In basketball, player development can be tricky to pinpoint. Sure, it’s defined as the process of improving an individual’s skill level, but what is it exactly that makes the process ultimately successful?
In his first year as head coach of the Sixers, Brett Brown’s main priority is to develop his youthful corps into better individual players. Someone like Michael Carter-Williams can be given all the playing time a rookie could possibly ask for, but how does Brown make sure Carter-Williams is maximizing the opportunity?
One way is by repeatedly placing Carter-Williams in the same game situation. For example, let’s take an extended look at a basic set that the Sixers employ, the side pick-and-roll. It definitely isn’t as cool as, say, simulating closing elevator doors, but this play is far more important to Carter-Williams’ development.
One way that the Sixers try to incorporate more moving parts (for the defense to deal with) is by setting a screen for the screener before the side pick-and-roll begins. In the shot below, the Sixers start in their normal “4-out, 1-in” alignment. The strong-side wing, James Anderson, sprints diagonally, to set a screen for Spencer Hawes, the trailer and more importantly, screener in the pick-and-roll.
After setting the screen for Hawes, Anderson immediately cuts to the weak side, where the Sixers will line up in “triangle away.” Basically, a shooter is stationed on the wing and in the corner, plus Thaddeus Young moves to the weak-side block.
When the first screener makes solid contact, as Anderson does with Anderson Varejao above, the defender is often going to be a split-second late reaching the side pick-and-roll. When defenses are in scramble mode, even if it’s only for a second, they tend to make mistakes.
At this moment, Carter-Williams’ (or Tony Wroten’s) development as a point guard comes into focus. It’s his responsibility to simultaneously read the defense, recognize any mistakes, and attack accordingly.
A bunch of different stuff can happen here. Sometimes, the defenders will try to aggressively trap the ball-handler too late, leaving the roll man with half of the floor to himself after slipping the screen.
Other times, they’ll try to switch the side pick-and-roll within a zone defense and fail, leaving a perfect opportunity for a split. In the shot below, Wroten is presented with a gap similar in size to the ones LeSean McCoy ran through against the Lions.
Maybe the defender fights way under the original screen and tries to “Ice” the pick-and-roll, leaving the 12th-best three-point shooter in the league wide open from behind the arc.
Now, we’ll look back at the original play, where Varejao fights way over the first screen. This makes it extremely difficult for him to recover to his original man if that player slips the second screen. When Carter-Williams’ defender offers momentary help against Hawes’ slip as Varejao recovers, the rook has a clear driving lane to the rim.
Those were four different ways to score as a result of the same action, even before anyone on the weak side got involved. Here are all of those plays in real time, plus a few more.
In a vacuum, “elevator doors” is easily the cooler of the sets that were featured the last 2 weeks, but the side pick-and-roll is much more important. That’s because it requires the players (in this case, Carter-Williams and Wroten) to create a good shot with much less help from the sideline.
The Sixers are only 26th in offensive efficiency, which is about where their talent dictates that they should be. At the very least, Brown has provided his team with a system in which they can both play competitively (well, when they aren’t getting bombarded with threes) and work on their skills at the same time.
When Carter-Williams makes the correct read on a side pick-and-roll, that’s the elusive player development Brown is in search of.
Bob Cooney has been at the Daily News for more than 20 years, working in the sports department for the past 15. This is his third season on the Sixers beat. He has covered just about everything, but mostly college basketball, where he was the La Salle beat writer for six seasons. E-mail Bob at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.