Principles for Good Basketball, Or, The Exorcising of Fifteen Years of Pickup Basketball Ghosts

Principles for Good Basketball, Or, The Exorcising of Fifteen Years of Pickup Basketball Ghosts January 16, 2010

This post comes out of nowhere.  No one has asked for it.  It is a thought-child that must be birthed.  It stems, as the title suggests, from my years of frustration playing pickup basketball.  If you play unorganized basketball–and you are not worthy of this blog if you do not–you will understand.  Actually, you’ll understand even if you play organized ball, which actually in a good number of cases is less logical than pickup.

This post is for everyone who has played with the guy who shoots every time he gets the ball; for those who have suffered through disjointed offensive schemes for hours on end; for defenders who work their tails off only to have one guy get scored on every possession; and so on.  Those who play pickup ball can come up with many more such examples of bad basketball.

I won’t drag this on forever.  I love basketball; I hate bad basketball; and I am opinionated enough to give you my rules for good basketball.  Contrary to what many high school coaches teach you, I don’t think good basketball is hard to play.  It’s actually pretty simple.  Follow some clear principles and you’ll be well on your way to efficient and fun roundball.  You may not necessarily get to the mountaintop, but you can go very far without arcane diagrams and authoritarian play-calling.

1. Move the ball.  Pass often.
2. Attack the defense, looking to kick to open shooters.  With sharp passing and the pick and roll, this is probably the easiest way to get a good offensive flow going.
3. Run pick and rolls with a guard who can shoot and a big man who can attack the basket.

4. Whenever you can, run the ball.  Get easy baskets.  Even if you don’t run and shoot, at least pick the low-hanging fruit.
5. Play good help defense.  This is not hard.  It’s 95% effort, honestly.  You don’t need to swat shots to be a good defender.  You just need to play with a reasonable amount of intelligence.
6. Encourage teammates who are working hard and taking the right kind of risks.  Talk diplomatically with those who are over-shooting.  Kindness goes a long way.  Instead of a guy getting down and making more mistakes (which almost always happens in an unkind environment), he’ll likely work hard on defense and play even better.
7.  LOOK FOR MISMATCHES.  Sorry to blast you.  But this is huge.  Note: if playing with a ball hog, this will not happen.  But it must for good basketball.  All things being equal, attack the weakest defender.
8. Go to the hot hand.  Go to the hot hand.  Go to the hot hand.  How many times have I seen this not happen?  This is one of the single best ways to lose out there.  Basketball is a highly psychological game–shooting is the crux of this.  Good shooters enjoy good psychological health.  Go to them.
9. On defense, do your best to match up well.  Shifting mid-game can really help if things aren’t working out.
10. Play to the glory of God.  Don’t play for yourself.  That will avoid all kinds of trouble–easy discouragement, ball-hogging, and so on.

Okay, that was completely unprovoked.  Thanks for reading.  May your pickup games improve exponentially.

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  • Dustin Lair

    11. Throw an outlet pass instead of lowering your head and dribbling.

    12. Post players pass back out and re-post deeper.

    13. Talk on defense

  • but do you have any tips for guys who are tall, and always get asked if they play basketball, or to play basketball — yet they’re horrible at the game, and don’t really enjoy it?

    • Dustin Lair

      Ask the short people if they’re a jockey

  • Riley

    Good stuff, especially since the 3ABCers are playing tomorrow afternoon. However, I am scared of #7. I fear that I will be the mismatch that the other team will take advantage of. Oh well.

  • Mark


    My biggest one: Call screens. Call them loudly. Call them every time.

  • owenstrachan

    Dustin and Mark–good thoughts. I agree. Riley, I’m sure you did fine.

    Here’s one more thing: sometimes people think “good spacing” means that everyone goes into a kind of hexagonal position. That can be good spacing, although that places defenders in almost every possible penetration lane. Good spacing often means overloading one side so that the team’s offensive catalysts can work together without clutter.

    Good spacing is contextual. It doesn’t mean only one layout. As in all matters with offensive play, it means thinking about advantages. Don’t go to a space just to go there–go to a space because it could potentially benefit the team.

    James, I don’t know what to say, bro. Let’s just say I haven’t had that problem. How about something nice but clear?

  • ora

    I was discussing the same topic with a friend. Basically, I’ve been playing pickup at the same place for years, and the people I know and like to play with are leaving one by one (growing up , aging, injuries, moving, etc.) The amount of “good” basketball (as you described) has decreased with more new faces and the disappearance of a usual crowd.

    I’ve come to the conclusion a lot of good basketball is basically “team” basketball. I enjoy it most when I can contribute positively to the team Best example is taking not so skilled individuals on my team and playing to their strengths to beat another team with better individual players.

    Even though “good” basketball makes the team better, I don’t think this is a common objective in pick-up. A lot of folks just try to play individually forcing shots. It’s disappointing , but I can’t blame strangers for not passing (your number 1 rule).

  • owenstrachan

    ora, well said. I think you’re quite right. Team basketball is way more fun than individualistic basketball. There is a great deal of pride involved in a lot of pickup basketball, for sure. Very challenging to try to fight it and to create a selfless culture.

    But worth working toward, if only for our souls, as well as personal enjoyment. Funny how doing the right thing is also the best thing, the means of proceeding that will create the most happiness.

  • Owen,

    I think this should be posted in Southern Seminary’s gym. 🙂

    Who you play with makes a HUGE difference. I can think of a few guys I’ve played w/ at Southern who I KNOW I will play better with simply because they actually PLAY BASKETBALL instead of SHOOT EVERY TIME YOU GET IT pointless running around on a court activity.

  • owenstrachan

    Ha! So true, Garrett. I feel your pain.