Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holiday and the Adaptability of Learning

Last night’s Boston Celtics’ game-winner against the 76ers has to be the most analyzed NBA play of the early season. Sebastian Pruiti does a great job breaking down the action. The Celtics run a horns-set for Rondo with KG and Pierce as the screeners. Rondo uses the KG screen, Young switches and Rondo lobs the ball to the rim for KG to dunk.

Why switch and leave Holiday to cover KG? In late-game situations, switching is a popular defensive tactic, as the defense does not want to leave an open shot by going under the screen or hedging-and-recovering, and with a short clock, the thinking is there is not enough time to exploit the mismatch.

But, why switch on Rondo who is not a great outside shooter? If in the huddle, the coach says to switch all screens, what should the players do? Do they follow the directions explicitly or do they make decisions in the moment?

One characteristic of learning is adaptability – that is, the ability to use a skill in different situations, contexts or environments. In this instance, assuming the directions were to switch, Young and Holiday showed a lack of adaptability to the situation. They followed the directions even when it put their team at a disadvantage.

This often happens. A coach expects a play, like a Pierce/KG pick-and-roll or something involving Ray Allen, so he instructs the players to switch to prevent Pierce or Allen from getting an open shot.

Then, the situation changes. Now, it is Rondo in the pick-and-roll, someone who you might not mind shooting a 22-foot jump shot. Do the players stick to the coach’s directions or do they make their own decisions?

The answer often depends on the coach. If a coach attempts to instruct in a way that limits the players’ adaptability, and therefore limits their learning, the players are likely to follow the directions. However, if the coach empowers the players and develops their decision-making skills, they may adapt to the situation: Young backs off to take away Rondo’s drive and KG’s roll while Holiday goes under the screen.

I saw this lack of adaptability in a high school game. The offense ran the same entry to the wing. The defense picked up on the play and stole the ball. The two defenders on the right side of the court ran after the steal and left a player wide open under the basket. Rather than pass to her, the point guard passed to the wing for another steal. Even worse, the girl standing two feet from the wide open basket did not know she was open or look for the ball. They followed direction, and lacked adaptability, and consequently their opponent scored six straight points on steals before the coach called timeout and changed to another explicitly stated play.

In these situations, people in the stands are quick to blame the players. It seems so obvious when watching the reply from one’s couch. However, the coach’s coaching and instructional style often has a major influence on the players’ adaptability of learning. The presumed explicit instructions to switch all screens narrowed the players’ attention and inhibited their creative thinking. They followed the directions even when another option may have been the better decision.

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

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