Keyontae Johnson and the Art of Attacking Closeouts

When it comes to creating offense in basketball you might think of a complex set that gets a player freed up for a backdoor cut layup. Or, you’ll think of the most used play in basketball–the pick and roll. Also coming to mind might be a creative offensive player who can string together dribble combinations to break down his man before getting a lane to the hoop.

Those are all relevant basketball scenarios, all of which have a role in the offensive side of basketball. However, most of them aren’t as prevalent as an offensive discipline that gets nowhere near the amount of coverage as some of the other talked-about skills.

Attacking closeouts.

It’s not often you hear a broadcaster lawding a team for their ability to attack closeouts and it’s also something you seldom hear coaches harping on when discussing their team’s offensive execution. That is something you’re about to find very strange when you realize just how important closeouts and attacking them are to the game of basketball.

Imagine a regular half court possession when the defense set up and the offensive team getting into their offense. As the point guard passes to a wing, what happens? There is a closeout. A defensive player must go from his position guarding away from the ball to the player who received the pass, “closing out” to him. Choppy feet, hand high, maybe the other hand taking away a potential crossover. Whatever the defender does, there is a closeout there.

Imagine that player reversing the ball on the perimeter.

Another closeout.

You see, every time there is a pass on the perimeter, there is a closeout from a defender. And every time there is a closeout, there is a vulnerability in the defense. Closing out is tough to do–the defensive player wants to get out to the offensive player as quickly as possible, but then he has to slow his momentum to a stop as to not overrun the player with the ball. The entire time he’s doing that, he’s vulnerable to giving up a drive. Even for the best athletes in the world it’s difficult to shift momentum drastically from one direction to another. So, while a player is aggressively closing out, all his momentum is going in one direction. That makes him vulnerable to movement in either lateral direction.

A lot of players don’t really think of attacking closeouts as a key basketball skill and it’s for the reasons we talked about earlier–it’s not something that gets talked about in basketball circles often. Even though that’s the case, attacking closeouts is an easy and effective way to get wide open driving lanes.

For the Gators, and perhaps all of college basketball, no one is better at this than Keyontae Johnson. For two seasons in Gainesville he has been an absolute master at attacking the closeout using his high level of anticipation and explosive first step to burst by defenders who are stuck in the mud as their forward momentum doesn’t allow them to cover on the drive.

Here are some examples of Johnson destroying defenses with nothing more than intelligent attacks of closeouts. Watch as he recognizes the angle of the defender and attacks the weak foot with speed, turning into open driving lanes. You’ll also see him occasionally give a quick head or shoulder fake to get a defender going a certain way before he attacks the other. As you can see, as soon as a player starts moving one way when closing out it’s a tall task to change direction.

Johnson did this over, and over, and over again to teams but there isn’t really a defense for it. On all of those highlights you just watched none of the plays were called for Johnson, on the contrary they were normally involved with other teammates as Johnson spaced the floor. That’s the power of attacking closeouts–you don’t need to set up an intricate set to make it happen, you just need the ball to move and therefore have the defense move.

Statistics back up just how special it was for the Gators when Johnson would attack closeouts. When attacking the basket off a closeout Johnson shot 61%, or 1.3 points per possession. The play was made even more efficient due to the fact he drew fouls on a remarkable 23% of these plays. That number sounds high, but it makes sense given the fact that every time a closeout is attacked the defense is at a major disadvantage. Once the closeout is beaten the player who was closing out is now in a bad defensive position and it also forces a help defender to have to try and help, a tough task given the fact that that a player attacking a closeout is usually coming downhill at a quick pace.

It’s likely Johnson is going to continue to be awesome at attacking closeouts but there are some areas he could improve. For example, when attacking closeouts he loved to settle for floaters, something far less efficient than if he completed the drive by getting all the way to the hoop. He shot only 41% on floaters as opposed to 61% when getting all the way to the rim, and floaters hardly draw any fouls since the whole point of the shot is to be taken before a defender arrives.

Something interesting to note is that Johnson settled for twice as many floaters when driving to his left as he did when driving to his right. That is likely because, as a right handed player, he is more confident in his right-handed ball handling. When driving to his right he knew he could get all the way to the rim and finish using his explosiveness and length but driving to his left he didn’t have the same trust in his handle. As a junior, an improved handle that could see him finishing drives at the rim could really help round out his offensive game.

Attacking closeouts is going to be a big part of Florida’s offense this season. Mike White is determined to get back to a dribble-drive motion offense and that entire offense is predicated on the ball moving side to side and players looking to attack when they catch it. If Florida has a few players like Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, and Tyree Appleby that can take a page out of Keyontae Johnson’s book and become excellent attackers of closeouts the offense will work wonders and if they don’t, things could get stagnant.

Once again in 2020-21 the skill of attacking closeouts probably won’t get the attention it deserves but it remains one of the most important skills in basketball and Keyontae Johnson is one of the best there is. He’ll dominate the game in a number of ways but his ability to punish vulnerable defenders will remain one of my favorite ways to watch him work.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.