Coach: Evaluating Game Understanding
In this multi-part series on evaluating potential NBA talent, Coach Macri will explain a typical process for the breakdown of players and what kinds of things the average fan should consider watching college games with an eye on who their team might select. In this week’s article, he provides considers how to judge a player’s level of game understanding.
Every talent evaluator has a different rubric through which they assess potential players. In order for me to help a player improve, I must first spend time observing them, taking both a snapshot of their game and then spend time in a comprehensive breakdown of strengths and weaknesses. Most of the things I look for fit into one of four categories:
1.) Offensive game understanding
2.) Defensive game understanding
3.) Skills / talents
4.) Physical gifts
One thing readers may find absent from the list above that they might expect as its own category is a player’s attitude / coachability. In my experience, this is so important that in many ways it transcends the other categories: my ability to assess a player’s attitude happens throughout a process, not as a separate point. In addition, I actually think this can be one of the hardest things to assess through observation. The reality is that many players treat being a professional basketball player differently than they did when it was only a segment of their lives. Often, the characterization of immaturity stems from what they did or didn’t do off the floor, rather than how they did on it.
There are numerous aspects of each of these categories that factor into player evaluation. In this article, I am going to take a look at four features of offensive game understanding and two facets of defensive game understanding. This is not meant to be exhaustive—instead, it is to give you an idea of things to watch for beyond whether a team is winning or losing and if the player you think your team should go after is scoring points.
Offensive Game Understanding
It is a reality of basketball that most college prospects play way too fast. One thing to watch players for is if they allow defenders make a mistake. Does a player force shots in awkward spots? Do they drive into multiple defenders? Do they rush to dribble after a catch instead of scanning the floor? Really good offensive players, regardless of position, exploit mistakes by taking small edges on the court. A player like North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall is excellent at this: he does not rush, but when he sees an angle he can utilize, he takes it quickly.
While allowing defenders to make a mistake is something to watch for in good offensive players, the best offensive players constantly put defenders to a commitment decision in order to “force” a mistake. When you watch a game next, watch a highly rated prospect when he doesn’t have the basketball: on the perimeter, is he constantly moving into dead areas of the floor, or does he stand in one spot waiting for the ball? If he is moving to dead areas, he is essentially forcing the defense to decide: do I help defend the ball or do I keep myself in position to recover to my matchup?
Another rule to consider when watching prospects is that strong offensive basketball is not about making tough shots, but about creating easy ones. Fans and inexperienced observers often overvalue players who are consistently finishing impossibly acrobatic buckets at the rim, or hitting spinning fadeaways over outstretched defenders. While these plays are eye-catching and it is easy to identify players who are athletic enough to take and make these kind of shots, strong prospects do not put themselves in these positions very often. If every shot is a difficult one, it demonstrates a player’s tendencies toward forcing the action, which often belies general impatience on the floor. Some tougher shots are difficult if not impossible to avoid, and to be quite honest, some players are so talented that their physical gifts and skills overwhelm how difficult a shot might be. However, these players are few and far between. For the vast majority of players, the easier they can make every decision on the court, the better off they are in the long run.
An often unnoticed aspect of offensive game understanding is how much a player values position on the floor. One of the first things I look for in an interior player is where they attempt to post-up, especially in transition. Mediocre and bad players run to the block (or even a step off the block). They are then often pushed out even further than the block. Strong, smart players work to gain the valuable real estate in front of the rim in the middle of the lane. This way, if they get pushed out to the block, at least they took an opportunity at getting an easy shot (or a chance to get fouled). Perimeter players must also value position: how far away from the rim are players willing to catch the ball? If a player is constantly receiving the ball outside of a true operational area, they fail to put defenders to a commitment decision, and they become very easy to guard.
Defensive Game Understanding
Physical gifts play a huge role in how good a defender can be. However, there are numerous aspects of defensive understanding that can be evaluated, as many players are so reliant on their physical dominance that they find themselves lost as their opponents get better and better. A great indicator of good game understanding is how well a defender handcuffs the offense. For a guard, this usually means pure ball pressure. The ability to put tremendous and relentless pressure on a ball-handler is a huge advantage.
Another example of handcuffing is how a big defends in the post after the catch. Players with really good game understanding rarely if ever attempt to block a shot of the player they are guarding. They challenge with hands high, then box out. They look for blocked shots out of helpside defense. By staying down against their matchup, they handcuff the offense: it is hard to exploit that mistake when there is no mistake!
One of the most common mistakes for a prospect to make on the defensive end is to either over-commit or under-commit. Being able to recognize this tendency (one way or the other) usually also means having an understanding of the defensive gameplan of the team they are playing on. Teams have different approaches to helping from one pass away against a strongside drive: to evaluate whether a player over-commits to helping in that spot, you have to know if the team wants him to position fully in the way of the penetration, to stunt and recover, or to stay home. Some players, regardless of their team’s gameplan, either over-commit or under-commit in these situations.
An additional case is a player who over-commits to getting steals and deflections, consistently putting themselves out of a play (making a mistake that the offense can take advantage of). Many of these players have great steal statistics: that does not mean they are playing smart defense, and it is only through intelligent game observation that this reality bears itself out.
Have questions for Coach Macri? Be sure and drop by HOOPSWORLD on Mondays at 3PM Eastern for the Coach’s weekly basketball chat! You can also follow Coach Macri on Twitter @CoachMacri.
Each week, HOOPSWORLD NBA analyst and coach Anthony Macri will open his notebook and offer an assortment of observations on games, players, and teams from throughout the league. Coach Macri serves as a player development consultant for the Pro Training Center and Coach David Thorpe, working with a variety of NBA players on their skills and game understanding. The Coach’s Notebook appears on HOOPSWORLD every Thursday.