Coach: Rubio’s reads, Durant’s off-ball footwork
Rubio reads second line
I will admit I have a man-crush on Ricky Rubio. I love watching him play. I feel drawn to watch the Minnesota Timberwolves now because I want to dissect everything he does and make it part of the way I teach players that I work with.
More than anything, I have been very impressed with the way Rubio reads the second line of defenders, particularly out of ball-screen situations, but really in any penetration. His ability to keep tabs on all five defenders, know their position, recovery angle, speed, and matchup is remarkable for an NBA rookie.
When we teach young players the ball screen, our first teaching point is to explode of the screen and look to get to the rim. The idea is that they will put more pressure on the defense and force them into a commitment decision, which will then allow the offense to find open men and create good offense.
It is an effective, though not particularly nuanced, teaching point. Rubio is well beyond that chapter in the textbook, as he is changing speeds and uses the screens differently depending on how the defenders have chosen to guard him. If they are stringing him out, he uses a medium speed to lure the screener’s defender with him in order to create more space for the pick-n-pop man (typically Kevin Love). If they hard hedge, he often hesitates and then turns the corner to draw help defenders toward the lane, opening passing angles for shooters and cutters.
He has every option for how to come off the screen, call for a re-screen, or refuse the screen ready at every moment, and he goes through the same progression each time. By the time his shoulder has reached the screener’s hip, Rubio has targeted the help defender he is going to abuse. If the defender has two feet in the lane, and the man he is guarding has the ability to shoot, Rubio is making the pass. Only one foot in the lane? The pass is rarely made.
Rubio’s ability to hit the opposite side of the floor with the pass is not only a function of outstanding athletic talents (and they are considerable – some of the passes he throws can only be made by a handful of players on the planet), but also his vision and capacity to anticipate both defenders and his teammates’ actions.
As time goes on, Rubio will find that teams simply stop loading the lane against him, and they will force him to score or dribble through. In the long-term, this will not be a problem if he understands that not looking to score would actually be selfish. I would expect him to become a master of that 10’ half-floater half jumper that Rajon Rondo utilizes, along with a great feel for finishing around the rim with arm fully extended for a Steve Nash-like flip shot. Just the threat of scoring will open up entire new avenues for him.
There is a beauty to watching the game be played the way Rubio does. Easy plays, controlling the action, and getting the defender to give you easy decisions is the key, and as a rookie, Ricky Rubio looks like a veteran.
Kevin Durant’s off-the-ball footwork
One of the least emphasized aspects of basketball development taught is the ability and desire to constantly change speed and direction. More than any other athletic skills in the game, having multiple (discernible) speeds and being able to shift from one attack angle to the other are the most critical for a player’s long term growth and potential.
Kevin Durant has had enough tutelage (self-taught or from others) that he is constantly changing gears and direction before he receives the ball – and his long legs give us a window into how he does it.
Durant has a plan for every screen that he engages to get open. He leaves very little space for any defender to fight through, and because of his footwork, he tortures every defender who tries. Using short, choppy steps as he reaches the level of the screen, Durant is able to both pick the angle he will come off, and the exact moment he will spring to the free area.
Many guys “run” off screens at full speed, without a real plan in mind of what do to control their defender. Durant, however, is the opposite. He does not reach full speed until he has determined exactly the best way to abuse the defender. The short, choppy steps allow him to pick his angle because he can push in that direction at any point (i.e., the defender is at his mercy).
Then, when Durant finally engages the angle he wants to take, his legs become like springs firing off in that direction. He takes long, purposeful strides that create space between him and his defender, and this sudden change of speed often leaves the defender behind.
Durant’s long legs are a real showcase for his footwork changes: smaller steps to set up speed and direction, and longer strides to create space and engage with burst. It is that easy for every player, if they put the time, attention to detail, and work into their movement off the ball.
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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.