It was very early in the 2014 college basketball season and Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey was in his office working when a man walked in.
He asked if he could watch Winthrop’s practice, which was about to start, and Kelsey said, absolutely, our practices are open. Then he asked if the man was a basketball coach and where did he coach?
“Toronto,” he said.
“Toronto... Raptors?” Kelsey asked, his interest piqued.
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“Yeah, the Raptors,” the man said.
Nick Nurse, an assistant coach for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors in 2014, and now the Raptors’ head coach, had just ambled into Kelsey’s office. Nurse’s wife, the former Roberta Santos, was an assistant volleyball coach at Winthrop and Nurse was in town for some quality family time before the NBA season started.
That fortuitous event changed the offensive style of the Winthrop basketball program. Kelsey always liked to play fast and downhill offense. But meeting Nurse added an emphasis on 3-pointers and the development of the Eagles’ shot spectrum, which determined whether certain field goal attempts were efficient and valuable, or not, and thus not worth shooting.
During one of their many interactions over the ensuing years, Nurse asked Kelsey what kind of shots his team wanted.
“Good shots?” Kelsey said, unsure of his answer.
Four years later, the 2018-19 Winthrop team is the boiled down essence of the theories Nurse shared with Kelsey. The Eagles don’t possess a clearly defined traditional post player. At least eight of the 10 players that see regular playing time are high-level shooters. At least five of the 10 could be considered capable play-makers as well.
Central to the team’s offense is spacing, positioning shooters all over the floor. The Eagles want dribble penetration or snappy ball movement to create offensive possibilities: option one is always to score near the basket or draw a shooting foul, but option two is worth more points - get in the lane and spray a pass to an open shooter beyond the 3-point line, or make the extra pass on the perimeter to the same shooter for an open look.
A big reason why Winthrop has been easy on the eye this season is the team’s offensive emphasis on two of the game’s most fun plays: the dunk and the 3-pointer. Half of Winthrop’s field goal attempts are 3-pointers and the Eagles get 42 percent of their scoring from 3-pointers, which ranks eighth out of the 351 Division I basketball teams, according to KenPom.com. The national average is 31.7 percent.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was one of the NBA’s first executives to fully appreciate the value of the 3-pointer. Morey had never played or coached basketball but had a statistical analysis background. He recognized that 3-pointers are at least 50 percent more valuable than any other shot in the game. It sounds obvious, but few, if any, other teams were forgoing mid-range jumpers for 3-pointers.
Morey’s research also branded the mid-range, 2-point jump shot as the game’s most inefficient shot. It’s tough to make, in part because it almost always comes off the dribble (think about it, it’s easier to hit a shot when the ball is passed to you than to pull up off the dribble, usually with a defender close by), and also because it’s only worth two points. Why not try to get a dunk or layup instead?
Nurse was head coach of the Houston Rockets’ G-League team in the Rio Grande Valley, where he was helping institute the Rockets’ novel offensive approach around 2011. The Rockets’ NBA and G-League teams’ focus on getting one of these types of shots every possession led to what Kelsey said Nurse calls the “shot spectrum.”
Kelsey has adopted a similar shot spectrum for Winthrop, and the team reviews its shots after each game to make sure it’s staying within the spectrum. The Eagles shoot 10 more 3-pointers per game (32.6 per game total) since Nurse walked in Kelsey’s office, and they make five more (12.6 makes per game).
This kind of offensive scheme is different from what teams like Savannah State and The Citadel (whose coach, Duggar Baucom, previously coached a 3-point heaving offensive machine at VMI) employ, which prefers volume of 3-pointers and quickness of shots, over quality. Winthrop wants shots that answer the question Nick Nurse asked Kelsey early on in their relationship.
After Kelsey’s unsure answer to that question, Nurse told him, “we want the majority of our shots to be the highest percentage shots in the game.” Again, it seemed so simple and obvious.
Not a gimmick
Nurse joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff in 2013, then was promoted to head coach last summer after the team was swept in the playoffs for the second straight season by Cleveland. The Raptors played with one of the league’s slowest tempos and were one of the most 2-point jump shot-reliant teams, and the organization’s management recognized the need for change.
During Raptors practices, Nurse assigned four points to corner 3-pointers (high percentage for an NBA player because it’s almost always a catch-and-shoot shot), while mid-range jump shots equaled zero points, an attempt to change the thinking of the team’s players. Toronto is shooting 33 triples per game this season, but that’s only ninth in the NBA. The Rockets average a league-best 43 3-pointers per contest.
Toronto lagged behind much of the NBA in establishing a modern shot spectrum, but the college game is even farther back.
The top-five places in the Big South Conference record book’s 3-point field goal attempts per game category are owned by Baucom’s VMI teams from the first decade of the 2000s. But those teams tended to forgo defense for offensive possessions. Kelsey makes it clear that his team’s 3-point love is not a gimmick, that the Eagles aren’t sacrificing defense just to get the ball back. But, if Winthrop keeps up its current 3-point shooting pace, this season’s team will crack the Big South’s all-time top-five in 3-pointers attempted by a team and 3-pointers made per game.
Kelsey spent extensive time studying and learning from Nurse during the offseason two years ago, and was planning on visiting Nurse’s Raptors training camp in Canada this past fall, only to realize his passport had expired. Kelsey values their lengthy text exchanges, a treasure trove of offensive basketball theory. As much as anything, his chance encounter with Nurse confirmed his open door practice policy. You never know who might pop in.
“It’s been a cool basketball relationship,” said Kelsey.
‘Live with the results’
Winthrop’s game against Longwood Wednesday night featured two of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams in the country. The Eagles had hit at least 11 3-pointers in 75 percent of their games, including a school record 24 in a demolition of Hiwassee College.
“It’s hard (for defenders) to stay attached because the floor is open,” said Kelsey. “It’s fun when we’re playing this way.”
Entering Wednesday, Longwood got 43 percent of its scoring from 3-pointers, fifth most out of the 351 Division I teams and three spots higher than Winthrop.
And naturally, the two teams combined to make just 9-of-38 3-pointers in the first half, a dismal 24 percent.
Winthrop (11-6, 3-1 Big South) never could shake its cold shooting.
Really, no one on the court did except for Longwood’s Isaiah Walton. He finished with 30 points, making 12 field goals, nearly as many as Winthrop’s 17. Every time the Eagles got close in the second half, Walton would unleash a silky fadeaway jumper -- very few of them Daryl Morey-approved shots -- and stiff-arm the home team again.
Winthrop got within seven with 3 minutes left in the game and Josh Ferguson, one of the non-traditional big men perfectly fit for the Eagles’ system, got an open look at a 3. It clanked off the back iron. A Bjorn Broman 3 swirled around the rim in the last minute and popped out. And Walton soared through the air for a dunk that stuck the knife in the Eagles, who shot 27 percent for the game and fell 75-61.
Kelsey said after the game that he felt like the Eagles got away from the system. Winthrop had a season-low number of passes in the second half, indicative to Kelsey of his team playing one-on-one “hero ball,” trying to erase all of the deficit in one possession.
“We pressed too much,” he said.
Kelsey felt better about the first half, when the Eagles got shots within their desired spectrum. Winthrop had one 0-for-16 shooting stretch in the period, but a number of the misses were open looks from beyond the arc.
“If we’re generating the shots that we believe in, that we’re built to shoot,” Kelsey said last week, “you live with the results.”