Fundamental Offensive Skills

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at sjordan@alaskalife.net.

There are 4 fundamental offensive skills. The four basic skills an offensive player must learn (in alphabetical order) are dribbling, passing, shooting and "what to do without the ball". The last category includes V cuts, setting screens and rebounding.

Dribbling

From young to old, players love to shoot more than performing any other basketball skill. But when they really want to impress their peers, what to they do? Yeah, they dribble. Behind the back, between the legs, chin high bounces - these are all tricks brought out to demonstrate mastery of the game. The greatest feat is to cause the defender to fall down with a fake and sudden change of direction, metaphorically "breaking his ankles" in the process. The crowd goes wild. The second greatest feat is to single-handedly best the full court press, splitting defensive traps and evading steal attempts. The crowd nods in agreement that they are in the presence of a fine basketball player. So, with such incentives, many players spend lots of time practicing crossover and spin moves.

Ball handling skills are very important, especially when protecting the ball from an aggressive defense. Dribbling skills are also difficult to learn and take concerted effort to master. It is very aggravating to lose possession of the ball because a player does not have sufficient proficiency in a given situation. An important point here is that such turnovers are not nearly as aggravating as possessions lost during showboat maneuvers. I have seen countless instances where a player at the top of the key, with no defensive player near him, begin to go into his dribbling routine, only to have the ball bounce off his foot and go out of bounds. If "breaking someone's ankles" is the greatest dribbling achievement, surely this particular turnover is the most shameful. The second most frustrating dribbling blunder is the player that drives between two defenders and has the ball stripped away. Many teams devote hours practicing press-breaking plays to get the ball upcourt safely and quickly. All that time is wasted when players decides to "go against the numbers". That is why you see some coaches get so upset at their players during a game. The parents see a player losing the ball, but trying his best to help the team. The coaches see a player deliberately making a bad choice. Another attribute that is becoming more important in today's basketball game is sheer strength. It is no longer fashionable for referees to call fouls against steal attempts in the backcourt. It is hard for a coach to keep emotions in check when players come into the huddle bruised, bleeding and humiliated from no-calls. There are two answers to the problem: be more physical than the defense, or (duh!) pass the ball more. It is no big feat to destroy a full court press without using any dribbles at all.

Things to practice: Dribbling skills require frequent practice, concentrating on a few basic principles. Hardworking players will become very comfortable handling the ball and will perform feints and maneuvers instinctively. Insist that players be attentive to the following tips:

1. Keep the head up. Do not look at the ball. Tell players that the ball will rise off the floor every time without being supervised. Players who look down when they dribble will not see open players down court. They also will not see defenders well enough to protect the ball.
2. Use both hands equally. The easiest player to guard is one that can only dribble with one hand. Such a player can be herded, will have difficulty shooting and passing when moving to the weaker side, and is very predictable. The one handed player is essentially double-teamed even when he has a single defender.
3. Do not allow players to let the ball rest in their hand, cup it, or roll their hands from bottom to top of the ball. These actions are tempting because they enable greater control (and flashier moves), but they are illegal and a decent referee will be sure penalize the player in a game.
4. Protect the ball by keeping the body between the ball and the defender.
5. Practice controlled movement left, right, forwards and backwards, all while keeping eyes forward.
6. Practice transitions between directional changes (step back and cross-over, behind the back, between legs). Do not allow guards to turn their backs to the defense. They will not see pass receivers and they will not see the defense making moves to steal the ball.

Dribble Drills: Here are some simple (and fun) drills to develop dribbling skills. Try ones that seem appropriate for your age group and modify freely as needed.

1. As in a relay race, split the team into several parallel lines and ask players to advance the ball to halfcourt and back using a specific skill, i.e. two dribbles left hand, step back and cross ball to right hand, then advance two steps dribbling right handed. Step back, cross-over and repeat. Subsequent sets can include other transition moves and feints, i.e. while dribbling right-handed, head and shoulder fake left, but retain ball on right side.
2.Match players up 1:1. Have one player dribble, the other defend. Restrict the lane to about 12 feet wide to further contain the dribbler. The defensive object is to gain possession or trap the dribbler at the side of the lane. The dribble must advance the ball going side to side, protecting the ball with the body and using transition skills from one hand to the other.
3. Match dribbler against two defenders. Good defensive practice and hopefully will teach dribblers to avoid such confrontations. For the younger players (or those that have no weak hand skills).
4. Line the kids up in a convenient close formation so you can see them easily. Have them bounce the ball with either hand, but get them to all dribble in unison without going anywhere, You should hear a massive boom-boom-boom as the rhythm kicks in. Then, in a cadence, warn them that at the count of three, everyone will switch to the other hand. I have found that when the kids try to switch hands individually they often lose the ball. In concert, however, the results are surprisingly successful and the players become confident.
5. Give the players two basketballs each. Have them move forward bouncing both balls at the same time and again with alternating left/right dribbles. Advanced players can bounce the left side ball to the right hand and vice-versa.
6. Play dribble tag. Its just like tag, but one must have control of the ball tag another.

Passing

Teach your players to pass. Please. It is a much more valuable skill than dribbling. Passes should be simple, snappy and short. Eliminate behind the back or "no-look passes". Misdirection, using the eyes and a slight body fake to mislead the defender, is effective and reliable. Reckless showboat passes please the crowd when they work, but they usually don't and the perpetrator ends up in an embarrassing light, perhaps even on the bench. Snappy means to pass the ball with sufficient velocity that it is difficult for defender to deflect. With misdirection AND snappiness, the ball can be passed close to the defender if desired, Short passes reduce the chance for interception and are easier to perform accurately.

Watch for  "Shooter's Syndrome". Your best scorer is a poor passer, why is that? Passes to open players are difficult to catch or just enough so to sabotage the shot. Is there a subconscious effort there to protect the individual's status as top scorer? I've seen this too often not to call it a syndrome. If your scorer is not passing to open players or throwing the ball behind them when they have a lay up, or at their feet, etc., action must be taken. Accusing a player of being selfish is dangerous. However, you can demonstrate how important passing is by benching the culprit for poor passes or neglecting open players. If you think the cost of losing a good shooter is too high, consider that value minus the points not made by the other players, lower morale and subtle (or not so subtle) retribution by teammates.

Just mentioned was the admonition against showy passes. More prevalent and dangerous are passes that are best described as weak - low velocity and aimless. Such passes are easily and frequently intercepted. Strong passes are created with an understanding of technique and focused concentration. Its surprising how many "advanced" players cannot throw a chest very far or with much control. To teach your players passing skills, try these notes on technique. Then, there a few drills to try.

Chest Pass
1. Hold the ball chest high, fingers spread comfortably, thumbs pointing down
2. Take one step forward as the ball is thrown
3. Push the ball forward, using the arms, but most importantly, finish the release with the wrists snapping inward, thumbs together. With practice, the ball can be passed crisply for a surprising distance.
4. Insist on accuracy. The easiest pass to catch is one received at chest level; the hardest to catch is at the feet.

Overhead Pass
More to the point, this is a toss. The thumbs are under the ball, but the action is initiated by the little fingers snapping forward. Use this pass carefully because it is easy for a defender to protect the area directly above. 

Baseball Pass
Used for long distance, fast break situations. This is a difficult and risky pass due to the length the ball travels and precision required to hit the target. Errant baseball passes often go over the receiver or curve significantly and go wide of the mark. Another danger is the load placed upon the thrower's shoulder. It is possible to damage a rotator cuff if the ball is thrown too hard.
1. Throw the ball directly overhand, not side-arm. The ball should show a rapid backspin which is parallel to the floor. If it spins perpendicular to the floor, it will curve.
2. Keep the pass low. A long skip pass is easier on the arm and it will not sail over the receiver. The higher route should only be used if necessary to go over defenders.
3. Lead the receiver. At long distances, players often misjudge the speed of the receiver. If the pass is behind the receiver, it will be necessary to stop and catch the ball, allowing the defense to recover. In that case, a risky pass has been employed and no gain realized.

Shovel Pass
This pass is thrown off the dribble, as the ball comes up to the dribblers hand, in an underhand motion. This is a sloppy, inaccurate pass. I will bench a player for using it.

Receiving the Pass
Teach players to step forward when receiving passes. Tell them to come and meet the ball, essentially beat the defense to the ball. Catch the ball with two hands. If the receiver is in the low post, help them create space so the passer has a definitive target. The post player should have a feel where the defense is and, with a wide stance and arms extended, make an obvious spot for the pass.

Passing Drills
1. Divide the team into two facing lines. If there are enough basketballs, pair the players so they can pass to each other. Start with a short distance, 6-8 feet. Then, in stages have each player take a step backward. Always concentrate in technique. Once the players are separated by 15' or so, watch for passes that lose altitude (or not even reach the target without bouncing!) and help those players. There is no value in practicing passes outside the players range or if accuracy cannot be maintained.
2. Line the team up around the jump ball circle. Put one player in the middle. The player with the ball must pass either to the person directly across the circle or to the two adjacent players. If the player in the center can deflect or intercept the pass, or if the passer misses the three possible targets, the passer exchanges places with the defender. Practice misdirection with the eyes, bounce passes, passes under the defender's arm, etc. Have the players back up a step for more of a challenge.
3. Have the players form two lines at one side of the court. The first two pass the ball back and forth as they progress down the floor. No dribbling is allowed. Increase speed as proficiency grows. Emphasize crisp passing and leading the receiver. Add lay-up at completion of journey.
4. Players lay on the backs and hold the ball near their chest. Pass the ball straight up, then catch it. This simple drill takes a lot of concentration, especially the the height of the pass increases.

Shooting

Successful shooting is based upon three elements with a distinctive priority: Confidence, Selection and Technique.

Confidence
A player may have perfect technique and may take an easy uncontested shot, but if the confidence level is low, the shot may well be missed. Some players seem to have an inherent self-confidence that carries them through. In fact, some shooters make baskets at critical times, yet use terrible technique and make a bad choice to shoot altogether. Still, they succeeded because they believed they could score despite the odds. So, what is the choice of a conscientious coach? Should players be exhorted to emotional levels that enable great shots of faith? Should players be infused with a sense of individual superiority to achieve the same end? The answer, I believe, is to attain the necessary confidence level through frequent practice predicated upon the underlying factors of selection and technique. If a player has made a shot a thousand times in practice, there shouldn't be a problem with confidence. When a player takes shots that have been practiced, knowing that it is the right shot at the right time, the percentage will be acceptable. The problem with emotionally driven teams/players is that the emotion cannot be sustained at high levels over time. As a result, there are large stretches of flat performance that negate the magical moments. Emotion enables great deeds and big plays and are ideally reserved for big moments. There are certain factors that erode confidence. At the least, it is scary to perform in front of other people knowing that your mistakes will be exposed for all to see. Its also scary knowing you may be publicly defeated. Its easy to talk big, but at game time the proof is on the court. Part of being a team is sharing those particular fears. Your teammates give you courage.

Additional factors that reduce a player's self confidence are:
1. Lack of trust and support from teammates, such as teasing, put downs or resentment.
2. Criticism from coaches, especially following a missed shot
3. Lack of practice. Players that have not paid their dues working on free throws, for instance, will not feel comfortable at the free throw line.
4. Emphasis on personal goals instead of team success. Players worried about personal point totals make poor choices.
5. Intimidation from the other team, especially concern over having shots blocked. See shot blocking.

Shot Selection
Much of this site is devoted to risk management as a basketball philosophy. The winning team is usually the one that gets the most shot attempts. If the number of shot attempts is similar, it comes down to which team best managed their shots. If one team earns an extra 15 shots over the other due to their effort at offensive boards or forcing turnovers, yet squanders those attempts on shots of extreme difficulty, then it has wasted its advantage.

Each of the shot types listed below costs the team one forced turnover or one offensive rebound, usually achieved by someone other than the shooter. Its not fair. Patience will usually pay off in a shot that is easy to make and demoralizing to the opponent. Wasted shots are:
1.
Drives to the basket without a opening. The only salvation is a foul.
2. Shots well outside the shooter's effective range.
3. Shots taken when the shooter has lost body control.

Shot Technique
There are several illustrated books available written by shooting experts. Read a few. Then watch professional players and study their technique in action. Study your players. Its not hard to spot deficiencies if you think in terms of body alignment and consistency of motion towards the basket. The hardest trick isn't spotting the problem. The difficulty is in convincing a player to change a habit. Most players will simply work harder to perfect bad form and while eventually achieving their potential, don't get very accurate. The smart player adjusts knowing that good technique equates to higher potential. When a player changes a habit, performance often suffers while the new skill is being developed. Too many lose faith at this point and revert to the bad habit. Here are some common faults seen in shooters of all ages.
1. Twisted body. Align feet, hips, shoulders perpendicular to the basket.
2. Inconsistent release. Watch the fingers as the player follows through. Do they turn away from basket at release?
3. Non-vertical movement. Does the player leave the ground at an angle? Motion should be straight up or slightly toward the basket.
4. Elbow flare. The elbow should remain close to the body. If it sticks out to the side, the shot will vary side-to-side and tend to be flat.
5. No arc. The ball should travel well above the rim (15-17' at peak). Flat shots have a very small window to enter the basket. A nicely arced shots sees most of the basket circumference as it descends. Also, the ball is more likely to bounce up off the rim rather than back to the shooter.
6. Ball on palm. The ball should be balanced on the fingertips during the shot, not resting on the palm where control is lost. There should be a discernable gap between the ball and the palm. This habit is a carryover from when the players are too small to hold the ball correctly. The thumb of the shooting hand should have a 45 degree angle up and toward the ball.
7. Shot initiated from the hip or chest. Another carryover from days when so much strength was needed to merely reach the rim. Shots should generate from the triple threat position. The elbows should be at eye level when the shot is released. The higher the shot release, the harder it is to block. 

Shooting Drills
Repetition is the key. Players should develop muscle memory for favorite shooting spots. After shooting from a given location hundreds of times, making that particular shot can be nearly automatic.
1. Side to side. Lay the ball up right handed (jumping off left foot), catch the ball and immediately shoot left handed on the left side of the basket (jumping off the right foot). Rinse and repeat. Repeat continuously for 2 minutes then alternate with a partner. Concentrate on using the backboard, elevating on the shot, jumping off the proper foot and, of course, making all the shots.
2. Progression. Stand 2 feet from basket. Shoot a nice easy shot into the basket. Avoid hitting the rim. Make it perfectly. Concentrate on form, follow-through, rhythm and arc. Do not practice bad habits. After 2 minutes, alternate with partner. Then, move back two more feet and repeat. The last round is when three-point shots are practiced.
3. Give and Go. Shooter passes to a high post then moves quickly to an open spot (3-4 steps), receive the pass back from the post and immediately shoots. Key points are maintaining balance after passing by cutting, stopping when receiving the ball, pivoting on the foot towards the center of the court, jumping straight in the air with the shoulder and hips perpendicular to the basket.
4. Spot shooting. Feed the shooter at a stationary position. Keep track of how many shots are taken and made. Shoot as many shots as you can (i.e. 100) before trying another spot.
5. Lay-ups - the most common shot. There are many drills, from the two lines with one shooting one rebounding, to intricate passing preludes before the shot. The main idea is to practice lay-ups at game speed. Strive for maximum height and accuracy. This shot must be so familiar to the player that it is made instinctively.
6. X Drill. Dribble from left side of free throw line (elbow) and make a left handed lay-up. Retrieve the ball and drive out to the right elbow keeping the ball on the outside - away from the center of the court. Once at the elbow, pivot and change dribbling hands so the ball is still away from the center of the court. Drive in and make a right handed lay-up. Repeat 1,000 times.

Free Throws
Check out the new free throw article in the topic menu. Here is some quick advice:
Practice when tired. Practice with "stakes on the line". I like to have the players shoot free throws during conditioning drills offering small rewards such as one less repetition for making the shot. Simplicity, consistency of form is crucial. All of the tips listed under the Shot Technique section apply. Stand directly behind players as they shoot and watch for non-essential movements or improvised compensations (player making last second changes in form. Observe the follow through motion of the hand - does it point straight to the basket? Also, observe the spin of the ball as it travels towards the rim. It should be spinning directly backwards fast enough that the individual seams on the ball are not easily distinguishable. A ball that does not spin or rotates side to side indicates improper release.

What to Do Without the Ball

The primary skills everyone knows are dribbling, passing and shooting. However, it is the behind the scenes action by players who do not have the ball that often make the difference between an effective team and a team that just doesn't seem to reach its potential. A player should be thinking every second, trying to find a way to contribute to the team. Because basketball plays usually involve only two or three players, the best contribution at times is to stay out of the way and keep your defender from helping to defend the ball. Nonetheless, a player that is a threat even without the ball (because of constant movement to get open) can exhaust a defender and prevent teammates from being double-teamed.

Stress the value of V cuts Camera angles from above the basketball court vividly show how much open space is available for an active player. If you are not open where you are, move. The most effective way to get open to move directly to the basket (or towards the ball) so the defender is committed to moving in a predictable direction, then sudden change direction to a desired open area. The reaction differential should provide a usable window of opportunity to receive a pass. V cuts are hard work, but that is also true for the defender who must continually adjust and spend more energy doing so than the offensive player. Lazy cuts that can be diagrammed with curves instead of straight lines are easy to guard. Travel far enough that the defender must move with you. Some offensive players make their cuts so short that the defender merely stands in place and adequately defends his opponent.

A very useful trick - and absurdly simple, too - is to notice when the defender looks away from his man. At that moment the man he is guarding should change position. The defender will look back and, with alarm, realize he's lost his man. A quick cut to the basket may mean an easy basket. The coaching challenge is to get the rest of the team to recognize the advantage. Young players are so absorbed in their personal situation that they are often oblivious to sudden openings for their teammates. When practicing your offensive patterns, tell the team that only a certain player can score. That will help them watch for the target player through the entire offensive process. It will also help the offensive target learn to work hard constantly to get open.

Players that can screen are the quiet, yet indispensable contributors. Most plays call for a screen somewhere in the process. When these plays fail, it is usually because the expected screen never happened. Unplanned screens are good, especially when set for a teammate without the ball. Its easier to pick off his unsuspecting defender that it is screening  for the ballhandler.   Screens should be set behind and slightly to the side of the defender. Contact should occur because the offensive player about to be freed herds his defender into the screen.