It’s March and the basketball Madness is taking hold. With the NCAA tournament just kicking off in the U.S. and the CIS tournament just wrapping up in Canada, March is a beautiful month for basketball. A recent article highlighted a common-thread between all the teams that have claimed the national championship stateside this decade: positionless basketball. The article below does a nice job at highlighting the benefits of this style of play including star players and impressive teams. If this system is working well for players like Lebron James and national champions like UConn, why wouldn’t we want to develop positionless players from a young age as it is the result/ often results in more skilled, more athletic players? The answer often lies in the resistance from coaches, not players. Continue reading for more information on how this style of play is taking hold and creating change!

Original article by: John Marshall
With commentary from SNYB Writer: Emma Glasgow

Basketball coaches long ago developed numerical shorthand for positions on the floor to define players’ roles and help diagram plays.

The point guard is referred to as the 1, the shooting guard 2, small forward 3, power forward 4 and the center is the 5.

Those numbers don’t add up quite as much anymore.

With the game becoming more up-tempo and players developing a wider array of skills, more coaches are willing to throw out the concept of positions and put their best five players on the floor.

Welcome to the era of positionless basketball.

“Teams are going smaller and caring more about skill,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “There are still some teams that play big — and we still have the ability to do that some — but I think you see more and more across the country (is) positionless basketball, just playing more skilled guys, multiple guys on the floor who can handle the ball, multiple guys who can space the floor and just make plays for each other and share it.”

From the early days of basketball, players’ roles were defined by their positions: The point guard distributed the ball, the shooting guard and small forward were the slashers and shooters, the power forward did the heavy lifting inside and the center camped near the rim at both ends of the floor.

Now, true point guards are hard to find, replaced by combo guards who are just as good at scoring as setting teammates up.

Back-to-the-basket big men are all but extinct; the tallest players on the court are often their teams’ best perimeter shooters. Small forwards and shooting guards are essentially the same player on most teams. A player who has one position on offense may switch to another on defense.

Everyone on the floor, it seems, can do a little bit of everything.

Every player, from a young age, should have the confidence to:

  • dribble comfortably down the court with & without light pressure
  • perform a move down low facing the basket & back to the basket
  • recognize a lane to the basket for a layup
  • rebound!
  • pass, dribble, shoot when receiving the ball on offense; a true Triple Threat, not an empty one

“The mentality, especially for a lot of our guys, is they can play any position at any time,” Duke junior forward Amile Jefferson said. “Because they can do a lot of things on the court, they can be at different positions.”

Don Nelson was one of the innovators of what was once called small ball — the original was called Nellie Ball — using four-guard lineups to create mismatches against bigger opponents while coaching the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1980s and later with the Golden State Warriors.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has long been a proponent of ignoring positions and has used the concept while coaching Team USA in international competition.

The difference now is positionless basketball has become more prevalent. Except for a handful of teams that have a true point guard or back-down center, college basketball is filled with teams that spread the floor and rely on interchangeable parts.

UConn won the 2014 national championship behind a team full of multi-skilled athletic players, led by 6-foot-1 guard Shabazz Napier, and the rest of this decade’s champions — Louisville, Kentucky, UConn again in 2011 and Duke — have had similar makeups.

“Our game doesn’t have a position,” Krzyzewski said. “You have five guys working together trying to stop the other five guys from creating a shot. The fact that a big guy is going to play closer — what if you didn’t have a big guy?”

Used to be if a kid was big, youth coaches would park them under the basket, and teach them to turn and shoot over the smaller players.

Those big kids don’t want to stand in one place anymore.

Not only should those big kids not stand in one place anymore, they may not be “big kids” forever. Teaching “big kids” only post moves and rebounding, deprives them of not only fundamental basketball skills, but fundamental movement skills. In my experience this travesty is most prevalent in girls basketball between the ages of 10-12. Girls often experience a growth spurt between these ages, but may not experience further growth in their teen years. Many young girls are typecast as the “post” or “big” at age 12, only provided with post skills and struggle to compete in their designated position through their teenage years. Conversely, the same deprivation can be experienced by  “point guards” when they are discouraged from playing in the paint. By providing all players with the opportunities to practice all areas of the game, they not only become more skilled but it also better prepares them for lifelong participation in basketball and a greater breadth of fundamentals for lifelong participation in physical activity.

Following the example set by big, athletic players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James, the new bigs seem far more interested in losing someone with a crossover dribble or stroking in a 3-pointer than shooting a jump hook from 3 feet. Personal coaches and elite travel team coaches have added to skill development, creating taller players with guard-like skills.

And with that, the game has changed, becoming more up-tempo and more reliant on the 3-point shot.

“The skill level with what I call the proliferation of the workout coach is as high as it’s ever been,” Rice said. “Guys are working on individual skills all the time. As long as they coach, we can take the development of those skills and blend them into a team concept, and I see those are positive changes.”

But the positions — and their corresponding numbers — aren’t likely to disappear completely.

The players may have skills that fit multiple roles, but coaches still need the positions to diagram plays and tell the players what to do.

There are other ways to organize players and help them define their role on the team. This line of thinking is hindering positionless basketball, especially at the youth level. Youth basketball is often limited only by the coach’s opinion of what his/her team can and cannot do/handle. Telling a player he can only do X then Y then Z in a set formation limits development. Rather than “[telling] a player what to do”, provide them with the skills to decide what to do! Providing players with sound fundamentals and general rules of the game will allow them more opportunity to read a situation and react, making a decision based on what is being presented to them at the time. While the coach may offer guidance to make a better decision in the future, they should not make all the decisions for players.

Otherwise, it would be like being out on the sandlot, coaches yelling out players’ names and pointing to where they should go.

If anyone has watched a lot of youth basketball, it often devolves into sandlot play at some point in the game. This type of scramble happens even at the highest level of college and professional play. Providing players with sound decision making skills is really the only way a game can be controlled. It requires one player to take hold of the ball and slow things down. Something the sandlot and free play teaches on regular basis.

“When you’re talking about positions, you’re creating labels to help you organize your team and communicate to your team about roles and responsibilities. From that standpoint, it may be important,” Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. “But if you’re talking the difference between a 2-guard and a small forward, for instance, it may be a subtlety at best.”

And it’s led to a huge change in the game.

All in all, this kind of success for positionless basketball at the highest levels of play will hopefully result in some trickle down and changes in opinion. Positionless basketball has largely been a grassroots movement fueled by organizations like Better Basketball and their Read & React system of play. Let’s keep the change alive, it’s better for the kids and it’s exciting to watch!

If you liked this article, check out this video by Breakthrough Basketball. Their Read and React offense is a perfect example of positionless basketball that has been tried and trusted by teams at all levels.

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