Skills that separate you from pack
In offering up some tips, I'm not going to provide the given wisdom of shooting the ball well or demonstrating good ball handling and passing. I'm not even going to venture down the well-worn road of "Even on a bad day you can defend and rebound." If you're truly a college-caliber player, you pretty much have a handle on those concepts already and don't need me to restate the obvious.
What I thought I might share is some deeper insight on some skills -- beyond scoring and basic on-ball defending -- that good recruiters and strong basketball coaches will notice.
On the offensive end of the floor, one of the least-refined skills is the setting of screens. I'm not talking about feet shoulder-width apart; where to put your arms; and no moving once you're set. That should be a given. Let's talk about what you're really trying to accomplish and take a geometry lesson in the angle of the screens you set.
Always keep in mind that if you're screening for a teammate, your goal is to free her up and send her somewhere. It may be a down screen to get her open on the wing or a screen away to create a reversal pass. It could be a cross-screen to free up a post on a block-to-block cut or even a back screen to get her open on a cut to the rim. All too often screeners just randomly put a body on a defender with no thought as to what opportunity they're actually creating for a teammate. The wrong angle can make it simple for defenders to handle any screen and take away the option you're hoping to develop. This may sound corny and be an "old school" tip but since your shoulder blades look like arrows, point them where you want to send your teammate. Force both your defender as well as your teammate's match up to make choices. The harder they have to work on a screen, the more likely it is they're going to make a mistake and give something up.
Of course, even the best set screen is pointless if the cutter fails to use it effectively. Again, I'm not talking about the usual and obvious advice such as setting up your defender before you cut. Let's address two points that can leave defenders calling for help. First off, there's nothing casual about the pace of the cut. You're not out for a Sunday stroll; it's a sprint. You have the advantages of knowing where you're going and the benefit of the screen to provide you with separation. Anything less than a hard, explosive cut gives up some of the edge you have and allows defenders to recover. Secondly, you can't afford to leave a gap between you and your screener. Time and again, we see enough space to drive a truck through. A good defender needs just enough room for one foot or a shoulder and they're going to fight through and negate anything the screen might have created. It's time to get up close and personal with your teammate and brush shoulders when they're screening for you.
One thing that stood out in many events this spring was the number of players who have no idea what to do without the ball in their hands or when they're on the weak side of the floor. Naturally, if the offense or quick hitter that you're running calls for you to be patient and hang out away from the ball, do just that. However, if you're in a motion offense or some individual play is coming out of transition, buy a ticket if you intend to watch. Staying active can accomplish a couple of things. First off, with movement, you can keep your defender tighter to you making her less of a factor in weak side defensive rotations. That will always keep your teammates happy. Secondly, if your opponent is playing some congressional defense where they only see one side of things, you might catch them standing and slip past them on a cut to the ball or the rim. Keep the floor spaced and do something. Screen, cut or even drift between the wing and corner away from the ball, but never stand around and watch. You can do that from the bench.
As long as we're talking about weak side defense, let's look at it from your point of view. View is the key word here. Positioning is something most players have been taught and at least have some grasp of away from the ball. What's showing up a lot of these days, however, are players who fail to use their vision and see both their match up and the ball. As cutters go through, they completely turn their backs and chase their opponent without any idea of what's going on around them. Sometimes we see defenders in a good help side position but they'll be staring at one side of the floor or the other and get caught standing. You're going to lose sight of the ball or opponent at times but it should never be for more than a split second. You have more responsibilities than just your own man and no vision means you're playing no defense.
Continuing with the idea of responsibilities and defense, let's define some roles key to getting stops against an opponent's transition game. Of course, the no-brainer that everyone knows is that the ball has to be stopped. That doesn't mean that it always occurs (usually due to a lack of communication) but most players grasp the idea that nothing else matters if someone doesn't pick it up. What's really surprising is the number of athletes who find their own matchup and run the floor with them. This seems to happen with the bigs all the time, but we see some guards take the same approach as well. The reality in transition is that there are no matchups. If your defensive assignment wants to trot down the floor like Grandma on her way to Bingo Night, she's doing you a favor. Now you're in a position to sprint ahead and be a factor. If you're trailing into the play on defense, fill the weak side. Your teammates should have taken the ball and the first pass and the last thing you need is to give up weak side options. Once you've contained their break you can worry about match-ups and switching as needed in the half court. Watching the play from behind will lead you watching it from the sideline as well.
When you consider the fact that college coaches are considering multiple prospects for each spot they're hoping to sign, showing how you see a bigger picture and understand basketball concepts is never a bad thing. These are not make or break skills for recruiters, but they are the kind of things that will demonstrate some real depth to your game and set you apart from players with a more limited skill set. On top of that, they're just good basketball. That should be reason enough.
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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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