High school teams that are lacking can only go so far

As I’m currently awash in some of the pain that is March Madness, I finally have a moment to discuss something I’ve been thinking about all winter: high school basketball team cover-ups.

There are numerous high school teams that get away with winning, and having a winning record, solely on their athleticism. Their fundamentals are lacking. Most commonly, they can’t finish a layup or box out effectively, and the forwards/posts aren’t aggressive enough on the boards. But these athletic teams can get up the court faster than opponents, and they out-muscle them with defense (once they’ve finally woken up from what usually is a slow start). After watching several such games by the end of January, my question was: if you win but win ugly (aka sloppy, fundamental-less ball where you’ve merely outrun your opponent), is this something of which to be proud?

No. But plenty of teams (and their coaches) practice this type of ball and then get a skewed vision of themselves as a good team. Winning – especially at the high school level – doesn’t necessarily make you a good team. If you’re in a weak league, as many high school teams are, then it’s easy to have a good record. Ditto if you’re a college team in a weak conference and/or with a schedule that is lacking in quality opponents. Yet, winning is equated with “good,” and fans automatically assume the coach is good too.

I can’t tell you how many high school teams I’ve seen in Southern California who are getting by on athleticism and are benefitting from being in a weak league, yet who are not fundamentally sound. They appear, at least to me, to win by accident. If I were a coach and my team had 30 turnovers because they can’t make basic, good passes, but they won anyway because the other team was JV-level, I wouldn’t feel good about that. But plenty of players ignore those facts, and so do those who coach them. They think they’re the bomb, and they’re not.

The great high school ball equalizer is the playoffs. A team can get by all season long, but the playoffs separate the sound from the “barely makin’ it” teams. The athleticism-only teams eventually lose to the skilled teams, and it’s usually fairly early on in the playoffs.

The theories abound as to why so many young people lack fundamental basketball skills these days. Some say it’s the influence of club ball and its emphasis on playing many games in short periods of time. Others say it’s the excessive attention paid to flashy players like Kobe Bryant, and the de-emphasis on the basics of good basketball. There is also the fact that we live in an instant-gratification culture, and a lot of kids don’t have the patience to learn how to run a few laps, much less take 500 shots a day on the court. It’s probably a combination of those things, and more.

There is a reason why Brea Olinda, Mater Dei and Long Beach Poly were ranked first, second and third in the nation this entire year: all three programs boast fundamentally sound players. These squads are fun to watch, and watching their games is a guarantee of good quality basketball.

It’s too bad there aren’t more high school teams like them.

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  1. For the most part I agree with the premise, fundamentals are lacking in high school basketball, agreed! On the other hand, I don't think you can compare the job of Brea, Mater Dei and Poly coaches in teaching "fundamentals" to an entire team that's been playing travel basketball since they could walk, and at a high level no less, to the job of say a City league coach who has one, maybe two kids who have played basketball in an organized setting longer than the one or two years they've been on varsity. It's like comparing apples to oranges, there's only so much you can teach at that point, it's like triage.

    Fact of the matter is, Brea, Poly, Mater Dei have created dynasties. The best kids, who have had access to high level basketball from the youngest ages are going to continue to go to those schools. That being said, the solution may be providing access to good fundamental basketball at early ages to more kids. At some point, the crop of "good" kids will expand beyond the traditional powers, and perhaps then you'll have better high school basketball. I like the recent GBL/Cal Sparks merger because it seems to be looking to do just that. They have some excellent coaches working with some really young kids.

    Point is, I think the problem is a little more complex than you make it. It's no coincidence that you often find the best fundamentals in Orange County (beyond Brea and Mater Dei, you've got Troy, Edison, Santa Margarita in many years, San Clemente in the recent past…) where parents have significant funds at there disposal, and kids start playing expensive organized basketball when they can walk.

  2. Bottom line kids need to work on their game, there are few coaches who really coach fundamentals as it takes time, high schools are about wins and losses for the coaches even those you think are tops, just talk to the kids after they are done and you will hear what really goes on – but ultimately it's the time one puts in that will produce results and those that put in that time will be the kids that succeed, as you can't cover it up in college.

  3. Anonymous 2, that is very succinct and well-put. My point is that quite a few high school coaches don't bother with fundamentals anymore. They're content to do a three-weave to warm up, for instance, and then just go right into working on offense. I know for a fact that Brea and Poly spend time during practices working on fundamentals, and that's why they're consistently good. My guess is Mater Dei does the same thing.

    Anonymous 1, I agree that fundamentals need to be provided to kids at a much younger age, but I don't agree that it's a simple "city vs. suburbs" issue. Look at the fundamentally-sound Reshanda Gray of Washington Prep; look at Narbonne, who went to the third round. The Carson players have played club together for a long time. You're treading a delicate line by implying that the lack of fundamentals is a hood thing.

  4. With respect to City examples, you point to exceptions, not the rule. More importantly, you point to exceptions that make my original point. The best "City" kids are given access to travel ball via scholarships. Reshanda Gray is a perfect example of that. My understanding is that many of Narbonne's stars have been given access to the same. Not to mention Narbonne is just a few years out of being the power that Mater Dei, Brea and Poly now are. Translation, kids who have been playing for some time, have had greater access to organized basketball opportunities may have ultimately chosen to go there for the same reasons other kids chose Mater Dei, Poly or Brea.

    You also fail to recognize another key issue that arises out of the above phenomena, when the top level "City" kids with "fundamentals" make the choice to flock to the Poly's and Narbonne's of the world, they do so to the detriment of their neighborhood school. I wonder if you would have the same feelings about City teams like say a "Washington" where Reshanda Gray showcases her fine rebounding fundamentals, but the supporting cast is often lacking fundamentals even though they are typically fairly athletically gifted, if local products like Ariyah Crook-Williams and Deajanee Scurry, and god knows however many others I'm failing to mention actually stayed and attended the school their address corresponds to.

    The bottom line is, I never implied that a lack of fundamentals is a bi-product of being from the "hood." I simply pointed out the fact that there are fewer kids playing for City teams, that have had access to organized basketball opportunities, and that it's ridiculous to think that a high school coach can make up for the fact that they just haven't played a lot of basketball in one or two high school seasons. Could some of those coaches do better than they are currently doing, maybe?? Again, I think it's ridiculous to say that the coach at say Jefferson High School can run his practice the same as the coach at Poly, Brea, Mater Dei, or even Narbonne or Carson to use your examples, and no matter how you slice it, that's just reality.

    Whether your high school team is successful seems to come down to how many fundamentally sound kids you have. My point is, in a place like Orange County, every single kid on your varsity bench from your superstar to the kid who can't get five minutes has been playing organized basketball for an extended period. In the City you may have one or two kids that have, another one or two who are athletically gifted enough and disciplined enough to make up for the fact that they have not and then a whole bunch of other kids that you have to get the best you can out of. It's a whole different story in terms of what you can and cannot teach as a coach, and it has nothing to do with the kids capabilities, but rather the opportunities they have been afforded up to that point. For me, there is nothing controversial or delicate about that reality, and it's the failure to talk about it and/or solutions to the problem that perpetuates the status quo!

  5. You're bringing up the issue of transfers, and that's a whole other discussion that I'm not going to touch with a 10-foot pole. Plus, you can't tell me that there are absolutely no transfers in Orange County.

    You're making this a city vs. suburbs issue, and that's not the point. I've seen kids and teams with poor fundamentals, from EVERYWHERE. The problem is rampant. And even if a kid has only been playing for a couple years, a coach can MOST DEFINITELY make a difference by teaching them fundamentals during the course of the season. You may not be Ariya Crook-Williams by February, but you should be a whole heckuva lot better than what I'm seeing. The lack of ability to finish at the rim is rampant.