Can “Fundamentally Sound” Be a Negative?


Several years ago, I trained two young players. Joey’s dad was a prominent high school coach. He had perfect shooting technique. His dad did not allow him to play in pick-up games or for an AAU team because he did not want any bad habits. He ran his own mini-clinics for Joey and his friends so they could play, though he structured their play and demanded precise fundamentals throughout.

Walt was different. He played all the time. He played in neighborhood games and on several AAU teams. He worked with me to learn proper shooting technique, as he was a poor free throw shooter even though he got to the free throw line frequently during games. He was not exactly fundamentally sound, but he was an effective young player.

In today’s world of youth basketball, many see players like Walt as a problem, as they lack instruction-video-quality fundamentals. These coaches favor Joey’s dad’s approach and believe that through drills and fundamental execution, Joey will develop into the better player. In real life, however, Walt was and is the far superior player.

After winning his last fight, MMA fighter Jon Jones made an interesting observation when asked about his development and progression as a fighter.

“I had (coach) Mike Winklejohn really help me with my foundation, keeping my hands up, punching harder, kicking harder, blocking properly,” Jones told… “But Phil Nurse really exercises my creativity to make sure I’m not becoming too fundamentally sound. It’s just a great combination.”

Fundamentals are important, and every player needs a fundamental base. Jones works on his fundamentals in terms of his blocking punches and keeping his hands high. However, Jones’ strength lies in his unorthodox approach – his long reach, his strength, his creativity. From Judo throws to spinning elbows, you don’t know what to expect from Jones.

In sports, and life, we often see an athlete like Jones and think that if he is this good without proper training, just imagine how good he will be when he learns the right way. However, would Jones be as exciting and effective if he eschewed his fighting style to be more like everyone else? Urijah Faber was the best featherweight in the world as a completely unorthodox fighter before he was knocked out when he tried a spinning elbow and leaped right into a devastating right hook. Now, Faber is more controlled and more like everyone else, and it remains to be seen if being more fundamentally sound can return him to the top.

Boston’s Rajon Rondo is a player who many would say is not fundamentally sound for an NBA point guard. However, he is as effective as any NBA point guard. Would he be more effective if he played like everyone else? If he tempered his creativity, would people place him in the same category as Deron Williams and Chris Paul or would the change make him less effective?

I watched an academy spend entire sessions on straight-line dribbling drills and then none of the players could beat a defender with the dribble. Meanwhile, players at the park who spend their time playing 1v1 appear less skilled in the straight-line drills, but are far more effective against defenders despite their apparent lack of fundamentals.

Every player needs fundamentals. Rondo has a great base from which he builds. He has great footwork, huge hands that make him an exceptional ball handler and a great understanding of the game. He has a sense for how to use his body and fakes to create the desired pass or shot. However, this game sense and the moves that derive from it are not the fundamental moves that most coaches teach. Several coaches tweeted criticism of high school players at summer tournaments because they tried the Euro-Step that Rondo often uses.

Fundamentals should be seen as the starting point. Once players have a fundamental base – shooting technique, ball control, lay-up technique, jump stops, etc. – they need to make the fundamentals their own. They need to use their creativity to expand the basics into their own moves.

Basketball is not about creating robot-like copies of other players or the coach. Instead, creativity is taking the basics and putting one’s own spin on it. Creativity requires a player to internalize the basics and expand upon them to develop one’s own moves, timing and style. Players who expand upon the basics generally outclass those who are more textbook-fundamental.

By Brian McCormick

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

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