Personnel and pace set David Riley's offense apart

Part Two of our breakdown of EWU's offense that's coming to Pullman.

Happy Monday, Cougs! This is the second half of Bryce Hendricks’ breakdown of the offense that new men’s basketball coach David Riley brings south from EWU to WSU, which is about as good of a way to start the week as I can think of.

If you missed part one, you can find it here.


— Jeff

In today's newsletter

Size matters, but so does speed

By Bryce Hendricks
Guest author

In part one, we examined the actions that Eastern Washington commonly used to generate the excellent shots that led to one of the better offenses in the country — and certainly one of the best you’d find at the level of the Big Sky conference.

Today, let’s look at personnel and pace before finishing off with what, ultimately, this means for just how high the offense can go at WSU.

The Benefits of Tall Ball

In Riley’s moneyball offense, there has to be some type of market inefficiency to exploit, some fundamental failure on the part of defenses that his offenses will try to take advantage of. For Riley, his on-base percentage is post-defense. Riley’s base assumption is that, even if a team has one solid post-defender, they probably don’t have 4. So, if you have 4 guys who can post-up and space away from a post-action, there will always be a mismatch to exploit. 

Of Eastern’s top 6 players in terms of usage, 5 ranked above the 55th percentile in percentage of possessions used as post-ups. Almost all of their lineup constructions had at least 3 of those players and many had 4. They want to have some type of post mismatch to exploit at all times. Whether that be a little guy on a player like Casey Jones or a slower big on a guy like Cedric Coward, they want to have an option to exploit somewhere in the post. 

Having like size up and down the lineup also creates a lot of interchangeability with the screening actions as well. It is not rare to see 6’10 Ethan Price operating a dribble hand off as the handler and as the receiver. Everyone can set screens, receive screens, and flow in and out of actions in just about every spot on the floor. This interchangeability allowed everyone to bring the ball up and initiate actions, which added to their overall pace. 

A part of why so many teams run screen actions for a guy to go to a certain spot is because of positionality. Using that Purdue example from last week, the reason that the screen is being set to send one person to the top of the key and the other to the block is because one of those players is a guard and the other is a big. But when everyone is a wing, screening actions don’t have to send players places based on position. Instead, the offense can read what the defense is giving and try to get players to optimal positions based on what the defense is giving up. 

Speed Reads

Timing is a big aspect of what Riley’s offense is built on. Despite being an up-tempo team in terms of average possession length, they actually rank in only the 39th percentile in transition shots. Instead, so much of what they do comes from attacking early in the shot-clock. A lot of teams walk the ball up the floor and slowly set-up their actions. Eastern, by contrast, wanted to get into actions as quickly as possible. I like to use the term “attack the breaths,” meaning that the Eagles attacked while the defense was taking a breath. As a defense sets, they tend to relax for a couple seconds and that is when Riley’s offense initiates. They are trying to get easy buckets while the defense is asleep.

The positionless basketball helps a lot here too; anyone being able to initiate offense often drags opposing bigs out and creates more space in the post for early attacks. 

This quickness is a big reason for the lack of real complexity with their offense. They want to attack quickly to create an advantage and then they want to exploit that advantage with quick ball-movement and a high volume of reads and decisions. At its best, it is a thing of beauty, as the ball just pings from man to man with only a couple of dribbles needed here and there to create a good look.

This constant movement also leads to defenses never being able to take a real break. They always have to guard someone and see something because either the ball is moving or their man is. There is very little stagnation in Riley’s offense when it is going good and that, combined with the size and shooting, makes it a really tough thing to guard. Most teams build their defense around guarding pick-and-roll, which makes preparation for an offense like Eastern’s difficult, especially during the compressed practices of conference play. 

The Upside

If I put on my rose-colored glasses, I see a world where Riley can produce a top-15 offense during his time in Pullman. While I wouldn’t call it incredibly likely, if he gets the right amount of size and shooting, the offense is pretty unstoppable in the regular season. He won’t be reliant on getting a single high-level playmaking guard who can handle the bulk of the usage or nailing an elite isolation scorer. He can basically build a team with four Andrej Jakimovskis plus an Oscar Cluff and deliver an above-average offense. If one of those Jakimovskis is a Jaylen Wells or even a Steele Venters, then all of the sudden it’s one of the most dangerous offenses in the country. 

What Riley built, offensively, is a system that can mold to talent as needed. If he has a group of guys who are all at their best in the post, then he will get them post-touches without feeling the need to play them all at the nominal 5-spot. If he gets downhill slashers, he can manufacture closeouts for them to attack and exploit. Hell, if he did get that magical pick-and-roll ball-handler that deserves 30% of the usage, implementing ball-screens is basically the easiest offensive adjustment to make and he could probably find a way for it to flow organically from the other actions. 

Even as WSU takes a step down to the WCC, it is easy to see them taking a major step up offensively. There are still plenty of questions about the roster and who will end up on this team next year, but expect Riley to deliver a fun offense that plays like very few other teams do. With the increased recruiting access he’ll have at WSU, he has a real chance to construct a roster that fits his ethos to a tee and allows him to continue his ascension as one of the most intriguing offensive minds in the game. 

Questions or feedback? Leave a comment below or hit us up at [email protected].

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