2023 World Cup Preview: The Offensive Playbook (Part 1)

Diving into some X's and O's for Canada Basketball

The FIBA 2023 World Cup campaign is in full swing for Canada’s SMNT. After falling 86-81 against Germany on Aug 9th, Canada kicks off their next set of exhibition games this weekend. What better time to dive into some X’s and O’s.

In today’s deep dive we’ll take a look at the SMNT’s offensive playbook, specifically for the 2019 World Cup (the 2021 Olympic Qualifying Tournament and beyond will be covered in Part 2). Nick Nurse may not be the head coach anymore, but his influence is undoubtedly still present on this edition of the SMNT, at least to some degree. Nurse’s assistant coaches (with the Raptors and the SMNT) Nate Bjorkgren and Nathaniel Mitchell are reported to stay on Jordi Fernandez’s coaching staff for the 2023 World Cup and as a result, some of these sets could potentially translate over to this summer.

Interestingly, Nurse took over as head coach of Canada’s SMNT on June 24th, 2019 with training camp for the 2019 World Cup starting on August 4th, 2019. That’s a pretty similar timeline to Jordi Fernandez, as he was named head coach on June 27th, 2023, with training camp opening on August 1st, 2023. While the start of their tenures were similar, let’s hope that the end result at the World Cup will be different for the Fernandez-led SMNT.

Angle Reverse”

Thanks to the FIBA broadcast eavesdropping on timeout huddles, I got to learn the actual name for this following play in Nurse’s playbook — “Angle Reverse”.

The play is a rather simple ATO (“After Time Out”) call and starts with inbounding from Canada’s own baseline, bringing up the ball in the “Angle” alignment. This alignment involves 2 players (1 of them being the ballhandler) in the slot area (here its Kevin Pangos and Cory Joseph), 2 players in the corners (Phil Scrubb and Kyle Wiltjer) and 1 getting ready to set a screen (here it’s Khem Birch).

This “Angle” alignment is actually a pretty common one in the NBA. At it’s core it spaces out the floor for team’s to run a high PnR.

The “Reverse” part of the play call is rather self-explanatory as rather than using the initial screen from Birch, Pangos reverses the ball to the other side of the court (think of a switch pass in soccer) to Joseph who uses the step up screen from Wiltjer. Gets Joseph downhill on the empty side of the court but he’s unable to finish.

“Horns” Sets

While “Horns” sets are a big part of Nick Nurse’s offense with the Raptors, especially as a late game set (think late OT against the Knicks on Jan 16th, 2023), during the 2019 summer, Canada didn’t go to a lot of “Horns” action.

The “Horns” set refers to the alignment of the Raptors at the beginning of the play (ball handler at the top, 2 at the elbows, 2 in the corners). From this alignment there’s a whole playbook itself of variations that teams run (Samson Folk refers to the clip above as “Horns Chin Punch” for example).

For Canada, one of the “Horns” sets they did run was a traditional “Horns” action. Nembhard uses the 5’s (Birch) ball screen and the 5 rolls while the 4 (Wiltjer) pops.

Sidenote #1: Watch Nembhard’s first dribble as he uses the screen closely. The “push and chase” dribble he executes doesn’t give Ingles an angle to recover in front of him. It’s these type of nuances that make Nembhard such a masterful PnR player.

Another frequent “Horns” set that Canada ran was “Horns Flex”. The Flex Offense is a traditional offensive playbook that has been around for ages. Though its popularity has dwindled in the modern era, it still has a way of showing up every now and then. Jordan Sperber (hoopvision68 on Youtube, a must watch for X’s and O’s) did a thorough breakdown of the Flex Offense that I highly recommend.

Here’s what Canada’s “Horns Flex” set looked like with the last pass slightly differing in the two sequences below. You can see the initial “Horns” alignment we talked about earlier as well as the “screen across, screen down” Flex action that Jordan touched on in the video above.

By the way, the Raptors (under Nurse) ran this exact same set quite frequently as well, as pointed out by Samson!

And here’s the Ontario U17 team running the exact same action at the 2023 National Championships! I wasn’t kidding when I said this was a common action.

The last variation Canada ran in 2019 was adding an Iverson cut on top of the “Horns” set, with Birch looking for Scrubb’s backdoor cut to the basket after getting the ball at the elbow.

And once again, Nick Nurse ran this exact action with the Raptors (Samson’s full analysis here) last season!

This summer, I definitely think this “Iverson Horns” set can be used to get some easy buckets and catch opposing defenses off guard. My preferred alignment would be Olynyk at the elbow receiving the ball and reading the “Iverson” cut that a more athletic play finisher (think Brooks, Barrett, Dort) would make.

Pinch Post” Sets

The first “Pinch Post” action I am going to cover is what I call “Pinch Post Stagger” Or if you prefer Nurse’s playbook terminology, this action is called “52 Misdirection”. During the 2019 World Cup this was one of Canada’s go-to and most frequently run actions, mainly for Phil Scrubb (and less frequently for Brady Heslip). With the 2023 SMNT roster trimmed to 13 (potentially 14 with Jamal Murray), my guess is Phil Scrubb, a very good movement shooter by the way, will play a bigger role once again at the World Cup. As a result, the coaching staff could re-use this set this summer whenever Scrubb is on the court.

The alignment of this action makes it easy to identify. It’s a traditional “Pinch Post” alignment, with a big at the elbow (here it’s Birch) and no other teammate on his side of the floor. The big is going to be the playmaking hub for this action with the main goal of getting the shooter in the far corner (Phil Scrubb) an open 3. Given Olynyk and Powell’s skillset, I think they would have a seamless transition as the playmaking hub for this set.

After Pangos makes the post entry pass, he’s going to follow his pass and cut to the empty corner. Technically, it is possible for Birch and Pangos to execute a “throw-and-get handoff” here, a la “Pistol” or “21 Chase”. However, this was not the main goal of the “52 Misdirection” play. After the post entry is where the real action starts. The shooter in the corner (Phil Scrubb) comes off stagger screens before receiving the ball from Birch in a dribble handoff (DHO). When things go perfectly, it’s a wide open 3 from the top. Given Fernandez’s Kings offensive system featured the most handoffs per game in the NBA last season, I think this set fits in perfectly in his offensive system and with the roster he has to tinker with.

The stagger screens can even be slipped as well! I think Nurse allowed his players to have some freedom to read and react to how the defenses were playing when executing these sets. Here, Thomas Scrubb slips the first screen rather than making any contact.

One nasty variation Canada will run is adding “Twirl” action. Nurse primarily ran “Twirl” action with Kyle Wiltjer in 2019, and I am certain it will be run for Kelly Olynyk this summer. “Twirl” action refers to when the player curls around the first of the 2 stagger screens, and then the first screener uses the last stagger screen. Confused? No worries, the below sequence should help clear up any confusion. Heslip elects to curl off of the first stagger screen (set by Wiltjer). Immediately after, Wiltjer twirls and uses the second stagger screen (set by Ejim). Now Wiltjer becomes the “shooter” and receives the DHO from Klassen.

Another wrinkle Nurse has in the “52 Misdirection” action is to completely change the goal. Rather than getting the ball to the shooter, Canada will sometimes looks to get a quick deep post up possession. Here Owen Klassen, who usually is catching the ball at the elbow in this action, is in position to set one of the stagger screens. Rather than set the screen, he ducks in for a deep post up. This action fits in perfectly with Edey’s post-up skills this summer, getting him a clean catch deep in the paint.

Another play Nurse likes to run from this alignment is “Pinch Post Hammer”. This wouldn’t be a Nick Nurse playbook breakdown without touching on some “Hammer” action, which refers to a “weakside flare screen for a shooter to cut from the wing to the corner” (Basketball Action Dictionary). If that didn’t make sense, here’s a visual clip.

The overall alignment for “Pinch Post Hammer” is the same as “Pinch Post Stagger”, with one key difference. The shooter Canada is trying to get a shot for starts at the wing, rather than the corner. Execution was terrible here from Canada, though I will give them a pass as this was this group’s first exhibition game.

“Delay” Sets

This section is probably the most relevant section to Jordi Fernandez’s offensive system. “Delay” refers to a 5-out alignment with the big man at the top of the key. If you watched any amount of Kings basketball this season, you’ve seen a ton of “Delay” alignment, with Sabonis initiating at the top.

“Chicago” or “Zoom” action is everywhere in the NBA and the NCAA today and one of the most popular actions out of the 5-out alignment. I’m not kidding, turn on basically any game and I’m certain you would have seen “Chicago” action run at least once (the clip above is an example of “Chicago”!).

The Raptors under Nurse last season were no different and ran this action as well. In fact, they spammed “Chicago” down the stretch against the Detroit Pistons on February 12th, 2023, as Samson analyzed.

So what is “Chicago” action? Taking from Samson’s piece (read it, trust me), “‘Chicago’ action is a DHO (dribble hand-off) with a pin-down in-between it”.

In the first exhibition game of the 2019 World Cup campaign, Canada were all out of sorts. I think they were trying to run “Chicago” with Cory Joseph, Kevin Pangos and Kelly Olynyk in this sequence but the pindown screen isn’t set and the DHO is rejected.

A couple exhibition games later, having ironed out the kinks, and the execution is so much better. For the keen-eyed, there’s even some “Flare” action on the weakside between Oshae Brissett and Phil Scrubb.

Sidenote #2: Canada ran “Chicago” in their first exhibition game for the 2023 World Cup against Germany as well! I really do think this specific action will be one of Canada’s go-to sets this summer.

And here’s a cool variation on “Chicago” action with Thomas Scrubb rejecting the DHO and cutting, allowing Nembhard to come get the DHO instead. I’m not sure if this is an actual play call, or if it’s just the players reading and reacting to each other, but just wanted to highlight it.

A sibling to “Chicago” action, Canada also ran “Miami” action, although much less frequently. “Miami” action just flips the order of the screen and DHO. So that means it’s a DHO into a screen while “Chicago” is a pindown screen into a DHO.

And finally here’s one more action from this “Delay” 5-out alignment. This time though, the player in the weakside corner comes across to the strongside elbow to set a slice screen for the 5 (Khem Birch in this case). This screen serves two purposes, to give Khem Birch leverage in positioning on the low block and empties the near corner for his eventual post up possession. I think this specific set would feature quite nicely to manufacture a Zach Edey post up this summer.

“Motion Strong

“Motion Strong” was another set that was run quite frequently by Canada. According to the Basketball Action Dictionary, “Motion Strong” is a stagger pin-down screen for the player in the far corner. Canada liked to set up this set first with double drag screens for the ball handler (Cory Joseph in the clip below) to get to the wing. You can see how the screeners (Olynyk and Birch) then go to set the stagger screens for Pangos in the far corner. While this action is traditionally ran for the player in the far corner, Canada would usually run “Motion Strong Twirl” (recall Twirl from the “Pinch Post” Sets section) in order to get a look for the first screener (Olynyk).

If the shot is not there for the player twirling, Canada would flow back into some vanilla PnR action. Here Ejim flips the ball back to Nembhard, and he finishes with some flair.

So what happens when Canada doesn’t Twirl the initial stagger screens? Well the next progression in Nurse’s “Motion Strong” set is referred to as “wheel“. In “wheel”, the players setting the initial stagger screes set another stagger screen for the player in the near corner. Here, Klassen and Wiltjer are the ones setting the second stagger screens for Heslip.

Sidenote #3: When Nathaniel Mitchell was the head coach of the SMNT for the 2022 AmeriCup, “Motion Strong Wheel” was also run! With Nurse, Bjorkgren and Mitchell at the helm over the last few years, there’s been some organizational consistency in terms of the sets being run, making it easier for our players to be “plug and play” pieces and develop chemistry at the senior level. With the abrupt end of Nurse’s tenure as SMNT head coach, hopefully this institutional continuity remains with Bjorkgren, Mitchell and the returning players.

Handback Wide Pindown” Snap Series

This is the action that was run mainly for Brady Heslip (and Phil Scrubb to a lesser degree) during the 2019 World Cup campaign. Samson actually wrote a piece last year about “Wide Pindowns” being a staple in Nurse’s Raptors playbook, specifically for OG Anunoby. His description of “Wide Pindowns” was so good and digestible that I’m going to quote it here:

“The wide-pin is the playground for players who couple shooting and rim pressure. With good technique you can come off a screen, put your man in a trail position and create a 2-on-1 situation vs. a big, or encourage the defense to shift towards you. If your defender goes under, you can backtrack into space while your big flips the screen into a flare – there’s lots of of opportunity.”

– Samson Folk

Unfortunately for Canada’s SMNT in 2019, they were lacking players who coupled shooting and rim pressure, running this set mainly for their best shooters. Nurse liked to have these “Wide Pindown” actions set up with some “Touch” Action (that’s the Handback part). In the clip below you can see Nembhard and Wiltjer performing the “Handback” before Wiltjer flows into setting the “Wide Pindown” for Heslip.

Sidenote #4: I did notice an interesting detail about Canada’s right handed shooters Brady Heslip and Phill Scrubb. Heslip preferred coming off of screens set on his right hand side (and having to turn his body to square up and shoot after catching), while Scrubb was the complete opposite, preferring to come off of screens on his left hand side (easier to just rise up to shoot as a right handed shooter since you’re already aligned with the net). As a result, Canada stuck to their shooters’ preferences pretty well throughout the 2019 World Cup campaign (go back to the “52 Misdirection” play, Scrubb is basically always starting in the right corner and using the screens to his left).

Like with “Motion Strong”, if the initial shot isn’t there off the pindown, Canada would flow into a DHO and then into some PnR action. Notice Phil Scrubb using the pindown on his left once again!

Another variation involved Canada rejecting the pass to the player coming off the pindown (Phil Scrubb here) and just flow into a PnR on the empty side of the floor.

One of the more interesting wrinkles with this alignment was the player in the corner setting a “Korver screen”. In traditional “Wide Pindown” actions, the screen is set for the player in the corner (Pangos in the play below). However, instead Pangos sees Rob Loe (New Zealand, #14) point out the pindown is coming and opts to set a screen for Birch (the original pindown screen setter). Now the execution here was not good (I don’t think Birch realized what was happening until it was too late) and I don’t think Birch getting the ball on the perimeter is advantageous for Canada. However, replace Birch with Kelly Olynyk and all of a sudden this wrinkle is much more intriguing.

Sidenote #5: More examples of organizational consistency across the Summer and Winter Cores. Here we have the Winter Core team (Trae Bell-Haynes, Jackson Rowe and Kadre Gray) coached by Nate Bjorkgren running the “Handback Wide Pindown” against Venezuela in February of 2023.

For the 2023 World Cup campaign, I could see this set run for RJ Barrett. Much like OG Anunoby, Barrett is a physical, often overwhelming, driver who just needs a little help getting that first step on their defenders. Also lets Barrett get to his dominant left hand with little to no resistance.

Dribble Weave

This action has been a staple of Nick Nurse offenses for years. If you’ve watched a healthy amount of Raptors games since he took over, I’m certain you will immediately recognize the play. It’s really a great quick hitter that gets all 5 players moving, and Nurse preferred to run this set off some type of inbound (after timeout, deadball turnover, etc.).

Here in the opening game against Australia, Canada ran a modified version of the “Dribble Weave”.


Outside of these offensive sets, Canada’s players had a lot of opportunities to just freestyle (in semi-transition, late clock situations, etc.), reading what the defense was giving them and reacting appropriately. Often times, these situations involved some type of PnR action.

For Kevin Pangos, this often meant allowing him to operate and dissect defenses as a PnR ball handler. Pangos is really a spectacular PnR ball handler and Canada relied heavily on his creation in these freestyle situations. “Spread PnR” was ran frequently for Pangos, giving him as much space as possible to score himself, or create for others. It’s really a shame he wasn’t healthy enough to suit up this summer because he would be such an impactful guard, organizing and running the offense with great success.

And we even got instances (very few) of some “Spain PnR”!

One of the major things missing in the 2019 World Cup campaign from Nurse’s Raptors playbook was split action. At the elbow or top of the arc, the Raptors took advantage of Marc Gasol’s vision and passing touch to set up teammates for easy baskets. Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell, etc. were all big beneficiaries of these actions. Canada unfortunately didn’t have the personnel to pull this off.

This is one of the major reasons Kelly Olynyk (and to a lesser degree Dwight Powell) is such an important part of the team this summer. He’s got the passing chops for Canada to run some split action (imagine a 3 man game with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the off-ball wizardry of Jamal Murray).

Olynyk even has the ball handling fluidity to run some possessions as a PnR ball handler. So much wrinkles and variations open up offensively with Olynyk on the team, what a unique offensive player.

There’s a reason why I highlighted Kelly Olynyk as an X-factor for the SMNT this summer on the Raptors Show with Will Lou. Don’t sleep on FIBA Olynyk!