What offense is the long time college coach going to bring to the NBA?

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After 19 seasons at the helm of the University of Florida’s basketball program, Billy Donovan is leaving for the NBA. Donovan is the new head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, replacing the recently fired Scott Brooks – the lure of coaching two of the best players in the world – Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – was to much to resist.

Donovan has been one of the most successful coaches in the NCAA ranks during his career. His Gators won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007, and made 14 appearances in the NCAA Tournament during Donvan’s tenure, including a runner-up finish in 2000, three consecutive Elite Eight appearances from 2011-2013 and a Final Four appearance in 2014. His program churned out NBA players such as Bradley Beal, Matt Bonner, Corey Brewer, Nick Calathes, Udonis Haslem, Al Horford, David Lee, Mike Miller, Joakim Noah, Chandler Parsons and Marreese Speights, many of whom have blossomed into NBA stars.

In the college game, Donovan has been regarded as one of the top “ball screen” coaches there is. His spread pick-and-roll offense has resulted in consistent top 20 rankings in adjusted offensive efficiency in kenpom’s metrics.

The NBA is, of course, a different game and Donovan may opt to alter his system accordingly. But a successful coach such as Donovan will surely bring his successful formula as much as possible. Donovan also utilizes Horns sets and several set plays, but the spread pick-and-roll offense is his staple and warrants further examination.

Below is the basic spacing of Donovan’s spread pick-and-roll offense. The four-out alignment forces the defense to defend from sideline to sideline and allows for driving lanes coming off the ball screens. The wings set up in the deep corners inviting their defenders to help on penetration in lieu of preventing the corner three.

In this offense, the low post player spends little time actually posting. Instead, he lines up two to three feet off the baseline. Typically the low post player maintains a diagonal relationship with the ball as pictured below.


There are two types of ball screens in Donovan’s offense – flat screens and wing screens.

Donovan prefers “flat screens” to be set on the ball up top. Whereas many high ball screens are set with a screener’s back to a sideline, Donovan wants the screener’s back to the rim. He feels that gives the ball handler the ability to choose which direction he wants to attack.

Donovan loves to find opponents with bad feet and weak lateral movement and involve them in these flat screens. The guard has the option to choose which side of the ball screen to go off of and getting into the lane and making a play is always the first read.

The post player along the baseline must read the guard. As the guard comes off the flat screen, the low post player slides to opposite side of the lane. This leaves the guard a path to the rim and forces the post defender to decide to help up on the drive or sit back on his man. Again, Donovan wants the low post player to play behind the defense along the baseline. This forces his defender to help up. To cover down, opponents must use a corner defender.

Many teams flat hedge the ball screen preventing the ball handler from getting into the lane. When Florida is defended in this manner, the pick-and-pop throwback is an automatic. Once the throwback is completed, the screener has the option to attack the off the dribble or reverse to the guard. When the ball is reversed the big follows and sets the second of Donovan’s spread pick-and-roll ball screens – the wing screen.

In the video below you clearly see the Gators read the flat hedge, execute the throwback and either attack or reverse and set the wing ball screen.

On wing screens, Donovan makes roles clear. There are players who roll all the time and some that are permitted to pop. Another rule in the offense is that when a big passes to a guard on the perimeter, he follows his pass and sets the ball screen. This is how the Gators most often generate wing screens.

Often, the screener will combat a hard hedge by their defender and slip to the rim. For guards coming off wing ball screens, Donovan’s message is clear: attack the paint. He never wants them to dribble away from the basket coming of the wing ball screen. Donovan uses the lines on the court to help him teach the offense. For example, he wants screeners to straddle the three-point line when setting the wing ball screen.

The Gators also demonstrate the “roll and replace” principle on wing screens. When a “roll only” screener sets the ball screen and rolls to the basket the other big replaces him on the perimeter.

With four-out spacing and cutters moving after the pass, Donovan’s offensive system is not only about pick-and-roll basketball. Spacing around the ball screens is what has made it successful at the NCAA level. The offense features ball movement, several reversals and drive-and-kick threes.

Below you will see these screening and spacing principles described in this examination. Note that when bigs reverse the ball they follow their pass and set wing ball screens.

(Video courtesy of @HalfCourtHoops)

Donovan will face adjustments in the NBA. First and most, obviously, is the shorter shot clock. This spread pick-and roll motion will likely serve as the Thunder’s “flow” action. Donovan will implement these screening principles into his set plays as well.

Donovan loves to load the line up with shooting, often playing four players together with three point ability. Tweaks to the Thunder starting personnel might have to take place for this to be accomplished – the non-shooting Andre Roberson currently starts on the wing for defensive purposes, and if he is to continue to do so under Donovan, Roberson will have to improve to be at least an average outside shooter.

Of course, having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will certainly help Donovan transition from college to the professional ranks. Getting more shooting and spacing on the floor should help this duo as well. Donovan will lean heavily on his library of sets in addition to the spread pick-and-roll game. This offense has served Donovan exceptionally well during his collegiate coaching career. Alone and without slight adjustments, it may not translate directly to the NBA. But the spacing, ball movement and reads are universal traits that will carry over, and might be a welcome respite from Brooks’s undynamic, predictable, flow-less schemes.

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Randy Sherman

- Owner & Founder of Radius Athletics - A Basketball Coaching Consulting Firm
- NCAA Contributor to www.bballbreakdown.com and www.bustingbrackets.com
- 197 wins in nine seasons as a head basketball coach at the interscholastic level

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