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The Joker Effect: Playmaking centers have revolutionized college basketball offenses

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When Fred Hoiberg left a front-office job with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2010 to coach Iowa State, he was ahead of his time chasing transfers to build a roster. Hoiberg was also ahead of the curve when he landed his biggest transfer prize: Royce White.

White was built like an NFL tight end — 6-foot-8, 250 pounds — but he thought the game like a point guard. Back then, transfers had to sit out a season, and during that sit-out year Iowa State’s coaches met regularly to try to figure out the best way to utilize someone so big with incredible ball skills.

Hoiberg settled on an untraditional role: His center would play point guard.

“We just put the ball in his hands and got our shooters in split actions — and all those guys could shoot — and that’s what Royce did best was his passing,” Hoiberg says. “So that was kind of the first really exclusive five-out (offense) in college.”

Hoiberg, now coaching Nebraska, is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. The common thread between all five of his tournament appearances is playing through a big man like White, who called himself a hybrid. Nebraska’s current big man Rienk Mast is in the mold of Georges Niang, Hoiberg’s second star point-center at Iowa State, in that both can dribble, pass and shoot.

And just like with the transfer portal, Hoiberg is no longer an outlier in playing through what’s become known as a playmaking center. That prototype is populating college rosters at a rate higher than ever before in the game’s history and has been steadily increasing in recent years. In this year’s NCAA Tournament, playmaking fives are all over the bracket. From true point centers like Marquette’s Oso Ighodaro to stretch fives who can also facilitate like Duke’s Kyle Filipowski to slo-mo pass-first bigs like BYU’s Aly Khalifa, you can find some version of a playmaking five on nearly half the tourney rosters.

College coaches have figured out that the easiest way to run efficient offense is five-out attacks. Ideally with centers who can shoot. And if they cannot shoot, they can at least be the trigger man and pull the opposing big away from the paint by facilitating from the perimeter.

In much the same way that Steph Curry influenced a generation of guards by shooting a higher frequency of 3-pointers and from further out, Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic is now the most dominant and entertaining player on the planet, and he’s made passing cool for big men.

“You look into the grassroots programs, a lot of these younger kids now, they’re really working on their multi-skill set to be able to play all five positions,” Hoiberg says. “Because that’s where our game is going is positionless basketball, especially in the NBA.”

“Every NBA team plays some form of five-out,” says Alabama first-year assistant coach Ryan Pannone, who was a G League coach for three seasons and then a New Orleans Pelicans assistant in 2022-23. “Some teams are playing a higher percentage of five-out offense, but every team is in some way shape or form.”

College basketball still has its variations, and you can still win with a post-up heavy style — see Purdue and Zach Edey — but even Edey sometimes is sent to the perimeter to initiate dribble-handoff actions. And he plays on the team that’s the second-most accurate from 3-point range, surrounding him at most times with four shooters to give him room to operate.

“Nearly every team these days has like four guys on the floor that can shoot it, and a lot have five,” says Ken Pomeroy, college basketball’s foremost authority on analytics. “Ten years ago, that was pretty rare, and 20 years ago that was almost unheard of.”

A few years ago Pomeroy dug into why teams are shooting a higher percentage of their shots from 3, and he found the main culprit was fours and fives shooting more 3s.

“Offense is spacing,” says Indiana State coach Josh Schertz, whose high-powered offense is centered around big man Robbie Avila. “Spacing is shooting. If you have great spacing, but you don’t have great shooting, you don’t have great spacing.”

And the optimal way to create that space is a playmaking center.



Robbie Avila has been an elite playmaker at center for Indiana State. (Jeff Curry / USA Today)

Schertz keeps a FaceTime from Avila saved in his call log.

Oct. 22, 2021.

That’s the day the goggled Goliath committed to the Sycamores, before Schertz ever coached a game at the Division I level.

“That’s when we changed the program’s trajectory,” Schertz says. “You build an entire program around that kind of kid. You can build your whole offense around that kind of player.”

This is not hyperbole. In Schertz’s third season in Terre Haute, Indiana State went 28-6 and had its best season since the Larry Bird-led Sycamores made the national title game in 1979. The Sycamores were the victim of last week’s bid thieves, one of the first four out of the NCAA field, but they won the Missouri Valley regular-season title and have the most efficient halfcourt offense in college basketball. It is built around the slightly pudgy 6-foot-10 center who looks better suited to be crushing in Mathletics than on a basketball court. Avila is the college version of Jokic. Avila can shoot (40.5 percent from 3), dribble, pass (a team-high 3.8 assists per game), slash and punish switches in the post.

Last spring when Schertz recruited two point guards out of the portal (Ryan Conwell and Isaiah Swope) to join another point guard already on his roster in Julian Larry, he was asked: How are you going to play all three together?

Easy. Play none of them in the actual point guard spot. That’s Avila’s job. Although Schertz doesn’t call him the point guard; he calls him “the hub.”

“When you utilize the big as the hub,” Schertz says, “I think it creates organically an egalitarian-type offense, where everybody is more of a part of it, because the other four spots become completely interchangeable.”

The reality is that there are fewer traditional point guards than ever before. The mindset of the guard has changed. Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May brings up Tyrese Haliburton to show how unusual it is to find a pass-first point guard and the allure of playing with one.

May poses the question: Why did Pascal Siakam agree to go to the Pacers instead of opting to wait for free agency?

“Because they have a point guard that’s a superstar that likes to pass,” May says.

We might get to a point where it’s easier to find a big man who loves to pass than a guard. Two of the top five assist leaders in the NBA right now are centers — Jokic and Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis — and we’re seeing higher assist numbers from centers in college than ever before. There are 207 playmaking big men in college basketball this season, per Synergy’s analysis, and assists per-40 minutes of all players 6-9 or taller has risen from 1.3 during the 2011-12 season (when White played for Hoiberg) to 1.8 this season.

If you have one of those bigs, a point guard no longer feels necessary. Hoiberg says he doesn’t have one, in part, because of Mast. At Illinois, Brad Underwood is starting five players who are all 6-foot-6 or taller and have all played power forward at some point in their careers. Underwood said one of his motivations was playing positionless style defensively, where the Illini can switch everything. But it’s worked beautifully offensively too; the Illini rank third in adjusted offensive efficiency. No point guard for the Illini? No problem. They have 6-11 playmaking center Coleman Hawkins.

“When you can stretch the floor with five men who can shoot it and pass it,” Underwood says, “spacing becomes ‘advantage, offense’ on all accounts.”

So much of the game has become pick-and-roll and many coverages use the center to contain the guard, so a popping big man is almost always open. And when you have to stunt at that big man, this happens:

Underwood also allows Hawkins to rebound and go. That’s another reason players like him are so valuable.

“It distorts almost every form of transition D you have,” Underwood says. “Because people send their point guard back and somebody protects the rim, so now you’re getting cross-matched immediately, especially if you play with any pace.”


Jokic is not only the prototype; he’s giving coaches ideas to implement. Two years ago, Marquette coach Shaka Smart approached Nuggets assistant David Adelman to get ideas on five-out offense, because Ighodaro had flashed enough playmaking skills that Smart believed he’d thrive in that setup. Adelman said they let their players experiment in offseason pickup games, throwing out ideas for an action to start the play and seeing where they take it.

Smart is right there with Schertz in the number of different actions in which the Golden Eagles involve their center. Not only do both Avila and Ighodaro sometimes bring the ball up the floor, they’re both featured in pick-and-rolls as both the roller and the handler. In fact, among players with at least 50 possessions as the handler, Avila is the fifth-most efficient when the handler and Ighodaro is 77th, per Synergy.

“I think inverted ball screens are some of the hardest things to guard, because what are you going to do with them?” Schertz says. “Centers are not used to guarding ball screens with a handler. And guards are not used to guarding bigs coming off a ball screen. So it’s really unique coverage.”

Case in point:

Ighodaro is in the White mold. “He’s the five-man that doesn’t shoot it, but impacts the game in every other capacity, just because of his athleticism, his speed and his passing,” Underwood says. “Oso’s unique because he’s a freak athlete. His passing and his athleticism create gaps in space, like he’s very hard to stay connected to.”

The Golden Eagles use Ighodaro in a lot of two-man games on the side of the floor, then space with three shooters on the other side. It forces teams to play two-on-two, and Ighodaro and his guards will play hot potato until an opening presents itself. One concept that has become a go-to for centers is “gets,” where the guard will throw it to the big and then immediately go get it back on a handoff. Marquette has the luxury of Ighodaro also bringing the ball up the floor and starting the dribble handoff himself.

Dayton’s offense is almost a replica of Marquette’s, only DaRon Holmes II plays the Ighodaro role and adds the shooting element.

According to Synergy, there are a higher number of dribble handoffs this season than any other season the site has logged; if you’re wondering where the game is headed, that’s a good indicator. It’s a more efficient action than the pick-and-roll.

“Dribble handoffs are much harder to guard than ball screens,” Schertz says. “Because what’s your coverage on dribble pitches? Ball screens, you can have seven coverages. You can’t ice a dribble pitch. (Icing is keeping the ball on the sideline and forcing the handler toward the baseline.) You can’t really show on a dribble pitch, otherwise, the center’s gonna just keep the ball and go get a layup. It’s hard to lateral that. There’s way fewer coverages you can give to a dribble pitch. The more dribble pitches obviously you can produce, the higher the efficiency.”

The most efficient action is cutting, and no one is better at delivering those passes than centers who can pass. Not only are they usually always open on ball reversals, they have the best lines of vision — think of taller quarterbacks.

“Being able to see over defenders, especially on backdoors or when teams are switching, I can throw it over the top rather than throwing a bounce pass, and it comes from a better angle because it’s coming from up higher,” UConn center Donovan Clingan says. “It’s definitely an advantage being able to be 7-2 and pass the ball like that.”

Clingan is not what you’d picture in a playmaking center. But instead of just planting him in the post, which is where he would have played in past eras, Dan Hurley has made him the hub for UConn’s halfcourt offense. Clingan can’t really dribble or shoot, so defenders usually sag off him, but that’s a luxury for the Huskies. He’s always open for ball reversals, and he can execute handoffs and deliver the ball as UConn’s shooters are endlessly screening and cutting around him.

 

“I love passing,” Clingan says. “Just getting a great pass off and setting up a teammate for an easy basket, I love that.”

Hurley uses him this way because it works, but he also sees it as his responsibility to develop Clingan so he will eventually fit in the NBA.

“If they can’t play in five-out, if they can’t play away from the basket, they’re going to have a hard time getting to the NBA,” Hurley says. “So I think it’s a weapon for you, creates new opportunities offensively, but also the responsibility to the player in terms of their career and your player development and being able to recruit the next center that you can win with.”


Go back to one of the legendary upsets in NCAA Tournament history — 13th-seeded Princeton over No. 4 seed and defending national champion UCLA in 1996 — and the box score reads like the perfect analytically-driven approach (outside of the shooting accuracy). The Tigers attempted eight more 3-pointers than 2s, and they had 15 assists on 17 made field goals. Layups and 3s are the goal today, and that’s what Pete Carril’s Princeton offense has been generating for years.

“He was doing this in the 1960s and ’70s,” says Richmond coach Chris Mooney, who was a four-year starter for Carril in the early 1990s and still runs the Princeton offense. The Spiders won the Atlantic-10 regular-season title this year with a pass-first center. “That’s not like 10 years ahead of his time; it’s 50-60 years ahead of his time.”

In 1996, the Sacramento Kings forever changed the NBA by hiring Carril and implementing elements of his offense. Some of the best college offenses have borrowed from him too, especially in the way he used his center away from the basket. It was a part of Johnny Orr’s pinch-post offense, and John Beilein had elements of the Princeton in his two-guard offense — two offenses that get copied a lot in today’s game.

Beilein reminded us years ago the value of a big man who can shoot when he had Kevin Pittsnogle at West Virginia and rode his hot shooting and the gravity it created to the 2005 Elite Eight. (Those of us who were college basketball fans in that era will forever hear the name Pittsnogle and immediately scream “PITTSNOGLLLLLLE!”)

Pittsnogle also taught us that you didn’t need an athletic, above-the-rim center to win. On the offensive end, skill in that position is much more valuable. And Jokic is taking it to another level.

Jokic is the role model for this generation’s big men. Ask just about any big guy in college basketball right now who they watch the most, and Jokic is the answer. Clingan idolizes and studies Jokic. Avila does too, getting clips sent to him of the Joker every Friday. But the part that rarely gets said out loud that Jokic has done for centers: He’s changed the way we see body types in basketball, and changed the way some guys see themselves.

Is Jokic an elite athlete? Not in the run-fast, jump-high sense, but … “In reality, they’re fantastic athletes,” Pannone says of Jokic and Luka Doncic. “What they have is the ability to process information and react quicker, which makes them more athletic and then they play at fantastic angles.”

Avila, who lives below the rim and has just one dunk this season, still finds a way to get to the basket often, averaging more than four baskets per game at the rim. Both he and Jokic also make up for a lack of foot speed with elite hand-eye coordination and body control, which can get you where you need to go on the floor sometimes just as effectively as quickness.

And it’s these below-the-rim, quick thinkers who have become college basketball’s best passers. They thrive in the actions Carril made popular. You’re not going to find more beautiful backdoor dimes than those delivered by Avila, Khalifa, Rice’s Max Fiedler and Richmond’s Neal Quinn, the latter three who all rank in the top 100 in assist rate nationally.

Peruse the top of the efficiency charts this season, and you’ll find either a center who can shoot and/or one who is a triggerman on many of those teams.

Schertz, who has the most Jokic-like player in the country, says he’ll never coach another game without a center who can be his hub.

“It’s always good to be able to coach players that are smarter than you, see the game slower,” he says. “Robbie’s been proof positive that mental acuity, when you have it at a high level, can compensate for a lack of physical quickness.”

(Illustration by Sean Reilly / The Athletic; Photos of Oso Ighodaro, Donovan Clingan and Coleman Hawkins: David Allio, G Fiume and Michael Hickey / Getty Images)





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