Train like a Pro

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, Vol. 6

On another coaching forum, a post read (edited for brevity): “Brett Brown of the 76ers said that while it’s not uncommon for an NBA player to dramatically improve their shooting after they enter the league, very few seem to significantly improve their ballhandling. It seems to be a skill that players learn young or not at all.” I do not know if this is true, but I do not work with NBA players so I will take his word for it.

When I coached u9s, we had great ballhandlers. They looked good in drills, they could do tricks, and they handled the ball well in games. When we were at the AAU Nationals, we were in our van at the front of the hotel waiting for one more person. There was an u13 team from Minnesota at the same hotel, and several of their players were outside performing dribbling tricks (this was the heart of the And1 MixTape Era). They were unable to do some trick. One of our players jumped out of the car, grabbed the ball, did the trick, and mike-dropped the ball before jumping in the van so we could leave for the game. At the tournament, in our pre-game warmups, more than half of our team did the slip-and-slide in our layup lines. Our first opponent was from Virginia, and they stopped their warmup to watch our players in layup lines. In games, we shredded presses because every player on our team could handle the ball.

How did these players develop these skills? Was it because they were young?

We played. Our dribbling drills consisted of follow-the-leader, led by our co-coach Ahmad Clayton or by one of the players, and small-sided games. We allowed and encouraged our players to try tricks. We played in a game, and one of our players did a move from the And1MixTape, and the official called him for traveling. At halftime, he came to the bench and said that he was not sure if it was a travel or not because he had never seen the move before. This was in the middle of a local tournament.

Our two best ballhandlers were the two players who were the last to leave practices. One’s father was the program director, so he had to wait until everyone was out to lock the doors. The other’s mother always talked to the coaches until the doors were locked. As everyone else filed out of the gym and loitered in the hallway and then on the sidewalk, these two played 1v1. They had no baskets, so it was basically keep away. They played in the hallway, about 6-8 feet wide, and tried to dribble around or through each other. They did this after almost every practice. Nobody told them to continue practicing while their parents talked. They competed with each other because it was fun; they were playing around. When they got on the court, they had so much space; beating a defender was easy compared to trying to get past each other in the crowded hallway.

I am convinced that these players developed their dribbling skills because of this play, in addition to the other playful drills and games that we used in practice. How many NBA players practice their dribbling in these playful-type situations?

On the same forum, but in a different thread, I read a post that the author had emailed to me several years ago: “Dribble tag was magic. My players improved their handle more in a shorter amount of time than I’d seen with any other drill. My worst player, a low-skill girl who was also slow, went behind her back with the dribble while evading the player who was “it”. I would have bet money that this girl could not execute a behind-the-back dribble even if completely unguarded. But there she was, with utter aplomb, looking like Steve Nash for a second.”

When I was a senior in college, I was the assistant coach for a girls’ team in the same program. This u10 team had a 9-year-old who was a phenomenal dribbler. She could do every drill that I had learned in my life. I realized that I had to learn some new drills to challenge her. I was a good ballhandler when I was young because I was smart and passed the ball before I was in trouble. I used simple moves, protected the ball, and got where I needed to go. When I watched her dribble, I realized that my dribbling skills were far from advanced.

In addition to finding new drills, I played with the younger brother and sister of an older player in the program after every practice. The children were probably five and seven years old, and they ran around and tried to steal the ball or balls from me. I dribbled circles around them and kept them entertained as their mother talked to the other parents. After that season of practicing with the little children every other day, my handles were 100% better. Suddenly, I was the guy who demonstrated drills at basketball camps or the coach who could do tricks that the players could not.

I was not an NBA player, and my dribbling skills likely remained lower than an NBA player’s starting point. However, I improved my dribbling skills at a similar age (23) to many NBA players. Do you have to be a young child to develop your dribbling skills? No, but it helps, because few adults or professional players engage in the playful learning environments that help children develop their dribbling.

It is possible that NBA players do not develop their dribbling because they rely on straight-line dribbling drills or attacking cones and chairs rather than playing 1v1 in confined spaces or dribbling circles around little children.

For example, the drill below is a neat challenge, and the player works hard. Is there anything in that drill remotely like a game?

Look at his eyes; is that where you want your eyes in a game? Look at his posture; is he going to be able to find an open player with that posture? Every dribble is stationary; how often does a player dribble in a stationary position in a game? Does movement change the way that one contacts the ball? (Yes). Will a player ever make 25 straight moves? Were the in-n-out moves even performed well? Is an in-n-out move successful because of the circle with the ball or the movement of the body that accentuates the fake?

Is there anything from this drill that is likely to transfer to improved dribbling in a game? I doubt it. Does the drill account for defense or the speed of play? It’s not a bad warmup, and I am sure it is not the extent of the dribbling practice for his session. However, if Brown is correct, and NBA players rarely improve their dribbling, is there a correlation between this practice and the lack of improvement? Correlation does not prove causation, of course, but drills like these (I picked the first one that was under five minutes in a youtube search) are so different from dribbling in a game that they practice entirely different skills.

I do not train NBA players. What do I know? Youth and high-school players will improve more through playful games, drills that include some reaction and perception, and 1v1 in confined spaces than through stationary or straight-line drills.

Brown seemed to believe that something about one’s age makes it difficult to develop dribbling skills. I would argue that age is only a factor because of one’s willingness to explore, experiment, and risk mistakes. Typically, younger children are less concerned with making mistakes and more willing to explore and play. I would argue that these are the traits that enable them to develop their dribbling, whereas NBA players may be unwilling to engage in playful practice or exploratory behaviors. Age does not prohibit the development of dribbling skills; it is the mindset and type of practice.

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

3 thoughts on “Train like a Pro

  • I really like this and it makes a lot of sense. Cones are not good defenders. Will definitely begin to incorporate tag type of drills to improve ballhandling…maybe even some flag football type of things also. Good job Brian.

  • Kelin:
    I heard an interesting thought about flag football; I forget what team. But, because NFL teams have limited practice time, they play some flag football. However, each player has three flags, and the defender must grab two flags at the same time. This forces them to get into good defensive position for a tackle rather than lunging and grabbing at a player. Could be an interesting manipulation for use with basketball too to incorporate better defensive positioning as opposed to reaching for flags which could have negative transfer to games.
    Just a thought.

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