There is no mystery in the decline of post play in basketball

The Atlantic had an article about the mystery of the disappearing post player that is filled with excuses and problems, but few answers. If one wants to explain the disappearance of back-to-the-backet post play simply, the answer is a lack of patience. The lack of patience is exhibited in coaches, tall players, and ball handlers.

First, at youth levels, basketball is primarily a game of transition. Therefore, if a tall player gets a rebound close to his offensive basket and outlets the ball to a guard, he is unlikely to see the ball on offense. The guard will attack the basket or kick ahead to another guard. The tall player will see the ball only on an offensive rebound. The lack of patience on offense eliminates back-to-the-basket post play. Therefore, tall players rebound the ball and take off with the dribble: In youth basketball, the biggest, strongest, fastest usually wins.

Next, when teams are slowed down and must play offense in the half court, few players have the patience to hold the ball and allow a post player to establish good position. They rush the pass; if the pass is stolen, and the passer is yelled at or substituted by his coach, the passer learns not to risk a turnover by throwing the ball to the post player. The lesson learned is not to wait for the post player to establish better position.

Therefore, post players rarely see the ball in the post. They grow impatient, see Dirk Nowitski shooting jump shots, and they stray from the paint. For some players and body types, this is a good move. For others, it is a waste of their size. However, it makes sense from the perspective of a young player: It is the only way to get the ball.

In any given game, the point guard handles the ball on nearly every possession. Therefore, the point guard has the most opportunities to improve, and his development curve accelerates earlier than other players. The wings handle the ball on anywhere from 50-100% of possessions, so they have fewer possessions to practice their skills and feel involved. Post players possess the ball considerably less. However, if post players hang around the perimeter, they have a better chance of possessing the ball. A study out of Portugal found that young players found being involved in the team’s offense, shooting more, and making decision in the attack to lead to feelings of enjoyment and increased motivation. Therefore, a post player who does not receive the ball in the paint is likely to drift to the perimeter to fill these needs of enjoyment and motivation.

Because post players possess the ball so infrequently on the block, their development takes longer than a point guard’s development. If a post player possesses the ball on 25% of his team’s possessions versus 100% for the point guard, how can he possibly develop at the same rate? However, coaches expect the same rate of development. Most coaches were guards when they played the game. They see post play as easier than it is: after all, a post player just has to make a lay-up.

However, making a lay-up after engaging in a 10-second wrestling match for position followed by a move where the post player must protect the ball away from a little guard wrapping at the post player’s wrists and absorb a bump from a defensive post player is not an easy shot.

Once a post player misses one of these “gimmes”, coaches lose confidence in the post player. Every year, I watch teams where the coach immediately pulls out a post player for one missed shot. Guards can take and miss shots, but if a post player misses a shot around the basket, he is coming out of the game. The coach has no patience with the player, no appreciation for the work and effort that it takes to get to the point of the shot.

With the lack of patience, why would anyone want to play in the post? A post player gets fewer opportunities to be involved in the offense, yet is expected to develop at the same rate. A post players gets blamed for missed shots because they appear easy, whereas guards are rarely blamed for missing jump shots. Guards cannot pass the ball into the post, yet somehow that gets blamed on the post player too.

Being a post player becomes a thankless job, and one which few coaches can appreciate fully because they never played the position.

If we want to develop post players, we have to do several things:

1. Realize that 1v0 post drills do not develop post players. Post play is a dynamic, reactive action. Post players have to read defenders and finish through contact. Slapping a post player on his arms with a football pad is not developing post players either. Just as a ball-handling drill does not develop a point guard because it lacks any decision-making component, a block-to-block post-footwork drill does not develop post play.

2. Realize that post players develop more slowly because they rarely touch the ball in the post. If you want to develop post players, emphasize passing the ball inside. By the end of the season, my guards wanted to post up because we emphasized getting the ball inside. My post players developed because we got them the ball on the block. They got touches. They got chances against defenders. When they missed, they stayed in the game and tried again.

3. Realize that a possession does not end when the post touches the ball. One issue with post play is that when a post player actually touches the ball, the other four players stand still. This makes double-teaming and playing help defense much easier. We emphasized our movement away from the ball after a post entry pass. This made double-teaming more difficult. When you stop and watch, you make it harder for the post player.

4. Realize that establishing position in the post is work. I played for a coach who believed that every player should know how to play in the post, and I believe in that philosophy. Our toughest drills when I was a J.V. player were the post footwork drills. We went 1v1. On the whistle, the defense had to fight over top from playing the high side to the low side and vice versa. The offensive player tried to maintain his position (each whistle signified a pass from the high wing to the baseline or vice versa). I never wrestled, but that was close to it. If you’e never played in the post, wrestled, played on the line in football, etc., it is a different form of fatigue. Having done some jiujitsu, grappling requires different conditioning than running up and down the court. It is exhausting in a different way. Making a lay-up after grappling for position is not a gimme, especially when the player practices 1v0 technique lay-ups, and never practices making shots after grappling for position.

5. Teach all players all skills. The young, tall player pigeon-holed as a post player may never grow, and consequently will be cut from a team because he never develops all-around skills. Similarly, the late bloomer will lack post skills when he hits his growth spurt if he has never played in the post or practiced close to the basket. Post play is an essential skill, like dribbling, passing, and shooting, and should be treated as such. Every player should have back to the basket game. Look at guys like Andre Miller who are able to score around the basket with moves that are essentially post moves.

Patience. That’s the answer to the mystery. We are in a hurry to win. We are in a hurry to shoot. We are in a hurry to see results. Our constant rush eliminates post play.

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

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