The following is the entire article from Clay Kallam on his Full Court Press site. I was going to cut and past portions of the article and add commentary but I felt the need to make sure his entire column was read. I have often written about the need for development over chasing wins but his piece sums it up. However, the question is this. Should development be the focus of big time basketball or winning? College coaches get paid a lot of money to do what? WIN!
When Shyra Ely finished her college career at Tennessee, she was a very suspect prospect. Sure, she was the first pick in the second round of the 2005 draft, but such notables as Kendra Wecker and Dionnah Jackson were chosen ahead of her. Why, despite her collegiate achievements?
What was missing?
At 6-1, Ely had been a post player her whole career, and as a left-handed post player, she took full advantage of most defenders’ mysterious inability to realize that left-handers go left. (This is true at all levels, for about 90 percent of defenders. I recently saw Alana Beard go left to the basket against Sacramento—hadn’t anyone noticed that’s basically what she does?) Unfortunately, Ely’s athleticism and sinister behavior were enough for her to succeed in college—but once she got to the WNBA, she found more defenders firmly planted on her left hand, much taller defenders blocking her shots in the paint, and no one treating her perimeter game with anything but disdain.
Not surprisingly, Ely failed to set the WNBA on fire. She struggled to score, and given her size, she wasn’t a factor on the boards or on defense.
But Ely figured it out. Now, in 2009, she can go right as well as left, and more important, she can make three-pointers. All of a sudden, Ely is a very tough cover. She is very good to her strong hand, but those who overplay are now punished—and unwary post defenders who sag off will watch a three settle into the net.
When Jasmine Dixon finished her high school career at Long Beach Poly, she was a fearsome 5-11 power forward. She was way too strong for anyone her size, and much too quick for anyone taller.
But high school is not college, and summer basketball isn’t either. Dixon, despite being a McDonald’s All-American, didn’t make it through USA Basketball tryouts and quickly transferred after a frustrating freshman season at Rutgers. She discovered that 5-11 players don’t thrive in the paint at the BCS level, and that her lack of perimeter skills (shooting, ball-handling, defense) meant she couldn’t play the three.
It may be that Dixon will figure it out during her red-shirt year at UCLA, just as Ely did in Europe. But both of them, like the girl who’s 5-7 in sixth grade and plays the post but doesn’t grow and has to learn to be a guard in high school, were poorly served by their coaches and advisors.
Yes, Pat Summitt has an obligation to win at Tennessee, but she also has an obligation to Ely to help her further her career. Dixon’s coaches during the summer and in high school naturally want to win, but they also need to consider how their actions impact Dixon’s future. And those rec league coaches who take the “tall” girl and consign her to learning post moves and never let her handle the ball are, in most cases, severely hampering the player’s chances to shine in high school.
And, of course Dixon and Ely, like the numerous taller-than-the-other-girls sixth-grade posts, want to win, just as their coaches do. They will happily go to their strengths, over and over again, and enjoy the praise and benefits of success.
But that’s why there are coaches. Coaches who are supposed to be as concerned with the development of the players in their charge as with winning games must step in—and in fact, the two go hand in hand. If Ely had been encouraged to use her right hand and shoot threes from the moment she arrived in Knoxville, how much more effective would she have been for the Volunteers when she was a senior? And if Dixon had used her athletic skills and learned to handle the ball as well as she could, how much better would Poly have been when she was a senior?
And how much more fun would each of them had as a player? And how much better prepared would they have been for the next step in their careers?
Brian McCormick, a trenchant critic of the status quo in women’s basketball and amateur sports, calls it “Peak by Friday” coaching. The only thing that matters to these coaches, and these programs, is what a young woman can do for them in the next game. As for her and her future? Well, that’s up to her, and the coaches hope they figure it out without letting any of this skill development stuff interfere with immediate success.
But it shouldn’t be up to the player to improve on their own. Coaches shouldn’t be all about winning this Friday. If athletics has any value, any place in our educational systems, it should be that it helps young people learn and grow, both inside their specialty and outside it. Pat Summitt, a brilliant coach who does many, many things very well, does deserve criticism in my view for not preparing her players for a pro career. They are pretty much the same players when they leave Knoxville as when they arrive—though obviously, stronger, smarter and more experienced. But they don’t enhance their games, for the most part, and the player Summitt recruits is very similar to the player Summitt graduates (another thing she does exceptionally well).
Summitt, of course, is far from alone at the collegiate level. There are very few coaches who consciously develop talent, but considering the fact that a young woman can make a million dollars playing professionally over the course of her career (with most of that money coming from Europe), it is more than disappointing that coaches don’t focus on helping the young women they are supposed to teach develop the skills they’ll need to get the most of their careers.
High school and club coaches lack Summitt’s talent, resources and skill, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have any responsibility to help their players. They need to balance the needs of the player with the needs of the program, and the answer isn’t always to sacrifice the player’s future on the altar of winning a couple more games in some midseason or July tournament.
Families and young players can’t be expected to understand the ramifications of decisions made by coaches—but coaches understand, and they need to take more responsibility for the development of players, and take less interest in their winning percentage. If they don’t, they’re cheating the young women who are entrusting them with their careers, and they are cheating themselves of the opportunity to give something back to the players they claim to care so much about.