ASU guards are playing at a ridiculous level, but is it sustainable?
Six games and as many wins into the season, Arizona State’s success is easy to understand.
As predicted with the influx of frontline depth to complement a senior guard trio of Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice, the Sun Devils are scoring — a lot. They rank No. 5 in the country by averaging 95.7 points per game thanks to a fairly fast pace of play.
But in those possessions, ASU has become the most efficient scoring team in the nation, averaging 1.144 points per possession on the year, according to Synergy Sports.
Coach Bobby Hurley doesn’t need you to understand the complexities of basketball to explain it.
His experienced guards are thriving this season.
“I just think, overall, they’re playing at a ridiculous level right now,” Hurley told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station Wednesday. “Shannon is averaging 20 points per game and he’s not even being talked about because of just how well Tra is playing.
“I think we’re an exciting brand of basketball the way we get up and down the floor. Our guys are just showcasing their talent: Tra Holder, Shannon Evans, Kodi are playing as good as any guard trio in the country right now.”
Ridiculous might explain some of the numbers the trio is putting up.
Holder and Evans are averaging better than 19 points and five assists per game each.
Those two plus Justice have so far accounted for 82 percent of the three-point shots ASU has made, and they’re a combined 47 percent from deep. Accuracy-wise, Justice leads the way by hitting 57 percent of his shots overall and 47 percent from three despite pedestrian numbers getting into the paint.
All three starting guards have increased their volume of three-point shot attempts per game compared to a year ago.
Last season, 46 percent of their shots were from three-point range, and that’s increased to 57 percent as they’ve taken on more scoring responsibilities without 2016-17 leading scorer Torian Graham.
But it’s not all perimeter success that’s allowing the Sun Devils to play so efficiently.
“We’ve finally incorporated an inside game that teams have to focus on some when they plan to play us. It’s opened things up for Tra and Shannon and Kodi,” Hurley said.
Redshirt forward Romello White is scoring 15.6 points per game, and the defenses attempting to cover him and community college transfer De’Quon Lake, the fifth double-digit scorer on the squad, have opened driving lanes for the guards.
While White leads ASU in free throw attempts, the guards are also getting to the stripe. Arizona State ranks fifth nationally in free throw attempt rate.
That helped the Sun Devils’ offensive efficiency numbers a great deal, but the question is whether that can keep up.
ASU is assisting on 56 percent of its shots, a middle-of-the-road mark in college hoops, and much of the guard trio’s production has come off the bounce.
Yet, the highlight play of the season, Evans’ ankle-breaking crossover of a sliding Xavier defender, is the exception to how Arizona State is scoring, not the norm.
Shannon Evans created about nine feet of space with this move. pic.twitter.com/VfxGgGHudC
— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) November 25, 2017
While scoring like that doesn’t seem sustainable, the Sun Devils’ shot distribution and ease at which they’re getting open threes are promising.
In the case of the top two scorers in Holder (23.3 points per game) and Evans (19.5), about a third of their shots are coming at the rim, and only a fifth have been assisted, meaning they’re beating opponents off the dribble much of the time, per Hoop-Math.
None of the three guards take more than Justice’s 20 percent of his attempts as two-point jumpers — the least-efficient shot in the game.
That means ASU is succeeding getting layups or threes.
While two-point jumpers by the three seniors have hardly not been assisted and have been made at video game-like percentages — Justice and Holder are shooting 82 percent and 57 percent on two-point jumpers, respectively — the majority of their three-point attempts have come off ball movement and assists.
Holder has the lowest assisted-field-goal rate on his three-pointers — at 60 percent. That’s still strong majority of three-point shots he’s taking by others moving the ball.
ASU’s efficiency could come back to reality if teams force the Sun Devils to take more contested two-point midrange shots by meeting the undersized guards at the rim. Justice hasn’t gotten to the cup much, period, while Evans struggles to finish among the trees (he shoots 45 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math).
Their three-point shooting success likely won’t continue to this degree, either, but as it stands, Hurley’s team has already found the right offensive formula. Dribble, drive and score or get fouled — or make a pass to a big or out to the three-point line for an assisted bucket.
That’s enough to make the Sun Devils a challenger atop a Pac-12 that, so far, hasn’t met expectations during nonconference play.