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Referees

A couple weeks back I was coaching in an AAU tournament and shortly after our game, the official refereeing our game collapsed. When he collapsed, all the courts in the gym stopped. Kids, parents, and coaches who had been competing just seconds before all watched in deep concern as the official was being attended to by gym supervisors. Ambulances were called, the AED was used. It was a very humbling moment- one in which we were all hoping and praying for a fellow human. The paramedics arrived to the gym and took him to the hospital where thankfully, he would be okay. 

The night before, for our 9:00 PM game, the same official was refereeing our game. The next day, the day in which he collapsed, he was doing our 5:30 PM game; he’d been doing games all morning and afternoon for the second day straight. I wouldn’t call him the best official we’ve ever had, but knowing how many games in a row he’d done for this tournament, he was doing a fine job. I see these exact circumstances at almost every tournament I go to- a referee doing twelve straight games two days in a row. It never fails that in probably 9 out of the 12 games parents and coaches are razzing them the whole game and in some cases, using completely disrespectful names and words. Especially at younger ages. I see parents coming onto courts in the middle of the game and making threats to officials because their 5th grade kid got fouled and it wasn’t called. After every call that’s made, 75% of the teams’ parents are screaming, kicking the bleachers, or standing up with their arms out in disbelief. I could go on and on here about keeping a little perspective, but I’ll stay to the point. 

Not every referee is good and not every referee gives their best effort, but lets keep in mind that in many cases, they are working under circumstances given by tournament directors that are absolutely ridiculous. No matter how good of an official you are, if you do 20+ games in a weekend with people screaming at & harassing you the entire time, your job would suffer. Like us, these officials are human too. Which brings me back around to the official collapsing and the aftermath that surrounded it. Everyone hoped for the best for the man when he collapsed. You could feel everyone in the gym pulling for him & the respect being shown. Why does it take a moment like this for people to acknowledge and respect an official? Just because the guy is wearing a striped shirt and you don’t agree with his judgement doesn’t mean that he, like you and I, can’t fall victim to human moments. 

Again, I’m not giving a free pass and saying that officials don’t have to try and do a good job but in almost 90% of all cases (and I have seen a ton of games) they are working with what they know. They are trying. I am asking for all of us to keep some perspective and try to show some respect, decency, and to maybe try thanking an official after a a game- regardless of if you thought they did a good job or not, it’s a thankless, difficult job. A little appreciation could go along way for them- not just as officials, but as people. 

Thoughts from the 1st Weekend of the 2019 NCAA Tourney

Self-Accountability & Chasing Outcomes

Many of you may have watched Wofford vs. Kentucky this past Saturday and saw Fletcher Magee go 0-12 from the 3-pt line en route to a close six point loss for his Wofford team. Two days prior, Magee hit seven 3-pt shots and became the all-time leader for most 3-pointers made in NCAA history.

Magee said this after Wofford’s loss to Kentucky, “I just needed to hit a couple of shots. We had the momentum sometimes and I had a big shot and it ended up not going in, but I’ve got to own up to it and swallow it. I went in there, I prepared like I always prepared. I did everything I’ve always done. I shot them how I always shoot them. They just didn’t go in.”

In a time where his emotions were running wild, he was accountable to himself and his performance. No excuses, no bad-mouthing his coaches, teammates, or the opponent- he simply stated that he wasn’t his best on that day and that he would grow from the experience.

Outside of personal accountability, I thought it was also a great reminder to all of us that no matter what we do to prepare or how hard we work, sometimes we don’t always get a desired result or outcome. Does that mean we shouldn’t prepare as hard? Absolutely not. Does that mean that we shouldn’t care or be disappointed if we don’t get the result we desired? No. However, in our goal-obsessed society, we must remember that putting all of our mental effort into an outcome doesn’t ensure that it will come to life. We have to stop attaching ourselves to outcomes and instead turn our focus to daily commitments and who we are becoming along our journey. Outcomes can help us reflect and give us feedback, but we must remember that an outcome doesn’t always paint the whole picture and it’s certainly not an indicator of who we are.

Tom Izzo 

Anyone on social media has probably seen some sort of opinion on the Tom Izzo “incident” during Michigan State’s first round game against Bradley. To give a quick summary, Izzo approached one of his players at a timeout on the floor, pointing and screaming at him for what appeared to be a lack of effort. Other players nudged Izzo backwards and tried to calm him down. The player came back with his own emotion. It was a heated exchange between Izzo and his player. Shortly after the incident many people took to social media to say that Izzo had gone too far. Others argued that this was him simply holding his player accountable for his actions. They claimed it to be completely appropriate behavior and a part of coaching.

There’s no argument on whether or not Tom Izzo is or isn’t a terrific coach- he is. If I was asked to give a one word answer, “yes or no”, if I had a problem with how he reacted, I would say “no”. Do I think he could have approached the manner in a different way? Probably- but given the circumstances Izzo may have thought this was the best option at that time. I don’t know the context with this player and wasn’t in that particular situation. If I were to challenge something it would be that if we expect players to exercise emotional control, coaches must model that same behavior. However, even with that being said, Izzo has earned the respect of his current and past players and the only people who can truly judge the behavior are the people in the know- very few outside of that locker room are truly in the know. So to me, all of the arguments of whether it was right or wrong is something that the players and the coaches connected to the situation know best. The player accepted responsibility, which tells us a lot.

A bigger topic in all of this is that just because Tom Izzo employs these methods doesn’t mean they’re correct or effective in every situation. People have to understand context. Izzo has built rock solid relationships with his guys and they love him and understand his competitive nature. These are also young men playing on full scholarships. Youth coaches who think they can berate a potential emotionally fragile kid in an environment that is designed to be for fun and development are sorely mistaken. Other methods such as using the bench as a teacher, showing film, or an occasional raising of your voice in a practice setting may be more effective. Outside of that- it’s important to evaluate what type of mistake a player made. If it was a mental or conceptual mistake- try TEACHING and CLEARLY communicating the correction instead of screaming about it. This is an all too common problem in youth sports- screaming and berating conceptual mistakes without correction. In many cases, it’s to cover up the coaches lack of knowledge and ability to actually teach the game. Furthermore, youth coaches who yell and scream all the time because that’s what they perceive coaching to be are doing nothing but turning their players off to them. We need to learn to communicate before resorting to yelling and berating. You can have emotion, but if you’re emotional all the time AND you don’t actually teach and correct- you’re not coaching, you’re not leading, and you’re certainly not helping develop players. So for all of the people who claim that Izzo’s incident is “just coaching and holding someone accountable”- there may be some truth to that, but there is also a whole lot of context that we need and a whole lot more to consider.

Playing w/ a Lead: 

I struggle when I watch teams who get a lead early in the second half of a game start playing the clock instead of playing the game. They stop running their typical offense and go to a complete stall where their movements get slow or stagnant. The possessions generally result in forcing up a bad shot with three to five seconds left in the shot clock. It’s not to say that offenses can’t be patient and that they shouldn’t try to hunt a great shot on each possession, but I will never understand teams who are virtually stopping everything they do offensively just to run time off the clock. I do think in these situations that teams who are generally more deliberate have a slight advantage as they are more comfortable running their offense for twenty seconds on a possession, but nonetheless, I see teams of all different styles fall into this trap. The clock becomes their main focus instead of continuing to attack and add to their lead. In too many cases, the energy is sucked out of the players and the mindset turns from being the aggressors to playing not to lose.

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.