10 Habits of Great Defenders

Great defenders are hard to find these days. There are good ones and bad ones, but I don’t know how many great ones there are. Good defenders exhibit a lot of these qualities. Great defenders exhibit all of them.

  1. Know what they are protecting
    Playing defense is about keeping the ball from going in the basket. The most obvious goal is to keep the ball from getting to the rim so that players can’t get easy lay-ups. The easiest way to do that is to stay between the player with the ball and the basket. Now this isn’t the only way of defending the ball. The goal could be to keep the ball handler to a certain area of the court or to keep the ball handler out of a certain area. The goal could be to keep the ball from being passed to a certain part of the court or to a certain area. In any case, defenders must know what they are protecting at all times. If they don’t know and understand their purpose their purpose at all times, it becomes more difficult for them to defend well.
  2. Fight to protect it
    Once a defender knows what they are protecting, it has to be a constant mental and physical effort to protect it. Of course defenders must be taught the techniques and concepts of how to defend individually and within the team structure, but it is a constant fight to defend.
  3. Are always ready to move
    Defense is a journey. It’s never a destination. A defender who has arrived is about to get beat. Great defenders are always ready to move. They can’t always predict where they are going to have to move, but when it’s time they are ready. If a player’s feet stop moving, It’s probable that they aren’t ready to react. This is on ball and off ball. We have to be careful when we’re teaching defensive positioning that players know that they are only in the right spot for a split second. The ability to succeed in one brief moment is short lived. As soon as the ball or a player moves, their positioning should probably change.
  4. Move when the ball moves
    There are a lot of defenses and defensive philosophies out there, but all of them start on players moving when the ball moves. If players are late, they are probably going to be out of position, no matter how athletic they are. Players who can learn to move when the ball moves can be great defenders.
  5. Talk with a purpose
    Good defenders talk. Great defenders talk with a purpose. Good defenders call screens. Great defenders tell their teammate what to do when the screen is set. Good defenders see a play develop. Great defenders let everyone else know what’s about to happen. It’s one thing to talk on defense. It’s another thing to talk purposefully.
  6. Go after loose balls with 2 hands
    How many times is there a deflection and a player tries to reach for the ball with one hand to dribble it while losing control of the ball? Whether it’s a loose ball from a deflection or a rebound, great defenders pursue the ball with two hands. It’s not enough for them to touch the ball. They want to have the ball. There may be some instances when players can only get one hand on the ball, and yes one is better than none. We’re talking about GREAT defenders. They find a way to get two hands on loose balls.
  7. Recognize personnel quickly and react appropriately
    The scouting report says that #23 is a 45% 3 point shooter. A great defender closes out and doesn’t give up a shot or a drive. #24 checks in for #23. The scouting report says #24 is 0 for 15 for the year from the 3 point line. A great defender doesn’t closeout on this player if their teammate needs help in the lane.
  8. Help when they are supposed to
    It’s nearly impossible to play good on ball defense every time. There are times when we will have to help. The key is to help with the right person in the right place at the right time. When two people help the defense is in trouble. If the wrong person helps, the rest of the team is forced to rotate in a way that is unexpected. If a player “helps” when they aren’t supposed to, it will force rotations when they aren’t necessary. Great defenders know when not to help as much as they know when to help.
  9. Know how to rebound
    Rebounding is about effort, positioning and then more effort. It’s amazing how players who might not be in position to rebound initially can get themselves in position with just a little effort. Then how many players get position, but then they don’t go for the ball. It’s not enough to just get position. Rebounding requires pursuit of the ball. I’ve coached a lot of players who just want the ball. It’s not complicated, they just like having the ball, and they will do whatever it takes to get it.
  10. Foul When They Want To
    Sometimes players need to foul. Maybe you’re trying to make a last-minute comeback. Maybe you don’t want to give up an easy lay-up and fouling is the only option. Maybe you aren’t in the bonus and you want to make a team inbound the ball against the end of the quarter or half. Great defenders know these situations and know how to foul in these situations. They don’t give up “and 1s.” They don’t hurt themselves or the other team. They don’t get intentional fouls called on them. However, they also have fouls to give because they haven’t fouled unnecessarily in other parts of the game. They know when to try to block a shot and when to stay on the ground. They don’t foul in the opponents back court, just because they missed a lay-up and are trying to get the rebound when they don’t have a chance at it. They move their feet to stay in front of ball handlers and don’t put their hands on them.

Making Second Most Important

This entry is part 18 of 20 in the series Practice

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, right?

You might be thinking…

“Coach, you talk about defense being most important, but you don’t start with it. It doesn’t matter what we think in our minds as coaches, if our players don’t think we are serious about defense they won’t play it. How can your offense be good if your defense isn’t? How can you make defense most important if you don’t start with it?”

Check out Practice Plan #1. This practice was all about playing with the ball and guarding the ball. There are lots of opportunities to play 1 on 1 without it being just 1 on 1. There are lots of opportunities to closeout and help in a more game like environment. Defense is emphasized in almost every segment. Even more importantly, we’re creating a mindset of offensive aggressiveness without having to say it. The players are put in situations where they have to make plays. They can’t hide and let their teammates do the work for them. It’s obvious that they should be aggressive which puts pressure on the defense right away.

You are what you emphasize right? Not only is there a lot of defense being played in this practice, there are lots of opportunities to make defense important. There are a lots of opportunities to critique and correct defense. We might have started with offense, but by the time practice was over, we had the opportunity to make defense most important.

Look at Practice Plan #2. Practice #2 builds off of the first one. There aren’t many new offensive concepts being introduced in this practice, but we are emphasizing good defense on the ball and good team defense if we have to help. Again the same aggressive mindset is being established offensively, but we don’t have to worry about the offense being aggressive. They don’t have much of a choice. We do have to worry about how we’re defending, and it will become very clear who our best defenders are and who really needs to improve.

Keep in mind these practices are a result of the environment I was in. The first day of practice resulted from the team having no skill development sessions in the preseason. We had no on court time with players before this practice. Of course we had some players who returning from the previous season, but we had players who had never played for this team before. From year to year, we couldn’t take things for granted and so we started from the beginning.

Even if we were having an individual or small group workout, we would make sure that we introduced the “WHOLE” part before we did the smaller parts. They might not understand it completely, and we might not be able to go 5 on 5, but when we reference the bigger picture, they will have something to go back to in their minds.

If we could have had 2 hours per week per player on the court, we would have worked on a lot of these skills and concepts then. Our first day of practice would have looked much different. However, our first workout would have been had a similar idea. Learn how to play with the ball and defend it. Once you can do that, the rest becomes a lot easier.

First is Not Necessarily Most Important

This entry is part 17 of 20 in the series Practice

My experience is that a lot of people think “first” and “most important” mean the same thing. While in some situations that is true, I think there are many situations where those two things are very different. One of those is coaching the game of basketball. A lot of what I’ve written about on this blog has to do with offense. Since that is what I’ve spent most of my time writing about, you probably think that’s what’s most important to me. You might think that all I want to do is out score teams. You might think that getting stops is not very important to me.

Let me make this clear, defense is much more important to me than offense. I believe good offense starts with good defense. If you can’t defend, you can’t win championships. Offense is easier when the other team doesn’t score. Whether it’s a missed shot or a turnover, it is much easier to play offense when you just got a stop. In my opinion, the most important characteristic of a point guard is the ability to defend, not the ability to create offense or score. Defending is so much more important to me than scoring. That doesn’t mean I think defense comes first when it comes to teaching the game.

For example, let’s say you’re working on one of the most basic defensive fundamentals: the closeout. If the offensive player doesn’t have the full complement of skills, the closeout becomes easier to execute. If the player can’t shoot and attack off the dribble, then that player becomes very easy to defend. Then when the offensive player has to closeout against a player who can do both, they are at a huge disadvantage.

Now I’m not naïve enough to think that you can work on a player’s individual skills for a few days or a couple of weeks and make them proficient at their weaknesses. I understand that developing and mastering skills takes time. It’s not easy to guard an average player one on one. The offense has almost every advantage. However, if your players are closing out on players who offensively limited, they are going to struggle defending players who aren’t.

Let’s take this to a larger topic: defending screens. I believe that you have to teach players how to set and use screens before you can work on defending them. If the offensive players don’t understand the concept of screening, the defense isn’t going to get a good feel for how to defend them. When we’re running a defensive drill, I don’t want to take the time to coach the offense. I want the offense to know what they are doing. If I have to take time to coach offense in a defensive drill, then it does seem like offense is more important than defense.

Finally, in a very broad sense, I believe that teaching the game of basketball needs to be done in a very progressive way. It’s interesting that “progressive” has a couple different definitions and both apply in this case. The game starts with the ball. Offenses and defenses are all predicated on who has the ball, where they have the ball, and where the other players are relative to the ball. It only makes sense to me that teaching players what to do when they have the ball comes before teaching players how to defend.

I have spent a lot of time talking about offense, because I think the offensive side of the game needs to evolve. Isn’t it interesting how football teams are playing more like basketball teams?  They are simplifying their playbook. They are letting players make plays. Our game shouldn’t look like football. I don’t believe it was ever meant to be that way. I believe we should teach players how to play and let them play. Basketball is a beautiful game when players can be creative when they play it.

Additionally, I think a lot has been written about defense and how to teach it. The reason teams don’t play good defense has more to do with a lack of emphasis than a lack of sharing of ideas. I think there are some coaches that have every intention of making defense most important, but end up making decisions based on a player’s ability to score instead. I think a lot of coaches teach offense first and make offense most important.

I want to make it clear that I don’t subscribe to that philosophy at all. I believe defense is most important, but I think you have to teach offense first.



Coaching with the Phrase “I Need”

This entry is part 22 of 28 in the series Leadership

The need in the picture is pretty obvious. This guy needs to go to the bathroom.Need

One phrase that I hear a lot from coaches is “I need…”

“I need more from you.”

“I need you to be on time.”

“I need you to make your time.”

“I need you to get in the gym.”

“I need you to work harder.”

“I need you to set a better screen.”

“I need you to make a good pass.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot. You may have even said it yourself.  Honestly, it gets on my nerves when I catch myself saying it. It rubs me the wrong way. What we say matters. Our words are so powerful. I suggest we stop using these two words together.

It’s only two words, but they are two words that hold a lot of weight. Let’s break it down.

The phrase starts with “I.” Last time I checked, we coach for the athletes not for ourselves. Last time I checked, we were in it to make them better, to help them learn and to give them a good experience. It isn’t about us; it’s about them. Right? Starting a sentence with “I,” immediately makes our statement self-centered. What we say is no longer about them. It has become about us. Are we servants or dictators? Are we leaders or bosses?

The second word is “need.” We all “need” air, water, and food. We all “need” safety, love and security.  Going through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would be overkill, but those are needs. I need to get a good night’s sleep every night. A player needs to work harder for themselves and for the team, not for me. Players need to be on time because it’s a good lesson for them to learn, not because I said so. A player needs to eat a healthy diet, not because it helps me, but because it’s good for their mind and body.

Trust me, being on time is important. Working hard is important. Eating a healthy diet is important, but not because I need them to do that. Those things are important because it’s what’s best for them. It is also what’s best for the team.

We are all about helping people be better people, right? I don’t need them to be better people. I want them to be better, but more importantly they have to want it for themselves. They aren’t on our teams forever. We aren’t going to follow them around through their lives to make sure they are making all the right decisions. They need to learn to do these things for themselves and for each other.

Being part of a team is a privilege, not a right. If they continue to make poor decisions and do things that are detrimental to themselves or the team, then maybe they don’t need to be part of the team. No player, no matter how talented, is more important than the other players on the roster. We don’t need any one that badly.

If you ever hear me say “I need” to a player I coach, you have the right to tell me “You need to stop.”




This entry is part 21 of 28 in the series Leadership

Spending the last week at Tampa at the Women’s Final Four was a great experience. There was plenty of learning going on about offense, defense, recruiting, and numerous other topics. Tons of information was presented to make any program better if we choose to use it, but that’s not the reason it was a great experience.

Let’s be honest. We’ve heard most of that information before. Was there any presentation that was earth shattering? Did a coach drop knowledge that was so completely new and innovative that every program who attended will be doing things in a radically different way next season? Not really.

Compare the information from conventions over the last 5 years with the one in Tampa. The lessons from all of these presentations are pretty comparable. It’s always good to hear things again. It’s always good to have topics reinforced over and over.  Sometimes that’s the only way to get it through the thick skulls of coaches. We are some of the more stubborn people out there. Let’s be honest though; a lot of the presentations are a rehash of the previous years.

Part of what made the Final Four a great experience was the meaningful relationships that were fostered. Some of them were new relationships that were forged. Others were existing relationships that were made even stronger.

Even that’s not the true value though. The real value is in the fact that I realized I need to do a better job fostering a relationship with God. If I commit to having a good relationship with Him, then everything else will take care of itself.

I have a great relationship with my wife, but just imagine if it was better?  I have great relationships with family and friends. What if I could have better relationships with them too? I could have the Final Four experience every day. Isn’t that what life is about? Is it about drills, or recruiting or strategies? Is it about “moving up”?

Or is it about relationships? And not just superficial surface level relationships.Those leave you wondering what you’re missing out on. Some of them don’t even give you that much curiosity.  It’s the deep and meaningful ones that matter. It starts with a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God. That is the answer. Now it’s time to get to work.



The Simplicity of the Game

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series R&R Intro

I’ve watched a lot of basketball over my lifetime. I’m not that old but I’ve coached, played, or watched hundreds of games. It is so simple and so basic. The simplicity makes the game beautiful. Yet I feel like we make it so complicated.

One team is trying to score. The other team is trying to keep them from scoring. Then the other team gets the ball, and the roles are reversed. It isn’t scripted. It can’t be. Every possession takes on a life of its own.

Yet it all boils down to the same basic things.

On offense…

Shooting, dribbling and passing when a player has the ball. Movement and spacing when they don’t have it.

On defense…

Defending the player with the ball and being in position to defend the other players if they receive the ball.

Gaining possession when it’s up for grabs…

This could be loose balls or rebounds, but teams have to be able to get the ball to increase their number of scoring opportunities while at the same time limiting the other team.

Transitioning between each of the phases…

Physically and mentally being able to switch from defense to offense or visa versa is critical.

The teams that collectively do these 4 things the best win.

At some point it turns into a big game of one on one. Who is better? Me or you? And then the next person catches the ball and its a new game of one on one.

Yes there needs to be structure on both ends of the floor and in transition. Yes we can’t just roll the ball out and say “Have fun. Good luck”. But really, how hard is it?

All the X’s and O’s don’t matter much if your X’s are better than my O’s. Sure I might be able to compensate for some of that as a coach, but really?

Of course there’s the mental component. Who can make the best decisions? Who wants it more? Who can execute under pressure? Who takes the competitive challenge and cherishes it? Who can make up for physical limitations through mental skills and effort?

But really, why do we make the game so complicated? Isn’t it just about 5 people working together to complete a task? Isn’t it about each player beating their opponent at the given task as many times as they possibly can when the opportunity presents itself?

There are tons of different ways to go about it. At the end of the day, the game is simple.

We aren’t playing American football where we have one group that plays offense, another group that plays defense, and we can huddle before every play. We aren’t playing hockey where we can substitute anytime we want. It’s not soccer where one goal could be enough to win.

It’s basketball. It’s team. Even slow tempo games or defensive struggles have significant amounts of scoring compared to other games. There’s a reason football is turning into a up tempo game.

I would like to challenge coaches that through all of the schemes and game plans that we don’t lose sight of what makes this game great. It is its simplicity.

Team Mentality: An Offensive Philosophy Part 3

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Offensive Philosophy

The first question about an offensive philosophy surrounds the physical skills of the offensive players. The second question asks about the mental state of the players. Do the offensive players allow the defense to dictate the mentality of the offense? In other words, are the offensive players confident enough in their understanding of the offense that no matter what the defense does, they will be able to generate the best shot every possession?

How many times have you seen a player on offense freeze because they don’t know what to do? Typically this happens for one of three reasons, they forgot what to do, there are so many options they can’t decide, or they aren’t allowed to do what they want. Sometimes this happens when a player catches the ball. Sometimes it happens when they don’t have the ball. We can yell and fuss and scream and teach and whatever we have to do to get the player to remember what to do. Or we can make it really simple and straightforward and we can drill it until they don’t know what else to do.

Players can own an offensive mentality in which they are ultimately confident. There’s no reason they can’t. When they don’t have to worry about “messing up the play,” they can focus on just playing. They can focus on shooting, making good moves, making good decisions, screening, and all the other skills we want them to execute.

This mentality must start with an understanding of spacing, player movement and ball movement. Then it must be complimented with an understanding of each player’s strengths and weaknesses. This starts with understanding one’s self and then understanding one’s teammates. If players understand these things, then I believe they can find a way to beat any defense that’s out there.

I don’t believe they have to memorize 57 quick hitters or 10 continuities to confident in their offensive mentality. At the same time, it takes time and a level of basketball IQ to be able to effectively run a true motion offense. Instead what if we do something that takes the best of both worlds and combines them.

What if we glue players to spots on the floor that they can’t leave unless something makes them leave those spots? That something would be an action that is so simple and that has been drilled so many times that it becomes instinct.  Spacing therefore is maintained.

What if we give the player with the ball the freedom to do whatever they want within their skill set? Now the ball can move freely based on what the player feels comfortable doing based on what the defense allows. Ball movement happens easily.

What if we teach them step-by-step how players can move through the use of concepts and rules that can be drilled and mastered? Now players move in an organized fashion but also in a way that is unpredictable. We have accomplished the criteria of player movement.

Now we have to know our teammates and ourselves. As a player, I must know:

The list goes on and on. However, if a player knows these things like this, it makes offense so much easier to play. Each of these things could happen on the same possession or none of them, but none of them are specific to any play. They are just a part of playing offense.

Don’t get me wrong; there must be some skill level to go along with the mentality. Players must be able to do something on the court. The higher the level of competition, the more they need to be able to do.

However, assuming that there are similar levels of players on the court, I believe that a team of players with a confident mentality regarding how they want to play offense will be able to take advantage of any defense they face. What happens when a defense changes how they defend the post or a ball screen? What happens when a defense goes from a man to man to a match up zone? What happens when the defense starts playing a box and one?

How many times have you seen a defense get into the heads of the offense just because they take something away or do something different? I believe we can severely neutralize if not prevent this from happening. If players know how to play offense, they don’t care what the defense does. They just play offense.

Sometimes players get in their own way. Ever seen offensive players freeze up when the pass they are supposed to make isn’t available? What happens when a player forgets to set a screen, or makes the wrong pass? What happens when players run aimlessly around the court without purpose and spacing, because they don’t really know where to go?

If the offensive players are tied to a play, they are more likely to be unsure what to do if the defense is able to take away part of the play. If the defense can cause the play to breakdown, then the offense is forced to do something else.

I believe these should never happen. Players should be able step on the floor and play offense with very little mental effort. Of course we can practice offense for hours and hours to make sure we get it right, but what about players’ skills? What about defense? If we simplify offense and at the same time make it unpredictable, we can be good offensively, and get better at defending and fundamental skills. If we teach and practice the same concepts on a daily basis, then we can focus on improving on the skills surrounding these concepts as well as defensive concepts.

Players will never worry that the defense took something away. They will never worry about what defense the other team is playing. They will find ways to attack the defense and generate scoring opportunities. It’s really not that hard. I think a lot of coaches make it that way trying to out think the room. If your team has a mentality that they can’t be defended, you might be surprised what they can do.

The only question that remains is can they put the ball in the basket. This is the single biggest reason we have struggled over the last 4 years offensively. We can generate tons of shots and good shots. We just haven’t been able to put the ball in the basket. The best way to defend us has been to let us shoot and then make sure you get the rebound.