January 20, 2022
How Stanford’s run-it-back offense is going: An X’s and O’s appraisal
The Cardinal have made some tweaks to style and substance
Heading into the 2021-22 season, Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer was in a position that was enviable but challenging. On the one hand, her team was coming off her third NCAA championship and 12 of 13 players were returning, ready to run it back.
On the other hand, the one player who graduated was star point guard Kiana Williams. The San Antonio native was a third-team All-American in 2020-21, is Stanford’s all-time leader in 3-pointers, and spearheaded the Cardinal offense through her quick handle and smooth step-back jumpers. In their title-winning season last year, the Cardinal offense was the fourth-best in the country per Her Hoop Stats, averaging 77.7 points per game and a sterling 111.3 offensive rating.
When an offense loses its point guard, there is a major adjustment period, a time of transition. Like VanDerveer told reporters after an early-season loss to Texas where the Stanford offense sputtered to the tune of 20 turnovers, “they’re used to having Kiana out there just getting the ball up the court and initiating and running our offense.”
A few games into conference play, though Stanford is No. 2 in the country, film and stats show the offense is still in the midst of transition. Through Jan. 17, Cardinal are averaging 72.8 points per game and have a 103.7 offensive rating per Her Hoop Stats, slipping from the fourth-ranked offense in 2021 to 21st thus far in 2022. That 103.7 offensive rating would be Stanford’s third-lowest in the past 12 seasons, and while many teams can only wish for that level of offense, Stanford’s history and talent dictate that it holds itself to a championship standard. We examine both the points of success and struggle in Stanford’s offense so far:
Success: Pushing the pace
Without Kiana Williams, Stanford no longer has a guard who can consistently create off the dribble in the halfcourt. So Stanford tries to push the pace as much as possible to get good looks before the defense is fully set. Per Her Hoop Stats, the 2021-2022 Cardinal are averaging 70.4 possessions per game as of January 17, a pace which would be the highest for any Stanford team of the past 12 years. And when it comes to the transition game, to flipping from defense to offense in a flash, there may be no better player in the country than Haley Jones:
The 2021 Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player possesses a unique blend of skills that ESPN commentator Beth Mowins describes as a “one-woman fast break.” As one of only four players in the country with over eight rebounds and three assists per game (as of Jan. 17), Jones can rebound, dribble, and pass or shoot, all before the defense has a chance to get set. Opponents cannot let up for a second or else risk having Haley blaze past them, even off of a missed free throw:
As soon as Haley grabs a rebound, her head is up, using her great vision to find opportunities for herself and her teammates:
Though Haley is uniquely dangerous in transition, it’s clear that Stanford has a team-wide mandate to try to push the ball, as shown by this hit-ahead pass from Lacie Hull:
As soon as the South Carolina shot goes in, you can see Lacie take a few peeks downcourt – before she even gets the ball – to see if there is an opportunity to push the pace. She spots her sister Lexie, throws it ahead, and Lexie takes advantage of a scrambled defense to fire off a short jumper, all before five seconds have even gone off the shot clock. This teamwide emphasis on pace has made this year’s Stanford team its fastest in years, and helped fuel its offense’s success even without a traditional point guard.
Success: Ball movement
Not all possessions can end in the halfcourt, however; and without a traditional point guard, Stanford has to rely on ball movement to find seams in the defense. Fortunately, Stanford has double-digit championship players who all work on sharp passing and constant movement. As senior Lexie Hull said to reporters after a career-high 33 points in a January 7 win against Oregon, “It’s a big focus in practice to keep moving and finding the open lanes… we really work on that every day in practice.” And it shows, as seen in the clip below:
Senior Lexie Hull is one of the most common initiators and beneficiaries of this style of offense. The guard from Spokane never stops moving in the half-court:
As Anna Wilson drives, rather than standing and watching, Lexie intuitively drifts to an open pocket of space while her defender has her back turned. The subtle movement makes the pass a bit easier for Wilson, leading to an open three—splash.
Lexie is shooting a sterling 42.6% on 3-pointers after 14 games, and the team’s ball movement is a large reason why.
Hull is not the only beneficiary of this ball movement. Junior Hannah Jump, inserted into the starting lineup for the first time vs. Maryland to help ignite the offense, has similarly used her off-ball movement to generate open looks for 3:
And when the defense overcompensates for Jump’s sharp shooting (averaging a team-high 2.8 3-pointers per game as of Jan. 17), she can cut behind for an easy lay-up:
With Haley Jones jumping, dribbling, and dishing on the fast-break, and the entire team moving the ball on a string in the half-court, Stanford has found a way to find success on offense even without a traditional star point guard leading the way.
Success and struggle: Cameron Brink (and no Cameron Brink)
When on the floor, second-year forward Cameron Brink has been brilliant. Brink’s back-to-back performances against South Florida and Indiana, where she averaged 22 points, 16.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocks, were as good of a two-game stretch as any player has had this season. Unfortunately, foul trouble has kept Brink from being a consistent contributor for the Cardinal in big games. As of Jan. 17, Brink averages a foul on 6.0% of possessions, by far the highest of any of Stanford’s starters. In big games against Tennessee and South Carolina, foul trouble led her to play only eight and 17 minutes, respectively. For Stanford to reach its full potential, it needs the Naismith Trophy Watch List honoree to stay on the court, dominating on the post and on the boards.
Without a traditional point guard to consistently initiate offense, Stanford finds itself with possessions, minutes, and even quarters where they are unable to find those seams in the defense. This leads to Stanford having to force the issue, in turn leading to turnovers:
Stanford averages 15.0 turnovers per game this season, the highest of any Stanford team in the past twelve seasons. These turnovers often come as a result of perimeter ball pressure from the opponents, and struggles from a Stanford offense who can no longer rely on Kiana’s handles and agility to navigate such pressure.
These turnovers appear as symptoms of an offense without a lead point guard. Without Kiana, players like Haley Jones and Lacie Hull are forced into positions outside their comfort zone. It’s understandable that, after being able to rely on Kiana for years, pressure from top teams such as South Carolina and Tennessee would give them issues. Some of the turnovers, however, are more indicative of what VanDerveer called “casual” and “slow” play after a Jan. 7 win against Oregon that featured some strange turnovers.
In the above clip, commentator Mary Murphy notes that this turnover, off some simple pressure after a free throw, is indicative of a pattern in Stanford games: “indecision suddenly sets in, they go in a bit of a lull, and they open the door.” The issues were most prevalent against Texas on Nov. 14, where Stanford committed an astonishing 20 turnovers en route to a 61-56 upset loss.
Even after three seconds of a five-second count, hardly any Stanford players are moving, making themselves available. In post-game press conference after the Oregon game, VanDerveer echoed Mary Murphy’s sentiments on “indecision,” saying that these turnover-filled, scoreless droughts can be avoided, but “we need people to really make better decisions… and focus on taking care of the basketball better.” Though 12 championship players return for Stanford, these players can no longer rely on Kiana Williams to take care of the offense – the decisions are in their hands.
A tale of two quarters and two offenses
Two quarters at Tennessee exemplify the success and struggles of Stanford’s offense this season. First, Stanford’s second quarter featured the Cardinal at their brilliant best. They scored 26 points, pushed the pace constantly, and showed decisive, quick play on their way to a 43-26 halftime lead:
Stanford’s next point wouldn’t come until over eight minutes later, with 2:28 left in the third quarter. Those eight minutes contained eight Stanford turnovers, including some of the “casual” sort that really irk VanDerveer.
For Stanford women’s basketball, the goal is a championship, and their offense must be at a championship standard. Though this season’s Cardinal offense has had stretches of beautiful ball movement and a breakneck pace, the turnover issues belie the potential for a single-digit quarter to rear its head, potentially ruining the Cardinal’s chances at a championship. Kiana Williams came to Stanford, she conquered, and she graduated.
The VanDerveer plan to replace her? Still a work in progress.