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How Sean East uses pick-and-rolls to unlock his potential

The traditional but potent action might serve as a blueprint for Missouri moving forward. Now, it undergoes a stress test: a trek west for the Border War.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Sean East II didn’t wait long to run ran first pick-and-roll this season — as in Missouri’s first possession against UAPB. But after a slight delay, too. The play unspooled at a stilted speed: a thwarted trigger at the pinch post, a ball reversal, a post-up for Noah Carter, and a kick out to East.

With seven ticks on the shot clock, the senior point guard pointed to a spot in the slot. Jesus Carralero Martin set an angled screen. And when East’s defender dipped under, he rose and lofted a 3-ball that rippled the net.

Yet it didn’t take East long to iron out wrinkles.

A minute later, he again noticed a defender dipping under a high ball screen at the top of the arc. Bingo. Three minutes later, he pirouetted around a defender and drew a foul after using an empty-side ball screen. And six minutes after halftime, Aidan Shaw’s modest brush screen opened a gateway to an empty baseline and another rim attack.

In total, East navigated five ball screens in a comfortable 22-point win, a tally that would have been robust during his first season in the Columbia. Now, that sample looks like foreshadowing. During MU’s three-game winning streak, the senior has averaged a whopping 11 pick-and-roll possessions per game, touches yielding 1.033 points each time.

So far, East’s efficiency (1.161 PPP) ranks second nationally among high-volume PNR maestros, including Colorado State’s Isaiah Stevens and Purdue’s Braden Smith. Considering MU entered this season without a proven alpha, East’s early-season efficacy in a timeless but potent action is somewhat heartening. The question, though, is whether it’s sturdy enough bedrock to support the pilings of a potent offense.

Pick-and-Roll Efficiency | Heavy-Usage Creators | 2023-24

Name Team Poss Points PPP FG% eFG% TO%
Name Team Poss Points PPP FG% eFG% TO%
Shahada Wells McNeese State 6 7.1 1.185 53.30% 61.10% 7.40%
Sean East Ii Missouri 6.2 7.2 1.161 58.10% 67.40% 16.10%
Isaiah Stevens Colorado State 5.9 6.8 1.151 62.80% 66.30% 15.10%
Carlton Carrington Pitt 6.2 7.1 1.143 54.80% 63.10% 14.30%
Ajay Mitchell UCSB 7.4 8.4 1.135 54.20% 54.20% 10.80%
Kenan Blackshear Nevada 5.4 6.1 1.132 57.60% 57.60% 2.60%
James Bishop George Washington 8.2 9.1 1.108 56.40% 63.60% 17.60%
Braden Smith Purdue 6.9 7.4 1.081 58.00% 61.00% 16.10%
Dug McDaniel Michigan 9.7 10.3 1.069 48.50% 52.30% 9.20%
Ayinde Hikim UMass-Lowell 6.4 6.8 1.059 50.00% 57.90% 15.70%
Data current through Dec. 7. Data Source: Synergy Sports

On Sunday, the Tigers used the action as a club to bludgeon Wichita State. Nearly half of the Tigers’ half-court possessions used a PNR as a catalyst generating 17 scoring attempts that ginned up 1.063 points each time. East certainly feasted on the rebuilding Shockers, but the more heartening sight might have been watching Connor Vanover and Jordan Butler flash hints at applying rim pressure as rollers.

A major stress test comes today against No. 2 Kansas, who sit seventh in adjusted defensive efficiency. As stifling as the Jayhawks can be, coach Bill Self’s squad checks in 228th nationally in defending pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports. If the trend holds, this group would grade out Self’s worst since a 25-10 campaign a decade ago. Now the sobering part: KU’s “weakness” amounts to giving up 0.789 PPP. But no one said getting a toehold would be easy, especially inside Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

That the Tigers are heavily tilting toward ball screens also feels somewhat abrupt, too.

In five seasons as a head coach, Dennis Gates ran counter to the prevailing trend of relying on pick-and-rolls as the focal point of his offenses. Per Synergy’s data, MU’s usage of PNRs ranked No. 267 in Division I and 11th in the SEC last season. To anyone versed in Gates’s schematic roots, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. His team’s core operating system is the triangle offense, which itself draws heavily from tried-and-true elements – point series, delay series and chin series – of the Princeton offense as source material.

What sets Gates apart is marrying those concepts with a blistering tempo and granting a bit more freedom for players to hunt early in the shot clock. His debut campaign only reinforced that ethos, made easier by the fact he inherited Kobe Brown, an All-SEC player whose skill set was inch-perfect for Gates’ preferences. Sure, MU tinkered with lineups early on, but its stylistic identity wasn’t in question.

That was not the case early on in this campaign.

At times, MU seemingly swapped approaches with substitutions. Inserting Aidan Shaw for Carrlero toggled a switch. The Campbell’s transfer’s prime skill is serving as a conduit between actions in the Tigers’ triangle-based concepts. Yet it didn’t take long for opponents to suss out that Carralero’s a non-shooter and tends to hunt backdoor passes when running dribble-at actions on the second side of the floor. Typically fluid sets became, well, gloppy.

Shaw brings dynamism and defense, but he’s not nearly the same kind of reader as Carralero. Deploying Shaw in the pinch post doesn’t solve the problem. So, MU turned to another section of its playbook: pick-and-rolls with five-out spacing. The material isn’t new. In fact, it served as a break-glass option last season when long and athletic defenses fielded Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, and Tennessee smothered the Tigers.

Until the past couple of weeks, possession data reinforced the notion that this iteration of the Tigers might be fashioned in a familiar image. Ahead of Border War, it’s cutting profile at odds with the template Gates used in recent seasons.

Pick-and-Roll Usage | Dennis Gates | 2019-2024

Season Team Games Poss/Game %Time %Time Rk PPP FG% eFG%
Season Team Games Poss/Game %Time %Time Rk PPP FG% eFG%
2019-20 Cleveland State 31 11.4 14.2 109 0.627 32.5 34
2020-21 Cleveland State 27 8.6 10.8 264 0.649 37.7 40.6
2020-22 Cleveland State 31 8.1 10.1 291 0.675 39.4 41.8
2022-23 Missouri 36 8.9 11.4 267 0.806 38.6 44.2
2023-24 Missouri 9 11.7 15.2 106 1.01 50.6 59.1
Data Source: Synergy Sports

Suffering a loss to Jackson State apparently induced clarity. Look at Mizzou’s PNR volume since suffering a potential stain on its team sheet. And it’s not hard to spot that East’s role within the rotation is moving in tandem with that recent trend.

Undoubtedly, it’s broken a tendency for Gates. But for East, the Tigers’ recent embrace of ball screens is a return to the graduate senior’s roots. Given MU’s roster construction last season, East logically suffered a dip in PNR opportunities, which were chopped in half compared to his earlier stops at UMass and Bradley.

Pick-and-Roll Usage | Sean East II | Career

Season Team Games Poss/Game %Time Percentile PPP FG% eFG%
Season Team Games Poss/Game %Time Percentile PPP FG% eFG%
2019-20 UMass 31 4.5 35.7 93rd 0.681 34.6 39.3
2020-21 Bradley 24 4 38.8 94th 0.737 36 40.1
2022-23 Missouri 35 2 23.7 65th 0.606 34.6 37.5
2023-24 Missouri 9 6.2 42.4 95th 1.161 58.1 67.4
Data Source: Synergy Sports

This season, however, his PNR possessions have tripled. However, reviewing his per-40 minute rates reveals his opportunities at MU (7.7) aren’t dramatically different from his freshman season (6.5) with the Minutemen. Per Synergy, the percentage of time East spends in PNRs is equally similar. Put simply, his touches remain proportional to the amount of time he spends on the floor.

However, how that’s played out on the floor is worth exploring.

Spend any time watching East, and you’ll quickly decipher his preferences for attacking off the bounce. Ideally, a flat ball screen allows him to drive with his left hand. In another way, it’s a Rosetta Stone: East’s habitually looking to score.

More aggressive tactics, like hard-hedging and blitzing, can force East to his right hand, where he’s more prone to take tougher dribble jumpers or probe a gap for floaters.

And as we noted earlier, East’s renewed confidence in his jumper — MU made attempts to tweak it last season — make him more inclined to hoist up a 3-ball when his defender goes under a screen.

Middle ball screens are also a through line in how MU imposes a modest degree of order for a transition attack that’s quietly wilted. A juggernaut in the open floor last season, the Tigers rank just 255th for transition efficiency, according to Synergy data. A healthy portion of that dip stems from a slippage in rim finishing, especially contested attempts.

The tweak is subtle: have your big set drag screen — an artful term for getting in the way — in the middle of the floor.

It’s a crowbar to pry open a door to the middle of the floor when nobody’s home. Pushing the ball up the floor and swerving around that screen negates any ball-screen coverage, and East has a head of steam toward the rim without a low help defender around to impede his progress.

What’s equally notable, though, is how MU’s tried to ease similar access issues to the baseline before a defense matches up. For example, we’ve seen brush-type screens set higher up the floor, an option that hinges on the opponent’s personnel and scouting report.

Occasionally, the Tigers task a guard to use a ghost screen to successfully drag a defender off the baseline and create an empty corner. Admittedly, the sample size — and results — are relatively miniscule.

Trying to carve out space along the baseline isn’t a new enterprise for this coaching staff. When Brown was still in the fold, the Tigers utilized empty-side ball screens to give the future NBA draft pick the chance to roll into a post-up with no help defender nearby. Sometimes, Brown handled the ball, hunted a switch on to a smaller guard, and bulled his way to the rack.

Yet those instances almost always cropped up in exigent circumstances and played out in isolation. It was a skeletal structure to foster favorable isolation for their star.

Now, though, those ball screens aren’t a play call unto themselves. They’re an entry into a different wing of the same estate. Start with these snippets.

What do you notice? On the play side, there’s an empty corner, while three Tigers are arrayed in the corner, wing and slot opposite the ball. And when the screener does their job, it’s usually level with the free-throw line.

The initial screen and resulting two-man game triggers a pattern-based offense, a system made famous by Reggie Witherspoon during his time at Buffalo. (At many programs, this play call is named Buffalo.) Ideally, a guard attacks the middle of the floor while the screener rolls toward the hoop without a defender to tag them.

Because there’s no help around, it strains communication and ball-screen defenses. And if you have a stretch five, they can pop or flare to the corner. The reads are simple, too. Any defender – each playing one pass away – rotating toward the midline should prompt East to kick the ball out.

Let’s assume the help defender guarding the slot stunt to the middle gap and East passes out. That Tiger has three options. First, pull on an open catch-and-shoot. They can dump the ball to the big man for a high-low entry. They can look off their teammate on the wing, who cuts backdoor and filters to the corner, bumping the point guard to the slot. All that’s left to do is for the big man to lift to the slot.

What are we left with? A tandem is on one side, and three players are in the corner, wing, and slot opposite them. Then, the pattern repeats. The upside to a continuity ball screen isn’t hard to grasp. It’s easy to teach, involves all five players, and moves the defense from side to side.

The downside is also evident. It’s straightforward to scout. It’s also a boon to stock borderline elite floor spacers on your roster and keep an opponent from loading up to the ball. And typically, it chews a ton of clock. Today, Buffalo is rarely used as an operating system. Programs often use it as a breakdown call or out of a timeout.

Still, that initial screening action makes for a great trigger action. And as you, as you see on tape, East loves to use that initial ball screen to shed a defender, get to the baseline, and collapse a defense. About the only off-ball movement you see is that wing player cutting on a 45-degree angle to the restricted area or the slot player relocating for a spot-up.

Scouting East in this action doesn’t create confusion. A baseline attack means he’s looking to score at the rim. Turning toward the middle of the floor results in a bit more diversity, like a throwback to a popping Carter. But what’s notable is that the rotation of a help defender isn’t a tripwire for East to pass. Instead, he’s more inclined to dip into his midrange bag and see if a floater might do the trick.

Assuming East is thwarted, a kickout or ball reversal on the play side gives MU the chance to reset. On the three-side, for example, a hybrid player like Carter or Carralero drifts to the elbow, and the Tigers can flow into staple action where the ball enters the pinch post and guards on that side run split action. Or a big can step out to the top of the arc, and the Tigers unfurl a bit of their delay series.

Fortunately, MU’s system folds in an adjacent approach to continuity ball screens: pistol action.

Coach Mike D’Antoni made it ubiquitous two decades ago during his tenure with the Phoenix Suns. Since then, each team has put their spin on the system, which has filtered down, like continuity ball screen and dribble-drive motion. It even reached John A. Logan College, where it was a staple for current MU assistant Kyle Smithpeters.

From the jump, it’s easy to see how the pistol and continuity ball screen are literally aligned and rely on an empty corner. The only divergence is who sets the screen. In the pistol, it’s a guard-to-guard handoff, followed by a big setting of a ball screen in the slot.

Each coach stamps the system as their own based on the off-ball action run on the opposite side. But in a copycat profession, the three initial options remain universal. That’s undoubtedly true for Mizzou.

It starts with a get-action. Instead of sprinting ahead to the corner, a wide runner like Caleb Grill halts on the wing. Rather than use a hit-ahead from East to tee up a three, Grill runs a stationary handoff, picks off his point guard’s defender, and opens a portal to the baseline.

Next up is dribble action. It’s what the name implies. Assuming there’s a denial of a hit-ahead, a Tiger sets a ball screen for East and then sprints into a flare screen set by a big near the elbow.

Lastly, there’s a keep action. Instead of zooming toward the rim, East takes the handoff and runs and slot pick-and-roll with a big, which mirrors the same advantages as a continuity ball screen.

Depending on the lineup Gates has on the floor, a kickout or ball reversal can segue into another playbook chapter. But what merits monitoring is whether MU expands the scope of these actions. And if so, what might that entail?

It’s why the next three games function as a crucible. Assuming the offense doesn’t crack against three more top-100 opponents, there are easy add-ons the staff could install to generate more off-ball motion. For now, more reps – and more chemistry – are the objective as the Tigers continue to learn each other’s tendencies.

After rejiggering their roster, the Tigers scaled up their front line and infused more athleticism in their backcourt. Still, it’s an assortment of talent capable of playing five out. Vanover’s desire to play in pick-and-pops can keep the paint hollowed out. With more time, Tamar Bates might evolve into a diverse threat out of ball screens – a role where freshman Anthony Robinson II flashed early promise. Oh, and maybe John Tonje finds wayward confidence in time to return and make a dent.

The Tigers’ spacing is routinely pristine. Steadily, they’re knocking down more catch-and-shoot 3s. And defensively, this overhauled roster has already jumped 96 spots to No. 84 in adjusted defensive efficiency, ranking second in block percentage and 14th in steal rate.

Maybe the results in Lawrence are grisly today. They often are for visitors to Lawrence. But it’s a group finding actions that work, lineups to run them, and – just maybe – are figureheads it can count on.