Built From Scratch: Passing and Game Management

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‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich.

In my last article ,I tried to help young basketball players with the mastery of the single most important offensive skill there is, shooting. Being a knock-down shooter is like being a left-handed pitcher in baseball — there will always be room for you. Frankly, if you can do nothing else but shoot, you’ll continue to exist as a basketball player.

Young athletes, I don’t want you merely to exist. I don’t want you to be just another player taking up room as the 2nd guard off the bench for your high school team and wondering if there’s ever going to be a future for you in the most beautiful of games. I want you to be as good as your own athletic ability allows you to be.

With that in mind, we’re going to discuss maybe the most important skill you can have as a guard. And its close relative which is slightly amorphous but equally important: Passing and game control.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably assuming, “I don’t need to pass and pass well. When I get to high school and college, my teammates will know I’m so good, they won’t mind if I take a lot of shots because I’m helping the team win. Right?” Wrong.

If you are a player who shoots like he’s afraid he’s going to be barred from the gym if he doesn’t shoot the ball immediately,  you won’t be as successful. Also, there will be a game when your shot doesn’t fall. This happens to players in all levels of basketball. What will you do?

A good passer can create other good passers merely through osmosis.

As proof of the statement that I just made, consider this: All of the truly great teams, the once-in-our-lifetime destroyers of world — who came in, destroyed everything your team ever was and left in a haze of fast-break devastation, all shared one thing in common: They were all great passing teams. The most famous and celebrated fast breaks in NBA history have this in common; the ball never left the ground. Watch the Miami Heat. When they get a steal, watch how LeBron James passes to Dwyane Wade — who will pass it to LeBron for some ridiculously powerful dunk that sets the world on fire. That is the value of passing.

Also, watch how Chris Paul controls every possession for the L.A. Clippers. He always gets a good shot for someone on his team.  Isiah Thomas did this for the Detroit Pistons. With that in mind, let’s go through the crates and see if we can’t help you understand how these skills work in action. Let’s find you the right role models to become a player who can control the game and have success on nights when your shot isn’t falling.

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Maravich was ahead of his time.

Pre-Merger:

As a 31-year-old, it’s hard to talk about the finer points of people I’ve only seen On highlights. At its core, that’s what the amorphous skill of game control, also known as “basketball IQ” really is. It’s detail work. It’s knowing how to handle every situation. And the pre-merger master at this particular skill was none other than Pete Maravich. As a coda to what he was, and in many ways what he still is. Notice how people who watched him play still speak of Pete Maravich.

They don’t speak of him like a normal great player, but like an alien force —  who was impossible to understand. As an offensive player, He torched Walt Frazier for 68 points. WALT FRAZIER! One of the greatest defensive guards in NBA history had no answer for Pete Maravich. There was nothing he could do.

Hear how people talk about Ricky Rubio now or Jason Williams before, and you get an idea of how people viewed Maravich. In the same way your eyes might glaze over and fantasize about what could have been, every night when thinking about those terrifyingly frenetic late 90’s Sacramento Kings teams. Even now with Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers, remember this simple fact; for three exhibition games, Pete Maravich threw alley-oops to…

That’s right. Doctor J got the chance to flush down dunks from maybe the greatest passer of the pre-Merger era. It’s like how you felt when LeBron was taking alley-oops from Chris Paul during the London Olympics. It didn’t seem fair. Like at no point did you honestly believe you deserved it. Yet, the shame of it all is he’s not around.

He’s no longer here to tell you how much fun he would have had throwing alley-oops to Dr. J. How he changed what a guard was expected to be able to do with the ball in his hands. And as the years go by, the people who can tell you what he was and could have been become less and less. And that’s a shame.

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Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson.

Post-Merger:

For a lot of people, myself included, the time from 1984 to 1998 is the golden age of the NBA. The stars and the teams are legendary. But when you talk about passing and the belief someone could take a supremely complicated game and bend it to their will by sheer force of will, there is only one right answer to this question. With all due respect to Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas, answer is a man whose very name inspires thoughts of legerdemain who defy all attempts to describe them. He was the architect of what was, until very recently, the greatest fast-break offense that ever existed. Simply put, throughout the course of his career — if Magic Johnson was on the break, it was 2 points.

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The Maestro of Showtime.

It because he was surrounded by guys who were skilled finishers in the open court. It was because you always trusted him with the ball. There was never a point where you watched through slit eyes if Magic was handling the ball for your team. With the exception of the ’84 NBA Finals, he almost never made a decision which made you holler at your television.

And the passing? Magic was the first player I can remember who made passing almost as devastating as a bucket. On the fast break, and trust me because I root for the Atlanta Hawks and saw him do this to us more times than I care to count, he turned the Forum into a place where a two-point lead felt like a 30-point blowout.

He is not the pure point guard Isiah Thomas was or Chris Paul is. Yet, there are few point guards who I would want to run my team ahead of Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Thank you for reading.

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