Early Offense – Quick Hitters


       Some coaches train their teams to look to fast break, but then pull back and set up if a layup or another easy shot is not immediately available.  I prefer to look for more opportunities at the end of the break, while the opponent is still transitioning and setting their defense.  This is what I refer to as Early Offense and it can yield just as many points as a set offense, only quicker.  I got most of my Early Plays off the fast break from watching Roy Williams teams at Kansas and North Carolina.  I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time with Jerod Haase while he was Coach Williams Assistant at KU and UNC.  I am most grateful to Jerod for getting me indoctrinated in their philosophy of “Secondary” Offense.  

       The simplest form of Early Offense has already been presented in a previous  post “Cycles” – the wing to post pass on the original outlet side or the crosscourt side (1-2-5) or (1-3-5).  That option is rehearsed, practiced, and pointed out many times in my drills and scrimmages, so that wings will be aware of the many opportunities they have to pass to the post.  Since I like to establish an inside game, my number one offensive goal is to get the ball to the low post and the sooner the better.  

       When a wing passes to the post, the wing is taught to immediately read his defender to see which way he turns to look at the ball.  The offensive wing then cuts or relocates to the backside (blindside) of the defender and looks for a return pass and shot.  This quick-attack, two-man game will lead to many easy scores because the defense is still scrambling back to find their man and stop the fast break.  

       The term Cut or Relocate refers to cutting to the basket or relocating to another area for a 3-point shot.  A general rule for the wing player is to cut if he is not a good outside shooter and relocate if he is a good 3-point shooter.  An exceptional player can be given the green light to choose whichever option he wants.  I have found that bigger, quicker players really like to cut to the baseline side whenever they can.  Most defenders do turn their back to the baseline when a pass goes to the post, so this option is often open.  When the offensive player does cut baseline, he usually finds little congestion and a return pass leads to a layup or dunk.

       When the wing to low post pass is not available, it is usually because the post defender is fronting the low post (5).  I feel this is an advantage for us and with one or two more passes, we can still get the ball inside.  This is where our Early Offensive Set really starts to form and kick in.  With the ball at the wing and no passing lane available to the low post, the point guard (1) follows his original pass to the wing and trails near the sideline, 15 feet behind the ball.  (See Diagram #1 below)  The trailer (4) follows the action up the middle lane and stops just above the top, center of the key.  The weak side wing stays wide, outside the 3-point line, and gets ready for a swing pass.  When the wing (let’s say 2) has the ball and cannot hit 5 at the low post, he will next look to (4) at the top of the key.  If (2) passes to (4), the low post (5) steps in or spins and seals his defender, looking for the High-Low pass from (4).  This seal inside will lead to many easy shots under the basket for the (5).  (Diagram #1 below)  To prevent the high post (4) defender from doubling down on (5), the (4) should cut to the opposite low block as soon as he passes to the low post.  (Diagram #2)  Sometimes, (5) will be able to pass it right back to (4) on a high-low, give and go play.  But the main reason for this “automatic cut” by (4) is to position him under the basket for a possible rebound of a shot by (5).   I have always found that the high post is the best place to start from as an offensive rebounder.  Getting the (4) in motion as a habit after he passes to (5) will keep the high post from standing and watching the action.  He needs to be a big time offensive rebounder and the automatic cut will help train him to do just that.

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       For one reason or another, the the High-Low Option may not be available to the 4 man.  Maybe the defense has sagged into the key and plugged it up, or maybe the defender on (5) has done a great job of denying the pass inside again.  It doesn’t matter, we still have one more look to the low post coming and that is by way of the swing pass to (3) on the weak side.  (See Diagram #3 below Left)  When (4) can’t hit (5) low, he looks to (3) and swings it to him if open.  At the low post, (5) is battling for position with a defender who has already shut off two passing lanes.  Can he do it a third time?  That is (3)’s dilemma and he must take a good look to find (5).  When (3) is able to pass to (5) as a wing, (3) will read his defender to see which way he turns and then cut or relocate.

       Potentially, this Early Offense could start with an outlet pass, then a sideline or cross-court pass, a look to (5) from the wing, a swing to (4), a second look to (5), a swing to the other wing, and a third look to (5).  (Diagram #3 below left)  This all can happen in 10-12 seconds after getting possession, with little or no dribbles.  Now that is Early Offense!

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The Early Offense does not stop after the “Three Looks” to the (5) man.  If after the third look, a pass inside is still not available, I like to continue with an option for a key offensive player.  If the (4) is athletic and tall, we might do a weak side wing back-screen on the defender of (4) and then look for the strong side wing with the ball to lob over the top to (4) cutting to the rim.  This is a common North Carolina option, as they always seem to have athletic Bigs at (4) and (5) who can go up and get lobs.  Another option might be to set up a good wing shooter to get a three.  After the ball is swung around the top of the key through (4), the point guard and the (4) can do a double stagger screen to free the wing who is away from the ball.  As a creative coach, you can come up with your own quick-hitter after the “Swing” that will work for your best player.  Have him coming off a screen to his favorite spot for a potential score, before rolling into your regular half court offense.  If you coach with a shot clock, it is even more important that your team find ways to get your best players some open shots early.  So consider Early Offense as a way to get great shots for your best players.

Use of the Point Guard

       In the fast break attack, the Point Guard’s primary job is to get the ball ahead, either over the top to (5) or to a wing down the side or cross court.  Earlier, I mentioned that when the Point passes ahead to a wing, he follows his pass and positions himself approximately 15 feet behind the wing who has the ball.  The Point is positioned along the sideline for a very good reason; to clear the middle for a swing pass and to get open as a relief pass in case the swing pass is not open to (4).  As an example, if  (2) has the ball on the wing, the Point will be behind him, on the sideline, 15 feet away.  If (2) cannot pass to (4) at the high post, the Early Offense is not dead yet.  The (2) can pass back to the Point (1) who then might be able to pass to (4) from this new angle.  The back pass allows the high-low option and swing to still be possible by going 2-1-4-5 or 2-1-4-3-5.  

Other Options and Counters for the Point Guard

       When the Point Guard gets a back-pass, he will sometimes find (4) being overplayed by his defender at the top of the key.  Since the Early Offense swings through the (4) man quite often, defenders sometimes try to deny or anticipate this pass from the wing or the Point to (4).  If the Point notices this situation, he prepares to execute the High Post Backdoor Option.  The 4 should pull his defender out a little farther from the basket by leaning toward the center of the court.  The Point then fakes a pass to (4), hoping to catch his defender leaning, and then (4) cuts “backdoor” to the hoop.  If open, the Point will hit (4) cutting to the basket for a layup or dunk. (Diagram #4 above right)  If (5)’s defender moves over to stop (4), then (4) has the option of passing off to the (5) under the basket for an easy shot.  A successful execution of the High Post Backdoor Option just once will cause (4)’s defender to be a little more tentative, leaving the passing lane to (4) at the top more open.

       Another Point Guard Option I like is the Fist Play.   I first saw North Carolina do this off of their fast break several years ago and I adopted it because I had a very good (4) man at the time.  It is actually a high pick and roll with a back screen for the (4) man (screen the screener).  It starts with the Point getting a back pass from a wing or when the Point has to dribble the ball up himself.  Seeing pressure on the passing lane (or just as a change up), the Point signals the (4) man by raising a fist.  This tells everyone that the high pick and roll is on.  The (4) moves towards the Point and sets a solid, legal screen on (1)’s defender.  (Diagram #5 below left)  At the same time, the wing on the strong side moves towards the baseline-low post and readies himself to back screen the (4) man.  As the Point Guard comes off of (4)’s screen, he is looking over the whole situation.  He might have a layup for himself, a pull-up jumper, or a passing lane to the (5) at the short corner (where 5 moves on the Fist signal).  But (1) must always be totally aware of (4) cutting to the basket off of a back screen by the wing.  (Diagram #6 below right)  The (4) sets up his defender by stepping out after he screens for the Point Guard, as if executing a pick and pop.  He (4) waits for the wing to come up and screen his man before cutting to the basket for the lob pass from the Point Guard.  Patience is the key to this play.  The (4) can’t rush his cut before the wing comes to screen him and the Point Guard can’t forget to look for (4) as he dribbles off the screen.   Even if you only get this lob play to work once, it is a way to score easily and add some flair to your offense at the same time.  It can be run multiple times, sometimes resulting in a couple of easy scores for the (4), but it also opens up many other options for the other players because the defense has to adjust to stop the lob.  This is also a great play to run at the end of a period after running the clock down.  The Point Guard is in control of the ball and can take the last shot himself if he thinks it is best.

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       Early Offense is an extension of the fast break that can lead to quick scores for your better players.  I generally start Summer League or a new season with just two Early Offensive plays, but I add a couple more as the season progresses.  Again, these will be “Specials” to free up the better players.  Most involve a smart, talented (4) man, but some involve the better wing players too, or the point guard.

       One thing I have also included in the Early Offense is a “no termination” rule.  We don’t stop and set up.  Each “Early” will roll into our Motion or whatever Set Offense we are using that season.  That is one more reason to start with two Early plays and perfect them rolling into the half court Set or Motion Offense before adding more Early plays.  If a team can smoothly run lanes, roll into an Early Offense, and then finally evolve into its Set or Motion, players will learn to read and react faster than most defenses can counter.

       If anyone would like to hear more about other Early Offensive Plays that I like, contact me and I will be happy to share.  But remember, you know your players best, so create plays that work for you.

Key Teaching Points:

  • Keep the point guard wide and on ball side after a pitch ahead.
  • Trailer (4) must be in the middle at the top of key, not off center.
  • Teach the counters if the Swing is stopped on Early Offense.
  • Make sure your “Early” plays roll right into the regular half court offense.
  • Don’t be afraid to create your own “Earlies” to fit your personnel.

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