How do you score when you can’t score?

Credit/Brian Losness/USA TODAY Sports

Credit/Brian Losness/USA TODAY Sports

Teams lose conference games.  The Aztecs dropped two recently – both on the road against teams that caught all kinds of fire.  As a fan, I’m not letting either loss bother me.  Talking about the tournament, RPIs, strength of schedules, and everything else that points only to March has watered down the Mountain West Conference too much at this point.  Boise State, Wyoming, and Colorado State are not bad teams. This conference has no backbone.  Nobody other than San Diego State will schedule a tough non-conference game.  That much is true, maybe even more factual than subjective.  But there’s still a huge kicker: This conference still has talent!  Say what you want about Dave Rice, (yes, UNLV is a walking punchline) but even they have talent! It’s tough to say in retrospect that the Aztecs absolutely still should have beaten Colorado State and Boise State riding the coattails of their offense.  No team is good enough to fall in a hole like that and still expect to win.  And yet, I can’t lie to myself.  I watched those games.  They were very much still winnable for the Aztecs.  Somehow, they withstood the hot starts by both those teams.

Credit/Brian Losness/USA TODAY Sports

The Aztecs are very unsure of themselves at the end of games.  Who should they turn to when an obvious answer isn’t there?  Who are the best 5 players?  Does Steve Fisher have to begin easing up on the rope with his “you don’t play if you can’t defend” principles?

One question answers it all pretty well.  I pose this question: If the Aztecs need one bucket in the last minute of a tie game, what play or action are you telling the team to run in the huddle?  Poll some Aztecs fans and you’ll get 10 different answers – some not even real answers, just pessimistic, dismissive one liners.

Watching this team run offense is painful.  Frankly, I don’t even think I can say that anymore.  This team doesn’t “run” anything.  Fans are frustrated with Winston Shepard.  J.J. O’Brien is clearly the best option and is taking on more responsibility, but he needs help.  Aqeel Quinn has improved across the board from last year in a more demanding role, but what is he – a pick and roll point guard, a spot up shooter, or an off guard?

I’ll start with Shepard.  The record will never be set straight with him and it is an absolute shame.  San Diego fans do not understand the word “expectations”.  But I’ll stick to facts here (all stats via and do not include stats from Sunday’s loss).  Shepard is one of 5 MWC players to use 28% or more of his team’s possessions this year.  He sports an offensive rating of just 90.1 stemming from that 28%.  That’s not good.  He scores a full 10 points less per 100 possessions than UNLV chuckers Rashad Vaughn and Christian Wood.

For some context within the team, you would look to Aqeel Quinn and Trey Kell, the team’s two other high usage guys.  Quinn actually looks quite good according to any metric.  He has used 22.2% of available possessions toward an output of a 108 offensive rating.  Trey Kell, who has ridden the ups and downs one would expect, comes in at 96.7, using 20.5% of available possessions.

Aqeel Quinn has taken 27.1% of available shots while on the floor while Shepard has taken 24.7%.  How does Shepard have a higher usage rate while taking a lower percentage of available shots?  Turnovers.  His turnover rate is one of the worst in the conference (24.8%).  That’s the biggest bugaboo.  And there’s no disputing that.  I’ll come back to that topic.

I enjoy the fact that the Union-Tribune’s Mark Zeigler has pointed out Shepard’s value.  He and I are still happy to drive the bandwagon while others are wildly jumping off.  One thing you’d hear about from Zeigler is Shepard’s knack for drawing fouls.  He draws 5.2 per 40 minutes, good for 4th best in the conference.  That’s an impressive number, especially when you consider the fact that the guys on this roster struggle at times to get out of each other’s way on the offensive end of the floor.

Shepard doesn’t exactly operate with luxurious wide open driving lanes.  I’m not seeing any signs of him even being a secondary option in this offense anymore.  His post touches have basically vanished.  I’m all in favor of an offense built around O’Brien, but anything like that fails to utilize Shepard’s skill set.

The turnovers are an eye sore.  But this team refuses to help itself.  There rarely seems to be a rhyme or reason behind the spots these guys fill on the court offensively.  Shepard shares the floor most often with the starting lineup.  The second most utilized group of the last few games features Malik Pope in place of Skylar Spencer.  Matt Shrigley and Aqeel Quinn demand respect as spot up threats, as does Pope (11-25 – 44% for the year from deep).

But why don’t these guys put themselves in better positions to attack a defense?  I’ve reached my limit with “Malik Pope being told to fill space in the high or low post because the coaching staff taught him to ‘play the 4′ rather than the 3 this year because it will be a smoother transition for him” possessions.  Park that kid on the stinking 3 point line to spot up and even give him 3-4 touches as soon as he’s in the game to see how hot he is!

Pope’s former AAU coach told Zeigler he thinks Pope will need another year in collegebefore moving onto the NBA.  That’s opinion.  Malik Pope could toss his name in todayand he’d be a top-20 pick.  There is never a prospect worthy of being compared to any of the 5 best players on Earth – that should be an absolute law.  But, when you’re a legit 6’10” and can run, jump, dribble, and shoot…the Durant comparison whispers are impossible to hold in.  That kid will be a pro very soon and he won’t be spending his time as an NBA player serving as a place holder at the elbow or along the baseline.

If Spencer is on the floor, he’s setting a high ball screen or lurking along the baseline.  That’s fine – it isn’t hurting anybody.  O’Brien can still post up on the opposite side and attack the basket.  But then what does that leave for Shepard?  He’s not getting many post touches anymore.  Having him run a bunch of pick and rolls wouldn’t be the best solution when he’s sharing the floor with two bigs.

A side note: I can’t understand what in J.J. O’Brien’s mind goes off once or twice each game, telling him to finally look to shoot a jump shot.  We’ve been told since his first year of eligibility of his improving jump shot.  We haven’t seen a worthy sample size!   He’s 10-28 from deep this season, good for 36%.  What’s wrong with that?  Can we stretch that out a bit?

He’s a fifth year senior now; there isn’t much time left for experimenting.  If he pops more often after screening or actually looks to catch and shoot when he’s on the perimeter, suddenly another defender is no longer able to clog the lane, opening things up to a reasonable degree for Shepard.  What if he can’t shoot, you ask?  Well, would that really be news to us, per all the pessimism about this team’s shooting ability?

If O’Brien isn’t going to shoot more, this team needs to sacrifice some defense for offense and put four shooters on the court for longer stretches.  Kell, Quinn, Shrigley, Pope, and literally anyone else creates more space to breathe.  Quinn would be forced to carry an even bigger load in such lineups, but isn’t he the real safe bet at this point, as he is the only guy with a plus-100 net rating?

Honestly, I hope someone on the coaching staff starts getting specific with guys about shot selection if they aren’t doing so already.  If they already are getting on guys about the shots they take, they might need to do so more intentionally.  Quinn needs to temper some of his wild drives.  Swinging the ball for 10 more seconds could net him at least the same result later in the same possession.

Kell needs to shoot the ball more.  Everybody knows he can score.  I wouldn’t care if he slumped from now to the conference tournament; the Aztecs landed him because of his ability to score.  He’s been relieved of the stresses that come with learning the point guard position, so he should be hunting shots like nobody’s business.

O’Brien’s field goal attempts should remain steady at where they’ve been the last two games.  13-14 shots ought to be the minimum for him.  Facing up and kicking it out is great offense, but this team also needs him to continue to bully guys on the block.  He has enough moves to go to after two hard dribbles with his back to the basket to score on anybody in conference.

He doesn’t have the personality of a ball dominating-type player, but he’s got to embrace that role for this team to reach its ceiling.  He’s been a malleable guy since he put an SDSU jersey on; it’s time for his role to morph once again.

Winston Shepard got the preseason buzz as a potential conference player of the year and even a dark-horse name to make a few Wooden Watch lists.  But the reigns were never truly handed over to him with this team.  First and foremost, it’s a personnel problem.  There are too many inside-oriented guys on this roster that deserve to play (Spencer, Chol, O’Brien, Dakari Allen and his reluctance to shoot).  It’s a huge plus on defense, but a bit of a killer on offense.

Secondly, it’s a Shepard problem.  When the ball does get swung his way, he stands and pounds it too long or stares down the defense.  Driving lanes do appear from time to time, but he’s got to attack off the bounce immediately after catching the ball.  Shepard is very Lance Stephenson-y in that sense.  Lance refuses to be more decisive after the catch.  He wants to stare a defense down and create everything on his own.  I don’t think Shepard is that selfish and stubborn, but he’s got to start attacking sooner to make his life easier.

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