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Film Room: Coach Ewing’s Playbook Part 2: Horns

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Georgetown Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Some of the most commonly used actions in the NBA and across many other levels come out of the ‘Horns’ alignment - placing two bigs at the elbow, two wings in the corners and a point guard ready to initiate the offense. There are endless combinations and options out of the horns set, and for Patrick Ewing’s first season on the bench, he kept it to the meat and potatoes. Horns is a favorite look for many, as while it has flexibility, at the core it’s a rather simplistic set to install and creates natural spacing on the floor.

The lack of a high level point guard limited it’s usefulness, so it wasn’t a look that Ewing went to often. The point guard out of horns decides which way to take the ball and receive a ball screen. One big will set the ball screen and the other will roll. Ideally the guard is able to turn a corner and put pressure on the defense which can allow the roller a sliver of space to operate or the big who popped is left open. Dylan Murphy of The Basketball Dictionary does a far better job of describing the nuts and bolts: here.

What Georgetown often looked for out Horns was a simple high-low with Marcus Derrickson and Jessie Govan given that they were the two most accomplished offensive threats. Here, Mulmore opts to go right, Govan sets the screen and pops while Derrickson rolls:

Here you can also see that if the pop is covered by a switch and the dive man moves aggressively enough - he can gain an angle for an entry pass. Mosely and Pickett just moved a half second too slowly. (also worth noting with a more dynamic lead guard, they could attack a switch onto a bigger defender as DePaul invites here):

The most common progression if the high-low is snuffed out on the throw back to the popping big man is then to move the ball to the wing and run a dribble hand-off/side ball screen. Here it offers another chance to get a switch but Pickett finds the originally rolling big (Govan):

Here you have another look that progression - Jamorko Pickett clears out to to come through the other side for a dribble hand off (Kaleb Johnson falls asleep on his duty to clear through) and a Pickett/Govan ball screen emerges with a clean look for Govan (cleaner had Johnson cleared earlier).

Why Ewing was hesitant to go to Horns more often can likely be traced back to the options at the point guard position. In its standard form, Horns ideally would lean on a point guard that can attack off the dribble and find an angle to stretch the defense and string along a help defender before reversing the ball. Or, if given a lane can dribble penetrate and find his rolling big man and/or pull-in the help that is at the baseline defending the wing players. Does a higher level lead guard finish this over the defense - or find room to throw a lob or wrap around pass to Govan?

It’s a high degree of difficulty for most, but James Akinjo and Mac McClung just might be of that ilk.

Here, Mulmore turns a corner but inexcusably kills his dribble at the 3pt line allowing the defense to recover and he can’t make the cross-court read to Johnson and the possession stalls out before it started:

Pause this one as soon as Mulmore begins to pick up his dribble - and ask, could a better instinctive passer take that split second and find Govan open on his roll? Again, high degree of difficulty but not impossible for a high level guard to make.

Where the Horns set could have fit so well with Georgetown moving into next season was Derrickson’s ability as a popping big man - a true threat from outside. Perhaps we see smaller lineups or eventually someone like Grayson Carter provides the same level of outside shooting. You can see how a team that liked to blitz and trap ball screens in St. John’s can be compromised out of Horns vs a high-level shooting big man (look at how much space is created with his shooting range):

Beyond the standard high-low look of Horns, Ewing did showcase a few other sets sparingly. Particularly in a home game later in the season against Marquette he went to a ‘Horns Flex’, a set that inverted his bigs and wings. He placed the wings at the elbows and put his bigs in the corner. The point guard would enter the ball to the wing and then go set a screen for a big to cut towards the paint. One thing of note, this Georgetown team was not a good screening team at all. Far too many actions and sets were often compromised by nobody putting a body on a defender. To get the most out of the offense, the screening - on ball and away has to improve across the board.

Here’s the basic action, with some nifty footwork for Govan to set up his man on the screen:

Here you can see the continued progression of the set - Mulmore comes off a curl and flex action continues on the baseline:

Yet how many Marquette defenders were actually tagged by screens? Look at this whiff by Dickerson against Providence:

Just a little bit of effort, just an extra half second of standing your ground can result in a layup:

Here’s how the pros run it:

Here’s just a quick look at ‘Horns Twist’ and the only time I could find Ewing ran it - it’s the point guard getting a ball screen, coming back to his opposite hand and receiving another from the opposite big. Dickerson didn’t have anywhere to attack - but the progression into a dribble hand off with Blair/Govan for a short roll was a nice result:

That’s an example of what we might see continue to be added in future seasons with more trust and talent in the backcourt. We’re never going to have Steph Curry, but you can see how hard it is to corral a top-end guard in a simple set like this:

With better talent on the wing and at guard, you could also see ‘Horns Stagger’ more often. The point guard enters the ball to the elbow while the opposite turns and sets a screen along with the point guard for a wing that can then turn into a dribble hand off:

Again, it doesn’t take any talent to set screens. It’s boring, tedious and can physically take a toll. But it has to improve, and last year’s team in-particular wasn’t talented to create space on their own. If NBA teams are willing to do it over 82 games and the post-season, a college team has to stick their nose in, too.

Two of my favorite sequences that were used sparingly were ‘Horns Rub’ and ‘Horns Elbow Get’. Horns elbow is simply entering the ball into a talented wing/big at the elbow and having the opposite big set a ball screen and roll off of it. The player with the ball looks to attack. Jamorko Pickett was the Hoya player featured in this set last year (literally only twice from my findings though):

While Jamorko rarely played anywhere but on the wing and found his opportunities off of stagger screens/pindowns it is worth wondering if an off-season in the weight room and a matured game could result in him playing once in a while as a small ball 4 who can play from the elbow.

Here’s a guy named LeBron James working off the same look:

It is worth reiterating that Ewing is from the NBA and operates as an NBA stylistic coach. Any kid who is saying they want to get ready for the next level and play in a pro system - well, opposing programs can no longer negative-recruit against the Hoyas for not offering that chance.

Lastly, there was ‘Horns Rub’ a set that features the point guard entering the ball to the elbow, cutting through and then turning to set a back screen for the opposite big. It’s been a favorite of Tom Izzo’s for years and gained internet notoriety when the Cleveland Cavaliers terrorized the Toronto Raptors with it two post-season ago.

Here’s Michigan State:

Stark contrast in how to move with purpose and execute. This was all new to the Georgetown team of last season. With an improved roster in sheer talent and another year of growth physically and mentally, the execution in all aspects should improve. For quick hitters that some of these horn sets offer, the pace and execution will have to become much better to get the most out of it. Horns is likely to been seen more out of the Hoyas as talent level and decision making improve and it will be interesting to see how far Ewing can take it and what progressions they can get to out of certain sets. The options are seemingly endless and it’s great way to let your talent play freely.