So here it is, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…..my answers to your questions! And by the way, y’all thought of some really good stuff. Some of them were really fun to mull over. In the end, I whittled it down to five that should cover a decent chunk of the basketball spectrum. For those of you whose questions I didn’t get to, I will (or have already) reply privately with at least a short response.
Thanks to all of you that took the time to send in some truly thoughtful and fun questions. But to avoid wasting anymore of your time, let’s get to it!
In player development, is it sometimes better to focus on further refining and elevating what the player already excels at? Or is it instead better to focus on a weakness?
When I first started working with basketball players, I would have told you without hesitation that you need to focus on a player’s weakness. After doing this for nearly a decade, my answer has not only changed drastically, but I’m not even sure it fits into a tidy response. In pretty much every way, the approach is wholly dependent on the player and his situation.
That said, the one non-negotiable weakness I’d address would be shooting. No matter what, if a player can’t knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers, it’s going to cost him money in likely both the short and long term. You can insert your basketball adage about shooters in this space and those exists because they’re true. Shooting earns minutes, breaths life into and also extends careers. It’s just an immensely valuable skill.
All that said, even the idea of devoting a lot of emphasis on helping refining someone’s outside shot during sessions comes with some caveats. Depending on the player’s future role, training time, etc, factors may pop up where expanding his energy on getting up a ton of shots just doesn’t produce much return.
I think the best way to approach this question in a vacuum is to actually avoid the idea of thinking of a player’s game in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Instead, the approach should be more focused on what he/she does on the floor. Every basketball player has gotten to this point by adapting — it’s basic evolution. During their formative years, they figured out ways to be good at basketball based on their size-skill-athleticism.
The biggest mistake I made early on was trying to transpose an ideal set of skills onto a player without factoring in the ingrained approach they already have developed through the rigors of competition. Basically I’d try to give Player X some type of shot/pass/approach without factoring in whether he/she was capable of utilizing or said technique when things went live. Everyone is built different. Some players are like sponges that can add new things into their games after a few reps. Others you can drill something a thousand times and it never carries over. Neither player is inherently better or worse, but they need to have their player development treated differently.
Since this is getting heavy-handed and ambiguous, I’ll try to illustrate with a real life example. One of the NBA guys my old business worked with years back was small, quick point guard who had never even practiced floaters before the NBA. Given his size, athleticism and mentality, we went with the idea of giving him a lot of Tony Parker stuff — drilling tons of floaters with all different kinds of footwork. The following season, he barely shot any floaters. So while we had addressed a perceived weakness it didn’t help anything.
What he instead continued to turn to during his minutes were lots of pull jumpers, off-balance leaners and finishes around the rim that required crazy amounts of spin given the angles he took to get there. Would floaters have been better in those spots and shored up a weakness he had in his mid-paint efficacy? Absolutely. But it didn’t matter because he wasn’t going to use them.
It was then the head of my old training group came up with the idea we jokingly referred to as “steering into the skid.” Instead of traditionally trying to shore up a weakness, the next summer we tried a different approach: we simply trained the shots he actually got to. From working on spinning the ball off the glass to weighting reps of jumpers to floaters heavily in favor of the former and mixing in some of his own, unique off-balance shots we refined the things he already did — even if it wasn’t the ideal way of doing things.
Now this response makes it seem like it’s better just to hammer home what a player is already good at. And in some cases, that works. But at the same time, what a player does well may also not be a style of play that helps teams win and/or gets them paid. It’s all really tricky.
Plus, I’ve had plenty of other guys who had an approach more conducive to adding things to their game that shored up a weakness. One particular sponge got introduced to the concept of a dribble-hold (keeping a defender going over a screen on his back while the rest of the play kept moving) and utilized it a ton the next season. The hard part is, it’s really hard to tell who is capable of what until deep into the process.
From the outside looking in, it’s natural to want to approach these big picture questions with a response that paints the picture of an idyllic process that culminates in a fully-formed player. In reality, this shit is messy. And I’m not sure even the things my experience (and science!) have taught me are right — there are just so many moving parts. So I guess the best process when looking at player development is just to remember it’s all dependent on the individual and go from there.
What’s different about the USA Basketball/FIBA international game versus the NBA? Choose your angle, but it would be nice to know how Coach Pop is going to approach the tournament differently than the NBA.
I figure since the FIBA tournament is the next big thing coming up on the basketball schedule, I would be wise to include a question about it.
As far as the differences go, well, there’s quite a few. Obviously the rules — the 3-point line being the big one — create a different dynamic to the game itself. I’d probably be doing y’all a disservice if I just listed the way different rules impact the style of play.
How Pop approaching coaching Team USA is a different story. I just can’t help but see this as his opportunity to go full-Pop. And by that I mean, lean hard into all his socialist, old-school tendencies.
For years with the Spurs, Pop has been the king of rotation roulette. You never know who was going to play, when they will and for how long. It’s been something increasingly jarring to the players and has led to Pop leaving a lot on the table when it came to optimizing his rotation. In that regard, he is the closest thing the NBA has had to a college coach, mostly because he has the juice to treat grown men like NCAA kids without losing credibility.
Now when it comes to the NBA, being bad at rotation management is kind of a big deal. That’s mostly because we have a lot of public-facing tools at our disposal to understand it. The international game, and this tournament in particular, has a lot in common with college basketball. In general when it comes to international basketball, coaches have more institutional power, there isn’t much emphasis on analytics, ball and player movement are both more necessary but also overused and lineup management is almost laughably incoherent. And when it comes to the this tournament, it’s such a short-lived event based off a small sample size, no one is going to capable of really drilling down nuanced takes on minor coaching leaks.
So my guess is that with Team USA, you see all the Spursian things Pop has brought to the table turned up to 11. I would be shocked if every player suited up didn’t get some run in a given game — as in 12-man rotations will probably be the norm. I’m also assuming that there will be a ton of side-to-side ball movement and Pop will swap entire 5-man lineups of players if the ball sticks in someone’s hands for more than his famous half-second of allotted time before we know what’s happening. He does those things already in San Antonio, but there’s nothing really holding him back from doing it whenever he feels like this current, watered down version of Team USA isn’t on the level he wants.
But while such an approach may be antithetical to winning in a lot of ways (by that I mean opposes the golden rule of always playing your best players as much as possible), it may have more appeal to some fans. Between the influence of data, health concerns, salary cap and never-ending analysis, NBA basketball has become a lot more cerebral than emotive. My guess is Pop is going to relish the idea of going back to the old-school roots of just getting a team to come together, share the ball and play super hard. It’ll be Norman Dale in red, white and blue.
I’m not sure it’ll be all that great to watch, but it will definitely be different.
What NBA teams have you the most intrigued this year?
I got this question from a few different people. I’m guessing in some form or fashion, I’ll tackle such a question more in depth closer to the season. But since people were asking, I decided to give short responses for the time being about a few teams that I’ll be keeping an eye on.
Dallas: Doncic and Porzingis are a fascinating young duo. Not sure the Mavericks have enough around them, but curious to see what type of results that twosome can pull off this year.
Utah & Milwaukee: All of the shooting.
Houston: I mean, who isn’t interested to see how Mike D’Antoni handles Westbrook and Harden?
Golden State: Steph Curry will have to be a monster to keep them near the top of the West. Can he do that and will D’Angelo Russell help much?
Orlando: Just kidding! Even if they wind up being decent, I can’t imagine it being at all interesting to non-Magic fans.
As a S&C professional, are there any drills/exercises/equipment/modalities that you think are either under- or over-used amongst basketball athletes? Basically I’m curious if there’s anything you typically like to implement that is absent in a lot of other basketball training environments or if there’s anything that’s commonly used that you prefer to stay away from.
I love that there are strength coaches like Aryeh out there asking questions like this one. That said, I always hesitate to answer this stuff like I’m some type of expert because there are probably dozens of better, more experienced strength coaches doing great things in basketball that I don’t compare to. So with that in mind, I’ll keep it simple.
A lot of the influence in the programming I’ve used the past few years has come from the need to get guys out of pain. I know I already wrote a long newsletter at length about that topic, so I will do my best not to regurgitate it in this response. I think in the grand scope of trying to get guys (or girls!) out of a pain, a strength coach can never error in terms of working too much on deceleration or just getting really good on one leg. Both those things factor into the big picture work of getting your athletes moving better and (hopefully) without pain.
The one thing that has always amazed me the most is just how much of a struggle it can be for basketball players to control the force they produce on landings. Sometimes you see guys that can damn near fly come down in such a jarring fashion (During controlled jumps even!) that it’s literally cringe-worthy. That’s why a lot of programming I’ve used in past years had a fair amount of single leg deceleration stuff (hurdle hops and the like) than I’ve seen used in most places. It’s just something most basketball players never work on.
You still have to be cautious because it still requires force production to, ya know, have your athlete jump in the air, but on the whole, I’d say it’s a glaring omission in a lot of S&C programming. In some ways, Instagram ruins this (and a lot of other things!) because to “sell” training, putting out stuff of guys going bonkers on a Vertimax or doing all kinds of explosive movements with a bevy of bells and whistles involved looks way cooler. Having a kid do a single-leg jump over a mini-hurdle with a controlled landing isn’t getting you likes, page views and future clients. But the latter addresses a crucial aspect when it comes to the needs of the basketball population.
Now that said, it needs to work in concert with what the athlete is doing on the basketball court and for the rest of his programming. Doing a bunch of jumping all week in the weight room when your athletes than go do high-intensity training on the court seems like a recipe for problems, especially if there’s already persistent knee pain involved. But when it fits, anything you can do when it comes to teaching basketball players — or just athletes, especially young ones, in general — how to stop and control the force they produce will help them a great deal.
Sekou Doumbouya was the youngest player selected in this summer's draft… if you were in charge of his development program for season one, what would you focus on and why?
Figure this is a good way to bookend the newsletter given the first question. But I think this one is pretty simple. In year one in the NBA, Doumbouya is just trying survive. For a wing like him, he needs to have a very simple skillset, especially given he’s on a team featuring Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson.
I’ve already touched on the importance of being able to knock down shots above, so I can skip over how heavy of an emphasis I’d have on both volume and situational catch-and-shoot reps. But aside from that, I’d structure a lot of Doumbouya’s player development work on attacking closeouts, with some very simple dribble-hand off reads sprinkled in over the course of each week. And to be honest, the non-closeout work would almost be more to break the monotony over the year than anything else.
Given what I know of his game and athleticism, I would do my best to create situational drills — using video room interns or any additional help staff — where Doumbouya would have to make reads against rotations. I’ve watched some film of the kid and he has, well, we’ll call it a nonchalance in his approach sometimes. I’d both try to make sure ingrain a mentality of ripping the rim off each time he attacked downhill and structure the games so he was rewarded for dunking over help staff coming over to contest (using a pad or another gadget to simulate NBA length).
However, a lot of attacking closeouts in the NBA doesn’t result in just scoring. I’d also be sure to mix in situations where he made passes off his drives. Sometimes it’d be games just based off making the right read against rotation help. Other times just drilling him making a pass after attacking downhill, then getting back out for a shot. This would all be augmented by just hammering home the notion that this is what will be required of him in any minutes he’d see in Year 1.
At such a young age, I’m not sure he’d be able to get himself ready for NBA minutes right away. But I think this approach would at least given him a foundational skill set to be ready for a move into the rotation next season.