The Shot Clock Argument in High School Basketball

In my years as a coach, I have coached with no shot clock (boys), a 35-second shot clock (as an assistant), a 30-second shot clock, and a 24-second shot clock (men & women). I prefer the 24-second shot clock. After watching the high-school state playoffs last week with no shot clock, I tweeted about the shot clock.

What’s the purpose of high-school sports? Many coaches criticize today’s generation because “they only want to play games” or “they only want to dunk and shoot threes.” I don’t believe that children should live without some conflict, but I also do not believe that the job of a coach is to ignore the desires of the players completely. Several concerned coaches have emailed me about the dwindling participation rates in girls’ basketball. Could coaching have something to do with it? Is it fun to hold the ball for an entire quarter? Is that why children sign up to play basketball or do they sign up to run around, shoot, and score?

What part of the continuity offense is fun? When I was in junior-high school, we ran the Flex. We practiced the Flex every day at practice. We almost never ran it in the games because we got down the court and shot the ball quickly so we did not have to run our offense. Our games were fast-paced, without a shot clock, because not getting a layup in transition meant running Flex, and we avoided that as much as possible.

When I coached high-school boys without a shot clock, teams ran minutes off the clock with their Flex offense. What’s the point? Nobody had fun. It’s freshmen basketball. We didn’t even have a league. What are we trying to teach the players? How to follow patterns?

Running minutes off the clock shortens the game, which made trying to play every one even harder. Every player received fewer touches, fewer shots, fewer chances to play defense. How is that a positive?

As a coach, I do not run a continuity offense because I find it boring to coach and teach. I use elements of a Flex offense, and every offense is based on the same tactical skills, but my goal is not to have players run in a pattern.

I have never understood why coaches dislike the pick-and-roll. Years ago, probably around 2001, I coached at the University of Arizona basketball camp. At the camp, we were given two teams and about 30-45 minutes to teach the teams an offense to run during the games that were to be played during the week. Most coaches used a basic pass and screen away motion-style offense; I used a side on-ball screen after a wing entry and UCLA cut. One coach saw my offense and said that the on-ball screen was ruining basketball. It appears that many people believe the same. However, many of these same people profess an affection for international basketball, which is dominated by on-ball screens. I guess in Europe, on-ball screens are good fundamentals, but when Americans run them, they are ruinous.

I refereed and watched a lot of basketball games this season. The absence of a shot clock does not insure that good shots will be taken. Players still take bad shots. It happens. It has very little to do with the shot clock, and instead has to do with the manner in which the game is taught.  

This is not necessarily reflective of the shot clock. With a shot clock, teams hold the ball for the last shot of the quarter. Of course, without a shot clock, teams have a tendency to hold the ball for longer. Even in a normal game – not one where one team is trying to stall – a team may hold the ball for almost two minutes for the last shot, as I saw repeatedly this season.

The problem is that because players do not have a shot clock, they are uncomfortable under time stress. Time and again, I saw the team holding the ball for the last shot commit a turnover or not manage to create a shot, regardless of whether they held the ball for 25 seconds or two minutes.

With the shot clock, players are more comfortable with the clock dimension because it happens repeatedly every game. Last season, I noticed the calmness of my players, and our opponents, at the end of the shot clock. They had played with a shot clock for so long, end of quarters or end of the shot clock did not induce panic. They were comfortable. Consequently, they committed fewer turnovers and took fewer bad shots.

In high school basketball without a shot clock, how often do players practice against a clock? How often do they have opportunities in games to go against the clock? They are uncomfortable, and consequently, many mistakes were made in these possessions, even amongst the best teams, and few mistakes were caused by the defense.

I do not believe that a shot clock automatically develops better players. However, I do believe that it creates more opportunities for development. Despite the common perception that players only improve in 1v0 workouts with private trainers, few practice activities replicate the true game environment.

Why is the goal to allow less-talented teams to compete? I thought the goal of competition was to see who was the best team.

I tweeted the above in the middle of a championship game that featured at least six future college players. Both teams held leads of at least seven points in the first three quarters, and both teams lost their leads after deciding to stall. One team was in control at halftime, with an 11-point lead. Their opponent started the half with the ball and hit a three-pointer, and they decided to stall. That led to a turnover and a layup, followed by another turnover and a three-pointer. Despite an attempt to stall, and five possessions in almost three minutes, it was a three-point game.

Their opponent did the same thing; they took a seven-point lead, decided to stall, and watched the team that led at half take the lead again. It was as if neither team wanted to win. As soon as it appeared that a team was taking control, they stopped playing. They turned down layups to back out the ball and run more clock with more than four minutes left in the game. This was a state championship game between the #1 seed and #2 seed; it was not a lilliputian trying to overcome steep odds against a giant program. It was two coaches scared to death that their players might make a mistake, which inevitably led to their players making mistakes.

One of the frequent arguments against AAU/summer basketball is that it devalues winning because there is always another game or tournament. As an example, Steve Kerr said:

What troubled me was how much winning is devalued in the AAU structure. Teams play game after game after game, sometimes winning or losing four times in one day.

Kerr made some good points about the entire culture of basketball in his comments. There may be some truth to the de-emphasis on winning each game, but is that always a bad thing? Furthermore, how do we reconcile the argument that AAU de-values winning with high school coaches who hold the ball for entire quarters? How do we reconcile the argument that AAU does not develop skills with high school games where coaches hold the ball for entire quarters? I wrote more about this earlier in the season.

The best game of the week featured a team who I thought was terrible. Instead, they won the state championship. Why did I think they were terrible? I saw them play a bad team in league play. Their coach, despite being ranked in the top 10 in the state at the time (unbeknownst to me) and possessing a gaudy record, slowed down the game and held the ball for minutes at a time. Consequently, this future state champion barely hung on to beat a bad high-school team. In the state final, against an aggressive pressing team, it attacked and shot the heck out of the ball. It played like a #2 seed who wanted to beat the #1 team in the state rather than playing like an underdog hoping to luck into a victory. 

As you may have noticed, none of my arguments in favor of the shot clock has to do with scoring. I do not care about the score of the game. As a UCLA alumni, I loved the way that Ben Howland’s teams played when they were well-schooled, and fundamental, but low scoring, far more than I enjoyed the more high-scoring, but less sound teams. Virginia and Wisconsin are two of my favorite teams to watch (when I watch college basketball, which I do not because I find the 35-second shot clock and generally poor play boring), whereas I think Grinnell and “the system” are a joke.

I do not want a shot clock because I want higher scoring games.  I want a shot clock because I believe the game is more fun, there are more opportunities for development, players have to make more decisions, and there is more strategy. I want a shot clock because it is basketball, not keep away.

Team handball is a game similar to basketball, but played with soccer goals, that is very popular in many other countries, including Denmark and Sweden where I have lived. Team handball does not have a shot clock. However, the referee has the authority to call a violation for passive play if the team is running down the clock on purpose. Usually, the referee waves on play, from what I have seen, and the team attacks and shoots quickly. However, when the team continues to stall, the referee can call a turnover.  Can you imagine the controversy in basketball if there was a similar arbitrary rule for referees to enforce based on their interpretation of the offense? Is running Flex over and over without really looking to score “passive play”? Could a referee rightly whistle a violation? Also, NCAA lacrosse has voted to incorporate a shot clock to avoid the stall (Edit: The next tweet was tweeted in reply to my posting the article).

In football, teams can run the ball to run out the clock, but they have to get a 1st down every four downs or forfeit the ball. Soccer is really the only sport that has no time demand, but its use of the feet differentiates it from other sports, and adds a different element of complexity that makes maintaining possession for long periods more difficult (unless it’s Barcelona).

Therefore, why continue to play without a shot clock? As I mentioned in one of the tweets, u15s in FIBA start with a 24-second shot clock. Why can’t high schools play with a 30 or 35 second shot clock?

I agree that the shot clock is only one issue. However, over a 40-game season, how many more possessions do players get with a 24-second shot clock compared to no shot clock? How many more decisions do they make? How many more shots do they attempt? These are learning experiences.

When people ask me about differences between Europe and the U.S., the biggest differences are the shot clock for u15-u19, the promotion to adult teams, the general schedule with more weekly practices and weekend-only games (although that differs and depends on age, as the best players often play for multiple teams: age group, older age group, men’s team, national team), more emphasis on shooting and ball movement, and more team training compared to individual training. People seem to have this idea that there is something drastically different about Europe, but refuse to implement the simple changes such as the shot clock (high school), the lower basket height (youth), and the smaller basketball (youth). It appears that people want to be more like Europe without doing anything like what is done in Europe or abiding by any of FIBA’s rules.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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