The problem with stutter steps 

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, 8.15. Subscribe here.

I attended a college practice, and the team practiced closeouts. Fake Fundamentals explains my philosophy on the traditional closeout. This drill mixed short and long closeouts depending on one’s starting position, and the staff treated them the same. Players ran a few steps and stutter-stepped to close the distance to one arm’s length from the attacker. Because it was a  non-competitive shell drill, nobody gave up an open shot or was beaten on the drive. The closeouts worked!  Read more

How to play defense: No Fake Fundamentals

My friend and future NBA coach Jon Giesbrecht put together the above video on Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson’s defense. Many consider Roberson to be the NBA’s best perimeter defender, especially with Kawhi Leonard’s persistent injury problems this season.

As I watched the video, I noticed two things. More specifically, I noticed the absence of two things: (1) stutter-step closeouts; and (2) a low defensive stance. When I played, these were the two most instructed and drilled defensive fundamentals.

At summer camps, we sat in defensive stances, with coaches aiming for our thighs to be parallel with the ground, for several minutes at a time. After sitting in a stance, we progressed to the super-slow zigzag drill staying in this low stance. I see nothing in this video remotely close to the stance that I was taught as a player.

Once we mastered the low stance, we practiced stutter-step closeouts. We were instructed to sprint 2/3 of the way to an attacker and stutter step for the last third. Practically speaking, this is like a 2-3 step sprint followed by stutter stepping. In the video, Roberson sprints to shooters. He does not stutter step or slow down; he sprints until he stops. He stops with a stride stop or a hockey stop within reach or slightly past the shooter.

His angled stop takes away two things: the shot and one driving lane. This is what we emphasize. I do not believe that a defender can take away the shot and the drive on a long closeout, but a defender can take away the shot and one driving lane, or the defender can play far enough from the attacker to take away the drive in either direction. We attempt to take away two out of the three options: the shot, the right-handed drive, and the left-handed drive. Generally, we take away the shot and the strong-hand drive because that requires a closeout to the shooter’s shooting hand, but this is not always possible due to the angle of recovery and the shooter’s handedness.

The low defensive stance and the traditional closeout are two prominent fake fundamentals. I see tweets and articles daily about the lowness of a defensive stance or the importance of stutter-stepping to stay on balance when closing out. At youth and high school levels, when players catch and triple threat before shooting, a defender has time to stutter step and defend the shot. Against good offensive players who think shot first and catch with feet set, defenders do not have this time. They must choose.

Against great shooters, defenders must sprint to the shooter’s body, not stop a few feet from the shooter. In the video below, an NJCAA All-American (potentially the POY) defends one of my players. I imagine that she thought she was well-positioned to defend the shot with her hand at the three-point line, but my player stopped out of range of the defender, but within her shooting range. This is too much space against a great shooter.

This is typical of many closeouts (although it was not a typical closeout situation). The defender slows down and stops short of the shooter with a hand up. This defender defended the drive; she defended two out of the three things: right-hand drive and left-hand drive. However, she did not defend the shot.

Roberson demonstrated how to defend the shot. Does he give up dribble penetration? Yes. Again, one cannot defend all three on a long closeout. Great defenders take away the shot and recover to contest the dribble penetration. This separates Roberson from his peers, but this is a skill that rarely is taught or emphasized because most believe in the traditional slow closeout and low stance. This is the difference between how great defenders defend, and fake fundamentals.

Lateral movement, basketball defense, and persistent myths

Last week, I attended a high-school varsity girls basketball game between good teams with college-bound players, and it was evident that the players had been taught never to cross their feet on defense. When I lamented this instruction via Twitter, several people questioned my lamentations. These questions spurred a few videos this week on defense, lateral movement, and the crossover step. For more information, check out Fake Fundamentals. Read more

The hip turn, drop step, and basketball defense

Read more

The hip turn and the drop step

Defensive footwork is one of the most contentious subjects among basketball coaches. One reason for pursuing a doctorate was to examine the difference between a hip turn and a drop step, as many basketball coaches are adamant about the drop step, despite the lack of research into the two methods of footwork. Read more

Defensive Footwork Drills

Few things frustrate me more than watching poor teaching techniques perpetuated because coaches fail to examine their methods critically and instead teach the same “basketball truth” over and over regardless of the efficacy of the skill or the teaching.

Static stretching is the biggest culprit, as many coaches refuse to adjust their coaching despite paper after paper that explains that static stretching before an activity like basketball does NOT prevent injuries or serve as a proper warm-up, and instead leads to worse performance in power-related activities like jumping and sprinting.

Second to static stretching, however, is the way that many teach defense. A friend sent this video which claims to teach proper defensive footwork (Edit: The video below is NOT the original video, which was taken down after this was written). The drill – the zig-zag drill – is one of the most popular and most used drills in basketball. Unfortunately, it is basically useless. The technique used – the step-slide and drop-step – is the same technique that I was taught as a player. It is a foundation of fundamental defense. And, no good defensive player actually moves in this way.

I term drills like the zig-zag drill “time wasters” or “fake fundamentals.” To outsiders, they look good; it looks like players are working hard and diligently at an important skill. But, since there is almost no transfer between the practice movement and the game movement, these drills simply waste time.

The first problem with the drill is the angle. If a defender, in a game, is moving at a 45-degree angle, he cannot use a defensive slide. In this instance, the offensive player is moving forward – otherwise, why would the defender move at an angle? – and no player can shuffle fast enough to stay in front of an offensive player who is running. Therefore, when moving at an angle like this, and actually defending an offensive player, the defender should use a crossover step: rather than a short step with his lead foot, he should take a big step with his trail foot and cross in front of his lead foot to cover as much distance as quickly as possible.

Fundamental teaching says that defenders should never cross their feet. However, these fundamental teachers must never had had to defend a quick guard like Chris Paul or John Wall. Try shuffling next to a player who is running: you’ll keep pace for a step or two, maybe. Use a crossover step next to a player who is running and in some cases, you’ll keep pace for the entire length of the court.

Next, when using a traditional step-slide, the trail foot should push off rather than the lead foot stepping and dragging the player forward. The pushing motion will be stronger and quicker than the pulling motion.

However, the step-slide should be used only when the defender is squared up to the offensive player and able to stay completely between the offensive player and the basket. As soon as the offensive player gets the slightest angle, and the defender has to drop at an angle (as in the video), the defender needs to change to a crossover step.

Next, on the change of direction, a drop step is too slow to be effective, and the movement also puts the player’s knee in a twisting movement, which is unsafe at a fast speed. Also, no actual high-level players use a drop-step. Watch any NBA player play defense: they use a hip turn to change directions. They are moving too fast for their leg to absorb the force and safely pivot to change directions.

Instead, to change directions when moving to the right, they make a quick hop off their right foot and turn their hips in the air. As they land, their right foot is outside their right knee and their right knee is outside their right hip so they have an angle to push to the left. They use the force from the quick hop to drive into the ground, using the same stretch-shortening effect as plyometrics. Also, because a defender typically loses a step when changing directions (because the offense makes the move first and the defense reacts), the defender moves directly into a crossover step to recover.

Finally, a static drill like the zig-zag drill is useful when teaching an initial movement. However, moving to a definitive spot (sideline) is not realistic. It creates an artificial anticipation that is not present in a game. Players have to be able to anticipate, react and move in relation to a stimuli, rather than just moving to pre-determined points.

Rather than use the zig-zag drill, I use the Mirror Defense Drill to teach the basic footwork, anticipation and reaction of individual defense.

I also play a lot of 1v1. I have precious little time at practice and I refuse to spend time on timewasters just because many view the drills as necessary or fundamental. My singular goal is to develop skills and prepare players for competition, and the zigzag drill accomplishes neither.

The zigzag drill is not an athletic drill because it does not teach basic movement skills properly. It is not a technical drill because it teaches a poor basketball technique. Also, there is no tactical component to the drill. I prefer 1v1 because it incorporates athletic, technical and tactical skills into one drill. I also prefer to use drills like the Mirror Defense Drill or tag as athletic drills that are also fun, and therefore more motivating.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, Cross Over: The New Model for Youth Basketball Development

Crossover Step, Agility & Defense

The video below demonstrates the difference in speed in driving off your lead leg with a crossover step as opposed to stepping with your lead leg first. In the example, the athlete is faster using a crossover step than he is turning to sprint. This is not a perfect example to the difference between a crossover step and a traditional defensive slide, but it makes a compelling argument that the crossover step should be the dominant footwork for defensive footwork.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

Defensive Footwork: The Mirror Drill

I write about (and use) the Mirror Defensive Drill frequently. Here is Michael Reid using one form of the Mirror Drill with his Swedish team.

Rather than have players stand in line, to end the drill, I toss the ball toward the other end for the players to chase; whoever gets the ball is on offense going to the other basket. Keeps the drill moving a little better.

H2G Vol.4 Front CoverOriginally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, Volume 4.

For similar content, subscribe to the free weekly Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter.

The High Set for Lateral Movement

As I have written previously, tennis movement and basketball movement are similar. A physical therapist sent me this video which examines the “high set” position and the Harvard University tennis team.

Now, basketball differs from tennis because of the presence of fakes and other aspects, so there is not a linear argument from tennis footwork to basketball footwork. However, they are related. If the high set works for tennis and improves movement economy and quickness in tennis, is the same true in basketball?

What is the best defensive position? Is it easy to move in a low stance? When I played, I spent hours at practices and camps with coaches yelling at us to sit lower in a stance. Did it make us better defensively? Did the lower position make us quicker?

The low set position is the norm in tennis. It is almost unthinkable to suggest otherwise, just as standard wisdom dictates an exaggeratedly low stance for defense in basketball. However, is that the most efficient stance? Does it produce the quickest movement?

H2G Vol.4 Front CoverOriginally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, Volume 4.

For similar content, subscribe to the free weekly Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter.

Lateral Movement Training for Basketball

Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 4.12 featured an interview with Stanford University’s men’s basketball strength & conditioning coach Keith D’Amelio. In the interview, he covers some drills that he uses to train lateral movement. Here are the videos:

1-2 Stick

1-2 Cut & Stick

1-2 Cut Continuous

H2G Vol.4 Front CoverOriginally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, Volume 4.

For similar content, subscribe to the free weekly Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter.

Next Page »

  • What Is A Playmaker?

    Who decided that a point guard has to be small? More importantly, what is a point guard? We expect a point guard to be a leader and have a high basketball I.Q. Why don’t we expect or challenge all players to develop this game awareness? Why rely on only one player? Read more →
  • The PBDL Concept

    English soccer academies wait until players are 11 to play full 11v11 soccer; in Italy, youth basketball players participate in skill-oriented clinics at 6-years-old, but start competitive games at 12. In the United States, kids play 5v5 full court games and compete for national championships when they are 8-years-old.

    Read more →

  • Starting A PBDL

    The PBDL emphasizes learning and development. Presently, players and parents have numerous recreation options - leagues based on fun and equal participation, typically for beginners - and numerous competitive opportunities - teams focused on strategy, game preparation and winning. There are few true development leagues - until now.

    Read more →