A peek at the gears behind Townsville's offense

Ten minutes into my first practice with the Townsville Crocodiles, I turned to one of the assistant coaches and asked, “How much money do you think you could raise, if there was a swear jar in here?”

Townsville's head coach, Shawn Dennis is a hard taskmaster. He coaches his guys hard, holds them accountable, and doesn’t mind sprinkling in colorful language to add emphasis. But to think it’s all he is as a coach would be far from the truth, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. One of the first topics we discussed was Dennis’ belief in the use of “game sense” coaching techniques, to improve his players' decision-making skill.

Does game sense coaching work?

According to the Australian government’s Aussport website, game sense coaching rose in prominence in the mid-90s, when an Englishman named Rod Thorpe was brought out by the Australian Sports Commission to teach our coaches about using games that place “the participant in situations where decision making and problem solving are central to successful performance”.

Dennis, who is a qualified physical education teacher, recalls his teaching days when he used game sense with his students to develop their spatial awareness. Dennis talked about how these games indirectly improved his students’ abilities in “being aware of what’s around you, what opportunities may or may not arise” and that game sense can “help players to read the game better”.

As a result of this belief, Dennis builds time in most training sessions where the players literally, just play. Typically this involves a simple 5-on-5 half court game, where neither team can use set plays. They are encouraged to just move the ball quickly, space the court and react to their teammates' penetration and cuts. By playing freely, they begin to understand how to create an advantage, recognize when they don’t have an advantage (and therefore shift the ball to another teammate), and learn to capitalize on advantages that come their way.

“You look at the great players and they have a knack of knowing where to be, and it’s all because they read the defense,” Dennis says.

You can see the benefit of this game sense approach in this clip below. The Crocs cut, screen, pass the ball and only at the end of the play do they need to take two dribbles to create a shot.

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This appreciation for playing without the ball was also something Dennis experienced first-hand when guarding Australian basketball legend Andrew Gaze. Dennis, who played 197 games for the Newcastle Falcons over seven seasons, recalls how Gaze used his strengths (and minimized his weaknesses) by working his defender off a multitude of screens.

“(Gaze) scored most of his points before he caught the ball, because he couldn’t beat you off the dribble”.

It’s no surprise that a major part of the Crocs' scoring this season comes from movement without the ball. Per Synergy, the Crocs rate “good” at offense off screens, and it’s the most efficient part of their half-court offence, converted at the second highest effective field goal percentage (48.1%), just behind points scored on put backs/offensive rebounds (50.7%). Their scoring from off screens also rates better than perimeter isolations (42.9%), post-ups (40.9%) and pick and rolls (39.9%).

Starting the offense

The Townsville Crocodiles' offensive system begins when they take possession of the ball in the backcourt. Their wings sprint deep into the corners. Their lead establishes position at the weak side low post, and their point guard and the trailing big working the ball up the floor in a “2 player front”. This flow allows them to easily transition from fast break or press breaker into their transition offense, simply by having the point guard reversing the ball to the trailer, which starts the offense in motion.

The Florida offense

After the ball reversal, the highest frequency set that the Crocs move into is their Florida series. Dennis took the main structure of this offense from the University of Florida's men basketball teams coached by Billy Donovan. He has been using it since 2008, back when he was coaching in the NZNBL with the Hawks Bay Hawks. Coach Dennis describes his Florida offense as “a multi-purpose (offense) that has good spacing, involves cuts to the basket and away, (as well as) pick and roll; so there is a variety of things you have to defend.” It’s a system that Dennis has a great deal of knowledge of, and is comfortable with teaching.

Dennis emphasizes the importance of having a set offensive system as a coach. “You look at all the most successful coaches, they have all settled on a system. They just tinker with it, or add bits and pieces to it depending on their personnel and whom they play.

I mean, Rob Beveridge is still running the stuff (with Illawarra and previously at Perth) he won a Junior (World Championship) gold medal with. Joey Wright runs his Fist series (details: on coach Wright's FIST offense) and has since his days in Brisbane. It allows the players to know exactly what you are trying to do.”

Florida’s main actions rely on having two cutters working off two screeners in different ways – turnouts, flare cuts and pin downs.

We look at the most frequent action in Florida below: one cutter over the top of the foul line and one cutter going along the baseline and “turning out” off the low post. In this sequence, the players move into a side pick and roll at the end of the possession.

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Another wrinkle in the offense is the use of the high post, or “elbows”. The Crocs use this area of the court to set up for backdoor cuts and dribble hand offs (DHOs).

https://youtu.be/P0ykIvR6kU4

Crocs power forward Brian Conklin is a big focus at the elbows (yes, the irony is not lost on me). From this area, he is able to use his speed against bigger, slower 5s in the league.

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When teams try to deny ball reversal, the Crocs go to their counter, where the trailing big dribbles back to the point guard and they go into a series of stagger screens for their shooters.

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Jett and the 2 series

What Dennis is now exploring in his offensive scheme, is to add more actions to take advantage of import point guard Jordair Jett's unique abilities. “(Jett) has come from a system where he walked the ball up the court, and plays 35 seconds of offense (the NCAA college system has a 35-second shot clock compared with the NBL, NBA and FIBA which feature 24-second clocks).”

I’ve been saying to (Jett), 'mate, we brought you over here to unleash you.'

View image | gettyimages.com

Dennis' “2” series is specifically tailored for Jett. It is an offense that involves two pin down screens, and ends in a mid pick and roll. You can see from the clip below, the first pin down gets the point guard (Jett) open at the top of the key, whilst the second pin down creates an advantage by screening the big's defender who has to come up and guard the mid pick and roll.

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It's all about execution

In my opinion, one of the key performance indicators for any high quality coach is the ability of your team to execute after timeouts (ATO), first plays of quarters and after free throws (AFT). At these times, the coach and his team have ample opportunity to organize themselves and generate a high quality shot. Shawn Dennis is an excellent coach at scripting plays in these situations.

Dennis shares his thoughts on drawing up ATOs. “I am a big believer in always setting up the same (set). If you start in the same set, even if the opposition knows all your plays, it’s (still) very difficult for them to read it. Someone will break down. If you have the same alignment, its easy to throw a wrinkle in, particularly out of timeout.”

During the first play of their game in Sydney, the Crocs initiated with their normal transition offense, then flowed into part of their “2” series, and finished with some misdirection that got Clint Steindl wide open for a 3-point shot.

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The Crocs certainly a strong package of set plays and offenses, and it needs to be so. They don’t have enough natural scorers on their roster to create offense without a strong system. Dennis' belief in creating an environment that develops better decision making should help the young Crocs execute their sets even better.

Until then, their defense has to be what they hang their hat on to win games. Read on as we explore the Townsville Crocodiles and their defensive system this season.