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ASU Basketball: Sun Devils thrive with increased commitment to pick and roll

Better flowing offense

Andrew Palla/House of Sparky

ASU’s offensive struggles have produced a number of embarrassing moments for the Sun Devils so far this season, and remain the team’s biggest obstacle heading into the teeth of their Pac-12 schedule. Whether it was the 40 point beatdown delivered by St. Mary’s in ASU’s backyard, or the 28 point defeat against the rival Arizona Wildcats to open up the Sun Devils Pac-12 schedule, an inability to produce consistent scoring is the primary culprit behind ASU’s 2-4 record over their last six contests.

Yet hope lies on the horizon for ASU following a split of games in Oregon head coach Bobby Hurley called “probably the most difficult pair that you’re going to face in a week.” The team compiled one of their strongest offensive efforts of the season Thursday in a 82-76 win over the Oregon State Beavers before going toe-to-toe with the ninth ranked Oregon Ducks Saturday, ultimately falling 78-69.

While the earlier of the two games is obviously the more encouraging of the two outcomes, there is debatably more to learn from the Sun Devils nine point loss in Eugene. ASU’s nine made three pointers against UO was their third highest total of the season, while the team’s nine turnovers was their lowest since a late November win over Princeton. ASU also played with an improved efficiency, connecting on a season high 87.5% of their free throws along with 31% of their three point attempts, the team’s third best percentage this season when attempting more than 25 threes in a game.

A significant portion of the Sun Devil’s success against the Ducks can be attributed to an increase in pick and roll usage. Against UO’s imposing length, ASU relied heavily on pick and roll actions to open up space for their guards, primarily looking to unlock options for junior Remy Martin to work as both a scorer and facilitator.

“We want to set some early ball screens in the flow of our offense, in early offense,” Hurley said Tuesday. “I think that has been able to free up Remy some so the defenses have a more difficult time knowing for certain where those screens are coming from.”

The emphasis on creating more opportunities for Martin produced one of the junior’s strongest games so far this season. His 29 points against UO were his second highest scoring output of the year, while his six assists were the third most he’s dished out all season. Acting as the offense’s primary initiator, Martin looked much more comfortable compared to some games earlier in the season, forcing fewer bad shots while placing a higher priority on getting his teammates involved.

“If you watched on Saturday, I thought we hit the paint and got the ball out to shooters,” Hurley explained. “We didn’t always make them, but I thought overall the quality of our shots were pretty good.”

A number of those quality looks came in the early parts of the shot clock, reiterating Hurley’s point about working ball screens into the early parts of the offense. One such example came midway through the second half, when one misstep by Oregon’s N’Faly Dante on a Martin/Romello White pick and roll led to an easy bucket for the bruising forward.

“The second I see Mello roll and that guy is still with me, my job is to try and get Mello the pass,” Martin elaborated. “My job is done once I get two people on me because when two people are on me, that means another person is open.”

Martin would go on to explain what made this specific play such an effective one for the ASU offense.

“I saw that bottom guy that’s supposed to be tagging Mello, he’s not there, so that leaves Mello open low,” Martin said. “If he tags Mello, then that skip pass back to Verge is open.

It’s kind of pick your poison … That’s why pick and roll is so hard (to defend) because if you scoot over, I have Kimani in the corner and Verge lifting up and if you don’t, I have Mello rolling.”

Martin was able to work these actions into quality shots for both him and his teammates time and time again Saturday, exploiting the aggressiveness of the Ducks defense to his advantage. Oregon’s Payton Pritchard is one of the country’s best on-ball defenders, and the early front runner for Pac-12 player of the year, but even he was no match at times for Martin’s quickness and burst.

In this pick and roll action, Martin’s ability to slither by the initial defender before contorting his body to get to the rim is truly exceptional, and a shining example of what makes the junior one of the most dynamic and dangerous players in the conference.

“I let Remy be Remy,” Hurley said. “If I follow him, he’ll lead me to good places. I got a lot of trust in his talent and his ability, and his decision-making has been improving by the day. He’s playing at an elite level.”

When the Sun Devils are truly in need of a bucket, Martin will often look for a screen from White to free himself up. Given even the slightest bit of space, Martin is able to create for himself like few others can.

“I knew the score of the game and I just wanted to cut it, and obviously a three would be nice, so I rose up with confidence. He was kind of sagging off, they didn’t hard hedge, so I just pulled it and it went in,” Martin said of his late game three. “All I needed was a little bit of space to try and change the momentum. It’s second half, four minutes left, I’ve got to do something.”

Martin was not the only Sun Devil to reap the benefits on strong pick and roll execution Saturday, as a number of fellow guards got solid looks throughout the contest. Whether it was Rob Edwards being freed by a Kimani Lawrence screen for a wide open midrange jumper…

Or Alonzo Verge Jr. finding Jaelen House for a corner three thanks to a Mickey Mitchell pick…

ASU was able to consistently create strong scoring opportunities through their commitment to the pick and roll.

As ASU looks to keep pace in the Pac-12, they will look to translate their two impressive offensive performances against the Oregon schools into more complete performances this week against both Colorado and Utah. With his talented group of guards seemingly hitting their stride, Hurley knows there’s a lot to like for ASU moving forward.

“I thought that there were some real positives to take out of it,” Hurley said of the Oregon trip. “There’s a lot of things to be optimistic about.”