Three games into the season, it’s clear that this is not last years team. BaylorVision’s broadcasts have almost been at pains to make this point, but something is worth discussing beyond who is and isn’t on the roster.
The style of play thus far has shifted in some interesting directions. Even comparing like to like (early season games against lower division opponents), this seasons team is more movement-oriented in just about every sense of the word on offense. Players are moving and cutting more in the half court, the Bears have pushed more in transition, and the ball is absolutely zipping around all over the floor trying to find the guy cutting to the lane.
Having faced three teams in or near the bottom third of the sport, the Baylor Bears are 63rd in adjusted tempo and have the 12th fastest offensive possessions in the country (14.4 seconds, on average). These stats confirm the eye test: Baylor just looks faster this season. The ball is getting pushed in transition as more players feels confident grabbing the defensive rebound and pushing. At this point, the only players who likely don’t feel fully empowered to grab and go are Flo Thamba and Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua. The entire rest of the rotation — including stud freshman Kendal Brown and Jeremy Sochan — seems to have been given the imperative: get the ball, then run with your head up.
The athleticism jumps off the screen, particularly when Kendall Brown is anywhere on the floor. That dude is something Scott Drew has never had before, and it’s changed the composure of the team. Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler were both clear NBA prospects last season, but their influence on the team slowed things down just a bit. They preferred to take a measure of the floor and attack with precision. Brown and Sochan aren’t quite the decision-makes that Butler and Mitchell were, but they do have something those two guards just didn’t: size and explosiveness. Brown and Sochan, at 6’8” and 6’9” respectively, have a physically better angle from which to see and pass down and across the floor. They’re not necessarily better passers - just different. When the Bears are on the break this season, it’s lethal:
Contributing to this pace: Baylor is a more active off-ball team so far this season. Personnel is the key change here, too. Last season, Drew had 3-4 top flight shooters on the floor at all times. Maximizing that talent meant sprinkling them around the perimeter, locked and loaded to fire up a shot off a kick-out. This season, there aren’t quite as many options from deep. Adam Flagler, LJ Cryer, James Akinjo, and Matthew Mayer are all high-level shooters, but Drew isn’t going to put all four on the floor together very often. Mostly, three of those four are joined by one of Tchamwa-Tchatchoua and Thamba, plus Brown or Sochan. That’s the standard line-up so far. Brown and Sochan, though adequate from outside, are not at their best parked in the corner. They’re much better moving around the floor, and they’re both high level for freshman.
Watch Sochan in this clip, where he starts in the top corner. He won’t get any points or assists, but his activity creates two opportunities that his teammates just weren’t quite ready to take advantage of:
Mayer could have hit Sochan with a bounce pass as he cuts baseline, although it is a tight window. Not a big deal that Mayer doesn’t attempt it. Sochan’s not done, though, as he moves into position for the offensive rebound while the ball is in flight, again creeping along the baseline to get there. Cryer passes up the wide-open three that Sochan creates for him.
Here’s Sochan from the corner again, this time catching and driving baseline:
Sochan does something subtle here right before he passes. Knowing he needs the rotating defender to take one more step away from the cutting Mayer, Sochan takes an extra step toward the baseline, then wraps the pass around the beguiled defender.
Sochan’s not the only freshman wing with basketball IQ. Brown is similarly intuitive in how to use the baseline to his advantage:
Here, Brown gets himself into position in the dunker spot, before the defense is fully set. As Akinjo goes away from the Thamba screen into the lane, Brown just takes a quick step toward the basket, where Akinjo can toss him an easy lob pass.
This is a different sort of attack than last season, and it’s paying off. The Bears are 4th in the country in assist rate, assisting on nearly 70% of their made shots. Baylor has totaled 76 assists through three games. Against three comparable early opponents last season, Baylor had an assist rate of about 61%, with 71 assists on 116 makes.
These are early trends, and some things will need to shake out as the level of difficulty ramps up. My big question: who has the ball in their hands in a one-possession game? Baylor’s got several candidates right now, and we’ll have to see how the coaching staff handles this potentially sensitive issue. For now, though, it’s encouraging to see a team with so many players either new to the team or in new roles build almost instant chemistry, particularly around these two unbelievable freshmen.