils put premiums on taking good, open shots, and it certainly helps when just about every player on the roster can shoot the shit out of the ball (ASU ranks 11th in eFG%).
Guard play has spurred this impressive offensive efficiency. The Devils are led by three seniors in Tra Holder, Shannon Evans, and Kodi Justice and feature a sparkplug off the bench in freshman Remy Martin. Take a look at this group’s shooting performance thus far:
On top of the shooting, ball protection has been elite from this core group, which has paced Hurley’s squad to the 29th best turnover rate in the nation.
The Devils’ offense is simple and consists of four basic elements:
- Space the floor with a 4-out set
- Run guards off screens (both on and off the ball)
- Attack off the pick-n-roll and in isolation
- Work the rock inside out.
Tra Holder or Shannon Evans has the ball in their hands the majority of the time, and both guards play over 88% of ASU’s available minutes. Both guards are looking to make plays when they have the ball, whether off a ball screen or in isolation. Holder and Evans rank in the 75th percentile nationally in points per possession off pick-n-rolls and in the 94th percentile in isolation (both figures per Synergy).
When either guard drives, he is looking first to score and second to kick to an open teammate. When all else fails, both guards (and Martin as well) have that unique “bailout” ability of hitting a tough shot when the offense breaks down.
Here, Martin decides to just chuck it from the beak after the offense breaks down in a tough spot on the road:
Here, Evans attacks the cup hard in a pick-n-roll situation:
ASU’s floor spacing allows for Evans, Holder, Justice, and Martin to run their weaving, dribble drive sets – all are threats to pull from deep and all can take the ball to the rack.
Perhaps the "biggest" reason the Devils have improved so dramatically from last season has been the play of their forwards, all four of which are new to the roster. Freshman Romello White has established himself as a go-to block scorer and a terror on the boards; JUCO import De’Quon Lake is a fierce rim protector; freshman Vitaliy Shibel spaces the floor; and Ohio State transfer Mickey Mitchell provides key minutes in a hybrid forward role.
Hurley starts White and Shibel, which allows ASU to play their preferred 4-out style. Shibel’s shooting ability keeps defenders honest and gives White plenty of room to score on the block. When White is on the floor, ASU makes a point to get him a touch early in the clock. Against Vandy, White eviscerated the smaller Commodore frontcourt and forced Bryce Drew to send double teams to the post. White is shooting 68.4% from the floor this season and has a stupid 100.0 FT Rate, which ranks 4th in the country.
White’s best asset is his ability to rebound on the offensive end; he boasts a 15.2% offensive rebounding rate (32nd best in the country), just ahead of his teammate Lake (14.5%). When the ASU guards miss shots (which isn’t all too often), White is there to clean the glass:
When Lake spells Shibel in the lineup, ASU runs a more traditional 3-out, 2-in set that features hi-lo components and the two bigs replacing each other on the elbow and opposite block.
While one would think this combo would clog the floor and take away a strength of the Sun Devil attack, ASU is thriving when the two share the court:
The White / Lake lineup is far superior to any other front court tandem (even a four guard lineup surrounding one big), sporting an insane +0.36ppp (aka ASU is 36 points better per 100 possessions when White and Lake share the floor). My hypothesis on why this is: when Lake and White share the floor, ASU puts a higher emphasis on off-the-ball screens. The Devil bigs are essentially used as “blockers” in the offense, picking off opposing guards to free their own guards for open looks.
Here’s an example of this offense, notice White sets a fade screen and then a ball screen while Lake "screens" a guard on the block sprinting the baseline:
I won’t go super in depth here, as the Devils still aren’t elite on the defensive end of the floor. However, Hurley’s team is light years ahead of where it was last season in terms of defensive efficiency. The Devils rank 130th in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom, up from a vomit-inducing 279th in 2016-17. The guards do their part on this end; ASU ranks 42nd in the country in forcing turnovers, much of which come from steals at the hands of Holder (2.9% STL rate) or Martin (3.3% STL rate).
However, it’s the frontcourt play that has really moved the needle. Lake, White, Shibel, and Mitchell are all capable shot blockers. Opponents are finding it much more difficult to score in the paint against the Devils than in years past and ASU is rebounding much better than in 2016-17.
At its best, the ASU defense leads to transition opportunities, an area where the Devils thrive and score buckets in bunches: