NBL: Examining Adelaide coach Joey Wright's FIST offense

Inside an empty basketball stadium, tucked away in the leafy suburb of Auchenflower, just outside Brisbane, sat NBL head coach Joey Wright, his close friend and assistant coach Ron “the Rat” Radliff, and their point guard Stephen Black. The three had just finished the 2002-2003 campaign with the Brisbane Bullets - Wright had taken over mid-season from Richard Orlick - and were discussing the team’s offense for the following season.

In Wright’s first season at the helm of the Bullets, his offensive system comprised of 'traditional' sets: UCLA's high post offense, quick hitters out of box formations, as well as elements of the Melbourne Tigers' shuffle offense. But Wright was a coach who liked to think outside of the box. He had always liked the motion offense of legendary coach Bobby Knight, which involved a lot of player and ball movement. Most importantly for Wright, Knight’s offense also allowed players the freedom to make reads; to see how the defense was reacting, react with counter moves, and score. But he wanted to add some more modern elements of basketball to this system, along some of his own flavor, to create his own brand of offense.

“We felt like the game was changing from old motion days of just pin down screens. We wanted to get into some (more) pick and roll situations,” said Wright. “ I feel like any great offense has (three) elements - isolation, misdirection and pick and roll.”

That afternoon, the three men who shared a wealth of basketball knowledge between them, built the beginnings of Joey Wright’s famous FIST offence. As Wright recalls, “Me, Rat (Radliff) and Blacky (Black) just kind of sat down in the gym and said what about this, what about that, and just came up with (the offense) and all the little reads and wrinkles.”

Wright has been using the FIST offense ever since. Through his five full years as head coach of the Bullets - including the NBL championship winning season in 2007 - his brief stint coaching in Cyprus during 2008, his three seasons leading the Gold Coast Blaze, and now with the Adelaide 36ers.

How does the FIST offense operate?

Wright’s FIST offence, is a 3-out 2-in (three perimeter players, 2 post players) system. It starts with either two 'turnouts' (cutter starts inside the key, cuts out to the wing, off a post player who is setting a screen on the block) or 'pin downs' (cutter starts at the short corner, and cuts off a down screen to the wing). When you have some of the game's best catch-and-shoot players, as Joey has had through his coaching career (Ebi Ere, James Harvey and Chris Goulding), a lot of open looks are created off these initial actions.

Watch how Ebi Ere got free in this sequence: [gfycat data_id="NaughtyWigglyBantamrooster" data_autoplay=true]

If no clear shot occurs, the player continues with the guard “exchange”, ball reversal and then flows into one of the many 'wrinkles' that Wright, Radliff and Black dreamed up that day back in 2002, and have refined since.

FIST into motion offense

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Wright likes to have his big men catch and finishes close to the rim, especially ATO (After Timeout) or AFT (After Free Throws). In this FIST option, Matt Hodgson gets a deep seal right at the basket and scores after a 'duck in' (when the screener seals his player in the paint right after screening).

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In the past, teams have tried to disrupt the FIST play by denying ball reversal, so that the ball is pinned on one side of the court. But Joey’s players, particularly those who have been in the system a long time, have seen this all before. They can, and will punish you if you anticipate the action too soon, or fall asleep on this part of the offence. Veteran power forward, Anthony Petrie, who is in his sixth season with Wright, loves the freedom players have on offense. They are allowed to break out of the structure to make plays in FIST. “We have our systems, but if you see something that you think was there, he’s fine with it."

In this clip, Adam Gibson sees the defense (Breakers point guard Cedric Jackson) anticipating the guard exchange, which leads to the defenders losing sight of him. Gibson makes a great read here by breaking out of the play, and slips to the hoop for a layup.

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For a young player like Warrnambool junior Nathan Sobey, having a coach who allows you this kind of autonomy is something he is thriving in. Sobey is fast becoming an Adelaide crowd favorite with his high-energy play on both ends of the floor, and he credits much of this to the faith Wright puts in him. “I really believe in his (Wright’s) coaching philosophy. He lets his players play, he lets them make reads in a game, and if you think it’s the best read, than take that shot,” Sobey said.

Sobey has rewarded Wright's belief with spectacular plays on the defensive end this season, like this chase down block in the 36ers' win over the New Zealand Breakers in Round 1 this season.

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However, the confidence the players have in taking open shots - and in a lot of cases, the first open shot - can backfire at times. As seen in this sequence from Sobey, players will at times hoist up a shot without making a single pass in the offense.

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Whilst the shot does go in, most coaches would deem this as poor shot selection. Per RealGM.com, the 36ers are 6th in the league in assisted field goals, at 45.2%. When you consider that last year’s NBL champions, the New Zealand Breakers, are at a staggering 61.4% this season, you can surely appreciate the complete difference in styles between the two teams. The spill-on affect from these 'quick' shots is that if they don’t go in, it places pressure on your transition defense and could lead to easy scores from opponents, especially if they can rebound the ball well and run the fast break right back.

But as they say, you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Over the years, Joey’s teams have generally got the mix right and put up a lot of points. Last season, the 36ers were second in points scored per 100 possessions at 108.5 PPP, and played at the fastest pace in the league at 98.3 possessions per game. This season however, their PPP is down to 102.5, which shows they are still finding their way in regards to finding the right shots.

Can the Adelaide 36ers continue to find the delicate balance needed to maintain coach Wright's FIST offense? Watch out for Adelaide this season, and stay tuned for a second instalment that analyses the 36ers' defensive schemes.