Has St. John’s Figured Out an Offense?

Posted by Justin Kundrat on February 6th, 2018

Make no mistake about it, the St. John’s offense is average at best. Its 1.06 points per possession (160th nationally) showing is propped up by decent free throw shooting and a remarkably low turnover rate, but nothing else from three-point shooting to scoring inside to rebounding, is commensurate with the team’s preseason expectations. So while the Red Storm’s stout interior defense and the scoring antics of sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds (20.3 PPG) have kept St. John’s competitive, an 0-11 Big East record tells the full story of its shortcomings.

Shamorie Ponds Lit Up Duke Over the Weekend (USA Today Images)

Coming off a string of four paltry offensive performances in which the team averaged 0.88 points per possession, expectations were understandably low when Duke arrived in New York City on Saturday. Yet, despite a 10 percent implied win probability (per KenPom) and a projected scoring output of 73 points, Chris Mullin‘s group at one point commanded an 11-point second half lead on its way to 81 points and a four-point win. All told, St. John’s hung 1.19 points per possession on the Blue Devils, its second-best effort of the season. Yes, Duke’s defense leaves much to be desired, but it grades out at similar levels as Xavier, Creighton and Georgetown, all of which the Red Storm struggled against (averaging 0.98 PPP).

So, what changed? Was Saturday’s performance a fluke or did St. John’s flip a switch on the offensive end? The answer is probably a mixture of both. For one thing, while a 33-point scoring outburst from Ponds has happened numerous times this season, a more-than-50 percent variance from his average cannot be consistently counted upon. Second, a 47.1 percent outside shooting performance from a team that has connected on just 32.7 percent of its three-pointers is unlikely to be replicated. Looking at game film, however, shows that St. John’s found continued success in pick-and-roll sets. Those sets are the reason Ponds seemingly got to the rim at will, why Justin Simon notched seven assists, and why junior forward Tariq Owens accumulated 17 points.

Per Synergy, St. John’s runs runs pick-and-roll sets on 31 percent of its offensive plays (57th nationally), but it has been inefficient in doing so. The Red Storm are scoring just 0.89 points per possession on those plays, well below its baseline scoring average. This could be attributed to a number of factors: a lack of reliable outside shooters to space the floor; defenses trapping the ball-handler (Ponds) to force its less capable players to make a play; or poor ball movement from those involved. On Saturday, however, there was vast improvement in the team’s overall execution and decision-making. St. John’s consistently involved Owens in the pick-and-roll, drawing Duke’s forwards away from the rim and enabling the deceptively quick center to slip to the basket. The Johnnies ran these sets four times in the first three minutes of game action and quickly amassed six points. Moreover, per my count, they ran a total of 18 pick-and-roll sets involving Owens that resulted in 20 points (1.11 PPP), a stark improvement over their 0.89 PPP season average. With Ponds at the helm, what makes these sets so dangerous is his combination of quickness and ability to finish around the rim. Choosing not to hedge and doubling Ponds creates downhill attacking routes with very few big men able to contain him.

The downside is that Ponds’ lack of size at 6’1″ makes it difficult for him to see over double-teams and find the open man. Instead Mullin is also running the pick-and-roll through wing Justin Simon, who at 6’5″ is better able to exploit a slow defensive switch. Simon assisted on four of Owens’ seven made baskets, all of which occurred in nearly mirror images of each other. Help defenders often aren’t big enough to contest the 6’11” Owens around the rim, and his defender usually isn’t quick enough to fall back into position, therefore leaving the stretchy Owens to his own devices.

It remains to be seen whether St. John’s success against Duke was a result of the Blue Devils’ horrendous defensive communication or a sign of the Red Storm’s improving offensive fundamentals. The result itself, though, was certainly encouraging, and even more so in how they scored beyond isolation plays. Ponds in isolation will always have a place in the offensive schemes of this team, but exploiting Owens’ abilities around the rim adds a whole new wrinkle.

Justin Kundrat (142 Posts)

Villanova grad, patiently waiting another 10 years for season tickets. Follow Justin on twitter @JustinKundrat or email him at justin.kundrat@gmail.com


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