What Most People Don’t Understand About Player Development

A lot of onlookers watch NBA basketball and think its a simple game. The opposite is true. The offensive and defensive skills required to stay on the court are not replicable by anyone in the world. The game appears simple because the options, especially those off the ball, are happening too fast. Basketball is a sport where athleticism is a dominating factor, but, once players get to the professional level, it takes more that raw athleticism. Developing the combination of physical attributes with mental prowess is what puts players on a superstar level.

Basketball involves a variety of skills. For younger players its about developing natural talents into reliable skills, and then expanding those talents and skills into new ones. We’ve seen both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown grow and develop skills on the court over the last three years. 

The difference between working on a move and mastering the move is how much the player needs to think. Players still working on a move are thinking too much about the particulars such as footwork, elbow motion, and balance. This prevents them from focusing on getting the best result as they are thinking about their process. A player that has added a move to their permanent toolbox doesn’t need to think about it. Their brain recognizes the patterns of the game and knows how and when to implement the right move at the right time. The players with the best moves, and countermoves, are the best scorers and passers, they simply let the training take over.

The best examples of this are James Harden’s step-back, Nikola Jokic’s post passing, and Michael Jordan’s turnaround and fadeaway jumpers. Jordan, being the best scorer ever, always knew the right move. That didn’t happen overnight. Jordan worked harder than anyone in the league. When he got on the court in his later years, he didn’t need to think too much or purely rely on his athleticism. He let his training take over.

The same can be applied to defense. Both team and individual defense take a lot of training to master. Defensive assignments and rotations don’t come naturally. Players need to practice how best to counter an offensive attack as well as keep an eye on the whole court in the case of defending screens. This all comes with training. Being able to anticipate offensive options and being in the right place at the right time takes skill that is developed over time.

This is why every team has player development coaches. These specialists see what aspects of the game need improvement and show players the best path for them. These training paths involve everything from drills, to film, to scrimmages. Usually this is all before or after team practice. The best efforts yield the best results. Superstars aren’t born, they are made. 

Young players are always emulating stars. One job of these coaches is to compare them to similar player that played before them. This helps them learn their own bodies and range of motion. A 6’3” guard will get nothing out of emulating Hakeem Olajuwon, he needs to find the right role model. For example Jayson Tatum worked with Kobe Bryant, and Jaylen Brown with Tracy McGrady. These are both great role models that match up both by size and potential skill sets.

The same way chess players study the grandmasters, basketball prospects must study the masters of the hardwood. Player development is a journey. It takes years for top prospects to reach their real potential. As the league continues to grow, expect more from the already blossoming young stars.

(Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe)

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