Coach’s Notebook: Developing a Point Guard
Each week, HOOPSWORLD NBA analyst and coach Anthony Macri opens his notebook and offers 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.
This is the second part in a series of articles on offseason player development at the NBA level. Right about now, every year, players contact trainers and skill development coaches to help them take their games to the next level for the coming year. This may be even more prevalent in this “lockout-enhanced” offseason. The majority of players that contact us at the Pro Training Center are about to enter a contract year, and are looking to put themselves in the best position to maximize their value for future negotiations. For this series, I will examine how we might put together an offseason skill development plan for players at the five positions on the floor, utilizing players who will enter the free agent market in 2012 as examples. Let’s get to it…
Developing a Point Guard
Perhaps the most critical position for a team’s overall team success, developing strong point guard play is a primary priority at the professional level. Competition at this position is fierce. At other positions, size plays a huge role in determining success – but that is not necessarily the case for point guards. The position demands deep understanding of offensive and defensive schemes and theories, and especially in recent years an increased emphasis on the value of athleticism has changed the way point guards develop.
Despite the historically high level of point guard play around the league, finding a good point guard who can truly lead a team at a championship level is harder than filling most any other position. In the summer of 2012, D.J. Augstin and Russell Westbrook are two point guards who will become restricted free agents. These two, despite their different playing styles and training needs, would follow a relatively similar plan. However, they should target different elements of their games for improvement through emphasizing different teaching points throughout training.
Point guards would go through many of the same athleticism and explosion drills I highlighted for centers in the first article of this series. An emphasis on athleticism and the ability to finish around the rim is necessary for all players, and lead guards are no different. It doesn’t matter how adept a player is at reaching the rim if he can’t finish once he gets there.
In addition, a point guard who is able to rebound effectively increases his value exponentially. Since most are not asked to rebound much, they don’t look for times when they can secure extra possessions for their team. One or two extra possessions a game can add up over the course of a season when it comes to statistics like adjusted +/- and win shares – and those are stats that figure prominently into contract negotiations.
There are three major areas in point guard play we would look at over the course of an offseason development program. First would be maximizing the guard’s ability to play in curves in addition to straight lines (a topic I discussed at length earlier in the season). Russell Westbrook is an excellent test subject when it comes to playing in curves. Westbrook can dominate with his explosive moves, but nearly everything is linear, with slashing movements coming in diagonals, and any changes in direction at sharp angles. This is an excellent foundation for Westbrook and takes advantage of his physical gifts, but it also limits his overall development if he does not add the ability to play in less blunt strokes.
During the playoffs, I brought up the idea of playing in curves again, specifically in reference to the changes (and perceived growth) in Derrick Rose’s game. This offseason, Westbrook would spend a lot of time drilling curvier situations – exploring ways to probe defenses, flirt with defenders, and change his overall attacking approach. Westbrook is well known for getting into the foul lane area and stopping for short jumpers, with somewhat inconsistent results. Our goal would be to help him see opportunities where he can drive into that area, hesitate, lurk, and then circle back out to the perimeter. As he got comfortable with the notion, we would then drill back in the concept of delayed explosion: Westbrook probes, finds no immediate openings, starts to circle out. His defender, relaxing even slightly, raises up out of his stance, and Westbrook immediately pounces toward the rim. The threat of delayed attack would increase his effectiveness immediately; right now, defending Westbrook means stopping his initial penetration (easier said than done). Adding variety and patience to his attack would make him more complete and put more consistent pressure on defenses to contain him.
Both Westbrook and Augustin would spend a lot of time working out of ball-screen situations. Both side ball screens and top (flat) ball screens would be taught, drilled, and evaluated. Regardless of the offensive system being employed by a team, the ability to execute ball screens effectively is a huge part of any point guard’s education. At the very least, it becomes the default way to get an attempt on the rim at the tail end of the shot clock.
Three major teaching points would be presented to both Westbrook and Augustin, with special emphasis coming at different moments in the sequence. Teaching the players to flirt with the screen, then commit by exploding would be the first segment. One of the main features of successful ball screening is deception, and we would spend time working on small body fakes and stunts at the screen before committing at full speed. The cadence and rhythm of attack needs to be varied and ever changing. Augustin often plays at a moderate to quick tempo – and it works for him with some degree of success. However, the ability to change speed, going from a flirt to an all out attack, is something he does entirely too rarely. We would teach him to flirt and go, to flirt / flirt and go, and sometimes to not flirt (and just go). These kinds of changes seem simple, but they are immensely effective at keeping the defender off balance.
The second segment would deal with reading defenders. Westbrook struggles at times reading the second line of defenders (this shortcoming also plays out in the fact he attacks in straight lines 99% of the time). Our goal would be getting his eyes up to recognize the full deployment of the defense, using floor positioning as cues. For example, coming off a sideline ball screen we would want Westbrook to locate and interpret the position of secondary defenders immediately after the screen, two strides after (near the ballside elbow), and finally another step later (as he crosses the midline of the court). Three specific reads that all need to be taught, drilled, and repeated. Asking Westbrook to articulate what he saw at each stage would be a great way to cement the mental processes he’ll need to make in a split second during games. For many players, just presenting this reality would be enough to get them on board with reading the floor.
Finally, we would use a single major teaching point for finding the screener on a pick-and-roll – and this point would be equally emphasized with each player. If the pass is getting to the roller early, it should be low (a great term is the pass should be knee high and reaching – it should be at knee height, and force the receiver to reach out to get it). If the pass is coming late (anytime after the ball-handler has entered the lane area), the pass should go high (typically an alley-oop). So, the teaching point is simple: early low, late high. By just following that simple rule, both Westbrook and Augustin would cut down on turnovers by at least 0.3-0.5 per game (which adds up over time).
The final teaching points would deal with transition situations. One of the points we would be clear on is how much value the players should place on rebounding. Here is where they can turn it into offense. Point guards should do more to help their team defensive rebound. The ones who do, whether it be by athleticism (Derrick Rose) or getting to loose balls (Steve Nash), bring a huge amount of value to their team. Westbrook in particular should be much more of an animal on the glass. Ripping and running puts a lot of pressure on the opponent, and can often put them on their heels. The Thunder are a terrifying transition team (as I discussed here), and a more concentrated commitment to grabbing the board and leading the break can only lead to more easy opportunities on the offensive end.
We would also teach both players to use transition to change boxes (imagine the court cut up into four equal boxes). We want our point guards to change boxes at least once in any transition situation. That could mean rebounding the ball or receiving the outlet pass on the left side, and speeding up the court while changing sides of the floor over to the right side. This tool is invaluable – players who start doing it every time find defenses don’t adjust – and easy driving lanes or passes to open teammates as a result.
In the end, much of what we do with point guards comes down to teaching (both on the floor and in film study) ways they can be more aware of common situations they find themselves in on the floor. Giving them tools to improve both their athleticism and intelligence on the floor is critical, and would yield huge returns in their contract year.
Have questions for Coach Macri? Be sure and drop by HOOPSWORLD on Mondays at 2PM Eastern for the Coach’s weekly basketball chat! You can also follow Coach Macri on Twitter @CoachMacri.