Depth at Inside Linebacker a Work in Progress this Fall for Nebraska
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Love or Hate: 1-2 Slip, Linebacker Depth Takes Hit, No More Iso’s

April 12, 2019

Last Friday I looked at a handful of Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg’s offensive staples. His offense is full of fun stuff so let’s just start there again this week.

It’s Friday. Let’s get to it.

The 1-2 Slip

At Iowa State, with versatile stretch-big Georges Niang, Hoiberg had Niang slipping screens to free up either an open shot or a drive to the bucket. The Cyclones could run any number of actions early, then bring Niang to the ball-handler looking like he was going to set a screen before “slipping” into the corner for a jumper or a one-on-one matchup on the weakside of the floor. It was effective, and a way of putting one of his best offensive weapons into spots where he could do damage a number of ways. 

And with the floor spaced properly, Niang had plenty of room to work once he got the ball. 

When Hoiberg got to Chicago and the Bulls were a little more bereft of the floor-spacing he was accustomed to, Hoiberg switched it up a little. 

He took Jimmy Butler — his best offensive option, but a so-so shooter with well-above-average size, strength and athleticism — and put him in Niang’s shoes. 

Butler makes his way to the ball-handler but instead of setting a hard screen, he slips toward the basket. The ball-handler swings it to a big who has come out to the perimeter and brought his man with him (opening up the paint), and the big then lobs back to Butler at the rim. 

Bada bing, bada boom. Butler gets an easy two. It really is a pretty neat play. (Video breakdown from Halfcourt Hoops.)

Like with everything in Hoiberg’s offense, there’s room to improvise if the defense forces it. Let’s say the guy guarding Butler overplays the lob, Butler then has an outside shot. Let’s say the guy guarding the ball and the guy guarding Butler both play the lob, the ball-handler then has an outside shot. Let’s say the guy throwing the lob doesn’t like the look or his man has dropped into the paint to cut off Butler, the big now has an open shot. 

Imagine what springy guard Amir Harris looks like in that play. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how Hoiberg can work Harris — a complete non-shooter currently — into his pace-and-space offense, but something like this could work really well. 

If anything, it showcases that adaptability Hoiberg is praised for. Butler was a career 33 percent shooter from deep when Hoiberg got to town. Not terrible, but also not overly reliable. Getting him higher-percentage looks in spots where he was comfortable was important. Hoiberg did well to create those, I think. The wing had the best year of his career in Hoiberg’s second season.

Nick and Will

It was looking like inside linebacker Nick Henrich was playing himself into a bigger-than-expected role in his freshman season. 

“I think he was trending that way,” inside backer coach Barrett Ruud said this week. “He was a guy who got better and better each practice. It would have been a continual process of getting stronger. Would he have been ready to play 80 snaps a game? Probably not, but he probably would have been ready to contribute.”

He was doing well after a knee injury in his senior year of high school, going through practice without a brace, grasping the defense well and generally looking like a serviceable piece right away for Erik Chinander’s defense. 

Shoulder surgery is going to set that back. And that just sucks. Henrich is likely out for a while. Depending on how he rehabs, he might go through fall camp, but even that would be without taking contact. Junior backer Will Honas is in that situation right now. He’s on schedule after a torn ACL cost him the last eight games of 2018, but he won’t play in Saturday’s spring game and hasn’t yet taken contact in practice. 

For a room that is needing to replace one of two starters, suddenly taking hits to your depth will hurt. Jackson Hannah is coming in the fall, but you can’t rely on a true freshman to contribute early when he comes in late until he gives you a reason to plan otherwise. Walk-on linebacker Joseph Johnson is having a strong spring, but having to rely on a walk-on linebacker in the Big Ten conference when you have dreams of a division title-contending season is a risky proposition, too.

Nebraska needs assurances in Barrett Ruud’s room.

“The way it works with our offense, there’s going to be games where we’ve got to play 90 snaps on defense, and if one guy continually plays all 90 snaps, you get worn down a little bit,” Ruud said. “I think we got a little bit worn down last year because of our lack of depth, so whether it’s a three-man rotation or platooning them a little bit, I’ve got to make sure guys aren’t getting a whole lot more than 75 reps. All the sudden you’re getting about 90 reps a game, that’s adding two or three games to your season and it takes a toll on you.”

Collin Miller needs to be ready to roll right away, because Henrich’s injury has that room looking a little shakier. 

No Mo Iso

Possession-specific data isn’t publicly available at the college level. At least, not that I’ve found, meaning someone will point a database out right after this gets published. But until then,’s sortable team data is all we’ve got to work with in terms of breaking down exactly how Hoiberg’s offense gets its points.

Here’s what three full seasons in Chicago looked like, from the 2015-16 season through the 2017-18 season. (The averages are taken over the course of those three years, with their NBA ranks over that time in parenthesis.)

  Poss. Per Game PPP eFG%
P&R Ball-Handler 19.9 (10th) 0.82 43.2%
P&R Roller 7.9 (9th) 0.99 50.3%
Spot-ups 22.9 (5th) 0.99 50.6%
Post-ups 8.0 (11th) 0.87 45.3%
Isolation 6.8 (22nd) 0.81 40.3%
Handoffs 5.5 (8th) 0.86 45.0%
Cuts 7.4 (t-22nd) 1.20 60.9%
Off screens 4.2 (t-25th) 0.92 45.1%

For those curious, here's where the Bulls ranked in efficiency in each of those three years:

  • P&R ball-handler: 16th, 30th, 18th
  • P&R roll man: 24th, 29th, 23rd
  • Spot-up: 10th, 18th, 29th
  • Post-up: 24th, 11th, 10th
  • Iso: 18th, 25th, 28th
  • Handoffs: 10th, 28th, 22nd
  • Cuts: 20th, 29th, 22nd
  • Off screens: 18th, 25th, 29th

So all the things associated with ball movement and floor movement, Chicago was among league leaders in average possessions. That's encouraging, seeing as the Tim Miles era was defined by stale offense, minimal movement and over-dribbling. Hoiberg's units — efficiency aside — were good at moving and getting the ball in multiple hands.

Wait and See

Wan’Dale Robinson is not playing in the Huskers’ spring game. That’s a bummer, but if it’s strategic, this coaching staff is playing chess while we play checkers.

If you had polled fans and media alike and asked who the guy they were most looking forward to seeing was, you’d probably get Robinson in 99 percent of the responses. If you asked opposing coaches the same question, you’d get the same response. They want to know how he is going to be used in this Husker offense. Is he lining up out wide more often than not? Are his carries coming on sweeps or handoffs where he starts in the backfield? 

The only ones who can answer those questions are sitting up in Memorial Stadium.

I’ve written about the similarities between Robinson’s and Purdue stud Rondale Moore’s games before. Everyone has gushed over his dynamic ability in the open field. People generally agree he's going to be a special talent. And as the spring has gone on, the hype has been building despite a hamstring strain that has limited him. But that’s all we have to judge him by at this point — conjecture. 

There is no film of him in this offense. There will be no film of him in this offense until South Alabama has to try and stop him on Aug. 31. If that’s intentional, then well done.

90K Strong

I was watching LSU’s spring game last weekend and there were more people on the field than in the stands. I started thinking, “Why are there so few people here?” 

That’s rhetorical, in this instance, but here's head coach Scott Frost on why:

“Our fans are the best in the country and I don’t know if it’s close,” Frost said. “I’m sure other people feel that way too but when you talk about a fanbase that sells out a stadium in 24-48 hours for a spring game, that’s hard to match. I know there are other teams around the country with a few hundred people at their spring games and we are going to have a full house.”

I don’t say this to pander, but as someone who came from the outside and is still relatively new around these parts: there’s just not really a place like this place.

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