Creighton’s Three-Point Strategy

When Creighton hired Greg McDermott in the spring of 2010, it wasn’t expected that the former Iowa State coach, who reportedly made his decision to leave Ames in roughly 48 hours, would engineer a squad that would transform into the nation’s top shooting team over the 2012 and ’13 seasons. Per Ken Pomeroy, the Bluejays don’t lead DI in three-point field goal percentage (that would be UConn) or three-point percentage (Princeton), but Creighton is arguably the nation’s only team that can completely control a game while still maintaining a balanced offense.

“We have focused on our perimeter shooting not just last season, but the past few seasons,” says coach Doug McDermott. “If you combined the statistics of those years, we would have led the country in three point field goal percentage.” Last season, Creighton was nearly unstoppable from deep, converting 41.4% of their threes. Five Bluejays attempted more than 75 threes, and three of those players — Doug McDermott, Ethan Wragge, and Austin Chatman — made over 40% of their attempts. Opponents struggled mightily to clamp down on Creighton a year ago: hug the perimeter and Creighton would either use pinpoint passes to find open teammates (the team’s assist rate ranked tenth nationally) or dump the ball to McDermott or Greg Echenique, who were then single covered on the block. If defenders sagged, a kickouts would find at least one Bluejay patiently waiting wide open. “What we have done so well,” explains McDermott, “is recruit good shooters, and then play unselfish basketball.”

However, some wondered whether this long-range strategy would work once the team began their inaugural Big East season. A cursory glance at the stats would seem to indicate that many Big East squads shot poorly from three a year ago. What is interesting, though, is that those Big East coaches did not plan to live and die on the three ball, and unless they were completely free of the defender, didn’t give their players the green light to shoot. Pomeroy has presented compelling evidence that show defenses that prevent teams from taking threes — rather than stopping them from making them – are usually stronger defensively, but in the Big East, teams were already hesitant. McDermott was optimistic prior to the season’s tip about his team’s continued shooting prowess: “If we can survive on the backboards, it will provide a heck of an advantage offensively.”

Despite losses to San Diego State and George Washington, games where Creighton was soundly defeated on the defensive glass, McDermott’s fears about hauling in opponents’ misses have so far been allayed. The Bluejays are limiting teams to just 26.7% of their shots, and the duo of Zach Hanson (a freshman) and Will Artino (a rarely used reserve) have been critical providing support to both McDermott and Wragge on the glass. This control has allowed Creighton to successful push the pace — the team is using five or so more possessions in 2014 — and often gets quick long-range looks in transition. Spot-up jumpers and fast-break attempts are dominating Creighton’s offensive makeup during their non-conference slate — at least 17% of their shots are the result of a transition look.

Without a seasoned interior scorer to pair with McDermott, the Creighton coach has doubled down on their perimeter gameplan — a whopping 85% of their jumpers are from beyond the arc, converting 44.2% of those shots, and the team scores more than 1.4 points per possession on those attempts (a mark which puts them at the top of DI).

“We anticipated this shooting going into this season, and all of our guys have spent the time in practice, the many hours in the gym making shots at game speed in game situations,” says McDermott. “All of this helps put pressure on the defense.” Creighton’s accuracy once a defense settles has improved remarkably. Delving into the numbers provided by reveals a team that is comfortable taking a shot if their initial play has been stymied. The squad is taking a higher percentage of threes both in the halfcourt and after 30 seconds have ticked off the shot clock, and connecting on those attempts at high clips.

While everyone has justifiably focused on the play of McDermott (the senior forward is making a remarkable 53% of his twos and 45% of his threes), the two Bluejays to really follow are Wragge and Devin Brooks. A 6’7″ forward, Wragge gets little national publicity, but his shooting is a key element of the team’s offensive efficiency. Wragge rarely ventures into the paint, preferring to set screens, flair out, or simply camp on the perimeter, waiting for a pass from a teammate. His height and length enable Wragge to get his shot off under considerable duress, and Wragge’s three-point percentage has never dipped below 40% on the season (he is currently converting roughly 52% from deep). Brooks was thought to just add perimeter depth when his arrival was announced during the off-season, but he has so far been the team’s breakout player, a guard who is explosive enough off the bounce to get into the lane and facilitate easy looks. About 11% of Creighton’s possessions use pick and roll where the ballhandler either takes a shot or kicks to another Bluejay, and Brooks has proven the most skilled at either getting into the lane and finishing (53% two-point field goal percentage) or dishing the ball (1.04 PPP). Plus, he is handing out an assist on one-third of his possessions, the team’s best rate, and has minimized his turnovers, a key for a guard who typically comes off the bench.

As conference play is set to begin, it is worth wondering whether Creighton can continue their torrid shooting pace. More than 50% of the conference teams are skilled at securing additional possessions off misses — the only four not to rank within Pomeroy’s top 100 offensive rebounding percentage are St. John’s, Seton Hall, Butler, and the Bluejays. Because of Creighton’s makeup, the team will still rely heavily on threes, but will need additional help from Grant Gibbs to keep pace with current Big East leader Villanova. The sixth-year senior has seen both his minutes and offensive rating drop, and has struggled when he does have an opening, and Gibbs will need a spark to help bolster the squad.

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