While I was coaching at a high school outside of Sacramento later in my career, the best class of basketball talent in school history arrived one fall. Two freshmen made the Varsity Team that year, one was 6th man and the other made All League as our Post Player (5 man). Four others made the Sophomore Team and usually started. And despite missing their 6 best classmates, another 14 made up a pretty good Freshman team. But there was one unfortunate young man named Matt, who didn’t make the freshman team that year. After the better players were moved up, Matt was one of the taller kids left trying out for the freshman team. But the freshman coach still had a lot of good talent to choose from, so Matt got cut for having “Manos de Piedra” (Hands of Stone). I didn’t even know who Matt was that year, but I was told he not only couldn’t catch a ball, he also had a hard time running without falling down. I usually hate to see taller Freshman cut, but in this case, I accepted my Assistant’s judgement and allowed the decision to dismiss Matt. Maybe I was thinking, “With all of this talent, who needs him?” I don’t really remember. But I do remember what happened the next three years very well.
During tryouts the next season, my Sophomore Coach asked me if he could keep an extra kid on his team. When I asked why, he said he had a taller kid who was cut the year before, but really worked hard in tryouts. The coach thought he would keep him around and work with him to see what might happen. I was all for that. Tall kid, hard worker, Coach with a big heart and desire to work extra with the Big Kid. “Sure, let’s do it,” I said. So, Matt made the Sophomore team. He hardly played in games, but when he did, he certainly played hard. He still had trouble catching a pass, but he sometimes got a rebound or blocked a shot in “garbage time,” so improvement was noted.
Year Three came along and now it was my turn to decide what to do with Matt. I had a two-time All League Big Man returning for his third season and a couple of Bigs coming up from the JV team. I knew we would be running our Double Post Offense again, so I figured another Big in practice couldn’t hurt us. At least Matt could guard one of our bigger starters and give him a challenge in practice. And I thought, who knows? Matt just might learn to catch a ball this year. So I kept him on the team and gave him ball handling drills every day and some extra pass catching drills to do too. It didn’t seem to help. Matt kept missing passes, fumbling the ball, actually messing up our practices more than I could sometimes stand. So he would usually be 11th or 12th man and only get into the 5 on 5 drills for part of the time. And when it came to game time, Matt was a member of the 20/20 Club. That is: 20 points up or down and 20 seconds left to play.
At the end of his Junior year, Matt asked me what he could do to play more. I said, “Well, maybe catch the ball once in awhile might help.” And I laughed, but then told him to keep working on his post moves, his ball handling drills, get stronger in the weight room and keep playing all spring and summer. Later that summer, I noticed that a funny thing was happening to Matt as he worked hard to improve. He had grown from 6’2” as a Sophomore to 6’7” going into his Senior year. He got stronger, became a better inside scorer, and gained a lot of confidence playing all summer long. When he returned to school and tryouts in the fall of his Senior year, Matt was suddenly a force to be reckoned with. So much so that I inserted him into the (5) spot as a starter, moved our three time All League Post Man to the (4), our previous (4) to the perimeter at (3), and our two time All Leaguer at (3) to the (2) guard. Now suddenly, we had a very tall high school team, at least for our league and area. When your best player is a 6’4” (2) guard and your next best is a 6’8” (4) man, you just might start to think you have something.
What about Matt? During his senior year, he became a very good shot blocker, rebounder, defender, and even a reliable Post Player as our (5). As he gained confidence, the “Hands of Stone” turned into excellent hands; so much so, that I never even noticed Matt having any fumbles or turnovers beyond what any other player had. And the team had very few turnovers that season on their way to a 26-2 record. Without Matt’s metamorphosis, I seriously doubt we would have had such an outstanding year.
So what were some of the Drills we did to help Matt improve his hand/eye coordination? Besides the normal drills mentioned in earlier blog posts (Go Get, Put Back, Tipping and the Basic 4 Low Post Moves), we also had him and some of the other Bigs do these:
1. Slam Hands – player takes a ball and slams it back and forth from one hand to another, making sure to catch with only the pads of the fingers and not the palm of the hand. (10 times, warmup drill.)
2. Fingertip Pushups – up on fingers, do 10 pushups. Strengthen the fingers and hands.
3. Weighted Ball Passing – using a weighted basketball, pass with another post and catch his return passes cleanly on pads of fingers. You can also Rip Rebounds and make outlet passes with this ball too.
4. Turn and Catch Reaction Drill – put the player at the low block with his back to you. He should have his knees flexed, hands shoulder high, and body ready to jump turn on command. Coach says, “Go” and player jump turns and looks for the ball to catch and pull to chin area. Vary the placement of the pass, but never at the player’s face area. If he misses it and gets it in the face, you have probably lost him forever. As the passer, the Coach must experiment with when its the best time to throw the pass so it challenges the receiver. For me, it is usually 1 second after saying “Go.” Start by giving the player extra time to get turned around and to locate the ball, but steadily shorten the reaction time. The goal is for the player to learn to handle high or low passes without a drop.
Of course, our daily fast break passing drills were a great help to Matt too. The repetition and quick action really challenged him all three years and helped him to improve his passing and catching skills. Obviously, his will and determination were also big contributing factors. Drills help, but there is no substitute for will power, hard work, and belief in oneself. Matt was Honorable Mention All League that final season and played Junior College basketball a year later. I can guarantee you that they didn’t refer to him as “Manos de Piedra” in college.
For more information on Post Player and Big Man Development, check out my book, “Power Post Play,” at: http://coachbattenberg.net/books.htm