In head coach Fred Hoiberg’s brief excursion in the NBA, a weakness of his teams was points after the timeout (ATO). During his three-year tenure, Hoiberg’s Chicago Bulls ranked 29th, 19th and 26th in ATO points per game. Part of this can be explained by the isolation-heavy scoring of the Bulls and the team that Hoiberg inherited (the year before Hoiberg took over the Bulls ranked 29th), but scoring ATO can oftentimes be a matter of play calling rather than personnel.
For example, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr is generally described as one of the greatest ATO coaches in the league. Despite multiple injuries sustained by their biggest stars, Kerr has still led the Warriors to ninth in the league in ATO points.
ATO efficiency in NCAA basketball isn’t publicly available, so we’re going to jump into film analysis and see if Hoiberg’s ATO plays give good opportunities to his players. It’s important to note that players don’t always execute plays well, especially when they haven’t played with each other or developed an understanding for one another. This is part of the reason why a lot of this analysis will come from recent games, as they show a better sample than older games would. We’re looking for the efficacy of Hoiberg’s plays, not the execution.
In this play, we see a major breakdown. Junior guard Jervay Green and freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo set up screens on the wing with sophomore guard Cam Mack approaching. However, Green sort of runs over to the opposite corner, Ouedraogo follows him, and the play is restarted. It ended with a good chance for Ouedraogo, but the original play didn’t work or wasn’t started in the first place. Junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson tried to slip the defender off of a give-and-go, but Mack didn't see the window. This was another missed opportunity.
It could be argued that this play was originally set up for Thorbjarnarson’s slip towards the basket, but that’d slow the pace, making the original Ouedraogo-Green movement pointless. It’s more possible that Thorbjarnarson was trying to fashion something for himself before the play re-initiated. It’s also possible that the entire play was designed to feed Ouedraogo in the dunker’s spot just outside the low post, but if that was the case, there’d be easier ways to do that, and it might not have worked if Ouedraogo’s man didn’t help on Mack.
Here’s another play against Penn State. We can see a one-two interplay between Mack and junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. turn into a kind of screen. This eventually leads to a baseline drive from senior guard Haanif Cheatham, who ends the play with a poor floater. It should be noted that, at one point, Ouedraogo is in the dunker’s spot again, but the ball never gets close to him there. It’s possible that Mack was supposed to set a screen, releasing Burke downhill toward the basket (which would’ve justified Ouedraogo’s placement), but this never materialized.
If the point of the play was to let Mack punish the switch, then that would’ve been flawed from the start because Burke and Mack normally have similar defenders on them.
It could be reasoned that Nebraska’s poor execution was due to Penn State’s stout defense and Nebraska’s generally poor performance the whole game. If that is the case, we might see better execution on ATO plays against Rutgers, when Nebraska played significantly better.
In this play against Rutgers, we can see something loosely connected to the first highlight. Freshman forward Kevin Cross slips into the dunker’s spot, and Mack picks up on that, trying to sling it to him. Cross’ defender is focused on preventing Mack from a drive into the paint, but quick reactions blow this up quickly. Mack may’ve had a better option out to Thorbjarnarson in his classic spot, but the time to make the pass could have blown that play up too. In all, this is a promising example, and with better execution, would have resulted in an easy bucket.
Most of Nebraska’s ATO plays appear to involve Mack as the primary ball handler, but that’s true for a lot of Nebraska’s plays. His facilitation can make something out of nothing and is important for an offense that sometimes lacks creative spark, especially when the ball is given to secondary creators.
In this next highlight, we see Mack inbound the ball to freshman guard Charlie Easley, who is set up with two screens at either wing. A more dynamic playmaker would’ve been able to take advantage of this setup, but Easley gives the ball up to Mack. Cross then goes on a pick-and-pop fade, but Mack instead drives to the rim.
Again, we see a play not work dynamically or well enough to fashion an opportunity without the exceptionalism of Mack. In this, it would appear that generally Nebraska’s ATO plays are structured around letting Mack work in an open space rather than fashioning a clean opportunity.
Technically, there’s nothing differentiating ATO scoring from any other play. But, it’s generally expected that coming out of a timeout, especially a timeout the coach called to stop a run, that a good play will be drawn up afterwards. In these highlights, we don’t necessarily see great play calling, but it’s possible Hoiberg is trying to set up his players in the best way possible, or rather, play them how he knows they can play. This may be the reason for the reliance on Mack. Given time and a few years, there may be more creativity in movement from the team, but at this current juncture they must rely on one great point guard.