Monday, June 08, 2009

European NBA Players: Fundamentals, Skills and Footwork

How are you encouraging the development of skills and fundamentals in your organization?

The Europeans in the NBA, which now number 75, have had a great influence on the league. Many people had taken notice of their work habits and ability to compete with American NBA players, including Phil Jackson and Stan Van Gundy, opposing head coaches in this year's NBA finals.

"When you watch them in international events and you see them play against our best players -- and obviously we won [the Olympics last summer] pretty handily -- what you notice about our team is our athleticism is on a very high level, but [the Europeans] are able to compete because of their skills.

"If you look around the league, it becomes pretty evident that the Europeans are quite a bit ahead of us in terms of skill development for players, especially [if you look] at the bigger players -- Dirk Nowitzki, Hedo Turkoglu, Peja Stojakovic. We tend to take our big guys and stick them all around the basket. From a very young age, our coaches say, 'Get it to a guard' -- they get upset if our [big] guys even try to dribble the ball.

"The way we develop our players from a young age is just inferior to what they do there. They spend a lot more time on skill development. We want all our young kids here to play as many games as possible, to play in AAU tournaments from the time they're 8. You'll run into people who will tell you their son's team won the 8-and-under state AAU tournament -- like, who cares? But we're really into that for our kids, we want our kids to get recognition for being the best at a young age.

"In Europe, I think it's so much different. Their club teams practice a couple of times a day. One of those practices, I think, is just skills development. And then I think the other thing that helps them is, from a young age, when they're good, they move up."

"So they're always having to work and get better. What we want to do is take our young [American] kids and put them on the covers of magazines and tell them how great they are and fill them up with adulation, instead of them having to work and get better.

"Think about what goes on in our youth sports. We cheat. We want to say the guy who is 13 is only 12, so he can play down [at an easier age level], whether it's Danny Almonte or whatever, so we can glorify them and win our championship. Instead of that, why not play the guy up with 16-year-olds if he's that good and let him learn that I can't throw the fastball down the middle, I can't overpower this kid? But that's not us. Our system is to do just the opposite. And why is a kid going to take two hours a day in a gym by himself, when he can go play in an AAU tournament and have somebody hand him a trophy and say he's the ninth-ranked sixth-grader in America and stuff like that? It's ridiculous, our system. Who cares who the top 10 sixth-graders in America are? Why would that even matter to anyone? It's certainly not going to aid their skill development as time goes on.

"The whole thing in our basketball is that the system is not conducive to developing players. You get a guy like Hedo growing up over there, and for them, what they're thinking of is the end in mind. They're thinking of the national team down the road and how do we make this guy better. But we're not thinking that way here.

"Over here, my team has probably eight to 15 [junior] teams underneath it, so you have kids running around here at the age of 6 who are working on skills that you don't teach in America until you get to middle school," Karl said. "So that's where you begin to understand why Ricky is as good as he is and why some of these younger guys on my team in Europe are as good as they are. It's because they learn these skills from when they could start walking and dribbling a ball, and that's a distinct advantage the European player has. They can work on their game from the age of 6 with a coach who knows what he's talking about in a proven way."

--Stan Van Gundy, head coach of the NBA Orlando Magic, finalists in the this year's NBA championship series after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers, discussing the development of European players versus the American system.

The European System

"I've seen some of the ball-handling drills they do and some of the pick-and-roll situations they go over with the middle-school kids. They do the slow European one-two change of direction like Sarunas Marciulionis used to do, or like Manu Ginobili or Ricky [Rubio]."

"They're teaching this to young kids here. Some of the younger guys have been practicing with us from the [junior] team, so these guys are developing into players as the season goes along. They might be playing games [at their own age level], but they're also here in practice with us playing against top professionals, as well as practicing with their younger team in the same day. And they might have an individual workout on top of that. I mean, you could have a kid who's 18 years old having an individual workout at 10 a.m., going to practice with his team at 2 p.m., and then coming to practice with Joventut at 6 p.m.. It doesn't give much time for anything else, but you can definitely develop as a basketball player."

"The way they drill situations is far superior to any coaching system in middle school and high school that we have in America.

"A lot of that stuff has been taught. So it's not just him being a creative mind -- they teach the Steve Nash scoop layup, they teach the slow one-two. They teach a lot of these things from a young age, and those are things I want to improve on this summer, the use of pivots or the use of your two steps after you pick up the ball. Those are things I want to work on and use because they're very crafty things, and I think I already have a lot of that in my game but I want to have more.

"But they don't have a choice. When you only have three hours a day to practice, you have to make everything team-oriented -- to work on your team defenses and those aspects of the game. But over here you have multiple hours in the day to work on individual and team."

--Coby Karl, American professional basketball player and former NBA player, now playing in Europe, referring to the "Euro step" -- the move in which Ginobili, of the San Antonio Spurs, sidesteps a defender by making a 90-degree detour before resuming his momentum toward the basket.

Inferiority Complex

One reason for the development: the European players are also hungry and motivated and see themselves as underdogs to the American players. With an inferiority complex, they work doubly hard to try to match the best of the NBA.

The same motivation and anxiety helps to drive European coaches. They are drivent to study the technical aspects of the game and learn the finer points through clinics and textbooks and videos. To many of them, basketball becomes an academic, technical exercise, something to be learned step-by-step.

"You see an occasional LeBron James, but for the most part who are the great, highly skilled American 6-9 and 6-10 guys?" Van Gundy said. "I wish we would get to their system, because we still have the best athletes -- we've got people that have the potential to do all of those things.

"I look at a Dirk Nowitzki, and I find it hard to believe that we'll ever have guys of that size with those kinds of skills here. Because we don't take the time to develop them. We'll never have those guys.

"That doesn't mean we don't have highly skilled athletes, because we do," Van Gundy acknowledged. "But I think those guys have to somehow do it on their own. There's certainly not a system that's set up for us here to develop skills. It doesn't mean there aren't certain guys who just go in the gym and make themselves highly skilled guys, but we don't have a system to develop skills here."

Kobe Bryant

Even Kobe Bryant, considered one of the two best players in the world, developed his footwork in another country (Italy) and in another sport (soccer).

Cousins in the United States sent him videos of N.B.A. games, so Bryant studied the feet of Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.

“I’ve always worked on it, always worked on it since I was a kid. I just watched different players — Olajuwon, Michael, Charles — and just all kinds of footwork and just tried to emulate them. Playing soccer, I think, had a lot to do with it as well. It’s just growing up overseas.”

--Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers.

Eventually, Bryant teamed with Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who also coached the Chicago Bulls featuring Michael Jordan. Jackson saw the Bulls teammate work with each other on fundamentals.

"Because Scottie could make the footwork and dunk with his left hand, and Michael always envied that.”

--Phil Jackson said of Bulls teammate Scottie Pippen tutoring Michael Jordan on skills development.

Jackson also appreciated the value of other sports. Before the draft, he used to ask prospects about their athletic experiences.

“Basketball is a very skilled sport,” Jackson said. “But we need guys that can throw the basketball like a baseball and we like guys that have footwork like in soccer.”

As Bryant’s career and game advanced, he seldom goes anywhere without a DVD player so he could study highlights and the tendencies of opponents.

“There’s some things that we’ve always worked with him on, particularly where he gets his shots from and how he got his shots,” Jackson said. “Footwork has always been something he’s worked at on his own.”

“He has great footwork; he has great body control. He has great everything. Compared to LeBron, he’s very different because he’s moving a lot and he knows how to get you unbalanced to make his shot. He’s Kobe Bryant, so I’m not surprised.”

--Mickeal Pietrus, Orlando Magic forward, who defended against Bryant in Game 1 of the finals and also guarded LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals.

Although Bryant and Jordan were originally known for their athleticism, acrobatic dunking high-flying theatrical moves, as their careers advanced, their footwork helped maintain the high quality of their game.

“All good players have the same DNA in that regards. If you’re going to start building a foundation, footwork is part of it. It’s part of being athletic. Michael, I would throw right up there at the top with anybody I’ve ever been associated with. Same with Kobe.”

--Lakers assistant Jim Cleamons, who had the same role with Jordan’s Bulls.

Bryant is intuitive in his abilities. He senses when a defender is vulnerable and responds quickly.

“Just depends on what he’s doing and what I feel,” Bryant says. “I just react instinctively.”

However, at the end of the day, Bryant is also Jordanesque in one other way, his mental mindset.

“It’s his mind frame. That’s what sets him apart. There are guys with, I wouldn’t say equal skill, but there are really skilled guys. What sets him apart is his relentlessness. He never quits. Never quits. That’s his biggest strength.”

--Shane Battier, Houston Rockets forward.

What do you think? Is the development of skills and fundamentals being fostered on your team?

Excerpts taken from, June 5, 2009, and the New York Times, June 7, 2009.

For more on Peak Performance, click on The Handbook of Peak Performance.
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