October 18, 2017 • OffenseWinning Hoops

Developing young players who adapt to the competition

by Rick Elia, contributing writer

Is it better to understand directions or learn how to read a map?

The first gets you where you want to go, as long as you have someone who can tell you all the roads, turns and landmarks you’ll encounter along the way. But with the latter, you can go anywhere you want, whenever you want.

Photo via Antonio Vernon, Wikimedia Commons

That analogy can apply to junior high/middle school basketball and the approach taken to prepare players for the varsity level. Does your playbook consist of continuities and set plays run at the varsity level — a method passed down by the “system” head coach? Or are you following the adage of many top coaches when they say, “Don’t teach plays, teach them how to play”?

Those of you working for system coaches may have encountered obstacles during the season when the plays just don’t match your personnel and their individual skill sets. You may also realize your players need an understanding of the game. That’s difficult to obtain when you’re busy remembering the multiple steps of a play or continuity instead of seeing what’s in front of you and determining a proper response.

Think about some of the strengths and weaknesses of continuities, where players flow through all five positions as the play cycles through. On the plus side, there is the possibility of mismatches, such as a mobile big player on the perimeter against a slower post player, or a bigger guard on the block with a small defender.

On the down side, players are moving to areas where they may be ineffective or, at worst, being set up to fail, such as a big player now holding the ball at the point. Think about most junior high teams. Isn’t the latter more probable than the former?

It’s true you need some set plays after timeouts or in late-game situations, but think about the possibilities of giving your players more freedom on offense in a system that puts them in the best position to score with a few courses of attack to choose from. Now each possession can bring multiple possibilities. And the players, no longer forced to memorize patterns like the “flex” or “shuffle” offenses with predetermined movements and options, now must see the game and make decisions based on how their teammates respond.

This is harder to learn. But if your goal is to develop basketball players, nobody said it was going to be easy.

Who are the best teachers: Those who have us memorize facts and figures, or those who show us how to think and learn? I think most of us would say the latter.

It’s true that this makes a coach give up some control, and that can be scary with young players. But it’s logical to think the best coaches would give their players the freedom to learn, guide them through that process, and in the end see they have put their players ahead of the curve when it comes to basketball IQ.

So how do you go about implementing a system in your program that is based on teaching kids how to play? There are two main components: alignment and concepts.


Alignment is simply how many post players and perimeter players you use. It’s based on your personnel. Alignment is the first step in trying to put your players in the best position to succeed.

Teams blessed with multiple post players may use a three-out, two-in formation or even a two-out, three-in setup. Teams with one good big player may use a four-out, one-in formation. Those teams with several smaller players may go with an open-post, five-out approach.

None of this means you shouldn’t have your big players work on ball handling or your guards work on post shots. Each season is a snapshot of a player’s career. This year’s big player may be a two guard in a few years. And players should be encouraged to work on expanding their skill sets during the summer.

When a player who comes to you in November can catch and shoot but has trouble handling the ball or is lost at the guard spot on a pick-and-roll, you can work with them on their weaknesses. However, in a game atmosphere it’s best to give them assignments with which they can excel.


Give your players choices — as few or as many as you feel they can handle. Tell them to mix up what they do. Tell them that they must read what their teammates are doing, because that tells them how to react.

It may sound complicated, but it’s not. You can make it as simple as you want and you can use your imagination. Here are some examples from the three main sets previously mentioned.

Three-in, two-out

Your perimeter players work in a 3-on-3 situation, while your posts are playing 2-on-2 inside. Guards can give-and-go, screen away, or set pick-and-pop ball screens. They are always looking to penetrate for a shot, dish off or kick out for a jumper.

Post players can post up, flash from the weak side or screen away and roll back to look for a shot or work a high-low game inside. A pass from a guard into the post sets up a two-man game and the various options that come with it.

You can explore matchups by having post players guarded by smaller defenders stay inside and work for position. You also can have them take bigger, slower defenders to the perimeter for pick-and-rolls or, in the case of a post player who can shoot from the outside, pick-and-pops.

Four-out, one-in

The four perimeter players can pass and cut to the basket or screen away, where you can either have them read the defense to designate the cut they will make or pass and pick-and-pop.

Your center can stay inside and work from block to block, looking to post up. If you have smarter players, particularly a center with a high basketball IQ, you can use them as a screener. Those players can set a flex screen when the opposite side guard has the ball; a shuffle screen for one guard when the other guard has the ball; a UCLA screen when the ball is passed from the guard to the forward; or a ball screen for a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop.

Your center should follow this rule: If you screen him in, you screen him out. That means they follow any flex, shuffle or UCLA screen with a properly timed downscreen to pop the original cutter to the perimeter for a jump shot or a two–man game with the big player posting up after the screen.

You can add some concepts of the dribble-drive offense into this set, although you should be careful not to give them too much information. That may be something to add as the players move up through the system.

Five-out, open post

There are several choices here: Pass and cut to the basket; pick-and-roll; pick-and-pop; or pick away with a prescribed cut or read of the defense with a rollback on a curl cut to fill the open space.

Another idea is to give your big players and guards specific rules. One example is when a big player passes to a guard, they pick-and-roll. Or when that player passes to a post player, they cut to the basket. When a guard passes to a big player they pick away, and when they pass to a guard they pick-and pop. Everyone should be ready to go back door.

Embracing the concept  

If you’re a junior high coach, you may have trouble selling your head coach on this idea, but here’s one way to approach it.

When an athlete comes up to the varsity level, what kind of player would you rather have them be: One who memorizes the plays, or one who can counter whatever the defense does and sees opportunities not because they are planned but because they understand the game?

With the former, you better hope the other team’s defense doesn’t force you away from your gameplan. With the latter, you can play any offense and be smart, effective and efficient.

It’s an easy choice for some coaches, but if your program still won’t embrace the concept, consider it when you get the opportunity to call the shots. You just might find yourself with smarter players who know how to play the game instead of memorizing a playbook.

Rick Elia is a former basketball coach with 17 years of experience from elementary school to the ninth grade.