When a team loses an integral part of its offense, it has a few options for how to replace it.
First, the team can find a ready-made replacement for the player who left, one that can step into a similar role. This helps to keep team cohesion smooth because there will be no significant shuffle in scheme or load. Effectively, the loss of that part of the offense will never be felt. However, this solution is not always viable. It may not be possible to acquire a player who can adequately fulfill the role, and it’s also possible that the team wants to step away from the style or the role which the player inhabited.
Second, there’s the option of distributing a player’s role among the rest of the team, asking other parts of an offense to take up similar duties to the player who left. This can also be accomplished by attempting to use multiple players to recreate a singular player’s role, with the rotation of players fulfilling the role at different times during the game. This requires a delicate understanding of an offense’s abilities and a significant shuffle in scheme going into next season — the larger the role of the departing player, the worse.
This is the dilemma head coach Fred Hoiberg is facing going into next season with the departure of several of his highest contributors on offense. While the losses of guards Haanif Cheatham and Dachon Burke Jr. are relatively easy to replace due to the availability of similar players on the roster (shooting guards with some 3-point acumen are relatively easy to come by, though Cheatham’s defense is hard to replicate in the same player), Cam Mack’s departure will be a more interesting problem for the Huskers.
This issue will be shown through usage rates, a simple statistic that seeks to measure how involved a player is by measuring their field goal attempts, turnovers and free throw attempts.
Last season, Mack was Nebraska’s third most-involved player according to the metric, coming in at 21% for usage rate, meaning 21% of Nebraska’s possessions with Mack on the floor ended with Mack taking a shot, free throw or turning the ball over. However, this doesn’t necessarily imply Mack’s full value, because usage rate does not count assists — the largest part of Mack’s offensive profile. Mack held an assist percentage of 36.5% last season, by the far the highest on the team.
Combining both his assist rate and usage rate, one would find that Mack was involved in nearly 58% of all offensive possessions for Nebraska. This doesn’t even account for hockey assists, where Mack was the main instigator on open shots in which his teammates missed off of a potential assist. Still, this 58% statistic is one of the highest in the Big Ten and replicating Mack’s involvement will not be easy.
It’s important to analyze whether or not Mack’s high usage was an aberration to Hoiberg’s system and Hoiberg giving Mack the reins of the offense is something he’d prefer not to do with a similar player in the future. In Hoiberg’s first year at Iowa State, senior guard Diante Garrett had a combined usage rate plus assist percentage of 61.5%, overshadowing Mack’s involvement last season. The year after, forward Royce White had a similar composite of 61%. This would imply that Hoiberg prefers running high-usage primary ball handlers. After that, however, Hoiberg’s guards did not reach a similar composite score for the rest of his time at Iowa State, the highest being 45%.
It’s appealing to then say that Hoiberg only uses dominant primary ball handlers early onto his tenure into teams, abandoning them later when the appropriate talent comes in. However, to say this is to assume that Hoiberg’s tenure at Iowa State is alliterative to some kind of greater trend in his program’s trajectory. Simply said, Hoiberg’s time at Iowa State is not necessarily a blueprint for all of his future jobs.
So, if Hoiberg does want to play a Mack-style guard, his options going into next season seem somewhat limited. New transfer junior guard Kobe King had a fairly high usage rate last season at Wisconsin, coming in at 21.9%, with his composite being 34.2%. It can be argued that King could scale up his production going into next season since his role at Wisconsin was as a secondary shooter. This can be seen in that King’s usage rate nearly doubles his assist percentage, while Mack was almost the opposite.
Just because a player has not shown a proclivity for a certain role in the past does not mean that they cannot play that role in the future. Nebraska has been able to spend time with King and analyze his abilities, and if those abilities include running an offense, then Nebraska may have found its replacement. With his offensive profile beforehand, however, this would not appear to be the case.
Another intriguing name is junior guard Teddy Allen. The Western Nebraska Community College transfer has been tipped for success with the Huskers, some interested in crowning him as a star for the team. However, Allen’s usage composite exhibits much of the same problem as King’s. His assist percentage is incredibly low compared to his usage rate for his one season at West Virginia, 9.3% and 29.7% respectively. This isn’t to say that King or Allen are bad players, just that they may not be ready-made replacements for Mack’s role in Hoiberg’s offense.
The only player whose composite score would appear to emulate Mack’s would be sophomore guard Dalano Banton. A bit of an unorthodox guard in terms of build, Banton possesses an assist percentage that outweighs his usage rate, with both being high. Banton’s assist percentage comes in at 25.9%, while his usage rate was 17.9% for his freshman season at Western Kentucky. Banton’s unconventional offensive profile may make him an interesting prospect for Hoiberg, and being with the team for an additional year builds more trust between Banton, the players and Hoiberg. However, Banton’s true ability as a passer is still somewhat unknown, and Hoiberg betting a significant amount of offensive responsibility on him may not be prudent. Furthermore, Hoiberg’s primary ball handlers do not generally appear to be larger, the aforementioned example of White aside, so Banton’s viability is questionable.
Another interesting prospect is senior Kobe Webster. The 6-foot guard maintained a composite assist percentage plus usage rate score throughout his time at Western Illinois, though his assist percentage was overshadowed by his usage rate. Webster is experienced with shouldering a high offensive load in a high-pace offense. Western Illinois, the program Webster transferred from, has one of the highest average adjusted tempos (a metric devised by statistician Ken Pomeroy) in the nation, only a possession and a half off of Nebraska.
The lack of an obvious replacement for Mack presents a problem for Hoiberg only in the event that Nebraska had no plan to replace his production. However, Hoiberg’s transfers could give some kind of framework for how Nebraska wishes to play in conjecture. As it would appear now, the plan may be to simply divert from the more ball-dominant playmaking of Mack into having a lot of scoring threats on the court at once, each of which can exercise appropriate gravity and thus turn Nebraska into an efficient scoring machine. In this case, Hoiberg wouldn’t necessarily change the system he established in year one, only open up Mack’s role to the rest of the team.
In theory, this will provide additional flexibility for the Huskers, as many players can be responsible for pick-and-roll actions as opposed to only one, but it may take time for the players to fully execute this strategy. At the same time, Hoiberg may see in a player, or the scouting team may see in a player, the same combination of skills that could replace Mack’s role on the team effectively and thus not require scheme change.
Given that Nebraska played poorly last season, it also may not be the best idea to some to try and repeat that team through like personnel. That may not be a fair summation, though, since many of Nebraska basketball’s issues last season appear to be ones of execution rather than poor scheming.
The poor 3-point shooting could be explained by poor scheming unless one also takes into account the horrific free-throw shooting — something that cannot be accounted for by scheme fit or scheme efficacy. As a result, it’s doubtful that the tactically set coach that is Fred Hoiberg would switch the style which he built his team on so radically after a poor first season. Moving away from a primary ball handler may appear to be a huge change, but Hoiberg’s plan may be to simply take Mack’s responsibilities and redistribute them among the team. When contextualized in this way, Mack’s departure may not inhibit Nebraska’s offense, despite the lack of pure replacement.