Marshall’s Dan D’Antoni has an engine to run his up-tempo system, a native son who detoured to Huntington, W.Va., and practically fell into his lap.
Jon Elmore is the catalyst for one of the nation’s more productive offenses, which has lifted the Thundering Herd to the role of surprise contender in Conference USA.
“He’s a motor,” D’Antoni said. “That’s the one thing that this system requires. It requires somebody to start ball movement. It gives the energy that’s required to play this style of basketball, and he naturally plays that way. It makes it a lot easier.”
Picked to finish ninth in preseason, Marshall (13-12, 9-3 C-USA) is third in the league, a half-game back of Middle Tennessee and just one game in the loss column behind leader UAB, heading into Thursday’s game on ASN against Charlotte.
The Herd employs a system heavy on pace, spacing, recognition, shooting and energy. Marshall averages 85 points per game, fourth in the nation, and 93.3 points per game in conference play. Nearly 45 percent of its shot attempts are 3-pointers. The Herd is sixth nationally in 3-point field goal attempts (739) and 10th in made 3-pointers per game (10), though that number is higher (11.83) in C-USA play.
Seven players have made at least 15 shots from behind the arc, as D’Antoni’s preferred lineup features four capable, often interchangeable, perimeter shooters and 6-8, 260-pound double-double machine James Kelly inside. Even Kelly has attempted 116 3-pointers.
Marshall is fourth in adjusted tempo, according to kenpom.com, and third in average possession length (13.8 seconds).
“It’s amazing,” Elmore said of the Herd’s offense. “Scoring close to 100 a game, getting up and down. A lot of people say, you all take bad shots, you take shots too quick. But that’s what we try to do. We try to get the first open shot. We’ve got some really good shooters on this team, and like people are seeing, we’re putting up good numbers and I think that’s the key to us being successful.”
It’s no coincidence that Marshall began to hit its stride when Elmore was inserted into the lineup. The 6-3 sophomore from Charleston, W.Va., became eligible in mid-December, following his departure from Virginia Military Institute. He had to shake off the rust that came with not playing games for a year-and-half, and he had to recover on the fly from a severe right ankle sprain he suffered in practice the first week of December.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys,” Elmore said. “I think there was a meshing period that took place. When I was out, a couple guys were playing out of position and were kind of uncomfortable, but then when I came in, everybody kind of slid to their true positions, and everybody’s been playing great.”
Elmore averages 14.9 points per game and a team-best 5.8 assists per game. In the Herd’s past 10 games, he averaged 18.3 points and 6.9 assists per game. During that span, he shot 45 percent from the field, 47.6 percent from 3-point range and had a nearly 3.5-to-1 assist-turnover ratio. He registered his first double-double (24 points, 10 assists) in last Saturday’s 96-93 overtime win at Western Kentucky.
“I’ve always assumed that my role is to make the guys around me better,” Elmore said, “whether that’s passing, scoring, playing defense, making big plays down the stretch. That’s what I’ve always tried to pride myself on and key on, was trying to help the guys around me and make them better.”
Elmore won the Evans Award as West Virginia’s prep player of the year in 2014, half of the only father-son duo to win the honor. His father, Gay Elmore, was a two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year at VMI in the mid-1980s and graduated as the school’s career leading scorer, with 2,422 points.
Both Jon and his older brother, Ot, followed their father’s footsteps and enrolled at VMI. But when their paternal grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the fall of 2014, they withdrew from school and returned home to help care for him in the final months of his life. Neither ever played a game for VMI.
Jon chose not to return to VMI and felt that nearby Marshall was a better fit. Meanwhile, VMI refused to grant him a release. He enrolled at Marshall as a regular student, and said he had no contact with the Herd’s coaches or players prior to enrolling. He met with D’Antoni after he enrolled and expressed interest in playing. He paid his own way and practiced with the team last spring and through the fall before he became eligible.
“It was a tough time, being away from the game,” he said. “I’d never really done that, but looking back I think it definitely helped. It gave me some time to get in the weight room and just work on my game, and I think it paid dividends.”
Marshall’s system may appear helter-skelter, but there’s a method to the madness. D’Antoni honed it over 30 years as a high school coach and nine as an NBA assistant alongside his brother, Mike.
“The way I look at it is, we’re trying to teach good basketball, fundamental basketball,” D’Antoni said. “We work hard on teaching you how to shoot. We work hard on ball skills. We teach them how to run the pick-and-roll and how to defend the pick-and-roll. We teach them all how to space and how to ‘backdoor’ out of it.
“We don’t teach kids to play one position and pigeonhole them to that position. My way of thinking is that we get pretty good athletes. The biggest thing that that pretty good athlete has to have is the ability to be coached and the willingness to learn. Once they do that, we think we can develop them to be good players in our system. It just takes a little time.”
Above: Jon Elmore’s move to Marshall has ramped up the Thundering Herd’s engine as a high-scoring fast-paced team. (Courtesy Rick Haye/Marshall Athletics)