General basketball skills before specific basketball plays

Before reading the article, if you need plays to run, subscribe to Half Court Hoops on youtube. I go to youtube every day to see the new videos that HCH uploads. The following is not meant to disparage HCH in any way.

Atlanta Hawks “Rub 5” is a high on-ball screen. Nothing else. Now, Atlanta may call for this specific response to the on-ball screen, or run this particular set against a specific defense, but it is a high on-ball screen with a short roll by the screener. That’s it.

When I write about the general and the specific (Developing Basketball Intelligence, The 21st Century Basketball Practice, the upcoming SABA), this is my point. Many coaches who subscribe to HCH may see this set on youtube and use it as a set play with their team. The point guard uses the screen, the screener rolls toward the opposite elbow, voila.

The problem is the short roll is a response to the defense. Rather than hedging on the on-ball screen, as most high school and college teams do, the screener’s defender hangs back and clogs the driving lane to the basket. The ballhandler’s defender chases over the screen to take away a three-point shot. Because the screener’s defender is to the basket-side of the screener, rather than being higher than the screener on a hedge, a roll to the rim is less effective, especially for a below-the-rim type player like Al Horford.

Therefore, Horford rolls to the open area, away from his defender. In this case, it is the short roll wide of the ballhandler. If his defender does not recover quick enough from containing the ballhandler, he has an open shot or an open lane to the basket. When the screener’s defender leaves early to recover to the screener, the ballhandler has a pull-up jump shot.

Whereas this may be a specific call or play for the Hawks, teaching this set is the same as teaching any middle on-ball screen. When teaching young players how to use the middle on-ball screen, I should not tell the screener where to go. The screener’s movement depends upon the defense. The screener must see whether his defender hangs back, hedges, traps, or switches and react accordingly. As a coach I should not have to have a set play for a short roll, a run to the rim, a pick and pop, etc. These should be based on the defense.

Now, I may incorporate other tactical skills with the on-ball screen to create other options, and these may require a separate play call. For instance, I could have a shooter set a back pick for the screener to create an open layup or an open three-pointer (below; hat tip to Raul Jimenez, another good follow). This would differ from the straight middle on-ball.

The larger point is that, too often, coaches focus on the specific and ignore the general. They run a set play to get a short roll, but they ignore the basics of the on-ball screen and the similarities with all other on-ball situations. Players learn to do one thing in one specific situation, and if that is not open, they may not be able to adjust. By starting with the general first – teaching the basic tactical skills generally, not through a specific play – players learn adaptable skills, and the coach can add specificity later as required, as with the back pick for the screener.

There are a few skills that dominate the game. By learning these skills generally, players can adjust and adapt to almost any situation. Instead, coaches focus on a few specific situations, and players struggle outside of these defined sets. Teach the general first.

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

9 thoughts on “General basketball skills before specific basketball plays

  • In Mike Matheny’s recent book, he has a chapter entitled “Let Your Catcher Call The Game”, and talked about how his college coach allowing him to call pitches behind the plate really made him fall further in love with the game, improved his intelligence as a player, and better prepared him for the next level. One takeaway as a basketball coach was to let my point guard call the game, instead of me calling out sets from the bench. I want my point guards to be challenged by the process of having to make decisions based on how the defense and his own team is playing.

    But I started wondering how to let other players of other positions “call the game” in their own way, and this post gave me one possible answer. Let your bigs make the read on how to move after screening, whether it’s to roll, pop, short roll, rescreen, etc. In doing so, challenge them to not only pick the option that is most comfortable, but rather based on what the defense is doing and what the situation calls for. All this just further contributes to thinking players that can take their game to the next level.

  • Paul:

    I think you will like the book that I am working on now. Builds on these ideas.

    Good points about Matheny. I read in the past that the Molina brothers are such excellent catchers because coaches in Puerto Rico allow catchers to call the game, whereas U.S. coaches tend to call the game themselves.

    I almost never call plays during a game. I hate when I watch high school games and the inbounder is paralyzed because she can’t hear what play the coach wants to run and does not know what to do. The only time that I call a play is if I feel like we need to get the ball to a specific player for a specific reason. Even at timeouts, I usually ask the players what they want to run coming out of the timeout, unless I have seen something specific. I feel like players have a better sense of what is happening than I do, especially if they are empowered to be aware.

    Your second point is one reason why point guards tend to develop faster and see the game better: They get more opportunities to make decisions. Even if the coach calls out the play, the PG makes the decision whether or not to enter to the right or the left or whether or not the designated player is open. Meanwhile, everyone else tends to follow directions. While I do not see set plays as evil, I do feel this is a big negative for developing players.

    With developing players, I try not to designate positions. I want every player to handle the ball. Of course, this tends to cause some confusion and lead to some mistakes, but hopefully we can turn those into learning experiences.

    Similarly, I run many different PnRs so more players handle the ball in the PnR too. Last season, we went heavy into the 1/2 PnR, and the 4/5 PnR tends to be one of my go-to plays. One season, I used predominantly 3/5 PnRs because my 3 was my best athlete, and my 1 was my best shooter.

  • Your point about players having a better sense of what is happening is one that Matheny makes in his book.He talks about when in his freshman year he played for a coach that called all the plays, he found that he wasn’t noticing the little intricacies of the game because his brain was on autopilot. Point guards having more opportunities to make decisions also explains why they often make better coaches.

    Most of all, we want players that can think the game. It’s not complete freedom out there it’s freedom to make decisions and then challenging the thought process behind those decisions. When they get to the bench, ask them why they did this or that action on this or that play. At halftime, turn to the guards and ask them what’s available on the pick and roll. Turn to the bigs and ask them how their defenders are playing the pnr and what type of read they should be making. While I’ve asked these kind of questions before using them as part of a halftime and timeout routine is something I look forward to doing something this year.

    While I don’t want to designate 1, 2, 3, 4, 5’s, I would like to designate guards and forwards to provide some clarity in certain actions. I’d like to run transition offense like the Spurs, Hawks, and Warriors with a guard pushing to a sideline, two guards running ahead wide on each side and spacing the floor, and the forwards rim running ahead posting ballside block and trailing behind to the top of the key. Is doing this pigeonholing players too much? While I want to provide my players freedom to make decisions and empower them to be creative, I also want to provide a bit of structure at the same time. Practices start in a couple of weeks.

  • Paul:
    Is it pigeonholing too much? I don’t know. I don’t like to label positions, but players tend to self-select by a certain age. Positions or roles certainly make it easier to plan and organize.

    My only problem with positions is when they are limiting of players, especially developing players. You are a post player, so you do X, Y, and Z; you are a point guard, so you do A, B, and C. What if you are a post, and you are like Dirk Nowitski, and your body, your skills, your mindset, etc., do not fit X, Y, and Z? do you get benched because you’re not like the perception of what a post is supposed to do or be like? What if you are the point guard, but you shoot like Steph Curry or Steve Nash? Should you limit your shots because a PG’s job is to set up the offense and pass the ball?

    It’s easy to say that these are the outliers, but how many players from season to season are the exact same as the player who played the position the year before? Do we try to make them the same to fit our system?

    I think the important thing – position or no positions – is that players learn to play the game. As I wrote above, that players learn to play as if you are preparing them for pickup games where they have to survive with unknown teammates and outside of a specific system. Every player should know the basics: spacing, how to set a screen, how to use a screen, how to shoot, how to finish with both hands, how to dribble, how to pass, etc.

    Tim Duncan is a center, but he will dribble the ball down court from time to time. He handles the ball on the perimeter, reversing the ball or initiating dribble handoffs. He shoots jump shots and finishes at the rim. There are ways to teach and develop the skills while positioning players in ways to best utilize their skills as they are right now and encouraging them to expand their skills for the future, especially young “posts” who likely will be guards at some point in their career if they play long enough.

    After I finished my freshman season in HS, primarily as a PG, my coach told me that he should have played me as a post more because I had pretty good post moves. To me, this was a silly comment. I don’t need to be a post player to post up just as a post doesn’t need to play guard to dribble or shoot outside the key. All he had to do was incorporate the PG posting up into the structure of our offense (because we were very structured). Unfortunately, he and most coaches, especially back then, did not think like that. Does Andre Miller have to play as a post to post up? No.

    I trained a girl who was clearly her team’s best player. She was also their tallest player, their best shooter, and best ballhandler. I always said that I would have played her as the PG and run a 1-4 into Flex. Let her enter to a wing and use a UCLA cut to get to the block. Her posting up would be option 1. Reverse to the screener for the high low (option 2). Reverse the ball and have her set the Flex screen for a cutter (option 3). Set the down screen in Flex for her to pop to the three-point line (option 4). That may not have been fair to the other players, but this was varsity basketball where she was the only player who was going to play in college. They wanted to win; development for the future was not a big priority. That would enable her to use all of her skills and play the position that was best for her future and her team’s success.

  • Thanks for the detailed response. I love your idea about preparing them to play pickup games. Of course, there are varying degrees of quality to pickup games, but the best ones are filled with intelligent players that know when to provide spacing, when to cut/screen, etc. And then they can apply those skills to any offense they have to learn in the future.

    The debate in my mind is whether to run a numbered break at the youth level. Keep mind that any I’m not talking about anything complicated. 3 guards, 2 forwards. Guards stay in outside lanes whether pushing ball up and sprinting ahead. Forwards stay in middle lanes rim running and trailing behind. Teach them how to reverse the ball, dribble-hand-off, drive and kick etc., but other than that freedom within the spacing.

    A part of me feels the structure can wait until high school. Until then, teach them all how to run wide by breaking it down in drills and games. Teach them all how to rim run by breaking it down in drills and games. And then when the real game occurs, who rim runs and who runs wide might differ on every possession. The key is for them to have the awareness of, if i’m the closest person to the sideline, I need to call for the outlet and be ready to push ahead. If I’m not the outlet guy, I need to fill an outside lane and sprint ahead spacing wide. If two people are spaced wide, I need to rim run. If someone is already rim running, I need to trail behind. When I play in pickup games, I do all these things interchangeably. I’m not a post player or a guard. I let the situation dictate which lane to fill in transition to give my team the best spacing available on that possession.

  • Paul:

    That’s how I played when I was in youth basketball (pre-high school): We ran a numbered break with positions into Flex.

    My concern today is that when I was running a very structured break and offense with my teams, my season was only 20-25 games long from November to February, and we played pickup games at lunch and recess every day at school. Therefore, we expanded our skills on the playground and our coach narrowed specific skills for competitive success. This was also a different era, as the three-point line was new and discouraged.

    Therefore, how can coaches today combine the best of both environments (structured coaching and pickup games) to enhance the learning of today’s players? The focus tends to be on the structured coaching, but I believe that much of our learning occurred on the playground. If true, how do we address the loss of unstructured play and pickup games to maximize learning opportunities?

    One aspect that I underemphasize is that players need to learn to run plays, play positions, fill certain rolls, etc. That probably should not be the first concern, and many coaches overemphasize this at the expense of more general learning, but there are players who reach varsity and college basketball with no concept of how to run a play. Part of that is concentration and other things, but part of it is also a lack of structure and expectations for today’s players.

    For example, I don’t want to criticize a player’s shot in a game, but I also have a responsibility to teach the player about shot selection. There’s a balance between building confidence and teaching discipline and raising expectations.

    Again, you can probably accomplish all these things while running a numbered break. Again, I think the general skills are more important and have to come first, but I believe you can have some specificity and organization along with the general skills.

  • One thing I will do in addition to developing them in practice is to encourage them to play pickup ball, letting them know where the best gyms are and also having times where we all meet up and play (this is for my 9th graders). I will also emphasize that what they do with me is only one piece of the puzzle. They have to go out there and play against older competition and really force themselves outside of their comfort zones.

  • Paul:
    Years ago, I worked with an AAU program that saw that the players were being overcoached and not learning on their own, so they decided to rent a gym once a week for pickup games. No coaching. Players picked their teams and devised their own games.

    I always tell high-school players to spend their spring playing with college players. Find out when the local J.C. or D2 school plays their pick up games and try to get a run. When I was at UCLA, high school players would come to the student rec center to play against college students (not the UCLA team, usually) because the competition was still pretty good, especially on the main court. Good way to learn.

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