Basketball in the 21st Century

I am working with a freshmen team, and the players look at me like I am crazy with some of the things that I teach. Every player admitted that he had been told/taught never to cross his feet on defense. How does this continue to pervade youth basketball in the 21st Century?

These players have been well-drilled. They are very good at their step-slide or defensive slides or whatever you want to call them. Heck, they look like they’re in a zig-zag drill when trying to defend in a 1v1 situation. Their technique could be featured on an old-school defense DVD.

They step-slide and step-slide and as the offensive player starts to beat them, they reach or hand check. I imagine their previous coaches have yelled at them for reaching, as it is a bad habit. However, forcing them to step-slide rather than cross their feet is the reason that they hand check and reach. That is their only option if crossing one’s feet is disallowed. A defender simply cannot step-slide as fast as an offensive player can run.

I know that a former college coach is going to email me (as he often does when I write this “nonsense”) and tell me that I am wrong, and he will point to Coach K’s DVD as evidence that I’m wrong. I’ll humbly respond that if you actually watch Duke players play defense in a game, they cross their feet (Watch Elliott Williams use a crossover step with his right foot to recover).

Here’s an example:

Similarly, a number of players obviously worry about taking a big step when they attempt to drive. They throw the ball out in front of them and take a big step. I asked if they had been taught to take a big step, and every player confirmed these lessons.

The problem is that emphasizing a big first step is the wrong cue. When the players take the big first step, they extend too far. Their torso is upright. They have a negative shin angle. The ball is unprotected by their body. In short, they are easy to defend (which, of course, is good, since the defense is so slow).

The proper cue is to get your “nose over toes” on the drive. The length of the step does not matter if the torso stays tall because the defense can recover, and the offense loses the ability to accelerate with the negative shin angle. With nose over toes, the offensive player can protect the dribble with his body or inside hand/shoulder, and he has a positive shin angle to improve acceleration. He goes “body up/body in” by the defender and uses his body to take away the defender’s angle of retreat.

These are two simple things that I see. We have spent a good deal of our first week of practice trying to break these bad habits that often qualify as “good fundamental coaching”. Unfortunately, few coaches actually examine the movements. They see something at a clinic or they teach what they were taught 30 years ago. Thirty years ago, it was recommended to eat pasta as a “health food” if one was dieting; these days, most diets cut carb intake. Things change. Science advances. Why don’t these advances transfer to coaching?

These players would be quicker on a basketball court if they had never been taught to play defense. Instead, they have been so well-drilled and so well-coached that they have no instincts and their movements are robotic and slow. I imagine, if asked, the players would say that we have not done many, if any, defensive drills thus far. If you ask me, I would say almost every drill was defensive. However, I am trying to break habits without forcing them to think too much. I put them in positions where they have to move faster than they can move with a step-slide. I want the crossover step to become a natural movement, not something that they must think about in order to do.

The first question that I am asked is about strategy. We have no strategy. What strategy is going to work with players who can’t make a cut to get open because they have played only within systems? What strategy is going to work with players who move slowly? These are freshmen. Do I think that I can out-strategize another freshmen coach? Yes. But, freshmen basketball isn’t about me. My job is to help these players make the varsity team, hopefully next season. To do that, learning some sophisticated sets or presses or zones or whatever is not going to help them in tryouts or in their club season. However, if they learn to play and learn to move, they’ll adapt to whatever system their club runs or the varsity employs.

It starts with the basics: first-step quickness and lateral movement. If we cannot improve these two aspects, they’ll have to make a club team or the varsity team based on their good looks or “potential”. But, if I can help them break these well-drilled habits and learn to move and play the game, some of these guys have some potential. It starts with the basics, and unfortunately this means breaking habits that are so engrained because of the “good fundamental coaching” that they have received previously.

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