Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Perspectives on Player Development

I'll be the first to admit that I don't really know a whole lot when it comes to the realities of player development.  The extent of organized basketball that I've been exposed to was limited to a couple weeks of basketball camp at various local colleges, and this was like middle school.  Therefore, my player development schema is limited to intuition and NBA 2K8, which doesn't work super well, because there, you can develop almost anybody into an All-Star.  So I guess most realistically, I'm going on intuition, and general player development in the realm of sports.

There's a lot that goes into player development, certainly therein lies opportunity, environment/culture, and also the individual player's work ethic.  A player cannot improve if none of the above are given, or, in other words, if there is no chance given to the player to improve some aspect of his game or if either of the player or coaches don't think he can improve or needs to improve, then we have obviously limited the growth and subsequent development of said player.  Certainly today on the Spurs' roster we have a significantly increased amount of development that is necessary, we have a lot more new faces and younger players.  To me there are three aspects of player development; skills, conditioning, and knowledge.

Development of skill is improvement on the basic movements and techniques necessary for the game.  Most obviously, DeJuan Blair's work in the off-season on free throw shooting has significantly improved his stroke from the line, therefore, he is making them more easily and regularly.  Likewise with Richard Jefferson's off-season work with Pop on his shooting.  Yet with perfecting skill, there is always first a downturn.  You always get worse before you get better.  Why?  Simply because you need unlearn all the things you've been consistently doing wrong beforehand, and then relearn the right way of doing it.  Not to say there aren't those who won't be successful with an altered shooting stroke (say Kevin Martin) or unorthodox footwork, or whatever, but they are the exceptions.  Part of what makes Tim Duncan great is simply that he sticks with the basics, he has such a highly developed back-to-the-basket skillset that he's touted as "the closest thing to a guaranteed two points" when in the paint.

Conditioning is comprised, in my mind, of two things: strength and stamina.  The two sound pretty straight forward.  Ultimately, it's the strength to play a game as physical as basketball, and the ability to do it over an extended period of time on the floor.  Naturally, this is something that does deteriorate with age, as age is something that slows players down, as well as repeated wear-and-tear over time, especially with repeated usage of the same muscles and such.  While a lot of players get by fairly admirably on athleticism alone, their lack of development in other areas of their game become very glaringly obvious as players get older.  Once past their prime, there are a lot of things that players just physically aren't able to do anymore.  If we look at Tim Duncan, it's obvious that the continual wear of the past 14 years of professional basketball has taken its toll on his legs.  All that jumping for rebounds and contesting/blocking shots has drained a lot of the athleticism that was once there.  Likewise in regards to stamina.  If you are not conditioned to be able to withstand long periods of physical exertion, then you cannot really expect to stay on the floor and be effective.  It really doesn't matter how "good" or "talented a player is, if he gets gassed after two trips up the floor, then he can't really contribute much in the grand scheme of the game.  48 minutes is a long time to be running up and down a basketball court.

The last, but certainly not least, aspect of player development is knowledge.  Knowledge entails knowing the game itself; how it's played, how it's called, etc... However, it's not limited to simply understanding the intricacies of the rules of basketball, it also includes knowing what your role is and how your teammates fit around you.  Additionally, it's being able to read and understand what the opposition is doing and react accordingly, being in the right place at the right time, both offensively and defensively.  Setting the appropriate screens, flashing to the basket at the right time, taking a charge, boxing out for the rebound, these all take an intricate knowledge of the game, yourself, your team, and your opposition.  A lot of times pundits like to boil this down into what we simply call basketball IQ.

Now, why this whole spiel on player development?  Well, the Spurs are generally considered a great place for player development, and overall, just a great organization to play with.  A lot has been made of the playing time, or lack thereof of rookie Tiago Splitter.  While Splitter is considered to be eventually the bigger impact on the Spurs, he has yet to see a fraction of the time that Gary Neal has seen, and probably less time than rookie James Anderson, when he returns from injury, why is that?  While I would posit that Splitter may have the skills to be successful, and I think his knowledge is on par with at the very least, James Anderson, in regards to the game, there are a couple aspects of Splitter's development that are keeping him off the court.  One is conditioning, while he's used to extended stints on the floor from his play in Europe, he's also lighter than a lot of the big men in the league.  While the play is arguably less physical than Euroleague, he is competing against bigger, more athletic players, this requires a greater amount of strength and stamina to compete.  A second, may be simply fatigue.  He's coming off of a rugged off-season playing FIBA, in which he was injured.  I haven't seen enough of Splitter play to gauge his potential upside, but, I do know that Splitter will need to take some time to adjust to not only the style of play, but also the intricacies of Popovich's offensive and defensive schemes, which, is hard to develop a comfort for outside of game situations.  Doesn't that mean Pop should play Splitter more?  Well, that's a difficult question to answer for me, and I'm going to kind of cop out by saying, yes and no.  Yes, Splitter does need more floor time to work up his in-game conditioning as well as comfort for the feel of where he fits in the offense and on defense.  However, the Spurs are also playing so well, and winning games, which is their goal.  I'm not knocking Splitter, but Pop's rotations are so intricate and the Spurs' success contingent on so many things going right (as it is with all teams) that in some sense, we can't really afford to have Splitter learning as we go, making mistakes in close games.

What I'm ultimately trying to say, is that we need to be patient with Splitter.  Certainly there is a sense of urgency as the "championship window" continues to draw closed.  Buford and Pop have certainly done an excellent job of revamping the Spurs and extending that window, maybe some would even consider it opening a new one, regardless, the window is certainly not quite that long, so the concept of giving Splitter a couple seasons to mature into the player that we want/need him to be certainly becomes less and less of an option, but as we well know, some things take time, and player development is one of them.  I have no doubts that Splitter is an intelligent and skilled player who can make an impact on the court, but we need to be patient with him and with Pop in molding Splitter into the most effective player he can be when taking the court.  While I have high hopes for a championship this season, my excitement is tempered with the understanding, that some things can't be rushed, which makes me anticipate our next shot at a ring all the more.

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