ESPN UP Blog: Are basketball skills eroding among young players?

We hear the refrain from coaches all the time: “Back in my day…”

You’re going to hear it some more here.

I talked with local high school basketball coaches to see what skills they thought young players were lacking as they reached high school. What did they have to focus on the most in practice? Why is this happening? Most coaches didn’t hesitate in their answer. They’ve thought about this before and discussed it with their peers.

The overall sentiment I got from these coaches is that mastery of fundamental skills among kids entering high school is at a low point. The skills they focused on varied, as well as the reasons why those skills are lacking.

If you’re a young player looking to play for one of these coaches, you better take notes.

Marquette boys coach Brad Nelson thinks it starts with shooting, and most kids don’t put in the time required to become a lethal shooter.

“I think it has digressed over the years,” said Nelson, “and I think it’s a product of kids going into the gym and playing street ball and not taking the time to learn how to shoot properly. It’s something that takes thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of repetitions, not from the three-point line but starting at five feet, working on your form, doing that thousands of times, stepping back to ten feet, 15 feet.

“It’s a generation that wants instant gratification,” Nelson continued. “They want to see results the next day and shooting is not something that that happens. It takes years and years of experience.”

Other coaches, like Gwinn’s Jim Finkbeiner, saw ball-handling as the most glaring weakness of players today. Not an inability to cross players up like Kyrie Irving, but something as simple as being able to dribble with both hands.

“You get good at doing one particular thing,” Finkbeiner said, “whether right-handed layups or dribbling with your right hand and you want to go everything to your right. The game has changed over time…and you have to be able to use both sides of the floor and go both ways.”

Only being able to go one way makes it easy to scout against you and defend you, a refrain many of the coaches echoed. This isn’t only with middle school players. Some coaches even said they’ve seen a few varsity players have that same glaring weakness, on their own team and teams they’ve faced.

“A lot of kids can sit here and ‘two-ball’ and do things stationary,” said Negaunee girls coach Brandon Sager, “but live ball-handling with both hands is what I believe is the most lacking trait in the game today as they hit the high school level.”

If you’re a high school player reading this, they could be talking about you.

Negaunee boys coach Dan Waterman broke it down into three areas kids have to excel at in order to succeed and move on to the next level, and he used the top players from last year as prime examples.

“Last year’s senior class was really good with Dre [Tuominen] and Trent [Bell] and [Carson] Wonders and [Dawson] Bilski and [Jason] Whitens,” said Waterman. “I look at those five players specifically. They can all handle the ball with both hands…they’re all good passers and they’re all good shooters. Offensive fundamentals, overall, they’re lacking.”

One common theme among those five players, besides their mastery of offensive fundamentals? They’re all playing college basketball. Tuominen is at Bay College, Bell and Bilski are at Michigan Tech, Wonders is at Northern Michigan and Whitens is at Western Michigan. That’s no coincidence.

We can’t forget about defense. Defense wins championships, or so the saying goes. Ishpeming boys coach Anthony Katona sees scores on all levels of basketball rising, and it’s mostly due to a lack of defense, and not knowing what to do in game settings.

“Players could be a little bit more offensively advanced,” Katona said, “but I think knowing what to do in a one-on-one situation and a team situation on the defensive end is one of the things that we stress on teaching our kids and one of the things that we start from the get-go.”

Ishpeming girls coach Ryan Reichel went into more nuanced skills that might go overlooked, unless you’re at one of his practices.

“We see a lot of girls with the wrong pivot foot,” said Reichel, “and a lot of girls that don’t always line up the seams of the ball as the game gets faster on them as they move up the ranks. I think all basketball players, not just girls in general, need to do a better job of adapting to the speed, but also slowing down the skill set so they do it right, because that’s in the end going to make you a better basketball player.”

Think lining up the seams of a basketball is a trivial skill when shooting? Imagine throwing a ball without using the laces — that’s what Reichel said it’s like when you don’t line up the seams, and why he emphasizes it to his players almost every day.  

Why are these fundamental skills eroding? Is it social media? Is it AAU ball? Is it just because of those darn Millennials? Ben Smith, Marquette girls coach, thinks kids just don’t play enough anymore.

“That trait is kind of a lost art almost,” said Smith, “where it used to be at Miners Park in Negaunee or Harlow Park in Marquette or the playground in Ishpeming, where people from different towns would get together and play all day and have fun and see who’s better that day, that game or that possession.”

The recipe to becoming a successful basketball player seems pretty simple according to these coaches: Spend thousands of hours working on your shooting form; line up the seams when you shoot; make sure you use the correct pivot foot; make crisp passes; learn how to dribble with both hands; play defense; and most importantly, go outside and play with your friends.


Author: Blake Froling

I am currently the Sports Director at ESPN UP in Marquette, Michigan, where I host a daily sports talk show called The SportsPen. I am also the play-by-play voice for Westwood High School football and boys and girls basketball. I graduated from Michigan State University in December 2016 with a degree in journalism.

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