Coach’s Notebook: Developing a Small Forward
This is the fifth and final 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 Small Forward
The small forward position might include the most multi-dimensional athletes of any major sport in the world. Guys playing on the wing have to be big (6’6 is usually too small), fast, and quick, and the best ones are explosive and strong as well. It is easy to see athletes like this succeeding in other sports – imagine LeBron James as a tight end (or even a defensive end, for that matter). However, it is the manner in which they implement their athletic gifts, and apply that unique combination of talent to actual game situations, that separates the run-of-the-mill small forward from the ones who have a chance to really produce and get paid. In each category, you can see how a great athlete can learn how to better play athletically.
For the purposes of this examination, we are going to look at two very different small forwards who are restricted free agents in the 2012 offseason, Danilo Gallinari and Nicolas Batum. Today, neither uses his athleticism to the extent he could, and as a result, both fall short of their potential value as an asset to their team and on the open market. For Gallinari, the issue seems to stem from perception, expectation and to some degree self-image. In Batum’s case, becoming a beast, focusing on cultivating an attack mentality, would be the major remedy to help him reach his potential.
In Gallinari’s case, a lot of his re-education would start on the defensive end of the floor. In the offseason, more of our time is dedicated to improvement of offensive skills and awareness. However, there are certain individual principles that we can teach players to help them become better defenders no matter what system their team may employ. Danilo is long, and we want him to really use that length when guarding on and off the ball. One of the changes that I think should happen in the game is a widening of the court – the athletes are too big for such a small area – but since that change isn’t happening anytime soon, we would want Gallinari (and all our guys) to take advantage of it and take up the space by getting their arms out in position to bother vision and passing lanes – too often Gallinari’s hands are down at his sides, having no impact on the player he is guarding.
One of the critical functions of play off the ball is the ability to bump and release. The idea here is simple (and one of the places where a football term transfers into basketball). When I am guarding a wing, and they flash toward the middle, I want to get my hand up and into the passing lane while my opposite arm preps for impact. They key is to make physical contact (bump) and then break the contact with a small hop in the direction of the passer (release). This accomplishes two goals: we are able to initiate contact (a very worthwhile defensive goal in itself) while avoiding fouls and preparing for any cuts and preventing any attempts to seal by maintaining a space cushion. Too many players either do not deny that pass because it involves getting physical, or they over-commit physically, putting themselves in a tough position to recover when the offensive player takes advantage.
One final note on the defensive end: we would stress a constant activity level. Some guys are simply bred to be constantly active, engaged, and readily anticipate spots to insert themselves into the situation. Corey Brewer is that type of defender. A lock-down, disruptive wing can make a huge difference in a game. Both Gallinari and Batum have the ability to change the way offensive prepare for their teams, but do not do enough to exploit their athleticism in this way. We would want to talk about it, review it on film, and consistently remind them in any game situations that come in practice.
Rebounding is always a major focus of ours, and with small forwards, two techniques in offensive rebounding come to the fore. First is the ability to tip in misses (by teammates or their own). It is a simple truth that far too many players do not recognize the sheer quantity of tip-in situations. The ability to slice in from the weakside and get active around the rim for a potential tip in is huge – not only is it both an offensive rebound and a made field goal, but it is the kind of energizing play that can spark a run or provide knockout blow to a team on the ropes. Both Gallinari and Batum are athletic enough to make the play regularly, and they should be looking for at least one or two tip-ins per game. All of our finishing drills around the rim include a tip-in requirement on any missed shot, just to get the players thinking about the possibility.
The other rebounding technique, which can be applied to either the defensive or offensive end, is the ability to tip-to-self. Growing up, many players are taught (quite correctly in most cases) to rebound with two hands, to secure the ball strongly, and not to tip it because it does not ensure possession. This typically means that players do not put themselves in position to attempt to tip a rebound away from an opponent and gather it, and they therefore miss out on 50/50 balls. In the case of players like Gallinari and Batum, these chances would largely come on offensive end, and they could find a way to turn what should be an easy board for the other team into a coin flip, and winning half of those ends up having a huge impact over the course of the season (think Dennis Rodman).
One talent that would be consistently emphasized throughout their training period is how players transition from offense to defense or vice versa. We strive to engender in our clients the notion of “racing” the floor, not merely running the floor. If they can constantly think that they are in a race against other players, they will find themselves winning the race a fair percentage of the time, and getting easy scoring chances (or making defensive “hustle plays” as a result. In fact, similar to the offensive tip-in idea, many players do not race the floor on every possession because they don’t see the value on possessions where their team isn’t moving quickly. However, these are perfect opportunities to get very easy chances without anyone being ready for it, and it forces a defense to adapt and adjust in a way they really don’t want to. Our simple teaching phrase is “first three steps” – in other words, we want Danillo’s first three steps to be as fast as he can possibly go. The rest of the race will take care of itself. This is an easy application of athleticism!
A final phase for both Gallinari and Batum is the way they should attack in a catch and face situation. We want to get into elements of the jab series, a shot fake series, and starting the attack with stationary dribble, and get into a variety of plans for attack, drawing fouls, and changing plans. However, this article would more than double in size to get through everything. Instead, our focus on catch and face attack will be separated, because it really applies to nearly every player in the league (and many of you who are looking to improve your own games through this series). So next week, we’ll take a deep look at catch and fake, using Gallinari and Batum as test subjects.
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.
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.