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September 11, 2008
Making the Jump
Slowing Down to Take Off

by Anthony Macri

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Players looking to make the jump from one level to the next, whether it is high school to college or college to the professional ranks, all notice one universal constant: the game gets faster. Much faster. As the level of talent increases, play on the floor appears more frenetic, more fast-paced, even to those playing the game.

One would think that it is the ability of the player to increase their own speed that would bring success. However, that is not the case. In fact, the players most able to make a successful jump up in level are the ones who are able to slow down.

Slowing down doesn't mean their movements are really any slower or more deliberate, but instead it means they are able to take stock of each experience on the floor, categorize it, decide a best course of action and act in an appropriate way. For many young players moving up a level, this process can take quite some time.

Think of a teenager just learning to drive a car. After starting their lesson in an empty parking lot, the driving instructor has them move out into side streets. This is a big move, and it is an adjustment for the new driver. They are watching each and every thing around them. Their senses are overloaded as they adapt to the new situation. The natural thing to do is to slow down, and this is successful. That is, it is successful until the instructor directs them out onto a highway. The process starts all over again, and often you see young drivers making too many adjustments, trying to overcompensate. Things around them are going so quickly, and they are trying desperately to catch up.

This is a similar scenario for a player moving up from the JV to the varsity, from high school to college, or from college to the professional ranks. The game moves very quickly, so decisions have to come quickly or the game will pass them by. They must act, and this often means their actions come without real judgment, because there simply is no time (at least, they do not perceive any time).

A great example of this phenomenon in action was the play of last year's NBA Rookie of the Year, Kevin Durant. Durant was unreal as a collegiate freshman. His ability to dissect an opponent was phenomenal. He managed to not only take on his defender, but he read the entire floor, adjusted to whatever was tossed his way, made judgments and reacted accordingly. He did all of it with a grace and competence that had never really been seen previously in a college freshman.

Durant's adjustment to the professional game was not quite as smooth. In the 50 games he played prior to the All-Star break, Durant averaged 19.4 points, but on just 40.2% shooting, including just 28.2% from beyond the three point line. He shot the ball when he was open, not because of judgment, but based rather on reaction. In fact, he was only reacting. If his reaction happened to be correct, it resulted in an All-Star-caliber play. However, if it was not, it was ugly. While he stuffed the stat sheet early in the season, he was not an efficient player.

Part of the development for a player making the leap into a new level of play must be adjusting the player to the speed of the game. That does not mean making them play "faster" but rather developing in that player the ability to slow down and complete each phase of the learning experience. In coaching, it means taking a four-step process and working to condense it to only two steps. A player must read a situation, recognize the circumstances, judge between various courses of action and react properly. Once a player has fully adjusted to the speed of the game, they are able to condense the process into reading and reacting.

Unfortunately, many young players start by only doing one of the four steps. They react, and this leads to poor, sloppy play. Imagine a player moving into a professional situation for the first time. The game is so fast, they are unable to keep up mentally with all that goes on around them. They are overloaded, and instead of being able to slow their mental process, they go into hyper mode. Driving the lane, they don't see a cutting teammate open at the rim, or they dribble directly into a second defender, or they attempt to throw a pass where a seam used to be but is no longer. As soon as they are in trouble, they toss a shot in the direction of the basket, hoping that reaction will find a desired result.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the shot will find its target. The more this happens, the better the chance that the player is labeled a selfish player, or a bad decisionmaker, or something else. Ultimately, that player is not unlike the teenager driving on the highway for the first time. It simply takes time and teaching to learn how to go from just reacting to reading/recognizing/judging/reacting and finally to reading/reacting.

Sometimes, it takes a break from the game for processing to have its effect. After the All-Star break, proof that Kevin Durant had begun to read/recognize/judge/react surfaces. Following the break, Durant pushes his points per game up to 21.9 while shooting 47.6% from the floor (including 31.4% from three). Analysts like ESPN's David Thorpe noticed this change as the season went on. Thorpe's comments are telling:

Durant has really improved his game-reading skills. On perimeter catches, a wing player should check the paint, looking for a posting teammate, a lurking help defender or perhaps a cutter. Simultaneously, he must see who's defending him. Durant is doing this well now. He looks for jumpers when the paint is clogged (or when a shot-blocker is lying in wait for him), but he goes to the rim when he sees a lane. It sounds simple, and it is, once the game slows down for a rookie.

Now, the expectations will be even higher for Durant. If he has spent his off-season intelligently, he will make a huge leap this season. At some point, his game will more closely resemble that of the stone-cold assassin he was back in college. As he familiarizes himself even more with specific situations, his playing progression will go from read/recognize/judge/react to simply read and react. Once he makes that move, expect him to become one of the best in the game.

That is when the game has truly "slowed down" for the player making a jump. Kobe Bryant is at that level of the game--where he reads and reacts--so the game appears easy to him. It is akin to the teenager being out on the highway, with the cars moving slowly around them, their ability to drive now second nature. In most cases, this takes quite some time.

For a player like Durant to develop this part of his game, it will require hundreds if not thousands of repetitions in game-like situations that replicate the kind of scenarios he will see on the floor. Playing focused games of three-on-three, where the players start with a prescribed situation at hand, would be common. For example, he could be placed in a side ball-screen scenario, where the defenders are asked to guard the screen a certain way and the help defender is instructed to commit to a certain degree. Durant may or may not know what the defense will do, but drilling the scenario in such a fashion would allow him to pick up on the subtleties of play in that environment.

Of course, there are occasionally players who make the adjustment quicker than others do. Looking at the incoming rookie class, expect a player like Michael Beasley to adapt at a faster pace than Durant did. It doesn't mean he will end up being a better player, but he has a chance to be a solid player more quickly than Durant became one. Beasley has always played with a discerning mind, rarely out of control, and constantly reading, recognizing, judging and reacting. He will take that same mindset into the professional game. He will have his bumps and bruises along the way, but expect a smoother transition for him than for Durant.

Ultimately, the thing that will determine the level of success for Beasley, Durant or any player making a jump, no matter what stage of basketball, will be their ability to slow down while the game speeds up.

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Anthony Macri is the Recruiting Coordinator and a Player Development Specialist for The Basketball Academy and the Pro Training Center at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, where he trains high school, college and NBA players. You can e-mail him here.

Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Anthony by clicking here or click here to see Anthony's other articles.

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