Moving Without the Basketball

Contributed by Brett Ayers. Email the author at

I think one of the biggest lost arts of the game is moving without the ball. Too many think that if a kid is running all over and covering distance in the half court or even in the full court that he is moving well without the ball. That simply is not true. I see a lot of kids who do not understand pace in their movement, spacing on the offensive end and, of course, player recognition when they do have the ball or are moving within the half court or full court offense.

A lot of kids these days seem to wander aimlessly around as if they were imitating the lost tribes of Israel in the Old Testament. You can just tell a kid who gets that blank stare out there who really has no idea what he is supposed to be doing and where he should take himself. To compensate for the lack of understanding they simply run around like chickens with their heads cut off. Now, there is hope because with the use of continuity offense and, of course, with continued teaching of on court "thinking" within players these things can be learned, developed and eventually mastered to a greater degree.

One of the things I think that all coaches have to do when breaking down offensive sets in the half and full court is to really emphasize a couple of things. The first one being "why" something is done. Too often I think coaches simply tell a player to go here, do this, then do that, then you do this. But they do not explain why and, even more importantly, when the kid fails to do such things. During other related basketball movements, within the context of the offense, the coach must stop the drill or scrimmage and ask the player to explain why he is doing what he is doing. Coaches seem to be on either one side or the other of the spectrum these days where they control every micro-movement of their players or they control none of their movements on the offensive end.

The second thing a coach needs to do, and a player learn, is a definition of on-court roles for players as well as an understanding of where and when they will get their shots. I think a coach has to clearly define on the court and off of the court the role a player has within the scheme of the over-all team concept that the coach is trying to utilize. If a kid is a screener, primarily you tell him this, and you emphasize that he needs to become cognizant of who he is setting picks for and where he is setting them. If a player is primarily a rebounder, you get him to become aware of where guys like to shoot the ball and where, when they miss, the ball tends to bounce the most. A scorer, well this is where it gets a bit tricky and long with a loss of definition of roles seemingly over the past 20 years, you have seen with the likes of Dr. J and MJ the breakdown of over- all offensive games at the college level.

Too many kids think they can have every shot, when the reality is those two guys had every shot and they themselves had to learn to get to places for a couple of shots, which eventually lead them to the success they were looking for. But, ESPN only puts on the highlight clips, not the solid jumpers off picks these days, and subsequently players think they need "every" shot in their arsenal which leads to a real breakdown in team continuity and, of course, poor offensive execution. If a kid wants to expand his arsenal, he does it in the off-season, not during the season. A kid wants to get more shots in the offensive scheme, well, you work in the off-season to develop the kind of shot or shots that will make you a more viable and consistent part of the offense.

Off the ball movement is something that can be gained in two ways. The first, of course, is to give the kids a definitive, continuity pattern to follow and within that pattern you encourage and teach "defensive reading" of a player's individual defender. Kids must learn when to cut, when to go back door, when to drive or when to pass the ball. Spacing and floor recognition, though, is something that has also seemingly gone the way of the dodo. You see two, even three guys running down one side of the court on the break, or you see 4 guys on one side of the court in a man to man offense when it is not part of anything desired by the coach. These things create such poor spacing you can just see the development of the turnover or the poor shot within the context of the spacing, even, at times, two passes prior to the shot.

In the full court scenario, offensively, I am a big believer in running some secondary break stuff a la DES, (Dean Smith - ed.) but I also think you have to drill for proper spacing and "lanes" when players fill for the break. Too often you see big men and guards either running too wide in the case of the big men, or running too tight in the case of guards and wings. Wings need to hug that sideline down to the 28 foot mark and, of course, use that 45 degree angle when cutting to the hoop. Post men need to understand the importance of running down that middle key wide lane, keeping their heads up, reading where the point guard is going with the ball if they are trailing, and if they are out in front, keeping their head up and hands ready for a pass from the point or other perimeter player on the break.

In the half court there needs to be an emphasis placed on "pace". Now what do I mean by this? It's simple really. Players need to realize that running as hard as you can all of the time, or half as hard as you can all the time will allow for your defender to gain a feel for your offensive rhythm and make it all the more easier for them to guard you. Things to work on are first learning to walk your man in, or into your man, then bust up, out or off the pick quickly catching your defender off balance with the change in your pace. Another thing to realize is that when you set the pick, often you are the man who will be open, but being aware of where the other offensive player coming off the pick goes is a must. You can not follow him or always fade back. You need to find a place where the defenders are not and put a strain on them to cover you. I think that even if you are not a primary offensive weapon that you still have to make yourself "hard to guard".

One of the final areas of movement without the ball is that of coming off of picks. I swear that nearly 85 percent of all picks today are illegal in nature when set, not because of the man coming to set the pick, as much as it is the early movement and break neck speed employed by those fellows coming off of the picks. One of the keys to learning to come off of a pick well is, once again, pace and, of course, setting your man up. There are several thoughts on setting your man up, but one of things I found works best is to walk towards your man as you see the pick coming down, or over to be set for you. The offensive player should always keep his head up on the man and do not have your eyes on the ball quite yet. I see a lot of guys improperly read screens because, of all the darn things, they are not looking at their defender, but instead making up their mind where they want to go, regardless. Keep your head up, walk towards the defender. As the man comes to set the pick, if you walk into your defender it will be easier to then come off of the pick with little or no space between you and the man setting the pick. A key reference to use is this, "shoulder to shoulder" when coming off of a pick. The picker and the pickee should literally rub shoulder to shoulder creating no space available for the defender to slip over the pick.

Now, if you walk into the defender and he backs up, then you have, depending upon where you are, set him up for the flair back, which simply means you push back off of the pick leaving your defender now behind the pick and you flair back for the jump shot or other, depending upon what your arsenal of shots consists of. Now, if a guy trails you around a pick on defense, then you need to simply either cut off the pick or curl over the pick, depending upon where it is being set. Also, one last thing to remember, make yourself hard to guard. Even if you come off of a pick and are not even remotely going to shoot the ball, get that ball in triple threat and make your defender think you might just shoot the ball. Come off prepared to shoot or attack the basket. I think with the obviously poor scouting and preparation jobs done by many coaches these days, and lack of on-court thinking and the lack of savvy defense by many defenders, that it is easy for a non-offensive player to con his defender into guarding him skin tight in order to "stop" him.