Some Thoughts on Playing Time

by Paul Cortes
Head JV Boys Coach, Jewish Community High School of the Bay
Youth Basketball Coach, San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department
AAU Coach, Bay City Basketball

Disclaimer: These thoughts relate to coaching youth players. My approach would certainly change if I was coaching a high school varsity or older squad.

As an AAU coach, one of the issues that comes up frequently is playing time. There are certainly many trains of thought when it comes to how to manage rotations and get kids in and out of the game. I’m not arguing that my way is best, as there are many other coaches I work with that manage rotations differently and very successfully as well. Here I’m going to talk about some of the things I do with my player rotations and why I do them. There is no perfect way and with anything you choose there will be both pros and cons—the main thing is making sure your style aligns with your overall philosophy, whatever that may be.


My philosophy is to give players autonomy while holding them accountable at the same time. I will not pull a player out of the game for performance unless I believe he is playing in a way that is unduly selfish or lacking effort. That being said, if for example he misses good shots and commits a turnover or two trying to make the right play I don’t want him looking over his shoulder afraid that he is going to come out of the game. This aligns with my goal of empowerment and long-term player development. I emphasize trust with my players, that they must trust each other and also know that I trust them to figure things out. I’m not saying that other coaches with different styles don’t build trust in their players just that this has become such a core tenet of my philosophy that it factors into how I manage my bench during games.

I don’t believe in equal playing time. It is in my opinion that every team has players who love and value the game more than the others and thus work harder at improving their skillset. Yes, giving equal time gives the other players the chance to develop that same love for the game and work ethic but I think this is not fair to the players who already spend extra time during, before and after practice and have the results to show for it. Showing players that playing time is earned will motivate them to put in the effort outside of games.

That being said, I also do not believe in burying kids on the bench. I think that playing a kid a minute or two each half can destroy his confidence and lead him to play tentatively or recklessly when he does go into the game. There’s also the importance of flow and letting players settle in during games. I do not believe that this can be achieved in a mere 1-2 minutes of playing time. While later in the HS Varsity and College years players are more fully formed, at the youth level kids are blank slates much of the time, still awaiting or going through puberty and still with tremendous levels of room for improvement. I feel very strongly that not giving a kid at least a few minutes of time each half is doing him a disservice and wasting crucial time in his basketball development. As such, my goal is to give each player at least 1 quarter of playing time in each game.

Putting the Bench In

I generally make my first substitutions halfway through the first quarter. I’ve found through trial and error and observing other coaches over the years that this is the perfect amount of time to make substitutions. You don’t want to make subs so early that the starters are never able to get into a flow, but you also don’t want to sub too late where your bench guys are wasting away waiting to go in. In a 20 minute half, I’m making my first substitutions 5 minutes into the game. In a 16 minute half, I’m making my first substitutions 4 minutes into the game.

Once it’s time to make substitutions, the next question becomes how many to sub in at once. I do not prefer to sub 5 for 5. Earlier I talked about the natural break-in period that occurs when a player begins to play. This has nothing to do with “being ready”. A player can be warmed up, mentally attuned, give complete effort, and his skillset may be on point right away but I still believe that there are adjustments that are made whenever a player enters the game. If you sub in all 5 players at once, they’re all adjusting at the same time. If you sub in a couple of players at a time, they’re surrounded by other players who are already in the flow which in my opinion makes for an easier transition.

I prefer to make two substitutions, usually a guard and a big. I’ll have in my mind before the game who the first two players to come out of the game will be, but I also leave myself flexible so that if a player is playing particularly well, I’ll leave him in longer and bring someone else out instead. Now, however long is a half of a quarter, I’ll cut this time in half again and this is when I’m putting my 2nd group of subs in. So if it’s a 10-minute qaurter and my first subs go in at 5 minutes, I’m putting my next group of subs in 2-and-a-half minutes later. If it’s an 8 minute quarter and my first subs go in at 4 minutes, I’m putting my next group of subs in 2 minutes later. These times are not exact, this is just a rough guideline. I have a general structure in mind but I’m not a slave to it.

Now when the quarter ends, whoever hasn’t gotten in the game yet is going in. This way players are never sitting on the bench for more than a quarter. These guidelines have a crucial purpose to me in that they ensure that I get players in and that there’s a flow. By the start of the 2nd quarter, everyone has gotten into the game.

Putting the Starters Back In

A common mistake that I’ve seen at the end of each half is coaches not putting their starters back in until it is too late. You want to have them in for a long enough amount of time so that when “crunch time” hits, they already have a feel for what’s going on and are mentally and physically locked in. A side note to this is that if you put your bench in too late, unless you want to pull them right back out then the starters are going to be going back in too late as well. This is why getting the bench in earlier is crucial.

Two or three minutes after the 2nd quarter begins, I’m putting a couple starters back in—the first bench players are coming out. By the time we reach halfway through the 2nd quarter, all the starters are back in. This is “crunch time”, with my top players in at the end of the half to end on a strong note.

Overall a 12 player rotation for the first half will look something like this (click to enlarge):


The 2nd half is pretty much the same, although I might put key starters back in a bit earlier if I feel they’re needed to make a push. You have more flexibility to do things like this when you have 10 players or less instead of 11 or 12.

Closing Thoughts

Rotating 11 or 12 players can be very difficult. Having 8-10 players is ideal as you have more flexibility with your bench. Once again this rotation isn’t exact. I might put someone in a minute earlier, a minute later. I might have an idea of who’s going to go in and then that changes. You have to adjust for personnel, foul trouble, the flow of the game. That being said, having this basic structure in place allows me to think more clearly and make better informed decisions during the heat of the game.

My rotations as laid out of above accomplishes the following goal for me:

-All players get at least ¼ of playing time
-All players are in the game for at least half a quarter before being subbed out. This gives them to time settle in. Exceptions to this is selfishness or a lack of effort.
-All players have gotten into the game by the start of the 2nd quarter
-The top players are back in the game halfway through the 2nd quarter.

These are my goals and they strike my ideal balance between competitiveness and participation. There are coaches out there that might have different philosophies and thus different goals. That’s OK. The main thing I’m trying to get across is that putting thought into your rotations and having a basic structure and plan in place can be very helpful at the youth level, especially with a deeper bench. No matter what you do, know why you do it and put some thought on how to best accomplish it.

10 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Playing Time

  • Coach,
    I admire and agree with your philosophy of development. Too often people preach development and growth over results but their methods contradict what they preach. One thing that worked for me one year when I had 15 was to sub 5 at a time but rather than group the teams as first five, 2nd five and 3rd five, I tried to make three equal teams. I did this for a couple of reasons:
    1. Allowing weaker or less developed players to play more often with stronger players can accentuate their strengths if they aren’t always playing with weaker players.
    2. It gave more players the opportunity to be the main threat. The 5th best player may be complimentary player with the first team but if he/she is the 2nd best player on his five, he/she has to assume a larger role.
    3. The players enjoyed it

    An older coach once told me that pretty much any player can be a good 5th wheel given the opportunity so don’ let the last guy on your bench only play with other bench players, give them a chance to play with the best players too and they’ll more often than not surprise you.

  • Mike, I agree with you wholeheartedly. If I ever had 15, I would definitely sub 5 at a time but thankfully I have not been put in that position. With less players, I think staggering 2 or 3 is the best way to go, although I understand the philosophy and it does show commitment to developing over winning. There is a local program I greatly respect that only subs 5 for 5 and they do a great job developing their players from 1-12 (or however many are on the roster).

    The platoon system is definitely interesting. In a similar vein, I mix up the starting lineup. The 3+ game structure of aau tournaments goes hand in hand with this. I’ll make two equal teams and start 1 5 in the first game and the other 5 in the 2nd game. The 3rd game I start my best 5 together, and in the 2nd half of each game I start my best 5 together as well. You’re 100% right that players can surprise you with how they do when surrounded by other stronger players.

    Surprisingly this hasn’t harmed our results in the first half of games. If anything, it’s helped because having 2 or 3 stronger players come off the bench and play against weaker bench players has been a tough problem for other teams to solve.

  • Mike:
    My first question, depending on the situation as it obviously would not work with a high school team, would be: Can we turn the team of 15 into two teams of 7 and 8 so every player receives more playing time? I know youth leagues with 15 players on the teams, and each 5 plays a quarter for the first 3 quarters, and then the coach can substitute freely in 4th quarter. So, each player plays 1 quarter, and the best 5-7 players play a half. That barely seems worth the time that it takes to drive to the gym.

  • Yeah. If I had 15, I’d do 5A, 5B, 5C, 5A in each half, with each group in for 4-5 minute stretches. Having two teams of 7 and 8 would be a lot better.

  • We had 8 on our roster last year due to injury and it was perfect. Everyone played a ton, everyone had to know every position/role.

    When someone subbed out they went to the end of the bench and the first guy on the bench went in, then everyone slid down. Subbed about every 3 minutes.

    We played a mix of 5 out, 4-1, and my own version of dribble drive. Defensively we played exclusively man, pressured the basketball. Everyone agrees we did a great job of developing players, and we won. Most players made a point of saying it was the most fun they’d ever had playing in their year end, anonymous reviews.

  • At the time I was coaching the freshman level, so I agree that it definitely wouldn’t work at the varsity level. Also, I didn’t platoon every game. I did this against weaker teams to avoid non-competitive situations and in two jamborees that we played. My goal was always to play everyone in each half which led to some odd substitution patterns in the other games but freshman are far from finished products and need to play.

    I agree that playing less than a half is not optimal and would have a tough time trying to justify this for an entire season but felt that this was the best option in these situations. I’m not 100% sure I follow you, are you suggesting that for each game that we have 7-8 show up and play all the minutes and rotate that way or have 7-8 play each half and rotate halves? Either way, those are interesting ideas that I hadn’t thought of.

    I understand their are many different philosophies in regard to playing time and that one way isn’t the right way but I’ve never understood even Varsity and college coaches playing only 6-7 guys simply because of what it does to the practice atmosphere. I’ve seen varsity coaches who only play 6-7 guys jump all over the other guys at practice for not focusing and practicing hard. Asking a teenager who knows that he/she is not going to play to stay focused and committed seems unreasonable. They aren’t pros. I understand that being on the team doesn’t automatically confer playing time but I’ve found by extending the rotation (maybe even more than you should) increases the efficiency of practice substantially.

  • Mike:
    No, as I said, this would not work for every level, especially the high school level, but my question would be: Why can’t we create two teams? So, if we have 15 players on an AAU team, let’s say, why not enter two teams in every tournament with 8 and 7 players on the teams and give every player more playing time, more touches, etc.

    Obviously, at the high school level there is less flexibility, but when I was in high school, we split (JV) teams during the preseason and sent one team to one local tournament with 8 guys and another team to a second tournament with 7 guys and 1-2 freshman. Of course, my high school also had two freshmen teams that played a full 25-game schedule with 15 players on each team because every year, well over 100 guys tried out for the freshmen team.

    Now, I know it is not always possible, whether by rules or by finances, but if I had a team of 15, that would be my first question. Can we do this? If not, then we have to figure out something else.

    When I coached HS freshmen teams, I played every player in every half of every game, unless they were punished for grades or skipping practice, but I did not platoon sub, and they did not receive equal playing time. Every player got a chance to play, but the ones who played better or who were better match-ups in a given game played more. This is frustrating for players, sometimes, because minutes fluctuate, but that is the flip side of playing everyone.

  • Brian:

    I love the idea of splitting a 15 person team into teams of 7 and 8 for youth basketball. I coach AAU in Oakland area, and the reason we can’t do that is money. The Board of Directors for the AAU program has determined that with 12 players on a team we can afford to enter tournaments and rent gym time for practice, but with 7-8 players we would not have enough money. The only way to do it would be to raise fees significantly, practice less or enter fewer tournaments. I’d be fine with playing fewer games, but players and parents want that for the money they are paying.

  • Hi, Nate. If I may ask, what AAU program do you coach for? I’m right across the bridge at Bay City, so we’ve probably come across each other a time or two.

    For HS teams splitting squads into 7-8 better than 15, but in AAU this is definitely not ideal. I think in this situation you almost have to cut a few kids, or make an A and B team and select a few more players to round out each team.

    15 guys is difficult bc you just can’t find the playing time kids need. Either you get a lot of kids not playing much if at all, or you play your best players limited minutes and lose them to another program. I think 10 is the perfect number.

  • Nate:
    I was thinking about this recently as I listened to high school coaches threaten their players who may miss a tournament or two during the summer. With a team of 15, why not expect only 10-12 players to attend any given tournament? Allow players to take a family vacation or miss for a soccer game or whatever. If these tournaments are played for developmental purposes, who cares if the best 8 players are not always at the game? If I was a parent, I’d probably prefer to have a weekend away from basketball than spend every weekend in a gym with my son or daughter playing less than a half of a game.

    I understand finances and the like. I acknowledged it above. However, it also seems that most programs are stuck doing the same thing over and over, and nobody questions why not? What other ideas are there?

    I was talking to my friend who refereed a youth basketball tournament today, and not one game was within 25 points. What’s the point? I’ve long said that if I ran an AAU program, I’d spend most of my weekends inviting teams who I knew and knew were close in proximity in skill and talent level to my gym to play games and split the referee expense between the teams. When I coached with the NorCal Sparx circa 2005, they did that occasionally rather than playing in tournament every weekend. 1-2 other teams would come and play 2 games, and the teams were competitive. The coaches knew each other, so they’d ask each other to do something that they worked on in practice. for instance, if I worked on my zone offense in practice, I might ask my friend to have him play zone for a half to work on it in a game against another team. Plus, if you know referees, you can get them to work the games for cheaper because you don’t have to pay an assignor.

    Again, just some different ideas…Not suggesting that any are right or doable in all situations.

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