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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 :).
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.
While visiting Houston, the Rice University Men’s Basketball staff was kind enough to open their doors and allow me to sit-in on practice. Attached are notes that I took from the practice.
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!
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 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.
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!
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.
If you’ve tuned into the most recent NCAA tourney you will have seen a number of teams deploy zone defenses. Some of those teams have been “regulars” in their use of zone defense over time, others have used the strategy in more recent years. Some use it for a few possessions, some use it for the entirety of the game. The perceived increased usage of zones begs the question: why are teams using it more frequently? Furthermore, does this trend validate teams who use zones across all levels?
Many coaches at all levels are not fans of zone defense. At the youth levels, many agree that kids often times don’t possess the necessary skills to combat the zone defense (skip passes, perimeter shooting, etc.). Within that group of people some will adamantly say zone defense is the most detrimental strategy to youth development. Other coaches think it’s a lazy tactic used by coaches who can’t teach man to man. Some will tell you that man vs man is “the way the game is meant to be played”. As I look around on social media, these notions have become common narratives, but as always, before we blindly accept these narratives, it’s important to question everything and take a deeper look.
If you would’ve asked me in the past what I thought about zone defense- I would’ve advocated against it. In my last few years coaching 8th grade we’ve played no zone on any possession & this season we’ve probably played it on less than 5% of all possessions. I’m better at teaching man to man defense & I do think at the younger levels it establishes defensive fundamentals that are crucial as levels increase (moving your feet to keep a player in front, body positioning off the ball, competitive mindset, communication standards- among others). However, I really have begun to grow tired of the argument that zone defense is killing youth basketball and basketball in general. Many coaches have started to use this as a cop-out because they rely so heavily on their set plays against man to man defense and don’t develop the skills of players and concepts within a team to have a legitimate zone attack. We play against teams in 8th grade (and I see this at many levels below too) that barely look at the hoop for 2+ minutes on a possession, run set plays every time down the court with the coach joy-sticking every kid around the court like a video game and then yelling commands when and who can shoot. I’ll take a team playing zone defense over that ANY day of the week.
Now, if you’re a youth level coach and your primary strategy is zone defense (unless the hoops are lower and the 3- point line is moved in-(argument for another day)) on most possessions, I do question your intention to “develop” players. Especially teams below 7th grade. From my perspective, soft “pack everyone in” zones or diamond traps is a “win-now at all costs” strategy. Again, many kids physically aren’t ready to perform some of the skills it requires to beat these tactics and there are several coaches who neglect teaching crucial defensive principles to take advantage of this fact. When teams get older and players get stronger, things such as selling out on the ball, leaving kids wide open, and having no concept of off-ball positioning or rotation can negatively impact a player’s and a team’s defensive ability.
When teams get to high school and above- I believe any defense scheme goes. There are times I’m actually surprised teams don’t play more zone simply because most opposing teams have a high reliance on their man offense. It’s all they practice and every player is reliant on it- throwing a zone at a team can greatly disrupt the rhythm of their offense. On the flip side, great offensive teams can also pick apart zones quickly and create confidence for their offense especially if the zone has poor principles and rotations. I often say to all my players that we should be “salivating” when we see zones. Our offensive foundation is built on player development, and in my opinion, a team who has players that can pass, handle, and shoot can beat a zone with some simple concepts. As mentioned, however, many teams don’t have a bunch of skilled players and heavily rely on the pattern of their man offense or solely on one player so their zone attack becomes anything but admirable. My question to these coaches who hate zones and their offense is similar to what I just described is why shouldn’t a team disrupt your offense? Why shouldn’t they take your best player away and make someone else beat them?
Lastly, many college teams are going to more zone because their offense has gone more position-less. A team with several long, tall, skilled offensive players is more apt to play a zone because of matchup issues (and potential foul trouble) they may incur on the defensive end. They can use their length defensively to cover a large area of the floor and avoid matchup problems in space with smaller quicker players. Then on offense, they can more easily exploit their mismatches for better scoring opportunities. For people who say “they’re going to have to play man in the pro game”- that’s a bridge most don’t have to cross. And if a player has that ability, I’m okay with a pro coach needing to spend extra time with a player on their defensive concepts- it’s their job that they’re paid very well for.
My final, concluding thoughts are this:
At the youth levels, if kids are physically unable to make diagonal skips and shoot from the perimeter- coaches should avoid going to zones. It’s important to teach solid man principles at young ages- those principles translate to all types of defense as players increase levels.
The bottom line and above all, if you’re a coach that hates zone defense, then develop your players and your zone offense spacing so they can pick it to pieces, in which case you will not have to deal with it any longer 🙂
Before I really dive into this, I want to first say that I don’t coach in NCAA tournaments with thousands of people all over the country watching with millions of dollars on the line. I coach high school and youth basketball. The circumstances are much different, but many of the things I observed watching the NCAA tournament this past weekend I see at all levels of basketball and across many sports. I don’t for a second claim to have all the answers and everyone has their own philosophy, but I like to use this platform that I have to challenge standard thought processes.
As I was watching games this past weekend, I couldn’t help but do some critical questioning regarding the perceived role of a coach. In one particular game that I watched, the offensive team slowed the ball down and the players all looked over at the coach for a solid five seconds on almost EVERY possession as the coach joy-sticked each player into the spot he wanted them before running their set play that often led to an inefficient shot at the end of the shot clock (this team barely scored 50 points in a 40 minute game FYI). This was a common theme amongst several other games I watched too. The thoughts that kept coming into my head were, “What are these teams doing ALL season? What do teams do in their 100+ practices that amount to almost 20 hours a week? How do high-level college players not have a sense of how to play in the flow of a game?”
Unquestionably, coaches want to put their players in position to be their best in a game. Every possession counts in close games and coaches want to maximize each possession- I totally get that. I am not anti set-play, anti-coaching/ strategizing throughout the course of a game. However, I’m in absolute disagreement that players should have to look at their bench EVERY time down the court for direction on “what to do”. They shouldn’t be so reliant on our direction that they can’t make any decisions for themselves. Outside of that, it is a limiting basketball philosophy. Players become robotic and don’t know how to make plays and decisions in the chaos of a game.
Where this ultimately leads us to is- what exactly is the role of a coach then?
As discussed, some perceive a coach as someone to control their players every movement and decision. Another common perception is that coaches are disciplinarians that need to yell and scream constantly. I try to be open to differing philosophies, but I don’t view coaching that way, especially at the developmental level. Many youth coaches subscribe to this philosophy because they see immediate result. To me, a coaches’ role is to teach and empower their players so that they rely less on the coach as a season goes on. This is not to say that we become invisible as a coach. Each day we are still responsible for creating the learning environment that enhances the learning process. We reinforce principles to help connect the individuals within the team. Most importantly, we challenge players to be not only better athletes, but better people through the high standards we set. I would challenge coaches, parents, and leaders of any organization to reflect on these questions:
Do I ask questions to help guide self-discovery or do I automatically provide the answer and the quick-fix solution? Do I help people create their own understanding?
Do I trust those in whom I lead? If not, why? When things go wrong, do I analyze my own teaching, feedback, and message? Or do I quickly implement more rules and take away power from other individuals?
Do I allow creativity to flourish or is it “my way or the highway”?
Again, everyone has their own way of doing things, and nothing is cut and dry, but I think there is real power and potential when we view “coach” through the lens of an empowering leader.