Positionless

No, I’m not talking about your local politicians.

Believe it or not, this column idea has been on my “to do” list for a few years now, I’ve just never gotten around to dedicating 1,500 words to the topic, though I talk about it constantly. But I’ve finally been called to action with the recent spell of “projected lineups” and “which transfer to target” discussions.

I first heard the concept probably close to ten years ago when I was in college and watching PTI (don’t worry, I grew out of that). Michael Wilbon was discussing the Connecticut Huskies—the women’s version—and relayed a point about what made them so good. Pat Riley always talked about his utopia of a team being five 6’9” guys that were versatile enough that they could play anywhere on the court and guard anyone, they would be completely interchangeable. (The point he was making was that the UConn women were all right round 6’3” and that is comparable to being 6’9” in the men’s game and that they were very versatile.)

Since then, the more I thought about it the more I agreed with that perspective and I even patterned my lineups in this fashion when I was coaching high school freshman basketball—no, we weren’t THAT good.

It is a concept that is familiar with what Fred Hoiberg does at Iowa State. We spend a lot of time talking about the mismatches that the Cyclones produce and the methods to which he exploits them. He inverts the offense and puts guys in the right spot to take advantage of their defender. Usually, that involves a screening action before hand to create a defensive switch and thus the mismatch.

Sure, there are still “positions” in the Hoiberg offense in terms of assigning roles, but the old format of defined positions and roles is out the window his offense and the game seems to be slowly trending that way as a whole. No longer do we need to worry about which guy is the point guard, the center, the shooting guard, the small forward or the power forward.

The key to me has always been putting your five best players on the court without defensive liabilities.

What it gets down to is the components that you can put on the court. Say you hypothetically could have five Melvin Ejim’s on the court at once. He’s extremely versatile and a good all-around player, but his ball handling is suspect enough that you wouldn’t want to have him being a primary ball handler against a quick and active on ball defender.

In my opinion the two most important components your lineup has to cover is ball handling and shooting. You need two sure ball handlers and one other pretty safe option. This past season DeAndre Kane and Monte Morris were the primary handlers when on the court together and Georges Niang was the third option that usually did well because his defender wasn’t the type that could cause him problems.

When it comes to knocking down perimeter shots you can do it a variety of ways. This past season Iowa State usually had five guys on the floor that were making at least 33% of their three point shots. But having a couple of guys up around the 40% range can give you the same effect with spacing a defense. Think last year’s team with McGee hitting at 45% and Niang and Babb both in the 38-39% range.

Whether or not your offense focuses on doing damage on the inside or outside you have to start with ball handlers and shooters to space the defense and open up the lane.

Now, apply these theories and what we’ve learned from Hoiberg’s offenses in his first four seasons at the helm in Ames. Odds are decidedly so that Monte Morris, Dustin Hogue, and Georges Niang will be back in the starting lineup next season. Pencil in Abdel Nader who I heard referred to by the coaching staff as one of the best offensive players they’ve had and Bryce Dejean-Jones.

We all know what Niang can do. Hogue as well but he was especially strong late in the season with catching at an elbow and attacking the rim. He has been able to take advantage of bigger guys with his quick first step and smaller guys with his strength. While being one of the better leapers I can remember and an ability to finish with either hand around the rim. To top it off he shot a very acceptable 34.4% from the three point line by going 22/64.

Nader and DeJean-Jones are both wings with size that can score in a variety of ways and handle the ball pretty well. By stats, Dejean-Jones is the better shooter of the two having made 73/215 three point shots while at UNLV in two seasons (33.9%). Nader was just 61/211 in two season at Northern Illinois (28.9%). Not a terrible number especially since only 35% of his field goal attempts were from behind the arc.

But the more pressing question is at the defensive end. Niang can guard bigs and does reasonably well when he’s left to switch on perimeter players. Hogue can handle most any type but he has struggled defending in the post and getting the early position that is so important since he is undersized. But can Dejean-Jones and Nader guard all over the court? Can they keep up with little guards or can they handle big guys on the block? Can they rebound against bigger guys like Melvin Ejim could?

Of course, in December we’ll see Jameel McKay who has been called an athletic freak that should be able to hold it down in the paint as well as keep up with some bigger guards on the perimeter. Throw in Naz Long who has shown glimpses of great defensive play, Matt Thomas who has size and enough quickness to hold serve, and Daniel Edoze who is a formidable option to defend the rim and there are a lot of options on defense, too. Add on Sherron Dorsey-Walker who has shown glimpses (to me) and has some length to build off as well.

The point I’m getting to here is that there are already roster spots claimed by extremely versatile and skilled offensive players. Some are known commodities to the fans at the defensive end and some are not. With Hogue, Niang, Nader, Dejean-Jones, and Mckay the roster already has five guys that are extremely versatile with two of them being 6’5”, one being 6’6”, one being 6’7”, and one being 6’8”. That is close to Pat Riley’s utopia of a lineup.

Those guys won’t all start because Monte Morris owns one spot but with three or four of those guys on the court at the same time you essentially have the same effect. Now consider the possibility of a 6’8” Ryan Anderson from Boston College and the already committed Darien Williams for the 2015-16 season.

The offensive versatility is in place and a lot of the pieces to the defensive options have the foundation poured. Fred Hoiberg has been practicing the methods to a “positionless” system with true interchangeable parts for the past three seasons but now the cupboard is really filling up with talented players that can make it all work. Rosters and systems built in that fashion aren’t just hard to guard, they’re hard to score on, and hard to prepare for.

So don’t get hung up on which guy will play which spot because it truly does not matter anymore at Iowa State. Certain sets or plays will assign guys to certain roles but the days of limiting a player’s potential to a simple role as a given position are long gone, especially for Fred Hoiberg.

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