Coaching Basketball’s Lost Art of Passing

While pundits and experts complain about modern basketball, the diminishing skill level and the heightened premium on athleticism, few blame the de-emphasis of passing. However, the failure of guards and wings to feed the post properly contributes to a loss of back to the basket play, an area Kareem Abdul Jabbar bemoans. A guard’s inability to deliver a good pass to a shooter contributes to lower shooting percentages which keep Tom Nordland awake at night. And, the inability to make the correct pass in transition contributes to low scoring, despite significant transition opportunities. Collectively, these deficiencies lead commentators like Charles Barkley to state that today’s game is significantly inferior to that played ten years ago.

Of course passing is not the only deficient element; however, passing receives less and less attention (especially since the retirement of Magic Johnson) and emphasis, despite its prominent role in every facet of offense. Simple skills like passing and catching overwhelm some teams, leading to countless unnecessary turnovers because players cannot catch the ball on balance or pass to the correct side of the player’s body.

As a coach, I know passing is hard to coach. It is frustrating to spend valuable practice time working on chest passes when there are so many other aspects requiring attention. And, with youth players, maintaining attentiveness during passing drills is nearly impossible. However, passing instruction is imperative, or every other phase of offense suffers.

The lack of skill and knowledge player’s possess in the area of post entry passes and the total inability of some players to pass the ball ahead off of the dribble is mind-boggling. This problem is more than a lack of hand-eye coordination or motor skills; the players do not understand, or have never been taught passing angles. They reacted, and many times, their reaction was incorrect, leading to a turnover. Or, there previous lack of success would prohibit the player from making a pass to the post when the post was wide open.

Passing is more than just the skill of throwing the ball from one person to the other. Passing incorporates the timing of the pass, the receiving of the pass and the intelligence of the pass. Just as any knucklehead can throw a football, only a select few are successful passers in the NFL. In basketball, it is not difficult to throw the ball from one stationary, non-defended person to the other, to play catch; however, passing is increasingly a lost art in basketball, as players fail to understand all the nuances involved.

As a player, I remember astute coaches imploring my teams during shooting drills: “Good passes make great shooters.” The Utah Jazz were one of the best shooting teams because John Stockton delivered the ball on time and in the shooting pocket every time. The Jazz never had a plethora of “pure” shooters, but they take open shots in rhythm, and that allows them to shoot a higher percentage than some teams who possess better “pure” shooters.

I admit I all but ignore passing drills as well. I do not warm-up with three-man weaves, nor do I spend a great deal of time teaching the proper mechanics of a two-hand chest pass. However, I do practice passing by making every shooting drill a passing drill as well. In a shooting drill, I penalize the team/group, if I see bad or lazy passes. Because every shooting drill reflects our offense passers must work as diligently as the shooters. By incorporating passing into shooting drills, the non-shooters stay focused and see where their teammates want the ball.

The following are a few passing fundamental.

1. Post entry passes: Incorporate passing drills into post drills. Players need to know to pass the ball to the baseline side when the defender is playing on the topside and to pass the ball on the topside if the defensive player is playing on the baseline side. Allow players to take one quick dribble to improve a passing angle if necessary. Also, as Rick Majerus says: “Air passes are preferable to bounce passes.” While many coaches teach bounce passes in the post because it is easier to catch the softer pass, the likelihood for error is higher and the defense has more time to react and steal a bounce pass. Also, post players are taught to keep their hands and arms high, which makes catching a bounce pass more difficult.

2. Outside hand passes: Many turnovers can be avoided if players develop the ability to pass with either hand, thus enabling them to use the outside hand to pass the ball. Players must possess the ability to turn the dribble directly into a pass. If a player brings the ball through the middle of his body to make a two-handed pass or worse a pass with the inside hand, the defense can defend the pass and the pass becomes slower, thus getting to a shooter a second late, rather than perfectly in stride. The outside hand push pass is preferable and is an important pass to teach.

These two basic fundamentals (post passes/angles and outside hand push passes) will increase offensive efficiency and decrease turnovers if perfected by your team. They are fairly easy to learn and teach and can easily be incorporated into shooting drills or post work. Therefore, no extra work is required, just an attention to detail by the staff and players. By eliminating any lazy practice habits and focusing on passing, teams can improve passing and offensive efficiency.

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