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Struggle & Opportunity

I was recently listening to a podcast with the head coach of the Nevada Men’s Basketball team, Eric Musselman. At the time I am writing this, Nevada is 14-0 and ranked #6 in the country in the college basketball rankings. Coach Musselman and his team are starting to garner national attention and many experts believe they are a legitimate Final Four contender. However, Musselman’s coaching journey to this point was anything but smooth. As he told his story, my mind wandered to relatable experiences in my own life as well as situations that many athletes are currently experiencing or will experience in a season or career.

In 2007, Coach Musselman was fired from his second NBA head coaching gig after just one season. After not coaching for three years, he got back into coaching when a NBA D-League team hired him as their head coach. After a couple of good (and unglamorous) seasons in the D-League, he became a college assistant at two different schools before being hired by Nevada as their head coach. Along this journey, Musselman learned. He became a voracious reader and started his own blog on leadership to reflect on things he learned and experienced. When he was an assistant in college, he took notes on things he liked and didn’t like about the program he was a part of. He enhanced his already deep knowledge in player development, X’s and O’s, and scouting reports while learning about the process of recruiting. Musselman embraced his circumstances, learned whatever he could and become a star in whatever role he had. Years later, another opportunity finally came and as evident, he was prepared for it.

With the right approach, times of struggle and moments of uncertainty allow us to grow and learn about ourselves. We’ve all heard phrases or quotes like this before and as cliche as it is, it’s also true. 

As a coach, I’m pretty familiar with many of the situations and roles that players are in- I’ve been in most of them. There were times in my career as a player where I was the leader of a team, other times where I was the third or fourth option, a fringe player in the rotation, or a reserve who wasn’t in the rotation at all. Like anyone, I enjoyed being a leader and a go-to option on a team- and also like anyone, there were times I was really frustrated when I was on the back-end of a rotation or wasn’t even in the rotation. Each of those experiences were valuable to me, however, the moments of frustration and difficulty were the ones that really allowed me to grow as an individual- they forced me to practice persistence and resilience. I wasn’t always rewarded in the moment or in the short-term, but in the long-term it made me a better coach and positively contributed to my life in more ways than I probably realize. 

Our natural inclination as adults is to not allow kids to struggle. I see and hear different instances of this inclination frequently in athletics. Whether it’s adults playing the blame game and bashing coaches and teammates or even just endorsing a child’s complaints and agreeing with everything they say- we unknowingly take away valuable learning opportunities for the younger generation. Instead, we need to be encouraging them to be a star in whatever role they currently have. To embrace their circumstances and figure out how to make the absolute best of them. We need to guide and help them to take complete ownership of their situation. If it’s something they truly care about, they’ll learn to go the extra mile and put the extra effort forth to bridge the gap of where they are and where they want to be.

Challenging circumstances and moments don’t change for the better when we run from them. They won’t automatically change just by embracing them. Not everyone will turn into a star or end up in the national spotlight, but by attacking moments of challenge with persistence we will unquestionably grow as individuals and become a better version of ourselves. 

Jrue Holiday NBA Player Study

After watching the New Orleans Pelicans & Portland Trail Blazers NBA playoff series last season, I really became a fan of Jrue Holiday’s game. His defensive presence on one of the best players in the NBA, Damian Lillard, was evident throughout the series and following the 2017-2018 season he was selected 1st-Team All-NBA Defense. Holiday, however, isn’t just a defensive presence, he’s a major factor on the offensive end as well. To illustrate Holiday’s ability on the offensive end of the floor I did a video breakdown along with some analysis on what makes him one of the most effective, yet underrated players in the NBA.

Note: The times in parentheses correspond with the times in the video. 

Finishing (0:06-1:10): Holiday’s biggest strength is his ability to get to the basket and finish in a multitude of different ways. He finishes with both hands, on both sides, off one and two feet at a very high level. Holiday excels at using his body as a shield and then creating separation with the basketball outside of his body. Many times you will see him jump off his outside leg and use his inside leg as a means for ball protection when playing off one foot. Very rarely do you see him rushed or out of control at the rim- he plays and finishes at his own pace.

Post Play (1:12-1:40): Holiday is a strong guard, but he doesn’t solely rely on strength to score around the rim. His footwork is exceptional- both when he has the basketball and when he is looking to get position in the post. You’ll see him catch defenders off guard with a “quick spin” when they are playing too close and overly-physical.

Shooting off the Catch (1:42-2:08): Holiday isn’t considered an elite shooter, but is certainly a proficient one- especially when left open. On almost every shot he attempts he lands balanced on two feet. You’ll see him shoot off both the 1-2 and the hop.

Shooting off the Dribble (2:10-2:26): He’d rather attack you going toward the rim, but when the defense gives him room out of respect for his ability to attack, Holiday can make people pay.

Change of Speed (2:28-2:52): Holiday does a great job of slowing down, using his eyes, and then re-accelerating to get to spots on the floor. One of my favorite things about Holiday’s game is that he is always under control. Acceleration and deceleration aren’t always in the conversation or seen as “sexy” athletic variables, but players like Holiday who excel at it can get to their spots and create separation at a very high level.

PNR Scoring (2:55-3:30): Holiday scores at all three levels in the ball screen. When defenders go under, he can make them pay by stopping behind the screen and knocking down shots. When teams use a “drop” coverage on him he does an exceptional job of snaking and putting his defender in jail- again- never in a hurry and takes what the defense gives him.

PNR Passing (3:34-4:05): It helps having Anthony Davis to play pick and roll with, but regardless of that, Holiday is a good decision-maker in ball screen situations. His pace allows him to scan, survey and find where rotation is coming from and ultimately find the open man. Much like his finishing, he’s very good at passing with both his left and right hand.

Pivot to Pass (4:07-4:21): It sounds like a broken record, but Holiday is rarely in a hurry. He uses pivots & shot fakes to create passing angles for teammates when his option to score is taken away.

Evaluating the Fundamentals of Passing

Maybe it was engrained in you that the “right way” to pass the basketball is via a two-hand chest or bounce pass with the thumbs down and pinkies up. Conventional thought isn’t always wrong, and something new isn’t always right nor does it automatically equate to better. However, it’s important that we’re always studying, evaluating, and challenging our way of doing things. I was watching games over the weekend and kept noticing the variation of passes thrown in high school, college, and pro level games. A fundamental pass isn’t necessarily one that is thrown with two hands on the ball (although it can be)- a fundamental pass is a pass delivered on time and on target to the receiver. I care much less about how the ball gets to the receiver than I do about when and where the ball is received. I strongly believe that starting at the youth level, we should be exposing players and encouraging them to pass with one and two hands on the basketball at a variety of different angles. We should be working to enhance possibilities as opposed to creating restrictions. When they make the wrong decision, we focus on what may have been a better option- not eliminating options altogether.

On a similar note, I had a young player in a workout this weekend that threw a perfectly executed behind the back pass to a teammate in stride for a lay-up. He didn’t pre-plan it- it was an instinctual play. I knew it was instinctive because he immediately looked at me like he’d done something wrong- when in reality it was the perfect decision for the situation he was presented with. The defender took a 45 degree angle and got slightly ahead of him on his path to the basket- he delivered the pass to a player trailing about one-two steps behind. Is a behind the back pass always the right play in every situation? Obviously not. However, neither is a jump-stop, two-hand bounce or chest pass. The interactions present in the context of a game lead to decisions. Decisions drive the technical execution of a skill. There is not one “fundamental” way to pass the basketball.

I made a short video of some of the passes that stood out to me over the weekend. I also included some older clips- including one of John Stockton for the “fundamentalists” who may believe he put two hands on the ball every time he passed :).

OFFENSE

Attached is a document I spent some time putting together this past summer on offense. It is a principle-driven system that I’ve used with AAU teams to create organized freedom. It blends dribble drive concepts, high post actions, and two-man games. Depending on the team we have, we’ll emphasize certain parts more than others & vary a few of the concepts/ elements, but the teaching progressions & foundations would remain similar. I hope you find something of value in it.

Space & Attack Offense

Implementing an Offensive Set

The Warriors ran this action after a timeout when they needed a basket. They start in a 4-high look with Steph Curry & Draymond Green stacked at the free throw line. Green sets a screen for Curry to execute a mini-Iverson cut to the wing. Durant clears to the opposite corner. After Thompson enters the ball to Curry he receives a back screen from Green, who then pops to the ball after his screen. Curry “chases” his pass & doesn’t get it, but the action doesn’t stop as Green now dribbles at Thompson who sets up a backdoor perfectly & ends up w/ a dunk.

A few things stood out to me on this set (there were a ton, butt these are the main ones).

1.) Pace. Every cut was to score. Even if the initial actions were misdirections or decoys to get to the primary action of the Green-Thompson backdoor, they had the defense honoring each cut because of the pace (and the scoring ability of the players).

2.) Timing. Players executed their movements w/ pace, but also w/ precision & coordination. Watch the footwork again on each cut.

3.) Flow. There were no stoppages in the action. The play moved from one action to the next seamlessly.

Everyone has offensive sets that are effective on paper, but great offensive action is more than diagrams. If your actions don’t have fundamentals such as pace, space, timing, precision, and flow, it doesn’t matter what they look like on paper- they will not be effective. As the season approaches for many high school and youth coaches, it’s natural to want to implement a series of sets that can get your team easy looks at the basket, however, what may be more effective is to focus less on the number of sets you have, and instead emphasize the quality of the action!

Exit Cut

Steph Curry is probably known best in basketball circles for his knock-down shooting, crafty handle, and pin-point passing. The highlight reel plays are certainly what makes him stand-out and leave you shaking your head at times. As good as he is with the ball in his hands, however, he is equally as good without the ball in his hands. I remember watching Curry play when he was at Davidson and the thing that always stood out to me outside of his shooting was how he was able to continually get shots off despite being face-guarded and keyed-on by opposing teams. He was able to do so through his movement off the ball- he was and still is a master of using and setting screens to free himself. Another concept off the ball that he does as well as anyone in the league is “exit cut”.

Exit cuts are a crucial concept in all offenses when an advantage has been created, but are especially important in penetration-based offenses. Many young players that I work with have a tendency to stand in place or slowly jog to a spot (often inside the three-point line) on the floor after they penetrate. In the video below, Curry penetrates to a kick-out and then immediately locates space to relocate to. The Warriors even have a concept within their offense to get Curry a screen when possible on his exit cut. This simple movement when the defense relaxes following his penetration allows him clean looks at the basket despite having game plans centered around not allowing him to break free. At all levels, even if the exit cut doesn’t lead to a shot opportunity, by teaching the concept and getting players to understand it, we maintain the integrity of our spacing, which is the prerequisite to any good offense.

Offensive Advantage

Offensive players must be able to recognize when they are in an advantage situation. Lennie Acuff, head coach of Alabama-Huntsville says, “When we get em’ on the run, we want to keep em’ on the run”- meaning when the defense is in a scramble/disadvantage, we don’t want to let them return back to their basic “shell” position. An advantage is kept by quick decision-making and maintaining the integrity of our spacing on the floor. It is lost when players hold the ball on the catch, dribble without purpose, or lose spacing.

 

 

The video clip is a perfect depiction of how we want to play when an advantage has been created. On the possession, the defense commits two players to the dribble post-up, which creates a 4 v 3 advantage on the pass-out of the post. From there, the ball doesn’t stop in anyone’s hands- quick decisions are made, and spacing is maintained. This ultimately leads to a high percentage, rhythm shot from one of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA.

The action used to create an advantage can vary from team to team and possession by possession. Some teams try to play more in transition, other teams may rely on dribble penetration, ball screens, off-ball screens, post entries, or a combination of any of those actions. Whatever the philosophy is to create the advantage, it’s crucial that players recognize an advantage on offense and then exploit the defense to create a high percentage scoring opportunity.

Personal Mission Statements

Most businesses have a mission statement. Good mission statements are clear, concise sets of words (usually one sentence, maximum of two) that help focus and direct a company’s actions- what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. Coaches, leaders, and individual people can create their own mission statements to help guide who they want to become. I was challenged by an article I read online by Nick Sciria to reconnect with my mission and have decided to share it here. The question to answer is: What is your mission and what are the coinciding principles that you live by to help bring words on paper to life? I’m going to write primarily from a coach’s perspective, but the mission I subscribe to and its principles go hand in hand with my personal life as well. My mission as a coach is to:

Leave people and places better than I found them.

This is a mission that I look at from a micro perspective in individual moments as well as a macro perspective over the course of a season, career, or lifetime. It encompasses the physical, mental, and emotional aspects we can influence in our players. A question that I use frequently in reflection is, “Am I coach who elevates those around me? Does my presence have a positive or negative effect on the environment?” Nobody wants to bring people down or negatively impact their environment, but only through intentional action and self-awareness do we allow ourselves to truly bring out the best in the people and places we interact with. Here are a few principles that are paramount in my mission as a coach:

Modeling: What am I modeling to my players? I am a firm believer that players aren’t always hearing what we have to say, but they’re always watching what we’re doing. How do I treat officials? How do I handle a tough loss? Am I prepared for each practice? If I don’t model the behaviors that I expect in my players, the words I speak fall on deaf ears, and the trust that is crucial to connecting with a player and a team is immediately broken. Outside of that, as cliche as it is, our actions will always speak louder than our words.

Connection: Even in large groups, I try to have one personal interaction every day with every player. During a season, I schedule face to face individual meetings, have team discussions about topics other than basketball, and in and out of season, text players individually on how things are going both on and off the court. There is nothing more powerful that a coach can develop with a player than genuine connection. It is the baseline to creating a relationship that fosters mutual respect. When we know our players and know who they are- we have the ability to reach them on a higher level, which ultimately allows us to have a more profound, positive influence in their lives.

Empowerment: I want players to feel a strong sense of responsibility in everything we do- we want them to have ownership. Giving responsibility to the players is not a sign of weakness as some may perceive it to be. When we empower players, they unlock leadership capabilities and gain individual confidence. I will frequently ask players their opinions, have them run a segment of practice (or an entire practice), and almost always use a questioning approach while giving feedback to allow them to come to their own conclusions & solutions.

Process-Oriented: We create standards as a team that focus our attention on our actions and habits. Those standards are clearly articulated and defined. For example, one of our standards is that when a teammate hits the floor, four players sprint over to pick him/her up. As a coach, I want players to understand what they do and who they are each day are more important than any result. My hope is that they understand that failures aren’t permanent and when used correctly, are opportunities for growth. I was outcome-obsessed as a player (W-L, individual/team accolades) and while outcomes are important, it’s our standards & daily actions that I’ve become obsessed with as a coach.

Joy: I borrowed this pillar from the Golden State Warriors. As a coach, I think promoting joy and a love for sport is an integral part of our responsibility. In relation to my mission as a coach, I believe the more a player enjoys playing, the more they will improve as a player and the more they will learn about themselves as an individual. I am not insinuating that coaches have players play H-O-R-S-E or lightning every practice, I do believe, however, that if players generally dread coming to practice it says a lot more about us as coaches than it does about them as players. We try to keep practices short (nothing over two hours), fresh (content variation/ order variation), competitive, and avoid long-winded speeches. On top of that, we allow room for laughs, jokes, and try not to take ourselves too seriously. There is a fine-line here, but I certainly believe that often we tend to fall on the wrong side of this line (me included). 

This list could go on for pages and pages, but the five principles I listed are some things I’ve found important in regards to bringing my mission to life. I would challenge each of you, just as I was, to create or revisit your own mission and the coinciding principles/actions. Write them down, review them often, and commit to being the best version of yourself, which will in turn help you bring out the best in those around you!

Challenging Individual Training Narratives

I recently saw a tweet from a coach stating that they loved coaching individual workouts. The tweet then hit on the commonly accepted notion that playing AAU games over a weekend won’t get you better but getting in the gym and working on fundamentals will. Embedded in the tweet was a video of a player doing stationary two-ball dribbling. The player was dribbling below their knees while looking at the ground. The tweet was “liked” and “re-tweeted” by many. As I have mentioned before, I don’t disagree with the overall sentiment here. There are plenty of kids traveling all over the country paying thousands of dollars right now that would benefit from other options, one of them being working on the fundamentals of the game at a local gym. Where my disagreement comes into play is what’s considered fundamental practice. This argument has numerous layers to it, but take two high school players with average ability, in an actual game would you rather have a player who has faced a zone press multiple times in the summer, played in a game where there is a relentless defender guarding them full court, or instead want the player who’s been “grinding” in the gym doing 2-ball drills? I know my answer. We are doing a disservice to players and parents by giving them this belief that the best way to improve a skill-set is performing frequent isolated drill work.

Have we done 2-ball drills with players in workouts? Yes. Do we use them often? No. Occasionally we’ll use them as a quick 2-3 minute warm-up, or we’ll give players a drill they can do on their own at the very end of a workout that is challenging with the hope that maybe we spark some intrinsic motivation to practice on their own. However, 95% of our ball handling practice includes dribbling and passing games, live disadvantage scenarios to attack traps, and then some technical refinement or concept introduction based on what we observed in the live situations. When players get in an actual game they can’t fall back on stationary dribbling drills- they have to be able to create space, read a defense and make decisions based on interactions with their own teammates and the opponents.

Many view being a point guard or a great ball handler as the ability to dribble so they think the prescription of more dribbling drills is the answer. I have parents frequently tell me that their kids need more dribbling drills because they turn the ball over in games. Many of those same kids could put on a half-time show and are wizards with the ball. The problem isn’t that they can’t dribble- the problem is that they don’t know how to handle the ball. They are adept at a technical skill (dribbling in place, in straight lines, or through cones), but they lack the perceptual ability of a skill, i.e., handle pressure, see the floor to pass, beat a trap, or get to spots efficiently (in other cases, they just need to get physically stronger or quicker- it has nothing to do with skill). There is a HUGE difference between being a good dribbler and being a ball-handler. The two are not mutually exclusive, you can be a great dribbler and not be any good when it comes to handling the basketball in a game. As a basketball community, we have to differentiate these items!!

While dribbling is the most commonly posted individual workout item, the same thing can be said for many items. Players and coaches often talk about “getting shots up”, which overall, I don’t have an issue with. Shooting is the most technical skill in the game of basketball and outside of technique, a large part of shooting is confidence. By getting consistent repetitions and honing in technique, a player can certainly improve his or her shooting- but it has to be intentional, focused practice- it can’t be about just getting a certain number of shots up. If I only had 10 minutes to work on shooting with a group of players, 90 out of 100 times I’m incorporating decisions. So many players can knock down shots with no defense and a coach giving them the decision to shoot (one rebounder, one shooter). Throw another player out there and some defense where players don’t have an automated decision and you’ll quickly see that what we accept as “game-like” in our shooting drills is really just technical practice that may have very little carryover to a live game.

Another item of note is getting shots out of game-like situations. One thing I see often is players going through pick and roll “reads” without defense. They follow a pattern that was demonstrated by a coach. Where is the learning or the read when players have nothing to react to? Maybe it’s a difference in philosophy, but if I want to help a player get better at using ball screens, at minimum, I’m showing them a bunch of film before working on isolated reads so they can see context, but even better, I’m putting them in actual ball screen situations and giving the defense different coverages to perform. Many times the best play out of a ball screen is making the right pass, which doesn’t occur when there is no defense on the floor and a predetermined decision to shoot. Lastly, in many individual workouts players are taking and working on complicated shots that they may take one time every five games at best. While I certainly prefer workouts with decision-making present, if a player is going to be doing an individual workout, 95% of high school players or below need to be emphasizing knocking down open catch and shoot shots, understanding how they can create space with the ball (dribble and non-dribble), moving without the ball, finishing with both hands on two feet, and simple, basic moves to beat a defender.

Different situations can certainly call for different things. Isolated drill practice has its place in certain instances. However, I think we are off-based in the common thinking that frequent isolated work is where improvement lies. In too many cases we are simply copying what we’ve seen in other places or doing “feel-good, look-good” workouts that impress parents and allow for repeat business. As a whole, we need to keep challenging common thought to give players the tools to most effectively use their time and maximize their development.