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Breaking down the components of Alabama basketball's system

Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oats talks to his team against the Iona Gaels during the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Photo | USA Today
Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oats talks to his team against the Iona Gaels during the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Photo | USA Today

Nate Oats is formulating a program that has exceeded many expectations through two seasons with Alabama basketball.

Earlier this year, we analyzed the Crimson Tide’s offensive philosophy which is centered around the idea of pace, floor spacing, 3-point shooting and rim attempts. Give that a read before diving into this one.

Today we’ll be taking a deeper look at the components of Alabama’s system while breaking down how each player’s role creates value to the overall attack.

Over the past five seasons, it’s become popular for teams to run continuity ball screens that feature multiple pick-and-rolls in the same possession. While the concept is en vogue, it traditionally makes for a slower-paced, motion offense. That’s the antithesis of Oats’ system at Alabama.

Instead, the Tide looks to utilize a drive-and-space offense, featuring decision-making at a quicker rate. The objective is to penetrate the ball into the lane as quickly as possible on each possession. Players need to be willing 3-point shooters. From Alabama’s perspective, a passive tendency is worse than being overconfident in this face-paced, up-tempo offense.

In the play above, Alabama uses its dribble penetration to set up a 3-point attempt. Jaden Shackelford catches LSU off-balanced by drawing the attention of each defender. He then finds Jahvon Quinerly who uses a shifty spin to evade the defender and get into the lane. This allows Joshua Primo to spot up for an open 3-pointer. Quinerly and Shackelford were willing to make the extra pass, which illustrates their ability to make decisions in the flow of the offense.

Fit is an important component when examining offseason moves. Each program targets specific skill sets based on its system.

Let’s identify the five key archetypes for Alabama to grasp on the importance of roster construction:

1. Primary initiators – Jahvon Quinerly, J.D. Davison

2. Secondary creators – Jaden Shackelford, Nimari Burnett, Darius Miles

3. 3-and-D wings – Keon Ellis, Joshua Primo, Jusaun Holt

4. Defensive-minded forwards – Juwan Gary, Keon-Ambrose Hylton

5. Versatile bigs – Charles Bediako, Noah Gurley, Alex Tchikou

Now, we can look at the most valuable skills for each role.

Primary initiators

The most important piece to a championship team is an elite primary initiator. These players maintain a large offensive load as a self-creator and facilitator.

Last year, Herbert Jones was used in multiple situations due to his length and size. Jones led the team with 3.3 assists per game, trailing only eight players in the SEC. At 6-foot-8, he provided many challenges for defenders at the point of attack.

On this possession, Jones showed great patience before attacking the basket. He used his shoulder to create separation from both Stanford defenders at the rim.

Jones is flawed offensively in some areas. He struggled to create his own shot on pull-up jumpers. Last season, only 30 percent (6 of 20) of his 3-pointers made were unassisted.

Quinerly brings a lot to the table as a traditional point guard. He’s a threat to pass, shoot, and attack the basket. Quinerly uses his burst and handle to be savvy in ball screens.

In the clip above, Alabama ran a dribble handoff into a ball screen for Quinerly. Ole Miss decided to hedge, allowing him to easily split the two defenders. Oats tried to get Quinerly these looks heading downhill early into a possession. Alabama runs decisive actions to keep a defense on its toes.

Five-star recruit J.D. Davison will enroll this season as one of the highest-ranked prospects in program history. His vertical athleticism will bring a different dimension to this offense. Davison and Quinerly form a solid backcourt tandem, although Oats must stagger their minutes to keep an initiator on the court for most of the game.

Secondary creators

Shackelford was a key piece for Alabama due to his ability to provide a little bit of everything on offense. He has great strength and toughness for an undersized shooting guard. He utilizes those qualities to be a tough finisher around the basket.

In the above clip, Shackelford used a hesitation dribble to create separation from Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi (No. 25). He was able to draw a foul at the rim but finished through contact. Shackelford can collapse a defense by using his dribble drive ability.

Players like Shackelford have many scoring opportunities in this system. Last season, he led the team in points (14.0) and field-goal attempts (11.4) per game.

Shackelford is a consistent spot-up 3-point shooter. He shot a staggering 48 percent (13 of 27) from the left corner, exceeding the NCAA average of 36 percent. That’s a key skill for guards in Oats’ spread offense.

Shackelford has great ball control and patience, limiting his turnovers (2.0 assists to 1.5 turnovers) on offense. However, he lacks the explosiveness and self-creation ability to be an offensive anchor. Shackelford is a solid secondary creator who looks to add to his on-ball responsibility next season.

Texas Tech transfer Nimari Burnett will also fit into this role when he arrives on campus this summer.

3-and-D wings

The 3-and-D archetype has become a highly coveted skill set for programs. Every team needs a low-usage wing who can consistently knock down 3-pointers and defend at a high level.

Alabama basketball usage rate 
Name Usage rate 

Jahvon Quinerly

24.7 percent

Jaden Shackelford

23 percent

Herbert Jones

22.7 percent

John Petty Jr.

19.5 percent

Joshua Primo

17.6 percent

Keon Ellis

14.4 percent

Floor spacers are also valuable due to their ability to keep a defender attached to them. Opposing teams struggle to stunt or dig without giving up open 3-pointers.

As seen above, Jordan Bruner penetrated toward the baseline. Kentucky’s BJ Boston (No. 3) stayed attached to John Petty Jr. instead of digging. This shows why Alabama’s shooting gravity can limit a defender's range of motion.

In this video, Keon Ellis is everywhere on the court defensively. He maneuvered multiple screens, then lunged to interrupt the dribble penetration. Ellis is also able to strongly contest opposing 3-point attempts. Multi-position defenders add another dynamic to a defensive unit.

This offseason, Alabama added Jusaun Holt, who provides a two-way ability that will excel in this system.

Defensive-minded forwards

Defensive specialists can find minutes in Alabama’s system without a 3-point jumper. Alabama needs at least four shooters on the court, opening up a spot for a player like Juwan Gary. Jones served in this role as a freshman.

Gary is a high-motor, energetic forward who adds value through his defensive versatility. He plays bigger than his size at 6-foot-6, leading the team with a rebounding rate of 15.3 percent.

In the clip above, Gary provided excellent help-side rim protection. Arkansas’ Desi Sills (No. 3) blew past Quinerly before meeting Gary at the rim. This led to a transition 3-pointer for Petty.

Gary also uses his aggressiveness to set up or score in the fast break. He’s a great slasher that can turn defense into offense.

There’s a huge difference in spacing from 2013 to now. Alabama uses Gary in the dunker spot with four players on the perimeter. That’s a recipe that worked well for the Crimson Tide in postseason play.

Versatile bigs

Centers have evolved from a physical, post-dominant approach. Shooting is now a huge emphasis for players of this era.

Alabama parted ways with Javian Davis and Galin Smith last offseason due to their lack of versatility.

In the possession above, Alabama ran a pick-and-pop for Alex Reese. Poor defensive communication from South Carolina caused Keyshawn Bryant (No. 24) to rotate onto Reese. The Alabama forward then made an extra pass to the corner shooter. Alabama had ideal spacing with five players on the perimeter. Reese’s shooting ability forced the defense to respect him on the perimeter, opening up an opportunity for another teammate.

A big who struggles to stretch the floor must provide value in other areas — running in transition, setting screens and finishing around the basket. Rim gravity (ability to pressure the defense into the paint) is an important facet of this system. Four-star signee Charles Bediako fits into this mold due to his developing 3-point jumper.

On defense, bigs must be able to switch onto guards in the pick-and-roll. Alabama likes to hedge and recover on ball screens, a technique that can interrupt an offensive possession.

In the possession above, Vanderbilt looked to set up a shot for Scotty Pippen Jr. (No. 2) before Bruner easily hedged the dribble handoff. This caused Pippen to reset and create offense himself, taking off seconds off the shot clock.

How does this system affect winning?

There’s not a single formula to winning as a variety of concepts have been successful in the NCAA tournament. However, as you can see, the importance of roster construction is key. A team is only as good as its architect. Fortunately for Alabama, it has a pretty visionary one in Oats.