Pass, Cut, & Fill: Points of Emphasis

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Passing Actions

I debated with myself about whether to include all of the sub-layers in this post. I figured that even though this single post might be longer, it would be better than having posts that repeated a lot of the same information. So these points of emphasis refer to all three of the sub-layers of this Pass, Cut, & Fill layer.

Initiator (Cutter) Receiver (Passer)
Hard cuts Ready to hit open cutter
Cut with a purpose Read cutter’s defender early and late
Just Cut, Don’t Dance Knees bent
Always see the ball Hands ready
Path of least resistance Attack behind cutter
Fill spots from baseline up Catch and land on two feet when possible
Hands ready No Dancing
Pass away from the defense Just Cut, Don’t Dance
Instant Reaction

Initiator (Cutter)

  • Hard Cuts
    Cutting hard makes the offense harder to guard, because it increases the tempo at with which we play. The harder we cut, the less time defense has to adjust. This gives us more chances to catch them out of position. The harder we cut, the more opportunities we have to be open. Just like with the Dribble-At, the cut starts with good footwork. No false movement. Plant and go.
  • Cut with a Purpose
    It’s not always enough to just cut hard. Cutters must also cut with a purpose. In other offensive styles and systems, the cutter is told exactly what they should do, or they are given options to do one thing or another. Cutters are to cut to the rim without exception. They are a scoring option. We want cutters to want the ball. Can you beat your defender on a face cut? Can you beat them back door? We want cutters to get themselves open going to the basket.
  • Just Cut, Don’t Dance
    We don’t want to fight the defense on a cut. We just want to cut. There are too many options when we cut to fight the defense. Tempo is important. Spacing is important. There’s no need to fight the cut.
  • Always see the ball
    If they are open, they might get the ball. Primarily, cutters must always see the ball because they must always be ready to react to dribble penetration. If a teammate drives during the course of their cut, cutters must react correctly to dribble penetration. Failure to react to dribble penetration could result in the loss of an easy scoring opportunity.
  • Path of least resistance
    Cutters must learn to make a quick read of their defender. We don’t want to fight the defense for a certain position. We want to take advantage of whatever position the defense gives up. Defenders can’t take away everything. If they take one thing away, they give up something else. We want cutters to get to the rim as quickly as possible. If they can cut their defender’s face, then great. If not, get to the rim and we’ll go from there.
  • Fill spots from baseline up
    After players finish their cut, they have options. The first option that we will teach is that they must fill out to the open spot. This is the most basic option. When players fill, they must fill open spots from the baseline up. Depending on the alignment and the location of the ball, players may not have to fill the open spot. Players must fill spots that are 1 pass away from the ball. In a 5 out alignment all perimeter spots will always be filled. In a 3 out alignment, cutters will always have to fill up to the next open spot. In a 4 out alignment, cutters will have more options. As a result, players are only required to fill the open spot if they are one pass away. There are advantages to filling up to the next spot, just as there are advantages to not filling up. These will be discussed in a future post.
  • Ready hands
    Just as with any of the other layers, cutters must have their hands ready to receive a pass. You never know when a pass might come zipping your way. (see Nov 3, 2012 #HOTD) You also never know when a shot is going to go up and you’re going to need to rebound.
  • Pass away from the defense
    Most of the focus of the previous points has assumed that the cutter was able to complete the initial pass. I guess we better teach the player how to pass. If the passer will throw the ball away from the defender, they will be successful more often than not. The offensive player should be the only player who has a chance to touch the ball.

Receiver (Passer)

  • Ready to shoot
    The receiver must be ready to shoot. This readiness occurs before they catch the ball. However, their first option must be to score. If they are not a threat to score, they have just become much easier to defend. You may determine that this shot is a bad shot for some or all of your players. I agree that not all shots from all players are good shots. However, it must be understood that you have just made your team easier to defend. Granted, this may be a very small and insignificant sacrifice. We must consider though how many times we limit the shots our players are allowed to take.
    Every time we limit a shot opportunity, we limit our offense. It’s true, we want to take the best shots every possession. At what point do are we taking away good shots from our players and as a result are forced to take bad ones? In games where a shot clock is present, this becomes a very interesting question. In games without a shot clock, it is more a question of shots vs. ball security. If you can trust your players to take care of the ball, then you can be much more selective about the shots you take.
  • Ready to drive
    If your players may not shoot (i.e. they aren’t allowed to), they better be able to drive. If they cannot shoot (because they don’t have the ability or the defense won’t let them), they better be able to do something besides pass. Otherwise they aren’t going to be much of a perimeter threat. The receiver is the next available attacker. As soon as they receive the pass (actually before they receive the pass), they must be ready to attack. There is a small window between the time they receive the ball and the next player fills where a driving lane is likely available. This “Draft Drive” is a very effective way to create scoring opportunities. However, players must be ready to take advantage of it. They have to know it’s going to be there before receive the pass. If they wait too long, the driving lane will be closed down by the rotating defenders, and an opportunity to attack will have been lost
  • Ready to hit cutter
    OK! OK! I get it. You want to get some ball movement. You want to get the best shot. You want your team to attack with the pass too. I get that. Why have a cutter if they aren’t a threat to receive the ball? Yeah I understand that too, sort of. I think a couple previous bullet points touched on the importance of the player cutting. They are a rebounder as well as a snow plow. They clear the way for the ball handler to drive. However, the cutter is a scoring option as well. The passers should look for the cutter. There aren’t many more plays in basketball more basic than the Give & Go. Many times an easy Give & Go turns into an easy lay up.
  • Catch on two feet when possible
    Catching the ball on two feet is so valuable to maximizing options as an offensive player. Being able to go left or right with either foot as a pivot makes the ball handler very difficult to defend.
  • Just Cut, Don’t Dance
    We don’t teach players to get open. Either you’re open or you’re not. We don’t want you trying to get open. If your player is over the Read Line, you should be going back door.

Practice #9

This entry is part 13 of 20 in the series Practice
5 Dynamic Warm Up Player led warmup
8 Conditioning 2 groups, 10 full court sprints, 10 far free throw line sprints, stationary ball handling for nonrunning group
2 Stretch & Water be at half court by the buzzer
5 5 on 5 transition
5 ball handling
4 1 on 1 full court
5 PG PUB PG in corner.  Shooter on wing.  Drive and kick.  3 rebounders under basket.  PG defends whichever guard gets the rebound to half court
5 2 on 1 D on ball offense can penetrate or pass. On the kick out, shoot and rebound
4 4 on 0
4 3 on 3 P&C
4 1 on 1 penetrate & reverse pivot
5 2 on 2 full
4 3 on 2 to 1 on 1 drive and kick to 1 on 1
4 4 on 0
5 1 on 1 halfcourt
6 2 on 2 Players on each wing.  Skip pass.  Passer stays (assuming they don’t have to fill.)  Passer must rotate on drive.  Defender must sprint to help.
5 4 on 0
5 3 on 1 P&C
4 4 on 0
15 stations post entry (lob), reading/setting ball screens, defending ball screens
5 intro hook & look
5 intro transition O

This was a very good practice.  80% of this practice was conducted with the guards only.  The posts spent the most part of this practice on bikes or ellipticals working on their conditioning.  They joined us late.

Our guards needed a lot of work on the basic offensive and defensive concepts that we’ve been working about. Hopefully this time was time well spent.

Pass, Cut, & Fill: Description

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Passing Actions

Pass, Cut and Fill/Read Line is probably the most natural of the layers for players to learn in the Read and React Offense. It is also the stepping stone for many of the advanced layers of the offense.

Many coaches argue that this is the first layer that should be taught to players. I understand their points of view, however, I respectfully disagree.  If you’ve read any of my previous posts about the attack dribble, you know I’m a huge proponent of attacking defenses off the dribble.  Granted this is a weakness for some players. There may be end of game situations where this might not be the best way to play. However, just because I advocate teaching it first, doesn’t mean that I think that passing isn’t important or that it shouldn’t be taught. On the contrary, good offense requires players to pass the basketball.

You may be thinking, “This coach is a real idiot. What kind of basketball coach spends a week playing 1 on 1 when it’s a 5 on 5 game?  There’s no way that team plays together.  How can you run team offense without passing?” You’re partially right.  You can’t.  However, if your team learns to play aggressively, I think they will learn to play better together.  I discussed a few reasons that I believe you teach in this order in an earlier post, here are a few more.

  1.  Passing is “passive”.  (no pun intended)
  2.  We can move right into advanced layers after we cover this layer with no review or breaking of habits.
  3.  Generally players will pick this layer up quickly.

As important as this layer is to the foundation of the offense, it may be the most taken for granted.  While Pass & Cut is the predecessor to most of the advanced layers in the offense, players should still learn to attack defenses with it.  Players can view this layer as a “waste” and just a way to create movement.  However, if players can learn how to pass and cut effectively, even good defense can be exposed.   It is critical that players understand more than just the basic movement.  They must be drilled on quick reactions to defensive positioning in order to maximize the potential benefits of this layer of the offense. They must learn to anticipate when cutters will be open and deliver well timed and well located passes to these cutters.  It will take time for these skills to develop, but through time and repetition these skills will improve.

This layer also generates continuity for the offense.  Previously, players who passed were “out of the drill”. Since we hadn’t taught them what to do when they passed, we just told them that they were out. Running drills with this restriction may still be advantageous in some situations. However, players will now be taught what to do after they pass the ball.

The “attacker” for this layer is always the player who is cutting to the basket, and the receiver will be the player with the ball. However in this layer, the “attack” can be initiated in three different ways.  As a result, this layer has been divided into 3 sub-layers.

BASIC PASS, CUT, & FILL (Passing to players 1 pass away)

For the first sub-layer, the initiator is the person with the ball who passes to a player “1 pass away” from them.  On this pass, the passer becomes the “attacker” by cutting hard to the basket.  The “receiver” must read the attacker’s defender and execute the next action. The player without the ball who is one pass away must fill the open spot that was just vacated. The cutter must fill the open spot that was created by the other players filling the empty spots (at least for now).

In a 5 out alignment, all perimeter players must fill their spots up from the baseline, and all spots will be filled.  (see above)  Of course when multiple actions occur in succession, all 5 spots will not be filled which creates a constantly evolving alignment.

In 3 out and 4 out alignments, players will need to fill the spots that are one pass away. However, these alignments provide more spots than there are players.

As you can see, 1 has the option of going either way.

If 1 goes to the right corner, 5 is isolated in the low post with no help defense in the area.  This is a good way to get a post player the ball.  Lots of good action can be created from this alignment.

1 going to the left corner might provide a more traditional look because the floor is more balanced.  Screening options have not yet been discussed but there are multiple screening options between 1 and 5 if 1 goes to the left corner.  Notice 3 must fill up either way.  If 1 goes to the left corner, he/she is NOT required to fill up to the next open spot.  The player can fill if they want, or if the coach tells them to.  (see below)

As more layers in the offense are covered, players will be begin to learn the advantages of leaving spots open that are more than one pass away as well as filling up all the open spots.

Players must learn that spots that are one pass away must be filled. However, be period of time between a player receiving the ball and the players filling is important.Ball handlers should be shown that the time between when a person cuts and the next player fills is a prime opportunity to use the North-South dribble to get into the lane.  In this situation, the cutter is occupying the first line of help defense with their cut and the next help defender may not yet be in position.

This first sub-layer creates significant other options for teams. However, we must talk about the other two sub-layers first.


The second sub-layer is also initiated by the player with the ball by making a skip pass to a player “2 or more passes away”.  In this case, the “attacker” becomes the player 1 pass away from the ball or the player who was “skipped.”  The attacker cuts hard to the rim and the player without the ball closest to the open spot fills that spot.  This parallels the first sub-layer closely.  The only difference being that the passer does not become the attacker.

This places the defender who was 1 pass away in a precarious position.  A good cut by 2 (in this situation) will give them an advantage on their defender.


The third sub-layer is initiated by a player without the ball and introduces the concept of the “Read Line.”  The “Read Line” establishes the collegiate 3-point line as a landmark.  If a player’s defender, who is “one pass away”, steps on or over this line, the offensive player immediately cuts to the basket.  The perimeter player without the ball closest to the open spot fills that spot. If overplayed, the Read Line action is initiated again.  The player who is being denied should time their cut back door so that the ball handler can see them making the cut. If the ball handler is not looking at them, they should wait until the ball handler sees them before they cut back door.

Each of these backdoor cuts opens up driving lanes for the ball handler.  With this type of constant movement, it is difficult for any defense to maintain denial positioning and at the same time take away open backdoor and driving opportunities. This layer will rarely be used against sagging defenses, but it is very good for the release of pressure and as a way to create off ball movement.

As players become proficient at executing this sub-layer, they will begin to realize when they are being overplayed on other areas of the court regardless of the “read line”.  This advanced read will come as a result of the natural reaction that has been taught by using this sub-layer. Players will learn to evaluate the positioning of the defensive player and react appropriately no matter where they are on the court, which is a valuable skill against pressing, trapping and intensely aggressive defenses. The more difficult responsibility lies on the passer to recognize this open cutter quickly and make a good pass to them in what might be a small space.

Cutters must cut to the basket, not away from the basket, or away from the ball.  Cutters who cut without a purpose are easy to defend and are not taking full advantage of the opportunity that the cut provides. We are close to discussing all the different options that a cutter has, which will quickly add complexity to the offense in a very simple way.

The passer must learn to make passes at different points during the cut based on the position of the defense.  The cutter could be open at different times during the cut.  The most difficult pass for the passer to learn to make is the pass early in the cut.  In many cases the cutter is open, but the passer hasn’t learned yet to recognize this advantage quickly enough.  This is the pass that is most often open because of poor reaction or positioning by the defense.

The cutter may also be open late in the cut.  This is after the offensive players have filled their spots and the defense has rotated as a result.  Many times defenders relax once they have defended the cutter initially.  Offensive players who can get the defender on their back may be able to seal and look for the lob pass over the top of the defense.  Passers must also be looking for this opportunity.  Passers have a tendency to forget about the cutter if they are not open initially.  Passers must be made aware of this opportunity and must be trained and encouraged to make the pass to the cutter late in the cut.

Likewise, players must also be comfortable making and catching various types of passes depending on the defense’s position.  A pass to a cutter will cause similar reactions by the defense as a penetrating player.  The cutter must practice catching the ball on a jump stop in anticipation of being required to react quickly without traveling when the defense collapses. This reaction might mean a strong move to the basket, but it could also mean a kick out to a perimeter player or a pass to a post player.

It must be emphasized that every player who makes a pass must cut to the basket. Even in drills where the passer passes to a cutter for a layup, it must become habitual that the passer cuts to the basket.  This serves the purpose of the passer being in better position to rebound any misses by the cutter.

In a 4 out 1 in alignment, cutters must recognize the location of the post player and cut away from them if the post player is in the low or mid post.  As future layers are added, a post player playing in the high post has the freedom to set screens for cutters in the high post.  Likewise, perimeter players who cut will eventually have the freedom to set screens for the post players or other perimeter players after their cut. These options will be covered later in the offense, but can only be used if perimeter players follow Pass & Cut properly.

If players understand the Foundational Layers of the offense, they are now able to compete at a fundamental level against any type of man-to-man defense.  They are also able to work on any defensive concept except for screening actions.  If players can execute these fundamental defensive principles, defending screens will be much easier for players to learn and master.

A Few Thoughts on Practice Planning

You’ll notice that our practices are intentionally made up of small segments. It’s critical to keep things moving. It’s critical keep things fresh. One day we may start practice by introducing something new. The next day we might start with something that we’ve been doing since Day 1. We have ended practice with a transition defense drill, ball handling, stations, and 4 on 4 over the past week.  I would like to have even more variety in our practices. We’re going to cover many of the same skills and concepts every day.  But we’re going to try to find a different way to do that every day. We’re going to constantly challenge our players to execute a skill or apply a concept in different ways.  That’s the game of basketball.  No two possessions are exactly the same, so why should we run the same drills over and over again.  I’m still trying to figure out more ways to do things than I know now.

My philosophy is that if we want to spend 10 minutes on something, let’s do it twice in two different parts of practice for 5 minutes. That way players don’t get bored with it. They don’t have time to get too frustrated. If it takes 5 minutes to explain something, then we should probably break it down into smaller pieces. I don’t want players to have to handle too much at one time. I want them to be able to focus on one or two things and get better at those one or two things. Then we can progress and build on what they have learned. Even as much as we have broken things down, I think we could do it more, and I think we would get better as a result.

For example, it was very interesting the other day when we were talking about defending back screens. This was the first time that we did this. In the first segment, I had all of the returning players go through it since they “knew” what to do. This way the newcomers could watch listen and learn without having to get frustrated that they could not figure it out. The returners struggled even though they have been working on this concept.

In the second segment the new players got their opportunity. It was amazing how much better the new players did. They were able to hear me repeat the key points of emphasis. They were able to watch the returners both fail and succeed. Now when they had their opportunity, they were better prepared. Maybe they didn’t succeed initially, but they “got it” much more quickly. Had we spent 10 minutes on it, the second group would have been tuned out by the time it got to be their turn. The first group who was frustrated didn’t have time to linger on their frustrations.  They were able to move on to something else.  We ran the drill, then ran a couple other drills, and then ran the drill again. Things worked out really well.

When you have to teach a drill or concept it takes time.  Maybe you run out of time.  Maybe they all don’t get it.  Maybe they all don’t even get to try.  This is where planning a second or third segment is important.  At least everyone can get a repetition.  At least they can get an idea of the skill or concept.  That’s ok. We’re probably going to rep it again tomorrow anyway. And if we need to rep it for two or three more days that’s fine. It’s all about building habits anyway right? How many times have you been able to teach a new skill or concept in one day and players automatically do it habitually?  Of course they didn’t.  So now the second day, things go better.  They come in with a fresh outlook.  They understand that you are being patient with them through their learning process.  They are willing to try hard again to get better.  You can still have high standards with the expectation that they will continue to pursue that goal and reach it eventually.

I’ve just had too many experiences where my stubbornness makes me want to do the drill til they get perfectly. Well now we’ve killed the energy in practice and not gotten other things done that were on the schedule. Not to mention, I’m really mad when they come in the next day and do it well right off the get go.

I think we have to be honest with ourselves about how fast players can really learn a skill or concept. Some players will learn faster than others, but at the end of the day it takes time and repetition. Knowing what to do and doing it are different. So let’s not expect perfection immediately. Let’s allow them time to get better. Let’s let them know that it’s going to take repetition to make it habit. Just because you do it right one time, doesn’t mean you’re going to do it right every time. Just because you do it wrong one time, doesn’t mean you can’t do it right.  And so we’re going to keep working to build consistency. Every day, every practice, every drill, every rep is a step towards betterment.

I think there’s a progression that players go through in learning something new. I believe we have to let them go through those stages. First they have to have a general conceptual idea of what we’re trying to accomplish. This is not necessarily skill related. This is what we’re doing it, why we’re doing it, and how it fits into the overall picture. Once they grasp the general idea, now I think we can hammer on the small details. Some things are obvious.  Other things may not be so obvious.

I think it’s very important to control what our players think about. If we give them too much information, we are leaving it up to them to decide what they think is important. If we limit the information we give to them, now that’s all they have to think about. If they are thinking about anything else, we can remind them of the task at hand.  Get better at this.  Here and now.  Just this.  Nothing else.  Now of course we progress.

There is no magic pill.  There is no magic drill.  There’s only a persistant consistent and dedicated effort to get better every day.

Part IX: Combining Layers

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series R&R Intro

So you’ve spent the last two weeks or two months drilling skills and layers.  Players can execute fundamental skills.  They can react perfectly every time. Now they have to make them work in a live setting.  In other words, they have to perform layers consecutively, seamlessly, and efficiently.

Coaches ask regularly, “What combinations work best?”  While there may be some good answers to that question, I don’t think we can predict how defense is going to play us.  Even if we know a team’s defensive philosophy, it isn’t as if they will always be in the position they are supposed to be in. Are our players always in the right positions?

When we’re teaching players to combine layers, we should do this without defense. We should encourage them to incorporate certain layers in a possession.  We can let them execute any layer they want.  We can limit the layers they have to execute.  We can require that they can’t stop until they execute a certain layer or layers. This gives ball handlers freedom.  Players without the ball can’t predict what’s going to happen. Yet, they can be forced to think about executing specific actions.

However, when we want to teach our players which layers they should execute this must be done with defense on the floor.  I believe we must empower our players to make those decisions.  I believe we must show them and teach them when they should make one decision versus another.  I don’t believe we can do that without having defense on the floor.  Defense gives the offense something to “read and react” to.

In addition, putting defense on the floor allows to teach defense.  Defense is always in a reactionary mode.  However, offenses are much more organized.  They typically execute actions in a certain order. You can train defense to defend a certain set of actions by requiring that the offense execute specific layers in order.  In this case, you’re getting offensive reps in a live situation, but the emphasis really turns to the defense. If action A occurs, this is how we defend it. If Action B occurs followed by Action C, then this is how we defend it.  If Action D follows Action B, then we do this.

Coaches can dictate some offensive actions and let the players dictate the rest. Coaches can let the offense dictate all of them.  It depends on what, if any specific defensive concepts the coaches want to cover. Do they want to make sure the team knows how to rotate on a baseline drive or defend a staggered screen?  Or is it more important that the defense be able to react to unplanned offensive actions?

What you’ll see in this blog is that when offense is on the court without defense, they will be given a lot of freedom to do whatever they want.  The idea is the ball handler can’t make a wrong decision, but the people without the ball have to make the right ones.
When offense and defense are on the court at the same time, things become a lot more fun (or complicated), depending on your perspective. I plan to share some different scenarios that can be used to emphasize defensive concepts and still drill the offensive habits at the same time.

Practice #8

This entry is part 12 of 20 in the series Practice


5 Dynamic Warm Up Player led warmup
8 Conditioning 2 groups, 10 full court sprints, 10 far free throw line sprints, stationary ball handling for nonrunning group
2 Stretch & Water be at half court by the buzzer
5 5 on 5 transition
3 intro back screen
8 5 on 0 4 out 1 in
6 Guard/Post back screen
5 3 on 3 (3 out)
6 Guard/Post Post D transition
15 Stations post entry (lob), reading/setting ball screens, defending ball screens
5 ball handling
5 3 on 3 (2 out 1 in)
6 4 on 3 3 on 3 live
8 5 on 0 (4 out 1 in)
6 Guard/Post back screen
5 4 on 4 (3 out 1 in)

This was certainly a frustrating practice for the players.  The effort and energy was there. We were just off. I still think we got better.  Of course, my optimism can get in the way of reality sometimes.

Practice #7

This entry is part 11 of 20 in the series Practice


5 Dynamic Warm Up Player led warmup
10 Conditioning 2 groups, 10 full court sprints, 10 far free throw line sprints, stationary ball handling for nonrunning group
2 Stretch & Water be at half court by the buzzer
3 Intro Pin Screens
5 5 on 0 (4 out 1 in) look to set pin screens
6 guard/post finishing/finishing
5 3 on 3 (3 out)
5 intro transition d
6 guard/post Post Entry/Post Defense
5 3 on 3 full
15 stations
5 3 on 3 (2 out 1 in)
6 4 on 3 to 3 on 3 live Player with the ball is unguarded, make or miss 3 on 3 in transition
5 5 on 0 (4 out 1 in)
5 4 on 4 (3 out 1 in)
5 ball handling
5 5 on 5 transition

This was the best practice that we’ve had yet. Everyone was going hard and getting after it.  It’s just a matter of consistency.