When I pick teams (or recruit), I want to identify those qualities that are the rarest. When watching players, one can choose to see the things that a player can do (strengths) or the things that the players cannot do (weaknesses). I want to identify the rare strengths and ignore the easiest weaknesses to remedy.
With freshmen basketball players, strength and conditioning are two weaknesses that are easy to remedy as they progress. I am not going to cut a player because he is too skinny, not strong, or out of shape. Now, maybe being out of shape shows a lack of dedication or work ethic. Of course, it could also show a lack of opportunity to play on a team all summer or an ignorance of what it takes to play high-school basketball. Is that a reason to cut a player? Should an 8th grader know what high-school basketball is like? Once a player makes the team, he will get in shape. As a player progresses through high school, he will add strength as he matures. Why cut a player now when these weaknesses are easily remedied? A heavily-muscled player may be done growing and have peaked athletically – if he is not clearly dominant, should he make the team over a skilled player with less strength?
As for the rarer qualities, I look for decision-making skills, shooting, and athleticism/size. I believe that players can improve these qualities, but I also believe that in an era when many high-school freshmen have 5+ years of basketball experience and more competitive games played than I played in my entire life, certain habits are fairly engrained. I’d like to think that I can help a player make better decisions or shoot better or move better, but I know this is a process that requires effort on the part of the player beyond normal practices.
Look, every player playing high school basketball for the first time will improve because the level of competition is better, the practices are more intense, there is more time spent on the court, etc. However, without real focus on specific skills, the improvement is steady and slow (unless the player has a lack of playing experience, then the skill acquisition can be rapid – to a point – when placed in this environment). Also, virtually every player makes these slow and steady improvements, so no player is overtaking another player based on these improvements alone.
Players who make good decisions have a special quality. I do not want to cut a player with this quality because he is small. What if he has not reached puberty yet, whereas some of the other players are well into puberty and their first major growth spurt? What if the player has never lifted weights, whereas other players have played football and been weight training for several years? Should the player with the special quality be cut because he has yet to hit a growth spurt or lift weights? The player with great decision-making skills may make a rapid competitive improvement once he grows or adds some muscle.
Shooting is another quality that can be improved, but is in demand. A player with a smooth release and great coordination will always have a chance because the point of the game is to put the ball in the basket. Coaching offense is much easier with shooters on the court, and the limited practice time afforded high school basketball coaches does not provide an opportunity for a player to make significant progress with his shot technique during the season.
Players can improve athleticism, but if a player is a stud athletically or has a great anthropomorphic quality like a huge wingspan or height, he will have a chance. I watch tryouts and know that some of the guys can make speed and quickness improvements with a couple subtle tweaks. However, some of these guys are unlikely ever to catch a couple of the other guys who have great jumping ability and coordination already. Once these already gifted athletes see the inside of the weight room, I expect them to improve these gifts rapidly, whereas some of the others will improve, but likely have a lower ceiling. Choosing the high-ceiling athletes is recommended, especially if they have some skills, a good work ethic, and/or coachability.
There are many other attributes that I look for when watching players, like toughness, mistake response, camaraderie with other guys, confidence, hustle, production, etc. However, some of these, like playing hard, are minimums to me, not a reason to choose a player. I expect every player will work hard. After eliminating those who do not appear willing to play hard, then it is a matter of breaking down their skills to see where their skill-set fits. Can they shoot? Do they make good decisions? Are they a great athlete? What else do they bring to the team? Leadership maybe?
Last season, we kept a player simply because he was always around the ball. I advised a college program to recruit a girl for the same reason, and she ended up Freshman of the Year. There is something to be said for the player who always seems to get the rebound, the steal, or the loose ball, even if the player is not a skilled or big as other players. There is something there that maybe is not measurable. If I see a player like that, I may keep that player because of the intangibles even though he may not have a position or a specific skill set: for some reason, despite all the things that he cannot do, he gets the ball; he gets his team more possessions, and ultimately that leads to his team winning a lot. I like guys who tend to be on the winning team. I don’t believe it i an accident if one guy tends to win every game or drill regardless of who he is with. Even if I cannot identify his skill, I want that player on my team.
Those tend to be the things that I see in tryouts or recruiting. I want to identify the positives or the strengths, the things that a player would add to the team. I start with decision-making (at all positions, not just guards), shooting, and athleticism, and then look for the intangibles, like winning, leadership, toughness, etc.
Another hint: Listen to the players. When I was in high school, the players knew each other better than the coaches did. The coaches saw us play in a week of 90-minute practices in tryouts; we played against each other every day at recess and after school in pick-up games for months. We played against each other in junior-high school. When we were surprised about certain cuts and certain players making the team, we were probably right more often than the coaches because we had more of a chance to know the players, and we’d seen the players in real games. I listen to hear who other players encourage to shoot the ball, who the players gravitate to, who the players want to play with, etc. Does it make the decision? No. However, if I hear players constantly yelling, “Travis, shoot it,” I watch Travis a little more closely to see if he is a shooter. If players gravitate toward Joe before practices start, I look a little more closely at Joe. If players automatically pass to John on every possession, I figure they have some confidence in him as a point guard; maybe that is because they played together in junior high and he was the point guard and that is a habit. The players could be wrong. However, their behaviors give me clues and help me direct my attention more closely to give a player another look. Players are often a lot smarter than we believe, even if their intelligence is subconscious.
By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League