O.J. Mayo, Dribbling Drills, and Point Guards

While reading through the Sports Illustrated NBA preview, I noticed that O.J. Mayo is still working on his dribbling in an effort to be a point guard:

“Mayo improved his ball handling in the off-season and can handle both guards spots.” – Chris Mannix

Mannix wrote the same thing in July. Monta Ellis is another player who spent last summer working on dribbling drills in an effort to become a point guard. According to this Slam article, Portland called Rus Bradburd to train Jerryd Bayless on his dribbling drills (via True Hoop). Bradburd’s article is well-written and his approach mirrors my thinking:

One of my theories on improving dribbling skills is centered on the concept of failure. This has less to do with any scientific understanding of human learning than my own experiences as a DIII walk-on who couldn’t make his high school team. I fumbled the ball a lot before I made progress, but that feeling of experimenting with failure seemed to be at the core of my improvement.

As I read somewhere recently, “an expert is someone who has made all the mistakes there are to make.” To improve, you have to move outside your comfort zone and risk mistakes and failure.

My question is not with the trainers’ approach or with the drills, but with the thought-process. Bayless is not a point guard. It has nothing to do with his dribbling ability and everything to do with his mindset. I watched him play at the NBA Summer League before his rookie season. He was the best player there. However, he was not a point guard.

Bayless got the rim at-will. He penerated on any defender. When he ran the pick-and-roll, he attacked a switch or a hard hedge and bullied his way to the basket. As he made these plays, I often found myself saying “kick it” or “see him” to myself because he had open teammates. However, Bayless drives with a single-minded purpose: score. Only when his lane evaporated did he look for a teammate. In this way, he is similar to Dwyane Wade, a talented ball handler and slasher who usually has a decent number of assists due to his high percentage of plays made with the ball, but a player who is not a point guard.

How do I differentiate? Steve Nash is a point guard. He often looks to score. However, if he has a decent shot and an open teammate, he passes every time. Bayless had open teammates and decent shots and shot every time. Bayless has a scorer’s mentality; Nash has a playmakers’ mentality. The difference is not dribbling skill – the difference is mindset.

Dribbling skill plays a role in point guard play. If a player has more confidence with the ball, he concentrates less on his defender and more on the court. Therefore, he sees more and theoretically passes better.

However, does a drill like this make a point guard (couldn’t find Bradburd’s drill from the article; closest I could find):

When describing the difference between a scorer and a playmaker, I believe the difference is the dominant mode of attention. We have four modes of attention: broad-internal, narrow-internal, broad-external and narrow-external.

While we use all four modes, we have a dominant mode. I believe players who we label traditional point guards – like Nash – use a broad-external mode of attention: that is, they see the court through a wide-angle lens. Scorers, and especially great shooters, use a narrow-external mode: they focus on one specific thing (the basket) and exclude other relevant and irrelevant cues.

Confidence with the ball may help a player to shift his mode of attention and not revert to his dominant mode as often or as quickly. However, when under pressure (late in the shot clock, playing in front of a big crowd, fighting for playing time) the player is more likely to play to his strengths and use his dominant mode, which means a scorer looks to score, while a playmaker sees the whole floor, even when pressured.

For this reason, I do not think that Mayo, Ellis and Bayless need more dribbling drills to become point guards. They need more game awareness, and 1v0 dribbling drills will not create awareness. The dribbling drills may play a role, but it is a small role in the development of their point guard skills, as none struggles to beat defenders off the dribble or get into the paint. Instead, their personality leans to that of a scorer and to be a more traditional point guard, they need to move away from their habits and learn to be more aware of the whole court by expanding their attention from narrow-external to broad-external.

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