Giant Strides - A closer look at MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg
MIES, Switzerland (Basketball Champions League) - MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg, has emerged as one of the best places in Europe to watch basketball and not just because of comfy, basketball shaped, court-side loungers.
The club have recruited a fascinating roster of hardworking competitors and Coach Patrick has them playing a ruthless and relentless, physical and efficient brand of basketball, that is a thrill to watch. We spoke to Coach Patrick about the project and took a deeper dive into how a recruitment policy and unorthodox playing style has enabled one of the lesser known clubs in the Basketball Champions League to grow from qualifiers, to one of the hot favourites to make an extended run in the competition.
On their experience last year and expectations coming in:
"We had a pretty good showing last year but it’s a new team and since we had to qualify, we had very little expectations coming in from the outside. We are not a well-known team... yet but we are working on building our brand. We have a new group, we lost all of our top scorers, so we reloaded with a quicker team, maybe a little bit smaller but a deeper team. So far we are doing OK."
"The question is do players want to accept coaching and can they create a culture, can we create a culture of players wanting to be coached? Can we create that atmosphere?"Coach John Patrick
Doing "OK" is clearly an understatement and a hint toward the humility and work ethic, that has the Germans as holders of a 6-1 record after 7 games. On the topic of a smaller and deeper team, Ludwigsburg make full use of their advantages; always looking to press, force turnovers and run. This style is not new to Ludwigsburg or Coach Patrick but this group is possibly the best fit for that style, that they have put together so far. A style that is borne out in the stats. According to this table (via Synergy) from Simon Jatcsch at nextstep-basketball.com, Ludwigsburg lead all clubs internationally in % of possessions spent in a full-court press and forced turnovers.
On the question of MHP’s approach to statistics Coach Patrick was candid and practical:
"We analyse ourselves and our opponents thoroughly but we also have a style based on fundamental things so we try not to over-think. We want to be informed but nowadays there are no limits to the stats or information you can pick up and the question is are the stats functional and can your players use the information, can you translate that information onto the court? So we try to focus on the main stats that affect our style of play."
A dive into the advanced stats at the half-way point of the #BasketballCL points a finger towards exactly what some of the key measurables might be for Coach Patrick and Ludwigsburg. They are the best rebounding team in the competition, hoovering 76.4% of available defensive rebounds (2nd) and they lead the league in Offensive Rebounding % at 34.8%. Most tellingly for a team so focused on picking up full-court and making their opponents’ life a misery, they have the lowest Turnover % at 11.4 – a full % point less than the nearest competitor - and the 2nd best Steal % at 13.2, behind only AS Monaco. They take the ball off you and they don’t give it back!
"I think first of all, (it’s about) trying to recruit guys that can play that style of basketball, it’s not for everyone."Coach John Patrick
More than that, they also lead the Champions League in points from put-backs at 7.9 points per game. This team, outworks you and finds a way to make all the little things that win games, unbelievably watchable.
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We asked Coach Patrick about preparing his team to be one of the best full-court press units in the world and the best rebounding team in the Basketball Champions League.
"I think first of all, (it’s about) trying to recruit guys that can play that style of basketball, it’s not for everyone. Then we work on our fitness throughout the season. Despite the high number of games (playing in Europe and BBL) we want to stay flexible, healthy and stay fit. We want to keep fresh legs for games because our style is based on moving and picking up full court."
The best way to understand the impact of Ludwigsburg’s style is to look at sequences instead of single plays or possessions. This next sequence is a perfect example of how destructive and morale-crushing this team can be. Elan Chalon – the French champions – in this sequence, have just fought their way back into the game in the 2nd Quarter. Undeterred, Coach Patrick rotates subs rapidly and calls timeout twice to try and get his team’s defense going again. Cook and Evans in particular, are excellent at getting to the free throw line and once they set up their press, Chalon are bang in trouble again. MHP double their opponent’s best ball-handler and force someone else to handle the ball. Then they rush, trap and frustrate until Chalon make another mistake. 3 offensive rebounds later, they spread the floor, attack again, get to the free throw line again and the press is back on. Less than a minute later and the game is blown open again. Also worth noting is the activity of Kerron Johnson and Thomas Walkup in this sequence. You won’t find many better guard combinations in Europe when it comes to guarding the ball and reading passing lanes.
"Again it’s our style, so we recruit players that fit a profile. We are scrambling around a lot. We get a lot of rebounds from our athleticism and from our feet. We try to stay moving. We are a guard dominated team, we play sometimes with 3 or 4 guards. This unorthodox style can give us some advantages but it also gives us some disadvantages, so being small, we have to focus on rebounding."
The focus on gang-rebounding as a team, is ‘in-your-face’ obvious every time you watch Ludwigsburg play. Justin Sears is next to impossible to tame on the glass and he’s not alone. Adika Peter-McNeilly has made huge strides since joining MHP. His ability to run, drain 3’s and his nose for a rebound makes him a perfect fit for the profile that Coach Patrick spoke about. Johannes Thiemann, Florian Koch, Adam Waleskowski, Elgin Cook, Dwayne Evans, Thomas Walkup ... the list goes on and doesn’t stop as you go down the roster. When it comes rebounding, this young squad (Average age 24) just keeps coming at you.
Bonus ** Justin Sears
Before moving on from the things that help team’s win, we have to mention Justin Sears. The big American – who has also suited up for Great Britain – isn’t the smoothest mover but the work he does is integral to MHP. The 1st clip and at 6’8”(2.3m) has length, the lateral quickness to pick up full-court and rebounds like a Pogo Stick. Notice the distance he covers in the 2nd clip, to get in place to trap, force the lob pass, then sprint and anticipate the miss. Also worth noticing is Kerron Johnson fronting the post vs Gelabale in a mismatch situation. MHP Spirit in action.
You could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a College team with all the full-court pressure and hustle that comes with Ludwigsburg. When you watch the offense however, it’s a different story. The system is simple but has all the sophisticated hall marks you’d expect of an elite, European ball screen offense. As coach Patrick mentioned, the Germans can have 3 or even 4 guards on the floor at any time and they never play with a traditional center. Sears is the best option for guarding an opponent’s big man but is much more of a face up threat on the offensive end.
"This unorthodox style can give us some advantages but it also gives us some disadvantages, so being small, we have to focus on rebounding."Coach John Patrick
When you combine that with Adam Waleskowski – the next nearest to a big by definition – who is almost exclusively a Pick and Pop player, you have team that Pops on 55% of their ball screens (per Synergy, via Nextstep-basketball.com). As you can see from the 2nd clip below, even when MHP run one of their pet-plays with a ‘Spain Pick and Roll’, the other forward is always replacing out to the perimeter.
That’s not so say that MHP don’t attack in the post but they are much more likely to find their best match up, than emply a traditional style of post player. Often this will be Johannes Thiemann. The German international has a useful drop step over either shoulder and is great at using a Pick and Roll to get deep position, or as you see in the 2nd clip here, he will use a drive to get position. At 6’9”(2.3m) his perimeter skill and ability to post, make him a match up nightmare for Champions League bigs.
A Pace score of 72 (15th) would lead you to think that this team plays in a style similar to their newest recruit’s name (Thomas Walkup) but that couldn’t be further from the truth. These guys run and they don’t stop running for 40mins. A big part of their transition offence is the number of different guys that are comfortable pulling down a rebound and busting out in transition. Much like the way you’d see Draymond Green lead the break for the Golden State Warriors, MHP are equally happy for Johannes Thiemann, Elgin Cook or Dwayne Evans lead the break if the outlet to a guard isn’t the fastest route. Once they get out on the break, they are spread out, causing scrambles and getting transition 3’s or going hell for leather, for lay ups, free throws or and 1’s.
The 1st sequence here is all about Evans ability to guard the ball, contest, then grab the board and start the break. 2nd sequence, MHP box out, do the dirty work and then turn it into easy points in transition.
Ludwigsburg spend the vast majority of their time on offense in ‘hurry-up’ mode. Early offense, ball reversal into hand off and attack. If they do get into half-court actions, the most common action you will see them run is ‘Floppy’ screens along the baseline to create open catches on the wing. From there, they flow into side pick and roll. In the 1st clip you see that they can run the set with patient reversals, until the defense breaks down and if they don’t get anything from the initial play-maker, then it’s going back to the PG on the reversal. In this instance, it’s Thomas Walkup and you see him throw a pass that could get a proton torpedo into the main reactor and blow the death star (Thomas Skywalkup). This is the kind of pass that Walkup makes on the regular. The 2nd clip they run a cute tweak to counter a switching defense. Instead of taking the baseline screen from Evans, Walkup turns around and cuts back the direction he came. Watch how Gillet is already calling the switch but Walkup’s man is staying attached. Evans takes advantage.
Bonus ** Thomas Walkup
On the topic of Thomas Walkup, the 1st year American has been a revelation for MHP and the entire competition. The Stephen of Austin standout is another case of MHP’s recruiting profile. Smart, strong, athletic, hard-working and a terror on the defensive end. MHP have an Offensive Rating of 121 this season. Last season it was 108! That’s huge bump. Clearly not all of that is down to Thomas Walkup but he has certainly helped. Walkup is top 5 for individual Ofeensive Rating and also top 5 for PER. Not bad for your first season in Europe. In the 1st clip below you see the kind of play that makes him a weapon defensively. The clip starts and you can see that Walkup has been tasked with shutting down Arnas Butkevicius. Walkup is face-guarding the Lithuanian and staying connected everywhere. When he does get disconnected helping on a screen, he recovers 15 feet to get back in front and ‘wall-up’ before Butkevicius gets in the paint. More evidence of the focus on athleticism and footwork that coach Patrick spoke about and an outstanding defensive play. 2nd clip and you see another typical MHP sequence. Walkup recongnizes the clock and creates himself a step-back jumper to get a quick shot and 2 for 1 opportunity. The American is straight into press mode after that and sprints a lung-full to get back in front, frustrate and draw an offensive foul. Hustle, skill and smarts, the Ludwigsburg way.
We spoke to Coach Patrick about Thomas Walkup:
"Tom is a hard worker and he’s a first year In Europe. I liked him since college, he was a winner in college. He’s a competitive guy that’s a lot of fun to work with. He’s always trying to improve himself and help the team get better."
If there is an area for Walkup to develop it’s his 3 point shooting but players making improvements and taking their game up a level is also a theme at MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg.
The final area we spoke about with Coach Patrick was his relationship with his players:
"The question is do players want to accept coaching and can they create a culture, can we create a culture of players wanting to be coached? Can we create that atmosphere? I have to give the players credit for being willing to do individual practice. Joey (Joey Cantens is an Assistant Coach at MHP) shows videos and gives them individual things to work on and I think that’s the reason that players like Royce O’Neale and Jack Cooley or DJ (Kennedy) can come through here and make big jumps in their career because they have individual things that they accept that they need to work on and they work on it everyday. Again it starts with the player wanting to get better."
Coach Patrick is of course, talking about players making the jump to NBA contracts. This squad has another host of guys, all working hard to make the same jump. Whether they can make that jump is probably down to their ability to accept and focus on the improvements set for them by the coaching staff at MHP. Saying that, it seems they have most probably been recruited because of their ability to do just that.
"I liked him since college, he was a winner in college."Coach John Patrick
MHP Riesen Ludwigsburg sit joint top of Group B with the same record as the Champions Iberostar Tenerife. We are yet to see if this year’s group with it’s unorthodox style, will translate this start into bettering last year’s Quarter Final and 5th place but as the German’s continue to make giant strides, we may see a trend of more and more European clubs looking at the recruitment model and playing style that Coach Patrick and his men have employed.