How to Get Open

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


Basketball is like chess (see Analogies). When one team sets up its offense, the defense is perfectly aligned to counter it. The defense may shift its people slightly in anticipation of what the offense will do, but essentially everything is in balance. As the offense moves around, so does the defense, reacting to every dribble, pass and cut. Its kind of like a dance, one partner leading and the other following. This "steady state" goes on and on until something happens to disrupt the balance.

The defense is best played by staying in the reactive mode. Some coaches like to try and take the initiative defensively by extending their territory and ganging up on a ballhandler. This strategy is fundamentally flawed, however, because the defense NEVER has the advantage. Anything the defense does to disrupt the balance incurs a risk greater than the probable benefit. For example, if the defense tries to double team an opponent, one of the opponent's players will be left unguarded. If the double team does not work, the unguarded player will hurt you.

Being on offense, however, is like playing white in chess. You get the first move. You get to try things and see what happens when the defense reacts. If you try to gang up on a defender by setting a screen, the risk is minimal. If the screen doesn't work, so what? You can try again. Unless you are running out of time, you can theoretically manipulate the defense all you want to try and create the imbalance needed to get clear for a good shot.

This concept is essential when it comes to the not-so-simple task of getting open to receive the basketball. If the defense must react to what you do, then all you need to do is manipulate your defender into a position where you have a better chance to get the ball than he does. This article will show you a few dirt-simple moves that you can use against anyone to get open. You don't need to be bigger, faster or stronger. You just need to be smart enough to realize that, while on offense, you already have all the advantage you need.

The Tools for Getting Open

Have you ever noticed that some players are great scorers against some teams, yet other teams are able to hold them to very few points? You might quickly credit that to the defensive ability of the opponents, or say the scorer has "bad nights", but chances are the streaky scorer just doesn't know how to get open very well. The scorer does well against teams who let him receive the ball, but smarter teams who cover passing lanes and bump cutters own him. Even when he manages to get the basketball, he's too anxious to shoot well. When the game is over, he may figure the other team got "into his head", or some such rationale, but I think that if he knew a few good moves to get open, the games would go much better for him.

Think of these tips as tools for your basketball toolbox. You can add them one at a time, if you want, and they will always be there for you. They're kind of like Craftsman, they last forever.

  1. Change of Pace
    Remember, you do not need to be faster than your defender. If you're being guarded closely, just go at half speed. The defense reacts to you, so she will go at your half speed, too. What you have is the element of surprise. Once you get near the place where you want to catch the ball, speed up! A couple bounding steps will buy you a second or two, plenty of time to catch the ball.

  2. Watch Her Eyes
    Its not easy playing good defense. Not only are you responsible for guarding a person, you also need to be ready to help your teammates. That takes a lot of looking around. So, when you are on offense and you notice that your defender looks away, take off! It will take your defender several seconds to notice you're gone and get back into good position.
  1. Misdirection
    This is the most powerful tool you can have. If you wish to receive the ball in a certain place, first take your defense away from that place. The defender must follow you, otherwise you'll be open, right? Once you are 4 or 5 steps away from where you want to catch the ball (the target), all you need to do is win the race back to the target. In a normal race, the runners line up on the starting line to get a fair start. But, this is basketball, not track! To win the race to the target, step in front of the defender. Once you have the positional advantage you have rigged the race so you can't lose. It isn't even hard work. If you're a wing player, walk down to the baseline while the ball is on the other side of the court. Once the point guard gets the ball, step in front of your defender and win the race to your wing position. Its easy. Even old people can do it.
  1. Using Your Teammate - Part I
    Let's say you're playing on a wing and your defender is pretty tenacious. While the ball is away, go down low where your friendly low post player is set up. Pretend he is a tree. If you go down around the tree, the defender must make some quick decisions. If he follows you around the tree, then he is behind you as you come out towards your wing position. You will win that race. If he anticipates you circling the tree and goes around the tree in the opposite direction to catch you, use that extra space to flare off in the opposite direction, like toward the corner. If your point guard is used to your little tricks, he'll be expecting you to get open there and will deliver the ball.
  1. Using Your Teammate Part II
    If you have a reputation as a scorer, or if you have a defender that is really zealous, then you can enlist the help of your friendly tree, the post player. First, understand where your target is - where you want the ball. Take your defender away from the target. Make eye contact with your tree so he knows you're coming, then take off. Choose a path that will lead your zealous defender right into the birch bark. If the defender hits the tree or gets tangled in its branches, you're wide open. If your defender goes around the tree, the extra distance should enable you to win the race and, again, you're wide open.

  2. Using your Teammate Part III
    If you're having a tough time, talk to your big man. When you go near the baseline or into the key area, your big man can very deliberately put a body next to your defender. It will be obvious which direction will be the most difficult for your defender to go. That is the direction you should go.

  3. The Backdoor
    Against a very aggressive defender, the backdoor play is as effective as it gets. As always, you take you defender away from your target reception area. Then you race to get the pass. Your defender will be intent on winning that race and intercepting your pass. The difference is that both you and the passer know that the pass isn't coming. At least not at the target area. The passer fakes the pass - and at that instant, you reverse direction. The defender must react to your change. His momentum will delay him for a precious moment, and you will be wonderfully open. Now, it helps to have some triggers that signal a backdoor play. You can show a hand sign, like a closed fist, to let your passer know what's coming. Or, it can just be understood that if the defender vigorously pursues you past the three point line, he is to fake a pass so you can backdoor.

  4. Post Moves Part I
    Isn't it annoying when you are in the low post and some ape is draping his arm over you or perhaps extending it across your chest? Raise your arms straight up, like you are surrendering to the cops. Your defender's arm will go up, too, on top of yours, and he may get the foul he deserves.

  5. Post Moves Part II
    OK, you raised your arms and now the ape retracts his massive limb and then sticks it in front of you again, this time under your upraised arms. Drop your arm straight down and clamp his arm against your side. You'll be surprised how well you can pin it there. He'll frantically try to free it because he's obviously got his hand in the cookie jar. While he is pinned, you can catch the ball with your free hand, or you can release him until he tries that move again.

  6. Post Moves Part III
    Many post defenders will place a foot between your feet as they stand behind you. If you can feel the defender's thigh against your butt, sit on it. Literally. Usually, the post player has his knees bent as he looks for the ball, and the defender stands a little straighter. If you sit on the defender's thigh, he will be stuck to the floor like his foot was nailed down. If you get the ball, you can pivot off his leg as if you were getting off a bar stool. He won't be going anywhere, but you will. Straight to the basket.

  7. Post Moves Part IV
    Post play can be rough. You can't change that. But, you can learn to use the physical contact to your advantage. Remember that every bump is followed by a separation. Often you can tell where your defender is based on the bump. With those two pieces of information you can pick just the right time to step forward as a good pass target.

Things You Should NOT do to Get Open

  1. Don't shove the defender away with your hands
  2. Don't take a step to the left and then a step to the right and think you are shaking your defender. You will look silly and you won't get the ball.
  3. Don't work too hard. You need your energy to play good defense after you score. Choose your moments and your targets carefully. The tools you have learned do not require great speed or strength, just good timing. So don't go running around 100 miles an hour trying to get free. That may work, too, but you'll get exhausted and your teammates won't know what you're doing.
  4. Don't whine or complain. That will just pump up your defender because you are admitting he is doing a better job than you.
  5. Don't spend all your time trying to get the ball. Spend some of your time helping your teammates get open. You can set screens away from the ball, too. The more you are willing to help your buds, the more they will help you when you need it.

One last thing. Be nice to your big guys. You really need them. Give them the ball and keep them happy. It makes everything easier.

Here is a drill you can use

 This is a three man drill. If you have 12 on your team, define 4 sections of the court like I did on the right. You have a fixed passer. The passer has a receiver that can roam within the boundary and who is guard by one defender.

Upon the passer's signal, the receiver must get open without leaving the defined area. Once three passes have been completed, the three players rotate. Keep the kids well-matched.

At first, the receivers will run around inefficiently. Teach them the techniques and they wil soon be getting open at will. This is also good practice for the passers.

Move the receiver to the low block to practice the wing to post pass, too.