Grant Williams

Should Tennessee Shoot More Threes Next Year?

Earlier this week Dylan took a look at how Tennessee might adapt its offensive philosophy next season. It’s a great question: should the Vols continue to rely on their physicality and inside presence, or look to space the floor even more with better three-point shooting?

The 2017-18 Vols were not only the program’s second-highest-rated team of the KenPom era (still trailing Cuonzo Martin’s final squad), they were also one of the more complex during Tennessee’s run in the last 13 years. Bruce Pearl’s first squad won with great shooting, turning you over and not turning it over themselves. The 2008 Vols added inside threats with Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism, enabling them to space the floor with Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith while continuing to force turnovers on the other end. The Elite Eight squad in 2010 was one of the worst three-point shooting teams of this era (32%), but played excellent team defense with a bothersome lineup of Bobby Maze and four guys that went 6’7″ to 6’10”. Cuonzo’s 2014 team feasted on offensive rebounds while playing great defense without sending teams to the free throw line.

What was this year’s team best at? Statistically the answer is defense, where the Vols are sixth in KenPom’s efficiency ratings, and, as has been the case all year, assist percentage. The Vols are seventh nationally with an assist on 62.1% of their made shots.

So the story on Tennessee’s three-point shooting goes like this:

  • The Vols shot 38% from the arc, 45th nationally. It was Tennessee’s highest percentage from three since…2006! Pearl’s first team shot 38.8%, 18th nationally that year. The Vols fell slightly to 36.5% and 35.8% the next two years, impacted by the loss of C.J. Watson and, in 2008, Chris Lofton’s cancer. Since 2008 the Vols had not shot better than 34.4% (Cuonzo’s first team) from three until this year.
  • Who was the best shooter on this team? All of them. Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner, and Jordan Bowden all amazingly finished at 39.5%. Jordan Bone shot 38%. James Daniel shot 37.2%. Tennessee’s percentage didn’t come from one or two really great shooters, but five pretty good shooters. And four of them will be back next year.
  • But…only 35.7% of Tennessee’s field goal attempts were threes. That percentage is 220th nationally. The production is counter-balanced by what Tennessee did at the free throw line: a free throw rate of 35.5% was solid, 107th nationally, but the Vols also shot 75.7% at the line, 43rd nationally.

The answer, of course, is more complicated than, “Let’s just shoot more threes!” I don’t know if there’s a shooter on this roster who is consistently good enough to build more of the offense around. This year the Vols built it around going inside to Grant Williams (and later playing through Admiral Schofield) and emphasized great ball movement. Tennessee made so many threes in large part because so many of them were good looks off good ball movement. The way the 2016-17 team’s success and failure was so easily identifiable through how many assists they had, you could see this coming at the start of the year.

Dylan also took a look at one area of improvement for the starters on this team. When it comes to outside shooting, I think the greatest room for improvement isn’t necessarily what a player can do to shoot it better from three, but what the Vols could do with Kyle Alexander and Derrick Walker inside next year. If one or both of those guys can make even a mini-leap, Tennessee could have two inside players capable of scoring at a high rate on the floor at all times next season. That sort of dynamic can open things up even more for Tennessee’s guards from the outside, and showcase Admiral Schofield even more in the J.P. Prince facilitator role.

You know Tennessee is going to play excellent defense at this point. Offensively next season, I don’t think the answer is a philosophical shift to more outside shooting as much as an opportunity to get even better looks through the offensive maturation of the players with the most room to grow. And obviously, as a team, the Vols played pretty close the national ceiling all season as a three seed. There is much to be excited about here.

3 Comments

  1. As with most things in life, I think the answer is…it depends 😛

    The question is ultimately one of efficiency and usage, and we’re trying to determine where the inflection point is at which the Vols should eschew some tough 2s for additional 3s.

    The dirty secret of the Vols’ offense this year is that they weren’t very good inside the arc: their 47.3% was 293rd in the country. That’s not good, and it’s actually been something of an issue under Barnes (16-17: 46.4%, 295th; 15-16: 47.4%, 242nd). I would imagine that’s a product of a couple of things.

    One, at least anecdotally (and a shot chart would help confirm or deny), the offense involves quite a bit of mid-range game. Think about Moore/Punter/Hubbs in 15-16 (43% on 9.2 2PA, 52% on 8.8 2PA, and 49% on 7.9 2PA), Hubbs in 16-17 (49% on 10.6 2PA), or Williams this year (50% on 10.3 2PA). Those shots just aren’t very efficient.

    Two, as players get asked to do more, their efficiency generally drops. Grant took 3 more shots per game this year, and his shooting percentage fell both inside and outside the arc (precipitously). Admiral was actually a bit of an exception as he kept his percentages flat while taking 5 more shots per game. And then the real flip side is Alexander, who took ~1 more shot per game, but bumped his 2P% from 49% to 68%.

    And Alexander’s example is key…if you’re going to run a true Daryl Morey-style NBA offense, you’re trying to shoot 3s (preferably from the corner) and layups/dunks. Again, without seeing a breakdown, I’m going to assume Alexander got more layups and dunks this year than last. So the question is, can you turn more 49% elbow jumpers into 70% layups? Can you turn more 45% turnarounds into 35% 3s?

    I think the Vols CAN do that, but it would require something of a philosophical shift or a leap from some players. The Vols don’t run a ton of pick-and-roll, but would they if Bone and/or Turner become a real threat to get to the basket, throw lobs to a diving big, or hit Bowden/Schofield for a corner 3 when the defense collapses? Can Bowden develop a drive/slash game that enables the same thing (he, Bone, and Turner were all 39%-40% on 2s and that’s just not good enough)?

    We don’t have to be Villanova (59% on 2PA, 40% on 3PA), but an offense that took out some blah 2s and replaced them with blah 3s would be a bit more explosive and give the Vols a higher ceiling.

    • Good stuff. I think a big component of this is lineups/minutes.

      Tennessee’s two most frequent combos, in-game and in closing time, were Bone/Turner/Bowden/Admiral/Williams, or against better post teams, Bowden/Admiral/Williams/Alexander and one of the point guards. Without James Daniel to provide some relief next year (nearly 20 minutes per game this year), will they go to Bowden and Turner as more of a Bobby Maze/Melvin Goins situation where the two aren’t on the floor much together?

      Derrick Walker played 8.8 minutes per game. I think that’s easily going up. But Alexander still only played 20.3 minutes per game. Will we make an intentional effort to get him involved more? If so, you’re almost automatically taking better outside shooting minutes off the floor. And who’s going to win the Yves Pons/Jalen Johnson struggle for minutes behind Bowden/Schofield at the 3? Teeny tiny sample size, but those two were 5-of-9 from the arc combined this year.

      Lots of ways to slice it, and Barnes is right when he said good chemistry one year doesn’t automatically lead to good chemistry the next year. But I still think the clearest room to grow is a more productive inside game from Alexander/Walker, which might mean even fewer threes but even better looks.

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