Within five minutes of watching the Clemson basketball team in its opener against Stetson, I was able to make a number of observations comparing this year’s team to the past one or two.
All of them came back to a central theme that has guided the conversation in the preseason and seems to be playing out during practice and games.
This team legitimately likes playing with and for one another.
You can see it in the ball movement. You can see it on defense. You can see it in the way they huddle and communicate. It really stands out.
Last season, none of that was happening. It was a grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it struggle in game after game after game. Those days seem long gone now.
The list of reasons why is enormous. K.J. McDaniels seemed intent on proving his worth as a leader on the floor from the moment the ball was tipped. Jaron Blossomgame appeared every bit as adept at doing the little things as we thought he would be a season ago. Depth leads to team stamina, which allows for versatility in style and substance for the entire forty minutes.
We could go on, but the point would continue to be pounded home. This team looked like a team full of players that genuinely wanted to be on the court with one another.
I’ve often thought to myself that good basketball looks like a well-choreographed pickup game. In an open gym, teams rarely have a chance to develop chemistry, so it’s just ten people playing basketball. Over time, better teams figure out how to play with one another, and the most successful are able to make the game look effortless by passing and cutting with precision—even though they barely know each other.
Good basketball teams can do this at a much higher degree. Over the course of the game, the Clemson offense looked like a well-oiled machine more often than not. Set plays weren’t obviously set plays. Motion wasn’t obviously motion. It was all just basketball.
Last season, each possession seemed to be a series of half-hearted movements that led to the ball resting in a player’s hands for several seconds late in the shot clock before a shot was put up. This led to a low assist rate, a surefire sign motion offense isn’t working with a group.
On Friday night, the Tigers posted 12 assists. They only reached that number one-third of the time last season. Improved perimeter shooting, offensive rebounding lanes, quicker open shots—all of it comes back to the ability to move the basketball precisely, which relies on chemistry.
The assist isn’t the only indicator of good ball movement. There were several times when timely screening—both on and off the ball—and side-to-side action with the ball allowed a dribbler to make a quick move against a flowing defense.
The bottom line is that Clemson looked tougher to guard against Stetson on Friday than it did in the vast majority of games last season. The first half was an indication of the improvements that have been made across the board in the offensive skill sets of the players in the program.
A poor passing team won’t win at Clemson this season. A good passing team will finish better than expected. I am a firm believer that the Tigers must post an assist rate (assists divided by made field goals) at or above 50 percent to reach any of their goals this season. This is a key stat worth watching as the season progresses.
The team’s 12 assists came on 26 made baskets, just below the 50-percent mark. But ten of those assists came on 17 field goals in an efficient first half that seemed a better long-term indicator than the natural regression we saw in the second half. Two of those baskets were on offensive rebounds, meaning the Tigers assisted on two-thirds of their first-shot makes in the first half—an impressive percentage.
Although Stetson isn’t a great team—the Hatters lost to Notre Dame by 31 points on Sunday—the performance we saw from Clemson was a good place to start. Assuming the team builds on it, there were enough good things to expect some success as the season wears onward.
United they stand, divided they fall.