Part VII: 6 Reasons Why Dribbling Actions Are Taught First

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series R&R Intro

Bob Knight once said that he would like to take his guards to an island with 1,000 basketballs and tell them to dribble til there was no air left in the balls so that when they came back they would be tired of dribbling. That’s not an exact quote, but it’s close; you get the idea. He wanted his players to pass the ball. Useless dribbling kills offensive flow and rhythm. There’s no doubt about it.  However, purposeful dribbling is critical to good offensive execution. Dribbling 1,000 basketball around a deserted island would be pretty useless. So I’m right with him, sort of. I would hope they would come back and want to know how to dribble with a purpose.

Many lessons have been learned about how to successfully implement this style of basketball. The biggest lesson learned is in the importance of how the teaching is organized. Teaching players the Attack Dribble layer FIRST is crucial. I would argue this would apply to any style of basketball, but I must stay on task.

Traditionally, offensive systems, sets or plays use passing as their primary foundation.  While good passing is critical to the success of offense, the effective use of the dribble and specifically dribble penetration is just as important. I would go so far as to say that it’s more critical….STAY ON TASK!

It may seem counter intuitive to traditional practice planning to begin installing an offensive system with dribble penetration. That’s ok.  Some traditions need to be broken. I want to be part of changing how things are done. There are numerous reasons why I think we need to start a new tradition in this case. I will discuss 6 of them.

Reason #1:

Coach Torbett discusses that reacting to dribble penetration is the most difficult reaction for players to learn. Experience and research shows this to be true. Innately, most players penetrate looking to score.  As a result, players without the ball tend to become fans for a moment. They “sit on their couch” and hope to be able to say they were on the floor when so and so made the highlight reel. That doesn’t work very well for me.

Good offense is designed to create scoring opportunities for the 4 players without the ball as much as the player with the ball.  It must be instilled early and reinforced often that players who drive should be looking to create scoring opportunities for themselves as well as their teammates.  Similarly, players without the ball must be moving in order to provide the attacker passing lanes and create scoring opportunities for themselves.  The person with the ball will almost always receive more defensive attention than the other 4 players without it.  Therefore, training the players without the ball to take advantage of this defensive trend will cause defensive breakdowns and lead to numerous scoring opportunities.

Reason #2:

While this initial point is true, there are better and more important reasons to start with this layer. Teaching the attack layer first forces players to struggle initially. Yes, I am ok with my team struggling in the beginning, because they will be more successful in the end.

It sounds so easy; “drive right, rotate right.” Yet they get on the court, and they either stand still or rotate the wrong way. How can something easy be so hard? I don’t know but it is.  This clues them in on day 1 that they must dial in mentally.

On the flip side, players pick up Pass & Cut pretty easily. Teaching pass & cut first gives players a confidence that the layers are “easy” to learn.  Starting with the most difficult layer immediately clues players in that while the Attack Dribble layer may seem simple in words, the execution of it takes practice. Players will be more tuned in and approach the other layers with a higher level of focus, because that first layer was tough to learn. They should always be practicing the execution of the attack dribble layer.

Then as the easier layers are added, their confidence will consistently grow. Teaching Pass & Cut first will create confidence in the beginning only to be brought down by frustration later.  It is better to experience frustration in the beginning as opposed to end.

Reason #3:

Also, it is critical that players are taught starting with an aggressive approach.  Teaching Pass & Cut first will lead to the following…

“Oh look at us, coach.  Don’t we look good passing the ball around the perimeter and cutting to the basket? We have this offense down.  We are ready to play.”


It may look “pretty”, but watch your players. How many of them looked to find the next person to pass to first, instead of looking at the rim? Watch teams who run through their offensive sets 5 on 0.  How many of them have their eyes on the rim ready to shoot or attack on every catch? It will carry over to games. Players will miss opportunities to attack defense that was out of position for a moment. Now the defense has recovered.

Players should always be taught to look at the basket when they get possession of the ball.  They should always evaluate their options to score and attack as well as any options that might exist around the basket. Teaching other layers first takes the players’ eyes away from the basket, leading them to miss scoring opportunities.

Is attacking off the dribble as “pretty” as passing?  Maybe not. But we’re trying to score, regardless of how pretty it is.  Do players attack on every catch?  Of course not. Is the defense thinking that they might?  You better believe it.  Advantage offense.

Reason #4:

In my opinion, the biggest reason to start teaching offense with attacking the basket has nothing to do with offense and everything to do with defense.  If other teams can’t stop the player with the ball, then there is no need for any other layer.  And defensively, if teams can’t guard the ball, then there’s no need to worry about defending players without the ball.  If defenses can make teams pass at least one more time, then they have a chance to keep them from scoring. The closer a player gets to the basket with the ball, the higher their chance of making a shot or getting their own rebound. Teaching players how to attack and what to do when they attack provides a great tool for teaching on ball defense, closeouts as well as defensive rotations. Regardless of the defensive philosophy, defenses must be able to stop the ball, help, rotate, recover, and closeout. Each of these is critical into forcing teams to make one pass and hopefully one more pass. Teaching Attack Dribble first makes this opportunity possible on day 1.

Reason #5:

And now I’ll talk about why it also makes sense to teach passing actions after the dribbling actions. Teaching Pass & Cut early gets players into the habit of filling empty spots. That’s great. It looks pretty right?  Here’s the problem. Besides the fact that players with the ball may take their eyes off the rim, once the foundational layers are finally complete, it is hard to get cutters to break the habit of filling and take advantage of their many options as a cutter.

Teaching Pass & Cut right before the Next Best Action (NBA) layers gives coaches the opportunity to tie NBA’s to the end of the Pass & Cut layer instead of having to go back and break learned habits. Filling is just one of many options that cutters have. Teaching it in this way helps gives equal value to all of these options. Building this habit too early makes players think that filling is more important than posting up or screening.

Reason #6:

Teaching Pass & Cut later also fits into the defensive progression. Once players understand how to defend the ball, they can learn how to defend players without the ball. From cutters to screeners to players who post up, all of these actions come straight out of the Pass & Cut layer. Teaching players how to defend these actions falls right into place.  However, if players aren’t prepared to stop the ball first, it doesn’t matter much how well they are prepared to defend screens.

Players may take more than a full season to react to dribble penetration correctly most of the time.  That’s ok.  You can still score even if they don’t react exactly right all the time. Teaching the Attack Dribble first gives coaches the opportunity to constantly reinforce these habits.  They can and should move on to other layers before this one is mastered.

However, players must know that their coaches want them to be aggressive. Players must take advantage of defensive players who are out of position. When teammates expect each other to be aggressive, they will be more ready to make themselves open on penetration. Once players understand what to do when teammates attack, they can be taught how to use the dribble in other ways as well as how to pass and what to do when a pass is made.

Once these basics have been taught and drilled, a variety of other offensive concepts, from back screens, ball screens, and staggered screens, to dribble handoffs, post play, and weak side screens, are options that the offense provides. How these options are implemented are only as limited as the coaches who are teaching them and the players who are executing them. Regardless, it is imperative that the first offensive concept that is taught is the Attack Dribble.

That’s almost the end of the introduction.  If there are other topics, you’d like for me to discuss, let me know.  Before we get into the layers, I need to explain one more thing.

Then we’ll get down to business of breaking down each layer.

Series Navigation<< Part VI: DefensePart VIII: Building Blocks vs. Drills >>

10 thoughts on “Part VII: 6 Reasons Why Dribbling Actions Are Taught First

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