Coach: Prepping an NBAer for Europe
Going overseas to play basketball professionally is about a lot more than just packing your bags. There are some distinct differences in the way the game is played – rules and interpretation changes, stylistic variations, and modified strategic approaches – many of which are overt but some more subtle. A player who has played in the American system of basketball from a young age getting ready to slide over to the international hoops world has a lot to prepare for.
Players in the gym right now are in the midst of these kind of preparations. With the lockout creating uncertainty about the start of the NBA season, a number of contracted NBA players are looking into making the move. While others have described the differences in lifestyle in international pro basketball, we are going to look at three basketball-specific differences that players should be ready for.
Trapezoids & Traveling
The most obvious difference in international basketball used to be court configuration. The trapezoid lane (only recently abandoned internationally) and a shorter three-point line have a huge effect on the way the game is played. FIBA may have moved to a rectangular lane, but many of the old strategic differences are still influential. With a trapezoid lane, post players tend to post further away from the prime real estate in front of the rim – so players with an ability to face up have an advantage over strictly back-to-the-basket guys. Catching in the post often leads to a quick face up and attack rather than a back-down dribble, so a primary area of focus with post players heading overseas is to provide or polish up their reverse pivot attack series.
The shorter three-point line also has some broader implications other than just the distance for shooting the long ball. Moving in the three-point line eliminates some of the natural space NBA players have grown accustomed. Defenses are able to sag into the lane more effectively since there is less distance to cover in closing out. Offensive players have less room for operation out of isolations, which leads to some stylistic differences we will get into shortly.
While those are overt changes anyone can see, something more intangible is how international referees interpret what constitutes a traveling violation. NBA players (and transitioning college players) are often taken aback by quick whistles whenever they make a movement toward the rim in international basketball. In the US, players are often allowed to catch and then take their first step, with the dribble coming as the player plants his lead foot. In international basketball, however, referees are very strict about the player releasing the ball to dribble before establishing their lead foot as a step. In some ways, this may seem like a nuanced difference that should not have much of an impact. However, when referees call the game this tightly, it makes it almost impossible or an offensive player to gain a huge “quick-first-step” advantage as they can in the US.
Movement Attack vs. Stationary Attack
In the NBA, players (and fans) have become accustomed to routine isolations involving their favorite players. A star receives the basketball on the perimeter and goes to work on their individual defender. However, this style is not as effective in international basketball, mostly because of the rules changes/interpretations mentioned above.
Because of the lack of spacing on the court and the shortened three-point line, individually gifted offensive players simply do not have the same amount of room to create in the international game as they do here in the US. Help defenders are closer and even their teammates don’t have as many places to go to drag their defenders from the play.
The lack of isolations tends to encourage teams to run more active catch-on-the-move stuff. In international basketball, we tend to see players circling behind an attacking player instead of spacing out, which gives them a chance to catch the ball on the run. This action reduces the chance of a traveling call while creating a better opportunity to surprise the defense. Players also catch the ball more in back screens and shuffle cuts than they do in the NBA for the same reasons.
In addition, dribble hand-offs and post rubs are much more common. A dribble hand-off is when a ball-handler dribbles at one of his teammates, and that teammate moves toward the ball-handler: the handoff occurs as the two cross paths. Opportunities for backdoor cuts and other variations are important here. We see this in the NBA, but not as commonly as in international basketball. Post rubs are also more common, where a pass goes into the post (high or low), and the player who made the pass now follows behind it for a potential hand-off. Practicing these kinds of situations is critical for a player moving overseas whose experience with them in the US is pretty limited.
The Myth of a Lack of Toughness
Maybe it stems from the notion of American exceptionalism, but there is a prevailing theory that international players are considerably “softer” than their American counterparts, that our brand of basketball is tougher and more physical than things are in Europe or Asia. Just look at the stigmas great European players like Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki have overcome in the last five years. Players coming over to us from overseas rarely pass the eye test: they look weaker, not as physically developed, and we assume that translates to softer play.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
International basketball is significantly more rugged than anything most US players have played. Holding and grabbing is a way of life overseas. Hands-on play and pushing is much more commonplace than it is in the NBA. In particular, play in the post and around the rim is dangerously physical overseas. That is a reason why many Europeans who come to America to play college basketball have a tough time adjusting to the how tight the game is called in the lane: many foul out with extraordinary speed and consistency in their first dozen games in the US.
Preparing players for this reality is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. Guys have to understand what they are going into and how these changes must have some impact on the way they play. It really is a whole different world in international professional basketball, and preparing players for those changes is important – otherwise their adjustment period will be a lot longer and more arduous from the very beginning. In fact, we could see a number of players with very poor experiences in Europe despite their status as strong to good players here in the best league in the world. Remember the old adage definitely applies here: failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Which players will be ready for what greets them on the other side of the ocean?
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 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.