INTRODUCTIONThis novel experience that I am going to describe was born from an idea of Maurizio Gherardini, shortly after he was given the job by the Canadian Federation to work with the National team. Leo Rautins, the head coach of the Canadian national team, had to choose an assistant to bring to the qualification round for 2010 World Championship in Turkey. The teams from South America have a game style that”‘s very similar to the European teams, so Gherardini advised Rautins to choose a European assistant who could bring his experiences and ideas to the Canadian team. Hopefully, they would add something special that would help the team.
After a couple of days of meetings in Treviso, coach Rautins asked me if I was interested in being his assistant coach during the summer. I was very happy about this opportunity and I accepted without hesitation. It would be a great experience and add in my technical wealth of experience.
Our program began in June with a “Development Team,” a group of 16 players, 21 to 25 years old, plus Mike Kabongo, who was 17 years old. We had to choose an additional three to four players, add them to this team, and then practice for one week at the Air Canada Center, the home of the Toronto Raptors.
Leo asked me to lead all the training programs for the week and gave me two assistants. Jack Donohue, the high school coach of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (when he was still known as Lew Alcindor), had coached the Canadian national team for many years, while Steve Mix, the former NBA player, with 13 seasons of NBA experience, and one NBA All Star selection, both did great jobs in helping prepare the team.
We designed a technical practice program that included offense, defense, and individual fundamentals, which are things we teach to all our our talented young players in Italy.
At the first workout, Leo spoke with the players about this technical program and explained to them the importance of knowing and learning a different way of playing. This was especially important, he reminded them, since they all could have future careers as professional players in Europe.
There was always a lot of enthusiasm at every workout and the level of attention was high.
Rarely during my coaching career have I seen such a high level of concentration and intensity, especially for so many consecutive workouts (two workouts of 150 minutes almost every day). Here are the technical aspects we covered in depth with our team:
- The start of a dribble drive, using only the cross-over step, on both sides of the court. This minimizes traveling violations at the start. As was their habit, on the right side they only started using the same hand, same foot, but this type of start is considered a traveling violation (not in North America, but certainly in Europe). We also had drills for starting the dribble, receiving the ball on the run, and going to the basket without stopping the dribble.
- One-on-one while watching the defense; the player receives the ball, then moves by watching the defense and using two dribbles at most. The players from North America often take seven to eight dribbles before taking a shot (sometimes a forced shot).
- Concept of a triangle in a pick-androll play; too often during the pickand- roll, they don’t consider the possibility of passing the ball to a third teammate. That’s because they only consider the pick-and-roll as a play with the dribbler and screener.
- Spacing; in Europe the ball is always in movement and the one-on-one opportunities are born thanks to good spacing. In the NBA system, there are often isolation plays for a particular player (for example Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade) and the player has to create his own scoring opportunity.
- Move the ball.
- Dribble as little as possible (2 dribbles, maximum) to force your player to keep his head up so he can search for other passing/scoring opportunities; force them to play more without the ball and play together as a group rather than as five individuals on the court.
- During the pick-and-roll play we permit only two dribbles. After the dribble, the player can stop-and-shoot (often), pass (more to a third player than the screener), or shoot from underneath (rarely with the dribbler).
- For every offensive action, before settling for a shot from the outside, the players must try to bring the ball into the painted area by using the dribble or a pass (to the post).
- Our first goal in the half-court game is to make the defense collapse.
- We have to play in continuity until our first opportunity to shoot, but we have some rules. The players must know where to set themselveson the court if the ball makes it into the painted area; they must maintain proper sapcing when there is a penetration dribble; and they must know how to finish the offense when there are six to seven seconds remaining on the shot clock.
Our principles are: "1 (second) on offense" and "1 and a half (1 and a half offensive player to guard) on defense". When the offense succeeds in having one-second advantage after a screen (when the defensive player is late), after a pick-and-roll, or after a penetration with a pass in the low post, the team must try to maintain this advantage by using good ball circulation until there is an opportunity for a free shot. If the player who obtains this advantage is not ready to use it because of good defensive rotation, he must “pass this second” (passing the ball) to a teammate. All this is done to keep one defender from stopping our offensive movement.
The defensive concept of 1 and a half: the defender of the man without the ball must stay defending his man but he should be ready to guard half of another offensive player. Example: during a penetration, the defenders near the offensive player with the ball must stay on the passing lanes but must also be ready to slide and extend their arms to help if the offensive player penetrates by dribbling.
The same thing happens if a teammate on the weak side goes to help in the low post or helps on a penetration from the baseline. In this case, his nearest teammate must be ready to guard two offensive players. We also use this rule on vertical screens and every time we need a help or defensive rotation.
Because of the short time that we had to work and prepare for the games in Europe, we preferred to avoid helps and rotations as much as possible.
Instead, we focused on:
- Playing on the passing lane.
- Keeping the ball under pressure (on the half court).
- Making the offensive player move before he receives the ball.
- Completely denying the ball in the low post (not waiting for the offensive player to receive the ball and then defend, but anticipating).
- Always anticipating the players near the ball, especially in the corners (we don’t want the player in corner to be the “cushion” of the player in the post when he is under high pressure).
- Slowing up the reverse passes.
This technical aspects of our program improved over the next few weeks. We had two weeks (with four friendly marches) in Spain in June; two weeks (with six friendly marche) in Italy in July; follone by two weeks (with three tournament games) in Puerto Rico before the qualification tournament for the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey (10 games in 11 days). After reviewing the good results of June, coach Rautins decided to continue with the same program with the rest of the senior national team, right until the end of the qualification tournament.
All the hard work of the players paid off and also gave them, and the coaching staff, great confidence that they had done everything necessary to succeed. Mike Malone, the first assistant to Mike Brown of the Cleveland Cavaliers, helped with both defensive and offensive strategies and he never neglected any details. Other coaches on the staff included Roy Rana, head coach of the University of Ryerson (Toronto) and head coach of the Canadian Under 16 national team, which qualified for next year’s Under 16 World Championship; and Wayne Yearwood, a former Canadian national team member, who also played in the European leagues before becoming head coach of Dawson College in Quebec (Ontario). Coach Rautins guided the team in all the games. As a former great player in college and the NBA, he commanded the respect of the team, but his skills as a communicator, with a positive, upbeat attititude, also proved to be a bonus in moments of difficulty. The influence of Maurizio Gherardini was also evident and he left his mark as general manager of the National team. For Gheradini, if we were to be a team, we had to be a team on and off the court. For the first time ever, the team ate all their meals together, all the players to in the same place, the same time, with the same menu chosen by our medical staff. This is different from the NBA, where the players can go wherever they want and eat whatever they want.
Looking back, the final results have been positive and we are making great strides as a team. And for that, we have to thank the great work made by the entire group of coaches and players. We worked hard and achieved goals we had set for ourselves, and with that came a great sense of pride in belonging to this team. Finally, we have to thank all those non-Canadians who have helped create this new team, bringing to it the best of their special coaching and managerial skills that were acquired from other parts of the globe.