Coach: Problematic Passing Prowess
Much has been made (by me and by others) about how effective a passer Ricky Rubio is as a rookie. Rubio combined his physical gifts of pinpoint accuracy and strength behind the ball with great vision, seeing not only his open teammate but also that teammate’s defender and any other help that might be in the vicinity. One oft-overlooked piece to the puzzle when it comes to Rubio’s passing prowess is his outrageous sense of timing: Rubio (and other gifted passers) makes the right pass and leads teammates into easy scoring situations.
This may be the biggest difference between Rubio and other guys expected to make plays and facilitate offense. The ability to make great passes that facilitate offense and keep it in flow really comes down to three major components: physical mechanics / strength, vision and court awareness, and finally the ability to anticipate the see the play develop before committing to a decision. Many guards in the league possess the first two characteristics, but the third is one that few have (and, it seems, many are ignorant of).
Two issues erupt when it comes to timing: holding the ball too long, bypassing simple, correct plays in favor of potentially magical, “amazing” ones, or getting rid of the ball without a real plan, without a real attempt to set up teammates, in which easy scoring opportunities come via chance as much as anything.
The first category is on display when we watch a player like Brandon Jennings (or Baron Davis, back in the day). Jennings routinely makes some spectacular plays, but it is because he ignores easier scoring chances earlier in the possession, and seems to rely on intricate and non-fundamental play, that these plays come about. This type of play often leads to stifled ball movement, as players simply stop executing a team offense, overly-dependent on Jennings getting them the ball. They stand around and watch, hoping for the best. In this case, assists become about the passer, not a team goal of generating easy scoring opportunities.
In addition, this often leads to turnovers and bad shots, as Jennings’ teammates are not often in prime scoring positions when he chooses to make the delivery. Whether the turnover gets credited to Jennings or not, he simply passes teammates into trouble because of an unwillingness to make the correct play.
On the other extreme is players like Tyreke Evans (or Russell Westbrook). Evans’ size and athleticism allow him to get nearly anywhere on the court he wants. He also sees the second line of defenders very well, and his physical tools to make pinpoint passes are definitely top-notch. However, Evans does not have the sense of timing to put his teammates into a scoring position through his passes. Instead, he makes a pass because his action was disrupted, without and real forethought, without any real plan.
As a result, his teammates are often unprepared to catch and unable to score after they catch. Evans’ recognition of his teammates’ placement makes it hard for them to do anything but receive the pass and create on their own, again leading to turnovers and poor shots a high percentage of the time.
For players of both types, there are real remedies that can be applied. It all starts with the player recognizing the issue and admitting it is a problem. Far too many players quickly accept the praise they receive when it comes to their individual physical gifts and vision that they lose sight of the way to apply those talents through timing. Consistently drilling correct decision-making is painstaking, but made easier when the player accepts the teaching point.
Beyond drilling, however, is the need for the player to imprint the correct play as part of their approach to game situations. This means they need to see beyond the “how” and perceive the “why.” Challenging the player to comment on their play as they make it, to verbally acknowledge their thought process, forces them to adapt it as part of their actions. Literally having a player talk himself through a possession in both drillwork and in a game-simulated situation is the answer: whether the players will accept this diagnosis and accept this solution is a different thing entirely.
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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 and serves as an assistant coach at Paul VI Catholic High School (Fairfax, VA), currently ranked in the top 25 in the country by USA Today. The Coach’s Notebook appears on HOOPSWORLD every Thursday.