A discussion of skill development with Stan Van Gundy

The video above was emailed to me, as a friend thought that I would agree with Stan Van Gundy, as some of his points mirror what I wrote in Cross Over: The New Model for Youth Basketball Development in 2006. I agree with Van Gundy generally, but disagree with some of his specific comments.

“If you look around we’re failing pretty badly in this country as a whole in teaching people basketball skills…because there’s a huge difference in just the skill level of the players coming from Europe and what we have here….We’re not developing skills here.”

I don’t know if I agree with his statement. He pointed to NBA players. This is several years old, I believe, but it is hard to find a European player more skilled at passing and shooting than Stephen Curry. There may be some truth to his statement in terms of post players, as Dirk Nowitski, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Serge Ibaka, and others are among the most skilled “bigs”, but that also discounts Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, Chris Bosh, and others. Currently, only one non-American (#7 Pablo Prigioni) ranks in the top 10 in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage (Kyle Korver is first), and a second non-American does not appear until #25 (Evan Fournier). Therefore, to suggest that the U.S. is not producing enough shooting compared to the rest of the world is a difficult statement to support with data.

When I wrote Cross Over, I was unconcerned with the elite. It appeared that the system was working for players such as LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Kevin Durant, and others. My concern was more at the developmental levels. The U.S. has such a deep pool of players that it will continue to produce top talent, but does that make the developmental system to the best possible system for ALL players, not just the elite?

Van Gundy touches on some problems with the developmental system:

“We are much more interested in playing games and winning and losing at a young, young, young age than we are with skill development….If you want to teach the kids that you are coaching how to play basketball or if you just want to win games….”

I agree with Van Gundy’s argument that you should not prohibit a tall player from dribbling the basketball. However, I disagree with the argument that there are no 6’5 kids in high school who can dribble, pass, and shoot. In fact, I would argue that too much emphasis is placed on developing perimeter skills, and nobody has a back-to-the-basket game anymore. Officiating middle-school and high-school games is relatively easy now because nobody posts up: There is no off-ball contact or three-seconds to officiate because everyone is on the perimeter.

I am not a fan of zone defense. My teams never play zone because I do not teach it well, and I think zones are easy to play against. However, I do not understand why zones are the problems that every fundamental coach identifies with youth leagues. If zones are legal in the rules, why are they such an issue for coaches?

Van Gundy repeats two arguments that I hear frequently that to me are contrasting arguments: First, coaches just give the ball to their best players all the time, and second, teams just play zone defense. Frequently, these are identified as the two big issues with youth basketball. Doesn’t a zone defense tend to force the best player to pass the ball? If one player dominating the ball is an issue, isn’t a zone defense one way to combat the issue?

Coaches do not like zone defenses because most coaches view zone defenses as lazy. However, they do not have to be. Some of the most aggressive teams play zone defenses, like Russ Davis’ teams with Vanguard University (NAIA) and Cal Swish (AAU). I believe spatial awareness is one of the harder things for young players to learn, and playing zone defense helps with some of these concepts. I do not think that playing zone prohibits the teaching of sound defensive fundamentals: individual footwork, ball-you-man, protect the basket, etc.

Another reason that coaches do not like zone defenses is that it is harder for them to dictate their shots on offense. Plays are easier to run against man defenses. Van Gundy seemed to be arguing against running plays for your best player in an attempt to win, and zones do not allow these plays. Coaches like to be in control, and it is harder to control the offense against a zone defense than against a man defense. This frustrates coaches.

However, it forces players to learn to play, which aligns with Van Gundy’s argument. Because coaches cannot control every possession or dictate shots, players have to learn to play. They have to find gaps in the defense. They have to solve problems to create good shots rather than following directions.

Again, this does not mean that I believe that youth teams should or should not play zone defense. However, I believe this is a simplistic argument that misses the overall point: If you do not believe the players are good enough to face a press or a zone defense because they lack strength and/or shooting skills, they should not play 5v5. The answer is not to prohibit zones or presses, the solution is to play 3v3 leagues with young players, such as the nine-year-olds that Van Gundy describes. 3v3 leagues would solve nearly every problem that Van Gundy mentioned in his talk.

Beyond the misplacement of angst, Van Gundy presented games and skill development as two separate ideas. Either you can play games or you can develop skills. Somehow, this idea has been popularized in basketball. There are now two competing ideals in basketball development: On one side, there is the AAU Model, which is described as too many games, no coaching, no skill development, and all playing. On the other side is the Individual Skill Development Model that disavows games and believes that all skills should be developed in isolation. Neither model, as described, will produce good players.

Playing games is an important part of skill development. The game is the best teacher. There are very few skills that you can practice in isolation because the execution of the skills in a game depends on interactions with teammates, defenders, the ball, location on the court, time, score, and more. There is decision making involved in every skill in a game, whereas shooting 100 shots in a row from the same spot in practice by oneself requires no decision making. Practice or training is not an end; it is a means to better performance in games. Too many people now seem to believe that training is the purpose.

The 21st Century Basketball Practice goes into more detail in terms of using and modifying games for skill development, and expands the idea of fundamentals to include more than passing and shooting.

Practice, training, or skill development only matters if it transfers to better game performance, and therefore the constraints of the game need to be present at practice. To remedy Van Gundy’s complaints about the system, the solution is 3v3 leagues for young players and beginners.

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