Americans increasingly lack height, not fundamentals

The lack of fundamentals in basketball in the United States continues to be a popular story, but David Epstein’s article in ESPN the Magazine pointed out the bigger problem: Basketball favors height, and the U.S. does not produce enough height.  Read more

What are the real problems in youth basketball

Nearly every day, especially during the season, someone criticizes United States basketball for a host of perceived problems. Kobe Bryant has his issues; Stan Van Gundy has his issues; nobody, it seems, is happy with basketball in the United States. Typically, AAU and too many games are the scourges, but others blame a lack of coach education, television, money, millennials, dunking, or the NBA, and in women’s basketball, many blame UConn. The answer is usually to be more like Europe or to follow the Canadian model or mandatory coach education.

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Set plays and playing the game

I refereed 20 games this weekend at a team camp, and the differences in approaches in the teams was striking. One team, as an example, played 12 players nearly equal minutes although much of the second team played in middle school last year and this was a varsity tournament. Another team had 15 players on its bench for one game, and stuck to a seven-person rotation. Some coaches stood and yelled and controlled the players for the entire game, and others sat and barely said a word. Some teams ran plays every single time down the court, and other teams played with little structure. Read more

A discussion of skill development with Stan Van Gundy

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The Myth of the Talented Basketball Player

There is a gross misunderstanding of talent in basketball. I read articles that suggest that the coaches of the uber-talented must “let them play” or that the uber-talented cannot fit into a style other than a stereotypical AAU game. Is a player talented if he excels only in 3v2 fast-breaks, isolations, or catch and dunk lobs? Read more

The Zone Defense Myth

I am not a zone-defense coach, but I have defended zone defense several times (here, here, and here) because there are so many misconceptions about basketball and the way that the game is taught.

One criticism of zone defenses is that players ball-watch, whereas in man defense, players learn to watch the ball and the man.

I watched a college game tonight, and this argument is inaccurate. Players in a good zone defense constantly look and talk to make sure that their teammates are aware of the offensive players. In good man defenses, the players talk and see cutters too.

The issue is not man-defense vs. zone-defense, but good defense vs. bad defense or well-taught defense vs. poorly-taught defense.

Zone defense itself is not a culprit of ball watching, as good zone defenders are aware of cutters. Instead, it is poorly-taught defense.

However, perception is greater than reality. When we evaluate different aspects of basketball, we need more diligence. Rather than worry about man or zone, we need to encourage well-taught defensive fundamentals.

Oklahoma City Playing Fundamental Basketball

Try to guard him by Lorianne DiSabato.

Oklahoma City is 3rd in team defense at the All-Star break, and assistant coach Ron Adams gets much of the credit.

“We don’t really change what we do,” explained Nick Collison. “I’ve been on a lot of teams where game to game we try to change how we’re going to guard the pick-and-roll, whether we’re going to rotate to a certain guy. We do the same thing, but we really work at it. I think a lot of teams try to win with Xs and Os instead getting good at what they do. We do fundamentals all the time – closeouts, for example. It’s almost like basketball camp. I think with a young team that’s a good way to go. We’ve been real solid.”

During my season, I tried to get my team to do a couple things well. We did not adjust to our opponents, scout or change things. We played teams who could not dribble with their eyes up, yet their coach was calling out multiple plays and switching defenses several times. We would beat these teams by 40 points while playing 12 players fairly even minutes. We did not try to win through X’s and O’s, but by being smart and improving each day on basics like passing and catching, lay-ups and containing the dribble. I was amazed that teams would spend 25 minutes in the locker room before games and 10 minutes at half time talking. We never went to the locker room the entire season, and only once did I talk for more than five minutes at half-time. For me, pre-game and half-time was more practice time to work on shooting, passing and lay-ups.

For OKC, Adams runs the defensive portion for head coach Scott Brooks.

“His segment in practice is defense,” added Kevin Durant. “We go over the same things over and over again. It might get boring to us sometimes as players, wanting to do something new, but I think it’s helping us. We want to be perfect at it, even though that’s not possible, and have it become second nature.”

Sometimes the process of improvement becomes repetitive. For players who want to be players and want to improve, they maintain concentration toward the ultimate goal. For more recreational players who simply want to play, the repetitiveness gets frustrating because they do not value the improvement as much as the fun.

On my team, I had a mix of the two. I probably did no more than 12-15 different drills all season. I am not big into variety, and I do not want to waste time explaining the drill’s proper execution.  I eliminate most of the typical drills like three-man weaves and zig-zag drills, and nearly every drill is competitive, some form of small-sided scrimmage. This maintains the concentration of the recreational players, as the game is fun, and the more developmental players, as they improve. However, during those times when I felt compelled to concentrate on one specific thing with a block practice drill, the attention of the recreational players quickly waned. I had to switch groups some times to put a more serious player with a less serious player to keep the recreational player’s concentration. On other occasions, I did not switch the groups and allowed the developmental players to work together and work hard and the recreational players to work together and be more social at a basket away from the harder working players so they were not a distraction.

In this way, it is a matter of adjusting to the varying interests of your team’s players. However, even at the NBA level, successful teams keep the system simple and focus on fundamentals first to raise their level of performance. Before concentrating on your strategy, make sure the players have the basic tools and fundamentals to make use of the X’s and O’s.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

Pressing and Skill Development in Youth Basketball

On another site, coaches discussed the merit of a no-press rule for pre-high school players with many different suggestions. The argument against pressing was the lack of skill development to handle the press (something that continues to the high school level).

This is true. But, I do not understand how it is true.

Now, at younger ages, when players cannot throw the ball the length of the court, teams can cheat and put five defenders in the back court to take away space and make it more difficult to break the press. For this reason, when I coached u9 boys and u10 girls, we used our bigger players to break the press because the smaller guards lacked the strength to throw over the top and relieve the pressure.

At younger ages, I understand the struggles to break the press to a certain degree. However, the discussion centered largely around 6th – 8th graders.

When I played, our league only allowed man2man defense. However, teams could use a zone press in the back court, so many teams pressed. We ran two different presses. I played point guard and I never felt overwhelmed by pressure. We had players who could dribble with both hands with their eyes up and players who could pass the ball, and we generally had no more trouble with a press than with half-court defense (incidentally, in our recent blowout victories, we’ve given up more points with our press than our half-court defense, as most teams cannot get off a good shot against half-court man defense).

I never played organized basketball until 5th grade, and we played only 20-24 games per season from 5th – 8th grade. However, we were able to handle a press. Today, children start organized basketball at 6-years-old and cannot handle a press by 8th grade. What is wrong with this picture? Why the rush to organized basketball if skill development appears to be receding, not improving?

There are reasons to explain this: defenses are  more sophisticated, children are more athletic, etc. However, at the high school level, we run one press and teams struggle against it. When I was in 6th grade, we ran two different presses plus played full-court man, so my high school team is less sophisticated than my 6th grade team.

I am not a huge proponent of pressing at early ages because the defense is ahead of the offense, and it does hurt some players’ confidence and make for some uneven contests. Of course, I also believe young players should play 3v3 and not 5v5 for the same reasons – younger less experienced players need more space to make moves and play the game and 3v3 offers the space and more touches for all players, not just the star.

Also, some teams that press spend all their time practicing their press, engaging in the Peak by Friday mentality rather than preparing their players, teaching them how to play and developing well-rounded skills.

However, the coaches who complain about the pressing teams need to focus more on developing their players’ skills. Now, in tournaments, sometimes there is a big discrepancy in ability levels. Playing half-court defense does little to solve these discrepancies. If competitive balance is the goal, tournament directors and coaches need to do a better job of creating more equitable competitive levels. Once within the same ability level, coaches need to teach skills so players can handle a press.

In our last game, our opponent called timeout and went to a 2-2-1 press, a press that we have not faced or practiced against all season. I had to get two players’ attention because they had set up in our half-court offense. Once I told them to look down court, they filled the right spots. We broke the press with four passes and two dribbles and finished with a lay-up and a 15-foot jump shot. Our opponent quickly took off the press.

We were not bigger and faster than the other team. We work on passing, cutting and pivoting every day in practice in general drills so that players can adapt to any defense. We talk about spacing and angles every day because most of the top teams rely on presses to win at this level. We are prepared for a press because we develop these fundamental skills in every single practice (in our first scrimmage in October, we could barely get the ball across half-court against a press because we had practiced only 4-5 times before we scrimmaged a top team).

I have mixed feeling about the no-press rule. However, if the argument is that we cannot press because it impedes fundamental development, as some argued, I disagree. With beginners and very young/small players (who should be playing 3v3 anyway), I would disallow a press. However, by 8th grade, players should have enough strength to handle a press if they have developed their fundamentals.

The argument should not be whether or not to press, but how to eliminate the Peak by Friday mentality in the league, whether a team presses or not.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

Jeremy Lin & Fundamental Basketball

Four years ago, I watched the improbable upset, as Palo Alto High School and their star Jeremy Lin beat perennial power Mater Dei to win the California DII C.I.F. Championship. Now, thanks to some praise from Fran Fraschilla and a great article by Dana O’Neil, college basketball fans are learning about Lin, now a star guard for Harvard.

The article is great on several levels, from an old-school approach to learning the game to using basketball to assimilate in a new culture.

Lin is a do-everything guard who learned the game from his father who never played basketball or watched basketball until he was an adult.

Armed with videotapes of his favorite players, Gie-Ming studied the game with the same fervor he studied for his Ph.D.

“I would just imitate them over and over; I got my hook shot from Kareem,” Gie-Ming said, laughing.

When Gie-Ming had children, he took them to the local Y to teach the game to them.

Jeremy followed, and then youngest brother Joseph joined in what became a three-nights-a-week routine. The boys would finish their homework and around 8:30 head to the Y with their father for 90 minutes of drills or mini-games.

Forget that all of the players on those videos had long since retired, that the guy with Kareem’s hook shot wouldn’t hit Abdul-Jabbar’s armpit. Gie-Ming recognized what so many other youth coaches have forgotten over time: The foundation for success is the basics.

“I realized if I brought them from a young age it would be like second nature for them,” Gie-Ming said. “If they had the fundamentals, the rest would be easy.”

Lin has the characteristics of a successful player:

Jeremy was special. He had his father’s passion, his own inner motivation and a frame that would sprout to 6-foot-3. A good enough scorer to play 2-guard, Jeremy also was a savvy enough playmaker — thanks to his dad and Magic — to play the point. He’s a solid outside shooter, but his dad, Julius and Kareem conspired to give him a reliable game around the rim.

However, he did not develop these skills through constant games, personal trainers, camps or college scholarship dreams. Instead, he’s old school in more ways than one, a player who played and through his love of the game, developed into a great player.

“All this time he was growing up, I never thought about Jeremy playing in college or professionally,” Gie-Ming said. “I just enjoyed watching him play. I’m just so proud of him and so happy for him. I told him my dream already has come true.”

George Raveling jumps on the international bandwagon

Seemingly everywhere on the Internet is a USA Today article by Greg Boeck about International players taking over the NBA. Now, forget that I first sounded the alarm in 2002 and criticized Dick Vitale in 2003; my favorite part is this quote by George Raveling:

“NBA teams are realizing it’s less risky to draft internationals because they’re more coachable, more socialized, have no posses and have not been Americanized,” says former college coach George Raveling, Nike’s director of global basketball. Raveling’s prediction: International players will comprise 50% of the NBA by 2010.

What’s amazing is that Raveling stands aside Sonny Vaccaro as the people most in charge of destroying the fabric of American basketball. One could make an argument that the system which has developed through greedy businessmen building on Vaccaro’s success and exploiting the dreams of American teenagers is the major reason the European players have relevance in the NBA today. Basically, Raveling is criticizing himself, and he probably doesn’t even know it. Raveling is among the group that “Americanizes” American players through the AAU/exposure culture.

Further in the article, former Penn State guard Joe Crispin said:

“I’d love to tell every coach in America you need to learn how to coach like this,” he says. “It’s not the same mentality, but college and high school coaches have to learn how to develop guys. Frankly, they’re not.”

My recently published book, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, makes this point over and over and illustrated a model of long term development not unlike the one used in European clubs. I, for one, would love to coach in this manner in the United States, however, I cannot get hired for a coaching job, which is why I run my own training business and write books to make a living.

So, while Crispin has not yet read my book (email me if interested, Joe), I’ll take his statement in this article as an endorsement of its ideas. And, I’ll laugh at the absurdity of Raveling criticizing the American basketball landscape he helped create (BTW, maybe Raveling can talk to Vitale about the “backlash” to International players Vitale predicted in 2003).

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