Dribble First

Bob Knight once said that he would like to take his guards to an island with 1,000 basketballs and tell them to dribble until 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. He understood that 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.

Experience has taught many lessons about how to successfully implement this style of basketball. The biggest lesson is 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 topic. Traditionally, offensive systems, sets or plays use passing as their primary foundation.  While good passing is critical to successful 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.

It may seem counter-intuitive to traditional practice planning to begin installing an offensive system with teaching players to dribble. In my opinion, 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 5 of them.

Reason #1: It’s the hardest thing to learn.

Experience and research show this to be true because most players are never taught to do when a teammate drives. We coach the playmaker about whether or not they made a good decision, but we don’t coach the other 4 people on the court about how they can help make that decision easier.  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. I don’t want the players on the floor to ever just be spectators. A good offense should 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. I don’t believe players naturally move when the ball is driven. 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.

I would like to eliminate this reason.  I would like for this to be the easiest thing for players to learn because they have been learning it from an early age.

Reason #2: Creates a learning environment from the beginning

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.  Teaching them this first, clues them in on day 1 that they must dial in mentally. It also gives us the opportunity to repeat this layer in some way every day.

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 practice the execution of the attack dribble layer, but they will prepare to execute the other layers at a higher level.

Reason #3: 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 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 learn to always 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 after every catch?  Of course not. Is the defense thinking that they might?  It depends on how you’ve taught them. Advantage offense. There’s no doubt we want our players to play together. Teaching players to attack off the dribble first does not necessarily mean they can’t learn to play together.  In fact, in addition to teaching them to attack first, we are teaching them how to play as a team at the same time.

Reason #4: It’s really all about defense

Most coaches will agree that the hardest thing to guard is the ball.  At the same time, it is the most important thing to defend. If your teams can’t stop the player with the ball, then teaching them how to defend cuts and screens becomes pretty useless. If your team can’t guard the ball, then there’s no need to worry about defending players without the ball.  Your defense 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 the chance that something good happens for the offense.

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 in forcing teams to make one pass and hopefully one more pass. Teaching Attack Dribble first makes this opportunity possible on day 1. If defense wins championships, teach players to attack off the dribble first so you can teach them to guard the ball early and often.

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.  Learn how to stop the ball first so that defending cutters and screens actually matters.

Reason #5: It’s easier to teach cutters all of their options together.

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. Cutters can do more than just fill an open spot. 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 because they’ve done it for so long.


Players may take more than a full season to react to dribble penetration correctly most of the time.  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 weakside 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, teach the Attack Dribble first.

That’s almost the end of the introduction.  Before we get into the layers, I need to explain one more thing. Then we’ll get down to the business of breaking down each layer.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.