8 winning concepts programs must adopt
Field goal percentage, rebound margin, points off turnovers — these are all critical areas basketball teams must address to improve their chances of winning.
Media outlets are notorious for sensationalizing game-winning shots, but I want to shed some light on subtle game-winning “plays” that are vital to achieving success on the basketball court. As a program, we do our best to preach the importance of these eight plays, practice them if possible and acknowledge them when they occur.
1. The “Hockey Assist”
Have you ever watched a team that moves the ball quickly and precisely? That team, because of its ball movement, is difficult to guard.
When a defensive player is forced to go from the strong side of the floor to the weak side and back again, they become vulnerable. He or she may close out poorly on their opponent and either give up an open jump shot or get beat off the dribble because they are off balance. Either way, when the ball moves quickly, the defense must constantly reposition itself. That’s easier said than done.
Additionally, the pass prior to the pass that leads to a basket — the “hockey assist”— is a basketball play that rarely gets the recognition it deserves. Imagine the ball is thrown into the post from the wing. The offensive post player is immediately double-teamed, forcing them to kick the ball out. They make a pass to an open teammate at the top of the key area. Once that outside player catches the ball, they quickly pass to the opposite wing. That wing player makes the extra pass to a teammate in the corner for an open 3-pointer.
The player at the top of the key who started the ball movement on the perimeter is not credited with an assist. However, their unselfish play was critical to the offense taking a high-percentage, uncontested shot. That player could have been a “ball stopper” — either holding the ball for too long or putting the ball on the floor. Encourage your team to move the ball unselfishly and your coaches to acknowledge the hockey assist.
2. Short memory
Too often, young players hang their heads after missing a shot. They clap their hands in disgust or mumble to themselves. Whether they believe it or not, this negativity affects their next field goal attempt.
The best shooters and players in the world miss nearly 50% of their attempts. Young players therefore must develop the concept of having a short memory. In other words, as soon as the ball leaves their fingertips and bounces off the rim, they must forget about it and continue to focus on the overall game.
Constantly reminding players of their failed field goal attempts only damages their confidence. Having confidence in their ability to shoot the ball is what separates great shooters from average shooters. Our coaching staff is often heard during games yelling “short memory!” to players who miss a shot. We are essentially saying to that player, “Forget about that miss; your next attempt is going in. We believe in you!”
The last thing we want is for our players to look over their shoulders at the scorer’s table to see if someone is checking in for them after they miss a shot. Instill confidence in your players and encourage them to develop a short memory.
3. Time and score
The amount of time remaining on the clock and the score of the game should always dictate your aggressiveness on offense. Nothing is more frustrating than when a team is in control of the game and it takes an ill-advised shot.
For example, the winning team gains possession of the ball with an eight-point lead and 1:45 left on the clock. The worst-case scenario is for that team to come down the floor and attempt a shot after one or two passes. At this juncture of the game, you do not need any more points to win; the clock becomes your opponent, not the other team.
The opposite situation is just as exasperating. The losing team secures the rebound and quickly moves the ball down the court. It’s down by eight points with 35 seconds left on the clock, and the players waste valuable time passing the ball around the perimeter, hunting for an open 3-point shot. This team needs points and would be better served by attacking the rim and looking for a quick 2-point basket and possibly drawing a foul. This provides the losing team the opportunity to score without the clock moving, and it allows the players to set up their full-court press.
Our coaches spend the last few minutes of each practice rehearsing time and score situations. This is definitely one of those “winning plays” that can and should be practiced so that when the opportunity presents itself, your players are in a position to respond because of their familiarity with the situation.
Former Chicago Bull Stacy King can often be heard saying “KYP” during a Bulls telecast. KYP stands for “Know Your Personnel.”
What King is saying is that a player needs to know the strengths and weaknesses of the player they are guarding. This concept sounds simple but is often difficult to implement. If you understand the strengths of the player you’re guarding and do your best to take away those strengths, you improve your team’s chances of winning the game.
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For example, if you’re guarding a post player that loves to turn over their left shoulder when making a move, by forcing them to turn over their right shoulder and establishing proper defensive position, they may not be as effective. Another example is running a long-distance shooter off the 3-point line.
Making a catch-and-shoot player put the ball on the floor limits their effectiveness and takes away their strength. Lastly, shading a shooter and not providing help on the dribble drive is another illustration of KYP. Leaving your man and stopping the dribble drive is a fundamental defensive concept that all players are taught at an early age. It’s a habit that is difficult to break. However, the dribble drive and kick out is one of the best ways to get a great shooter a good look at the basket.
It takes great discipline to not help on the dribble drive and to stay in denial position —shading the shooter. All of these examples of KYP never show up in the box score, but they greatly increase your team’s chances of winning the game.
5. Mental turnovers
It takes all five players to execute a winning strategy. One player not on the same page as their four teammates can disrupt the entire flow.
Nothing is more frustrating for a coach then to draw up a play during a timeout and tell everyone exactly what their responsibilities are, only to have one player not execute their assignment. This is a mental turnover.
Mental turnovers are just as detrimental as physical turnovers. If you have four guys playing man-to-man defense and one guy playing zone, that is equivalent to throwing the ball out of bounds. I’m always amazed at how many different ways NBA teams defend ball screens. Not only are there principles that must be adhered to depending on where the ball screen is set, there also are rules to follow depending on who is setting the screen and who is coming off the screen. That’s a lot of information to digest, yet rarely are mistakes made.
The mental aspect of the professional game is often overlooked because of the amazing physical attributes of the players. I have personally witnessed NBA training camps where the team runs through all of its set plays. It’s mind boggling to watch these guys rehearse 30 to 40 plays and not make one mental mistake. Mental turnovers lead to easy opportunities for the other team. Successful teams limit both the number of physical and mental mistakes they make during games.
6. Pace and opponent assessment
There is a correlation between the opponent you’re facing and the pace in which you should play the game.
First and foremost, you must make an honest assessment of your team’s abilities. If you are facing a more talented team, then you should strongly consider playing the game at a slower pace, doing your best to limit the number of possessions during the game. Defensive basketball strategies that will slow down the pace of the game may include using a 3/4-court, 2-2-1 zone press or a half-court zone defense. Offensive strategies that slow down the pace of the game include walking the ball up the court after securing a rebound or increasing the number of passes before attempting to score.
If you feel that you have a more talented team, then you must play the game at a quicker pace in an attempt to increase the number of possessions in the game. If you truly are more talented, increasing the number of possessions in the game increases the number of opportunities for your more talented group to make plays.
University of North Carolina coach Roy Williams subscribes to this philosophy. His Tar Heels have always played at a breakneck pace because he feels that, more often than not, he has the more talented team. There are many ways you can increase the pace of the game. Pushing the ball down the floor on offense and full-court pressing on defense are just two options. Playing at a pace that best suits your talent level is one way to improve your chances of winning.
Communication on defense and calling out screens is another statistic that doesn’t exist. Nonetheless, rarely will you find a championship-caliber team that does not have several outstanding communicators.
I love the motto, “If you call out a screen that does not occur, that is merely a misdemeanor. However, if you fail to call out a screen that does occur, that is a felony offense.” It’s imperative for coaches to identify basketball concepts that require no talent and make sure their team members are aware of them. It takes no talent to yell out “screen!” Identifying what defense the other team is using so that you can properly attack it is another form of communication.
The simplest form of basketball communication occurs when substitutions are made. How many times does a player check into the game and the teammate he is replacing fails to tell him or her who they should be guarding? This often leads to a basket, and if this happens often enough it will decrease your chances of winning the game. Championship teams do not make these types of mistakes.
8. Play within yourself
The great Rick Majerus had a simple philosophy when it came to coaching offense: “Focus on what players can do, not what they can’t do, and put them in a position to be successful.” In other words, get shooters open looks, create space for players that can attack the basket, and get the ball to post players in the area of the floor where they can be most effective.
Former Charlotte Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap takes this concept one step further. throughout training camp, Dunlap worked to identify “kill spots” for his players. He defines a kill spot as an area of the floor where the player is almost certain to make the shot. Kill spots vary depending on the individual player’s offensive strengths. If you are a below average 3-point shooter, game time is not the opportunity to prove your critics wrong. If your strength is attacking the basket, play within yourself and stick to your strengths. Work on improving your range in the offseason and at practice, but not in the middle of a game.
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Too often, players attempt to do too much on the offensive end of the floor. This leads to contested shots, missed shots and turnovers. Our program’s core offensive philosophy mirrors Majerus’ philosophy. We evaluate our players’ individual talents and put them in a position to be successful on the court. If that means we have a 6-foot-8 center that is better at shooting face-up jump shots than he is playing with his back to the basket, then we will do our best to use his talents and work on his strengths in the offseason and during practice.
Playing within yourself requires team members to check their egos at the locker room door. It also requires discipline and commitment to the team goals, which should always come before an individual player’s goals.
Throughout the course of your season, kill spots can evolve and weaknesses can become strengths, but work on evaluating your team members’ offensive strengths and clearly communicate your expectations to them.
Examining the box score is one way to determine how a team won the ball game. These analytical skills are valuable and important. However, there are many plays that occur during the game that never show up on the stat sheet that often determine the outcome.
To achieve success at the highest levels, teams must excel in all facets of the game. The very best teams and players understand the significance of these eight winning concepts.