Aug 4, 2008

Over-Coaching is Dead

I came across some interesting commentary by Jason Whitlock regarding Lute Olson and the whole Brandon Jennings situation (thanks BMac):

"Strictly from a basketball standpoint, a year in Europe will do Jennings good. No one who knows anything about basketball believes Lute Olson would teach Jennings a thing about the fundamentals of the game. I'm not taking a cheap shot at Lute to defend Jennings' decision. It's a well-known fact within basketball circles that Lute Olson is famous for rolling the ball on the court, kicking back, and enjoying the work of his recruiters. Lute Olson is not Bobby Knight."

I know Whitlock is a writer who thrives on getting people riled up ("any publicity is good publicity"), but he's a little off-point on this one.

First and foremost, it's a little odd to say that playing under the tutelage of Lute Olson wouldn't help a point guard's game. Say what you will about Lute, but his development of guards is almost unparalleled (see Bibby, Stoudamire, Arenas, Jefferson, Iguodala, Terry, etc.) -- if you measure "development" by NBA success. I sure do. Brandon Jennings (along with virtually every other blue-chip prospect) clearly hopes to excel in the NBA, so how can Whitlock say that playing for Lute would be bad for his "development?" Further, as much as frosh-to-NBA guards struggle to adjust, most international guards seem to struggle even more with the transition to the NBA (aside from Parker & Ginobili). So tell me again, why is Brandon Jennings better off playing in a second-tier international league than he would be playing at Arizona?

Whitlock's criticism of Lute's relatively hands-off approach to coaching is unfounded, as well. As I stated earlier, it is every college player's dream to excel in the NBA. Lute's players, more than almost any other coaches' players, excel in the NBA. So he's "not Bobby Knight." How many players has Bob Knight coached in the last decade that have turned out to be even mediocre pros? That's what I thought.

So he "enjoys the work of his recruiters." Clearly, the aforementioned U of A stars were all extremely talented coming into college. However, there have been countless top preps who have amounted to nothing in the NBA. Lute must be doing something to "develop" these kids. Furthermore, why do you think these McDonald's All-Americans choose to play for Lute in the first place? Because he lets them play and doesn't try to play puppeteer like Whitlock's beloved Mr. Knight.

All of this discussion brings me to my main point: over-coaching is dead. Just take a look at the coaches who are turning out the most successful pros -- besides Lute, Roy Williams, Billy Donovan, Rick Pitino, John Calipari, and the late Skip Prosser (to name a few). All of these guys employ wide-open, relatively hands-off systems. Go back a few years and you could say the same thing about Dean Smith (relative to the other coaches of his era). It's no coincidence that their players shine at the next level -- NBA teams play the same type of wide-open game. Even Phil Jackson, considered to be one of the more hands-on coaches in the league, often goes long stretches without calling timeouts just to let his players "play through it." It's also no coincidence that players of structure-crazy coaches like Knight & Ben Howland often turn out to be average pros (at best).

Let me take this argument one step further -- my above theory specifically applies to perimeter players. I still believe that big men in structured systems may have a better chance of succeeding in the NBA. This probably has a lot to do with the more structured environment that they play in (relative to guards) in the NBA. It also may have to do with the fact big men are far more likely than guards to have underdeveloped fundamentals heading into college. In other words, they are more likely to benefit from what I would call "over-coaching."

Take Duke for example, with Coach K. Duke gets some of the top prep guards AND big men every year. Coach K has an extremely structured system in place. In recent years, the best pros to come out of Duke have been Elton Brand & Carlos Boozer (both big men), while their highly-touted guards (Langdon, Jason Williams, Redick, etc.) haven't done much of anything in the NBA. On the other hand, Lute's "hands-off" system has produced great NBA perimeter players, while his big men (see Loren Woods, Channing Frye) generally don't live up to their hype in the NBA.

These conclusions make me even more convinced Kevin Love will flourish after playing in a structured system (while Arron Afflalo & Jordan Farmar will be mediocre at best). It also convinces me Derrick Rose will eventually be a star (and Joey Dorsey will be a nobody) after playing in a "hands-off" system. The only thing that scares me about this rationale is that I am practically conceding the Lopez Twins might be decent pros -- Stanford has a structured system in place...

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