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Saturday, March 6, 2010

A surefire way to force college basketball players to stay in school

Commissioner David Stern, NBA owners, and NBA front office types have been working for years on ways to encourage college and high school basketball stars to stay in school longer. The current collective barganing agreement states athletes wishing to declare for the NBA draft must be out of high school for at least one year. I have a solution that is a little more practical, and does not require a major overhaul of the current agreement. My solution is this: current head coaches adopt a style of play that focus more on the team than the individual. Many people would disagree with me on this point, but I believe that currently the NBA has devolved into somewhat more organized game of pick-up ball. But if today's head coaches help to change they way offense and defense is played in the NBA, that might convince players to stick in school longer to work on the fundamentals.

The first thing that needs a makeover is team defense. Today's NBA players see defense as running down the length of the court to block a shot or trying to make an all important steal and go the other way for a thunderous dunk. Lost in this approach is the concept of taking away a players path to the basket or denying the passing lanes. One way to change is to implement a zone defense similar to the 2-3 that is several NCAA schools currently use. This defense, when executed correctly, employs traps that take away passing lanes and make it harder for offense to beat you by simply taking the first shot available. This approach, combined with a defense that uses a full court press more often, would make it harder for offenses to score and force them to actually run an offense as opposed to cherry picking many times. A full court press would also force many guards to become better ball handlers. And rebounding has become a lost art. No one really boxes out any more. Coaches should bench any player who gets beat to the rebound because he didn't block out his opponent.

If team defense needs retooling, then so does the offense. The first thing that needs to go is the shoot first pass later mentality. Coaches need to stress ball movement, and they could do this by benching players who decide to shoot the ball before making at least a pass or two. Critics of this approach would argue that if a player has an open shot, he should take it, but I would counter that is exactly what is wrong with the NBA today. Too many times you see players spotting up for an open three and missing way long or way short, with the rebound going the other way for any easy layup. With a pass or two to a more high percentage shot, I believe this scenario would decrease. Addtionally coaches who use a heavy dose of the pick and roll should see that the players who do it are more disciplined. This means not setting a lazy screen or making a quicker roll to the basket. Finally I believe that coaches should bench players who miss layups and free throws during crunch time. This oftentimes can cost many teams games, and has even led to strategies such as the "hack a Shaq". Forcing players to make free throws not only increases a teams chance of winning but it also forces opposing defenses to employ a different strategy.

The one downside to this approach would be the willingness of NBA coaches to implement these changes. Many coaches find it hard to argue with players whose salary and egos are larger than theirs. And even if they were to try this approach, they have to convince the players to buy in to their system. Players might be averse to this idea at first, and request to be traded to a team that has more freedom, but if enough coaches adopt this strategy then the players will be forced to either adjust their game or ride the pine.

I believe that this approach gives the NBA considerable leverage when trying to convince today's youth to stay in school longer. The first and most tangible thing it accomplishes is that it will force kids to work on the fundmentals such as free throw shooting, ball handling, passing and rebounding. It would also force younger players to focus more on the team. Driving to the basket, shooting an open three, or trying to make that all important block or steal would take on a different meaning. Free throw shooting would no longer be reduced to the joke it is currently. Players would be forced to stay in school longer to work on the fundamentals that I see a lot of today's NBA stars lacking in.

To all the NBA owners, general managers, and others who suggest that players wait before entering the draft, I give this advice: encourage your respective head coach to call the game differently. College freshmen and sophmores will have to think twice about leaving early if they realize their playing time will be cut because they can't make free throws or don't know the ins and outs of the zone defense. In today's era of exploding guaranteed contracts and free agency, the idea that any coach would take the time to implement this may seem like a pipe dream. But, if they are able to do so, I believe you will see a huge decrease in the number of one and dones in college.

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