Coach: Tightening Up an NBA Player’s Handles
Whether the two sides in the lockout dispute come to some arrangement or not, a true professional will continue to work on his craft. One of the most universal skills in basketball is ball-handling, and specifically the ability to dribble effectively. Sound dribbling technique is important for the point guard as he leads the fast break and for the center as he attacks out of the low post. The ability to control the basketball in the face of pressure and contact is critical to success, and is one of the most easily practiced skills in the entire game: all you need is a ball and some space.
It is curious why such a straightforward skill seems so mysterious to players around the world – I get more chat questions and email inquiries about how to improve ball-handling than any other topic. Many of the themes below may seem relatively common-sense – and to be honest, most of basketball is – but the application of these concepts in a real life setting is where the challenge lies.
Before looking at any skill development work, it is important to recognize that what one does is nowhere near as important as how one does it. In other words, the sheer number of drills or repetitions is meaningless if the speed and intensity of those actions is not at the highest level. One of the goals in the workouts we do at the Pro Training Center is to push players beyond their comfort level, and to encourage and then applaud mistakes.
Why applaud mistakes? The idea in player development and practice is to prepare for a game. We want players to make as many mistakes as possible while going full bore in our gym. We literally treat it like a laboratory, where we are experimenting with different skills. If a player blows off his eyebrows once or twice in the lab, no big deal. Those learning experiences will make him stronger when he gets to the game situation.
Obviously, this also means we don’t accept halfhearted or even 75% effort during a workout. We constantly go at breakneck speed and intensity. A saying we have during all of our ball-handling drills is that if you aren’t losing the ball, you aren’t going hard enough. Every time the ball leaves a player’s hand and descends toward the hardwood, it should be as if a nail is jutting out of the floor and the ball is the hammer. The player should snap the ball as hard as possible, creating a situation where the ball spends the least amount of time out of his control (the harder the dribble, the shorter the flight time to the ground and back and the longer the ball will “stick” in the players hand).
Practicing in this manner also helps simulate gameplay against a strong defender. We don’t practice hard for weak defenders – we practice hard so that when we go up against a very good defender, a guy who is going to crawl up into us, we are ready. By “hammering nails” during every drill, we simulate the kind of pressure that a world-class defender applies.
One of the common questions that comes up as players practice their ball-handling is how they can add more moves to their arsenal. At least 85% of the time, however, a player does not need more moves. Rather he needs to restrict the quantity of moves, and instead focus and the way he executes a small, yet reliable stable of moves. This focus should be on how to change speed and status, and less on the variety of ways to execute the same basic skill. Let’s look at changing speed, we’ll explore changing status later.
Players should have at least four and preferably more distinct gears on the basketball court as they change ends. Each speed should be identifiable by observation: an onlooker should be able to tell when a player has moved from one speed to another without anyone else on the floor, and the transition should be quick and powerful, whether the player is speeding up or slowing down. Transitioning between speeds effectively is how really great players, even ones who have lost a step like Steve Nash, get past defenders – not variety of moves.
Another area that is often overlooked is how players change status. Changing status means going from an upright forward-facing posture, to a sliding position, in which the player rotates his hips 60-90 degrees (keeping eyes forward) and the ball is moved to behind the back leg in a protected area. A great example of the ability to change speed and status happens when a player (imagine Chris Paul) is moving up the court with the ball and two defenders move to trap. A quick change of status, coupled with a few negative steps (ball protected) sucks the defenders in, and then a rapid change of speed and status back into attack mode allows CP3 to explode past the advancing double-team.
Post-oriented players can use this maneuver as well – imagine a bigger player like Dirk Nowitzki receives the ball on the wing. He moves to attack baseline in a normal attack posture but is shut down by his defender. Changing status, Dirk backs the ball back out to the perimeter, and then advances via the slide into a post-up position at a different speed. These kinds of maneuvers are universal in basketball, and much easier to practice (and perfect) than the ability to perform fifteen different dribble moves.
Finally, a last thing that ball-handling workouts must incorporate is psychology, specifically ball-confidence. Mental strength and poise in the face of ball-hawking defensive pressure are important – otherwise, players tend to look nervous or fidgety, and defenses attack that display of weakness. This is a point where a workout might incorporate two ball drills.
Most times, two-ball drills are used in an inappropriate way. Coaches employ them to teach technique – the problem is, nothing about a two-ball drill is game-realistic. However, if they are used appropriately (specifically to engender confidence), they are a great tool. The idea here is to give the player an almost unbeatable mentality: “if I can do this with two balls, doing it with one is easy.” They also help players to develop different sides of their body to do different things (asymmetrical coordination). If I am passing a ball with one hand while hammering nails with a different ball in my other hand, moving out onto a court, I am much more confident in my ability to direct traffic with one hand while protecting a live dribble with the other.
There are three drills a player can add to their workouts to really make a difference in their overall ball-handling. Most workouts we run will include at least one of these series – each series only lasts for 5-7 minutes, but players often report it is the most intense part of the workout. With each drill, players should work to keep their eyes up and scanning the floor throughout, imagining defenders. The ball should pounded into the ground at full speed every time.
Kill the Grass Series: Set up in an area no bigger than an 8-10’ diameter circle. The center or foul line circles on most courts work well. Start with the ball in the weak hand. Moving in random around that space, hammer nails with the weak hand for a period of 45 seconds. Change speed and status in that small an area constantly. Add in spins and in-and-outs but keep the dribble hard and fast. After the 45 seconds, take a 15 second break, and then repeat with the strong hand only. After another break, do the same thing but make every dribble a crossover so the ball is constantly switching hands as you move creatively around that small area. Finally, do the last segment as creatively as possible, with no rules as to which hands to use. Move fast and with intensity, and if the ball is lost (applaud mistakes), track it down and continue.
Two Ball Partner Series: This drill is best accomplished with a partner but a wall can suffice. Set up with two balls, one in each hand. Start by hammering both balls into the ground, shoulder height, simultaneously. After fifteen seconds, move to hip height, then fifteen seconds and to knee height, and fifteen seconds and to ankle height. Now, continue hammering the ball in the weak hand just below hip height. With the other hand, pass the ball back and forth with your partner for a period of 45 seconds. Take the fifteen second break, and repeat on the opposite side. Finally, crossing the ball over between the two hands, throw and catch a pass one hand while maintaining a hammered dribble with the other hand.
Moreau Blowout Series: Named after one of my mentors (and former HOOPSWORLD analyst), the Mike Moreau series pushes players to change speed and gears. Start on the baseline of a court with a ball, hammering it just outside the foot with one hand. The drill involves crossing the ball over with pound dribbles in between each cross, and then exploding forward to the foul line, imagining the potential double team, and changing status to slide back to the baseline. Upon reaching the baseline, crossover and explode again forward, now moving up the court and changing speeds (and maybe even status) a few times on the way. Players should call out what “gear” they are in as they change at first; articulating their actions helps players recognize how often they change speeds and what the intensity change does. Once the other side is reached, take a brief break, and then start over to go back the other way, but this time changing the number of dribbles in between each cross, or adding a double cross to the end after the backwards slide, etc. The idea is to be creative with the way you change speed and status, but to focus specifically on that skill. Repeat for four full-court trips.
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.