As Basketball Coaches, we have all had them. Players trying out for the team who were some of the better offensive players, but who often thought “Defense was something you put around De Cows.” It’s especially frustrating for a Defensive-minded coach whose best offensive talent is not interested in putting much effort into the defense.
Having headed up eight different programs in my 35 years of coaching (two at the college level and 6 at the high school level), I have had plenty of opportunities to deal with these situations. Since I was a Defensive-minded basketball coach myself, it was very important for me to have motivated defenders. Sometimes I inherited really good offensive players who never had much defensive training. Teaching the fundamentals of defense was not a problem for me, but convincing everyone to give their best effort on that end of the court could sometimes be a challenge.
So how do you deal with a good offensive player who doesn’t give much effort on defense? Do you assign him to guard a weaker player and hope for the best? Hide him in a Zone Defense? Or maybe bench him till he decides to put forth a better effort? These are some serious considerations a Head Coach has to make for the good of his team, his program, and the season ahead.
My Philosophy was to build our Culture around always “Playing Hard.” This started with Defense because I promoted it from the very beginning. “Defense wins Championships.” “When the Offense is Struggling, Defense keeps you in the game.” These were sayings my teams heard me use often. And I always had time set aside for Defense in every practice session. Usually our practices ended with various breakdown drills and 4 on 4 defensive work because I wanted to sell players on the idea that Defense at the end of the game, when everyone is a little tired, is the most important. This is where you can win or lose a close game.
How do you work with the “hot shot” offensive star who doesn’t play defense to your satisfaction? With a strong defensive philosophy in place and emphasized, I believe it comes down to management.
Here are some thoughts on that:
1. Talk to the player privately and again emphasize the importance of Defense. Encourage him to be a “complete player” for his own good, as well as the team’s, by working harder on defense.
2. In early season practices, set a tone for defense each day by naming the 5 best defenders to the First Group.
3. If you have Summer League or Fall League games, start the 5 better defenders. Same goes for opening the regular season. This will let the “hot shot” know you are serious about what is going to happen. It will encourage him and others to work for a spot in that starting lineup.
4. As the “hot shot” starts to work a little harder at defending, praise him from time to time, both in private and in a group setting.
5. Don’t start him immediately when his effort improves. Let him keep coming off the bench and play shifts that correspond to his effort on defense. If he starts lagging, sub him out.
6. After a consistent effort pattern on defense seems to be settling in, move your now more “complete player” to the starting lineup. But if the effort lags again, sub him out and again let him know why this is unacceptable.
7. Hopefully before the end of the season, you will have a player who plays defense like you want. And the kind of team effort you want.
Often Coaches are afraid to challenge a good offensive player with loss of playing time or loss of a starting assignment early in a season. It comes down to the bigger picture. What do you want to see at the end of the season? Are you going to get there by catering to a defensive liability on your team or a self-serving attitude that won’t adapt for the sake of his teammates? If so, you will probably be in for a very frustrating year.
Remember, lack of effort and lack of ability are two different considerations on defense. When you have a player who hasn’t learned to play fundamental defense, or is physically or mentally slower in reacting, you need to recognize this. Here you can consider assigning the player to a weaker opponent, or playing zone defense, or other adjustments to fit the situation. But when it is a lack of effort or desire, a Coach needs to address the situation or be able to live with the end results. Weigh the possibilities, come up with a plan, communicate with the players, and follow through. You will be glad you did.