The sequel to our discussion on developing young players by exposing them to elite advanced technical and tactical basketball from day one.
In Part 1 we shared a recent discussion I’d had with Elite Pathways coach and zicocoronel.com reader Josh Reeves of New Plymouth, New Zealand about the merits of the 5-out pass, cut and replace offence as a vehicle for the development of youth players. If you haven’t read that main course yet I strongly suggest that you do before diving into this dessert as you’ll get more benefit out of it!
I believe that the optimal spacing for all levels of basketball is 4 perimeter players predominantly behind the 3-point line around 1 interior player, in short, 4 around 1.
I do acknowledge however that arguably the greatest basketball ever played was by the 2014 San Antonio Spurs, who primarily played 3 around 2. The Spurs employed other worldly anticipatory reads to be in the right place at the right time and had outstanding passing bigs - especially Boris Diaw - that made this optimally effective. It would be interesting to know if it is easier to teach and replicate the 2014 Spurs or the 2017 Houston Rockets, and if, in the following 4 years whether the explosion in 3-point shooting has rendered the 2014 Spurs as sub-optimal and obsolete.
4 around 1 spacing creates both space at the 3-point line to dribble penetrate the initial line of the defence (you can create double gaps by being corner-slot-slot-corner, making it difficult to help on the ball without abandoning shooters) and space on the interior to get all the way to the rim to finish. If the interior defender helps on the drive the reads are simplified: lob or bounce pass to the interior player in the dunker spot or wheeling, or kick out to the perimeter shooter if the crack back (aka crash down, V-back, and second rotation among many other terminologies I’m sure) denies the pass to the interior player. This simple read is especially true if there is a 2 Side Front Side on the drive (2 v 1 read; each defender is responsible for 2 offensive players). A 1 Side Front Side will generally create a 3 v 2 read (each defender is responsible for 1.5 offensive players) which is more difficult but should be able to be successfully navigated by a good player.
In contrast 5-out spacing does not create space at the 3-point line to dribble penetrate the initial line of the defence as there are no double gaps (they’re all single gaps which allows defenders to help and recover much more easily). 5-out does have the benefit of creating space on the interior making it easier to finish or to cut into. However only a poor team will allow this. You will find success against them anyhow and besides you’re not preparing your players to beat bad players. A good team will invariably help and now the player has a 4 v 3 advantage on the perimeter. This is a much harder kick out decision and because each defender is only responsible for 1.33 offensive players they should be able to rotate long enough to recover to an even number 4 v 4 situation once more.
3 around 2 spacing creates plentiful room at the 3-point line to dribble penetrate the initial line of the defence but it heavily congests the interior making it near on impossible to get to the rim for the finish. With a 3 v 2 close quarters advantage on the interior the reads for the driver are complex if help comes. Because the rim is well protected perimeter defenders will not nervously sink back to help on the interior and therefore it will be difficult to create space for uncontested 3-point attempts.
Of course the benefits of 4 around 1 spacing (or the other spacings to a lesser extent) is somewhat nullified if your players don’t have gravity. Gravity is a measure of how closely a player’s defender feels compelled to mark them. The two most common ways of having a lot of gravity are 1: to be a willing, high percentage 3-point shooter with a quick release; or 2) or someone who’s length, jumping ability, good hands, and finishing ability offers vertical spacing because they’re a threat to catch and finish lobs. This forces their defender to stay attached on penetration longer and means the driver is more likely to be able to finish at the rim or a perimeter defender collapses in opening up a kick out pass to a shooter. The Houston Rockets’ Clint Capela is a good example of this type of player.
To maintain this 4 around 1 spacing and stretch the defence horizontally (North-South and East-West if the hoop represents North) and vertically, it is important that your players maintain their spacing. Players should stand still in high value areas - the rim (while avoiding a 3 second violation), the dunker spot, or behind the 3-point line. Any movement a player makes should be made as quickly as possible between these high value areas of the court, thereby minimising the amount of time they spend in sub-optimal areas (non-rim paint 2s, non-paint 2s). When players loiter in these sub-optimal areas they significantly compromise their team’s spacing.
Players often feel compelled to move, especially if they are closely guarded on the perimeter, hopefully because their shooting ability gives them a lot of gravity. In fact a player on a balanced offensive team should relish being hugged on the perimeter and should try and stretch their defender as much as possible by sprinting to the corner if they’re on the 1 Side or the 2 Low, or by playing as a stepper (approximately 1 metre off the 3-point line) if they’re the 2 High. If their defender continues to hug them then their team mates have maximum space to play 4 v 4, which makes it easier to score than 5 v 5 in only slightly more space. If two defenders hug their man then it becomes 3 v 3 with plenty of space and it’s even easier to score. Of course it’s easiest to score 1 v 1 (assuming no numbers advantage exists) and if you really want to help your players to understand (and I believe stretching a concept to the extreme, ridiculous end of the continuum can be a great way to lend clarity to a quandary that may see very confusing in the middle of the potential scope of outcomes) have them imagine how hard it would be to score and how little space there would be “15 v 15.” Most high school students would have experienced a PE or social basketball game where there’s been too many players (more than 5 v 5) on the court and will relate well with this scenario.
Young players can be taught to understand this elite advanced concept. You can do it through verbal questioning - “is it easier to score 5 v 5 or 4 v 4?” They’ll reply, “4 v 4.” Then ask them, “is it easier to score 4 v 4 or 3 v 3?” They’ll reply, “3 v 3.” Then you just point out that their defender hugging them on the perimeter creates a 4 v 4 situation which we’ve established is advantageous for their offence, so the best thing they can do is stretch their defender as much as poorly and drag them out of the play. Or you can create the appropriate constraints for experiential learning and following up with verbal questioning to unpack the activities. You start by playing 5 v 5 half court and each game reduce the number of players, 4 v 4 next game and so on. Then you ask the same questions as above. I’m confident that even beginners will understand.
I like to use the analogy of “Snipers” versus “Infantry” to aid players understanding of this off ball spacing concept. “Snipers” are still (they sit behind the 3-point line and use their gravity to stretch the defence), ready (early shot preparation), watching - so they know their ‘shot-drive-pass’ decision pre-catch or so that they see if their defender’s positioning and/or loss of vision has provided them with an opportunity to make a purposeful sprint cut to the rim, like Bullrush (Soft Focus), and when their opportunity comes they shoot accurately! Klay Thompson is perhaps the basketball world’s most deadly “Sniper” currently.
In contrast, “Infantry” are moving, which makes it more difficult to read their defender, their movement becomes less surgically purposeful, they’re not ready to shoot because they’re often in sub-optimal areas of the court so a catch and shoot attempt would be an inefficient non-rim 2, and they’re also not ready because their feet are not set. It requires a higher degree of skill to shoot a high percentage in these situations.
The need for “Snipers” should inform your youth player development. You can enhance your players’ ceilings by making developing biomechanically sound shooting technique at the forefront of your program. With young players you should go to great lengths to ensure that the appropriate equipment relative to your players’ strength - ball size and hoop height - is available for your practices!
All players should be afforded a “green light” and educated on shot selection. Players should be allowed to select what shots to take under guidance from you, the coach. If they get it wrong, teach them to make better decisions in a positive and affirming manner (Mistakes of Commission). The worst thing a coach can do is give a player an “orange light.” Shooting is so much about certainty and confidence and an “orange light” rapidly erodes both. It’s self-fulfilling - “green lights” will become good shooters provided they have biomechanically sound technique and “orange lights” go “red” (I.e. they won’t shoot it well and then the coach won’t let them shoot it anymore). Allowing players a “green light” incentivises them to practice their shooting and this is imperative to them becoming elite advanced players.
On an elite advanced team players should either be “green lights” and shoot when they’re open for efficient shots, or they should be “red lights” and immediately morph open catches on the perimeter into kick on 2 v 1 on ball screens before their defender can recover to help, kick on 2 v 1 pin screens before their defender can recover to help, or a 2 v 1 DHO before their defender can recover to help. New Zealand’s recently retired legend Dillon Boucher was an absolute master at these “red light” tactics.
The worst players for the functioning of an elite advanced offence are “orange lights” who either hesitate and then shoot, throwing the timing of their sequential rotation out causing them to miss (shoot an inefficient percentage, not necessarily 0%), or freeze the ball before moving on to a subsequent action (such as a kick on on ball screen, a kick on pin screen or a DHO) so that their defender has time to recover out of their help and make it a 2 v 2 action once more.
The absolute best players are “green lights” who utilise Soft Focus to make their shot-drive-shift decisions pre-catch so they can both punish late close outs with high percentage 3-point shooting and rapidly move the offence from one action to the next. Often a defender will have half control of his man’s ability to shoot an uncontested shot following the first offensive action, for example a pick and pop, but if the offensive player quickly moves on to the next offensive action, such as a second side DHO, then his man will be late to help, will have to separate more than he desires to regain control of the dribble drive and now on the second catch the offensive player will be 100% open for a shot or a go and catch rim attack. Under 17 player Robbie Coman of Auckland, New Zealand is very good at utilising these concepts, proving it is possible for young players to apply elite advanced concepts in live competition.
Therefore beyond creating mere “Snipers” youth coaches should invest their time in developing players who are elite at utilising Soft Focus and making optimal pre-catch shot-drive-shift decisions and have the skill to execute their decisions successfully. I believe this is a much more productive use of time than teaching them 5-out pass, cut and replace.
Take them fine dining from day one... Serve them chocolate millefueille for dessert!