Game Awareness Skills, the FIBA World Championships and College Basketball Recruiting

Every August and September, college recruiting heats up, and people argue whether a player fits into one program more than another. The comment made more than any other is that a player is an “up-tempo” player and would not fit with a program that plays a slower tempo.

As I listened to Fran Fraschilla’s commentary during the USA v. Brazil game at the 2010 FIBA World Championships, I thought of these comments. Fraschilla stressed that Team USA is at its best in transition; the implication is that Team USA is not as good playing in the half-court or playing at a slower tempo, much like the comments made about many of the best high school players.

Now, players like Kevin Durant play well in any situation. However, across the Internet, bloggers, media and coaches have argued about what players fit better in the International game and who is a “FIBA player” vs. an “NBA player.” Players like O.J. Mayo are labeled “NBA players” while players like Chauncey Billups are described as good fits for the International game.

When I hear people describe a high school player as an “up-tempo” player who does not fit into a slower tempo program, I figure that the player is unskilled and lacks game awareness. After all, what types of players excel in transition? Who excels in the half-court?

Transition situations create a numbered-advantage for the offense which makes decision-making easier. With youth players, I play advantage games because they are not expert decision makers so they need more time and space to make decisions and execute skills.

With experienced players, I use disadvantaged drills to challenge players’ skills. For instance, to practice ball handling, I use 1v2 and 2v3 drills which condense the space and time. Expert players need to play in smaller spaces and need to play quicker because they play against bigger, faster, longer players who cover more ground.

For some reason, both with Fraschilla’s commentary and throughout the Internet regarding Team USA and high school recruits, U.S. players do not play well in limited space and time. They thrive in open court situations where they can use their quickness and athleticism in space, but they do not thrive in more half-court situations.

Many blame the different FIBA rules or the officials or the lack of practice time. However, many people say the same thing about high school recruits moving to NCAA basketball and even college players moving to the NBA. This is not a symptom of the FIBA World Championships but something that appears to be consistent throughout all levels.

Why? Watch a youth game. The game goes up and down the court like a track meet. The best players are the biggest, strongest, fastest players who out-run the others to score lay-ups or who out-muscle others in the paint for rebounds and put-backs. As players move to junior high school and high school, many teams press, which create transition situations in both directions. Coaches and administrators even argue that zones are bad for youth players, but full-court 5v5 games running up and down the court are good for development.

At the college level, to recruit the elite players, a coach must get up and down the court. According to many who follow college basketball and college basketball recruiting, the top players do not want to play in the half-court; they want to get up and down the court. College basketball is a guard’s game featuring dribble penetration and few post plays, so everyone, regardless of height or skill level, wants to be a guard and dribble the ball.

In the NBA, teams largely take advantage of match-ups or run plays to create match-ups that favor them.

Through this development system, prior to the NBA, the best players typically are the bigger, stronger, faster players. While these players may possess very good technical skills (shooting, ball handling, footwork), they can fall back on their size or athleticism. LeBron James, for instance, is very skilled; however, if he needs to, he can use his pure speed, athleticism and strength to bully opponents and get to the rim. Now, that does not lessen his skill level or talent or make him a bad player – he uses what he needs to use to be successful. However, it also does not force him to use different strategies or use his game awareness to create a shot.

Now, imagine that these players matriculate through 12 years of basketball where the best players, those who eventually play BCS and NBA basketball, can clear out and take their man whenever the going gets tough. Many blame AAU coaches for this; however, it is not AAU coaches. From a winning standpoint, it is the right approach, which is why coaches at every level use the strategy.

However, the end-product is that few coaches challenge players to develop their game awareness and discover new strategies to create baskets. When forced to play in situations where they cannot rely on their athleticism to overpower opponents, these flaws are highlighted, often for the first time in one’s career. For some, this happens in high school; these players do not make college teams. For others, it happens in college, and they are reduced to role players or sit on the bench. For some, it does not happen until the NBA. For the elite few, it may never happen, unless they face the right opponent in the NBA play-offs or the FIBA World Championships.

In the play-offs, LeBron James was exposed by the Celtics, in a sense, because he (and his team) struggled to adopt the necessary mental strategies to change his approach against the Celtics’ defense. In a sense, he worked harder, but not smarter. He fell back on his physical gifts, not his mental strategies, and his physical gifts were not enough to overcome the Celtics’ defensive game plan (his supporting cast obviously had something to do with the eventual loss, too).

Several years ago, I criticized the Cavaliers because James always received the ball 30-feet from the basket and had to beat five defenders. Against Brazil, USA fell into the same trap, especially in the final 5:00. There was almost no movement away from the ball and players simply took turns trying to go 1v1 (1v5). They reverted back to their old youth, high school and college habits, but they were unable to get the cheap calls because FIBA officials will not bail out an offensive player like high school, NCAA and NBA officials.

How do we correct this flaw?

We need to change youth basketball. I created the Playmakers Basketball Development League as a means to develop game awareness, but more and more, I think 3v3 leagues are the answer for beginner players.

Youth soccer players do not start with 11v11 full field soccer. They use small-sided games, starting with 4v4, 5v5, 7v7, 8v8, etc. They give players more space and time with the ball. Each player gets more repetitions with the ball to execute basic skills.

In an average game, rather than run up and down the court for an hour with 1-2 players dominating the ball with their size, strength and athleticism, each player gets more possessions and teams must use basic tactical skills (give-and-go, screens, on-ball screens) to create shots. Once they start with this development and learn the basics through 3v3 play, they can continue to use these skills in 5v5 play, hopefully in leagues with more balanced competition so 1-2 players cannot dominate the action co completely.

Every time that I hear that a player is an “up-tempo” player, I get frustrated. Former UCLA player Drew Gordon said that he was an “up-tempo” player, and he wanted to run the court and dunk. That might be a more fun style of play, but if he has a hope of playing at the next level, it’s not going to be because of his dunking ability. He’s an average athlete at the NBA level with below-average height for his position. He has no post moves, poor footwork and no shot beyond 12-feet. That’s why he is an “up-tempo” player: because he lacks the skills to play in the half-court. He has no real position: he lacks the post skills to be a post player and the shooting and ball handling ability to be a wing. He is the exact type of player who needs to play for a coach who forces him to play in the half-court and develop new skills. Instead, rather than develop these skills at the college level to give himself a chance, he transferred because he wants to dunk and run and do what he can do already.

As long as this mindset pervades, analysts like Fraschilla will have to make a big deal out of FIBA basketball to explain away the occasional struggles of Team USA when a team forces Team USA out of a transition game. It’s not that FIBA is a different game; it’s that many U.S. players lack the game awareness of a Steve Nash or Kobe Bryant to fall back on when they cannot overpower their opposition. Waiting to develop these skills in a three-week training camp before the World Championships will not solve the problem; instead, the solution starts early with an emphasis on game awareness skills for all players from the beginning of their playing careers.

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~ by Brian McCormick on August 30, 2010.

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