The hype surrounding Ole Miss’ senior guard Marshall Henderson is all about his offense, and rightfully so. He led the SEC in scoring, while shooting the most threes in a single season in college basketball history. But Henderson doesn’t get credit for his defense, specifically his ability to play passing lanes and get steals.
Last season, Henderson had the second most steals on the team with 48, which ranked him 13th in the SEC. He didn’t get many of these steals by swiping someone’s dribble; he got them from reading ball handlers and jumping into the passing lane.
He excels at this when Ole Miss plays zone defense. Rebel head coach Andy Kennedy uses a 2-3 zone or a 2-2-1 three-quarters court press that turns into a 2-3 zone in the half court. And when Henderson isn’t responsible for a single player, he can get more adventurous with his gambling for steals.
Of Henderson’s 48 steals last season, 22 of them came when Ole Miss was in a zone defense. That’s 45.8 percent of his steals, despite Ole Miss only playing zone defense just 25.9 percent of the time last season, per Synergy Sports.
On Saturday, Henderson had four steals in his debut, and Ole Miss played zone 61.2 percent of the time. Not all of Henderson’s steals came when Ole Miss was in a zone, but three of the four came off of Henderson jumping the passing lanes.
His most important steal – which led to a dunk – came after he missed a three and as Coastal Carolina was bringing the ball up. Henderson jumped in the passing lane giving him a free basket.
That’s the added benefit of Henderson’s steals; they often lead to transition opportunities for Ole Miss with their top scorer leading the break. Although Henderson was more efficient last season in half court offense (1.02 PPP) than he was in transition (.944 PPP), transition opportunities usually led to open shots for Henderson that he didn’t have to work nearly as hard to get as he does in the half court.
Another benefit to playing zone is that Ole Miss can hide some of their defensive ineptitude. Neither Henderson nor sophomore point guard Derrick Millinghaus are great one-on-one defenders. Often, they will both be physically overmatched by an opposing backcourt, which creates huge problems for the defense.
But Ole Miss will need to play them both, as they are the two best offensive threats – despite Millinghaus’ inefficiency. And the best way to defend with those two on the court is with a zone. Allowing the two most aggressive players to gamble on steals will allow open looks, but also pay off with Henderson-Millinghaus transition opportunities. Also, there is reassurance that in a zone, Ole Miss will have somebody in the lane to prevent a wide open layup.
The reason Ole Miss was able to stay in the zone so much on Saturday was because Coastal Carolina could not shoot the ball. They ended up 5 of 27 on three pointers, and shot 37.1 percent from the field.
Against the 2-3 zone, Coastal Carolina shot 20.7 percent. On spot-up opportunities, the shot that zone defenses leave open, they were just 3 of 18 from the field. While Henderson and Millinghaus do a good job of aggressively closing out on shooters, there were still open shots that Coastal Carolina did not knock down.
Other teams will shoot better than Coastal Carolina, and Ole Miss will be forced out zone defense if they elect to use it heavily this year. But consider that last season just one SEC team ranked in the top 80 in three-point percentage.
Ole Miss will likely play more man defense throughout the season, especially with junior guards LaDarius White and Jarvis Summers as well as sophomore guard Martavious Newby, who are all good one-on-one defenders. While Summers is averaging 21 points and shooting 58 percent through two games, none of those players bring the offensive aggression that Henderson and Millinghaus provide. Meaning that if Ole Miss needs points, they might have to do so while hoping Henderson can make defensive plays by jumping passing lanes in the 2-3 zone.
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— Tyler Bischoff