Heading into Laurence Bowers’ sophomore year at Mizzou in 2009, his goal was to become a key player for a team that had gone to the Elite 8 the year before. "I knew that there were still barriers to overcome. I always tried to work my tail off and I always challenged myself to compete with the upperclassmen (Demarre Carroll, Leo Lyons, Keith Ramsey, and Justin Safford) to get better and build confidence. I believe that chasing the success of the upperclassmen forwards from the previous year really propelled me into what would become a much improved sophomore season."
A college freshman has a learning curve to go through, no matter what his skill set is when he steps on campus. They come in with strengths, confidence, and talent and it takes time to accept their weaknesses, their role, and knowing that they might not be the best player on the floor any longer. How they handle this transition is crucial. "I focused solely on the things that I was already confident in (mid-range and defense), as opposed to the things that needed to be developed a lot more, such as my ball handling, three-point shooting, and overall physical strength. My freshmen year was definitely a learning experience.
Fast-forward to 2011 when Bowers tore his ACL in a pick up scrimmage just days before what was supposed to be his senior season kicked off. Following the injury, Laurence would rehab with Pat Beckmann and current 76ers Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator, Todor Pandov. Pandov was essential to Laurence adding 20 pounds of muscle over the course of the year. Strength, mid-range and outside shooting, and ball handling all stood out in Laurence's senior season. During his first three seasons at Mizzou, he rarely took 3-point shots, though after a year of work, he averaged 2 attempts a game and finished his senior season shooting 39% from deep. A clear improvement from his first three years for the 1,000 point scorer. Bowers went on to be Rookie of the Year with Hapoel Holon in Israel and is now currently in his 4th year as a professional with Bondi Ferrara in Italy.
Skill development and player improvement is the most important aspect of any coach's job at the college level. While coaches are ultimately judged and evaluated on wins and losses and a resume is built off of conference titles, tournament appearances, and winning seasons, the real question will always be how far did your team progress? Was it just making the dance? Was it a Sweet 16 appearance? Or as is the case for the blue bloods, did they make a final four and did they win it all? What most people gloss over is player development, the ultimate reason for any program’s success, and serves as the backbone of such. Pure Sweat CEO Drew Hanlen, an NBA skills instructor, said it best, "It doesn't matter how much you know, its all about getting your players to know what they need to know in order to give your teaching the best chance to win, which is why high-level teaching is a premium." Hanlen has a long list of NBA talent he represents in Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, St. Louis natives Bradley Beal and David Lee, and former Tiger Jordan Clarkson.
The thing they all have in common is that they work their @$$ off! https://t.co/PHhQHFqE0V— Drew Hanlen (@DrewHanlen) November 2, 2016
Recruiting is still vital in college basketball, that goes without saying. Getting 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star talent is what every fan base wants to see. The question I ask myself is what makes a player tick? Will he be satisfied and fulfilled with just getting on campus or will he want more? Does he have another level he can reach, and will he embrace possible setbacks and a specific role he's put in at the college level that he may not have anticipated filling? The best coaches in America take these young men and help them to mature not just as a player, but also as a person. How quick and willing are they to embrace the physical challenges placed in front of them?
It's a difficult road for any 17-year old kid to travel. Can they understand the mental challenges associated with such a shift in thinking? The learning process is different for each player, especially when they come from playing in high school and the AAU circuit where they may not have faced similar challenges. Is he learning the proper fundamentals? Is he stepping out of his comfort zone to improve the areas of his game that may be lacking? Is he a great teammate and does he come from a disciplined program? Those are just a few of the many underlying questions that a coach has to consider with any young prospect before they offer.
Size, athleticism, length, wingspan, lateral quickness, rim-to-rim speed and basketball IQ are a few words you hear thrown around quite often when evaluating a player. The fact is a player never stays in the same place developmentally; they are either improving or declining as a player. This can even include potential lottery picks or first rounders. Skill development has to be the primary focus in the off-season, when the biggest strides are made to improving an individual's game. It's focused on the floor through repetitions, game speed drills, and through pushing oneself out of his comfort zone. For a big man, it’s expanding his range; for a slasher, it could be improving their ability to shoot the ball. For a guard, it’s handling the ball in spaced and pace all while learning how to read defensive coverages, or finally, teaching a spot up shooter how to create space, how to use a screen, how to change your speed and cut efficiently.
The next phase in player development is strength and conditioning. Did that player show up on campus a raw athlete, was his footwork an issue, did he struggle with hand and eye coordination, or did he simply need to add strength? Those are vital pieces of the puzzle. Four days a week of heavy lifting is a necessity, as opposed to in-season lifting where you are fine tuning your body and working on flexibility, injury prevention, and recovery from game to game.
As a player gets older and more mature, the focus changes to the little things. Every year spent on campus has to be about the evolution of your craft. As a freshman, you're new and the role you are in is dependent on the situation of the program. You may be coming off the bench and backing up a veteran player, or being counted on as a starter, thrown into a high level role and asked to contribute immediately. Maybe you are a developing project with a promising upside, or maybe just a great practice player who is struggling to find consistency on the big stage. It could be that you're red-shirting and taking a year to learn the system.
During this time you begin to learn the importance of rest and recovery during the season. No one understands that more than Jay Wright of Villanova, who details every minute of his players’ day during the season, whether it's game day or not. A season is a marathon and the physicality of the game will take a toll. Fresh legs are critical and every year you see teams lose steam in February and March when they begin to get physically drained. They battle nagging injuries, which creates conflict in the player, from what they know they can do in their mind and heart, and the reality of what they’reactually physically capable of at that point. A day in the gym in March will never feel like a day in practice in August.
Summer workouts should be run at the highest intensity level, with fall conditioning and practice maintaining a similarly high level. When you begin that journey in November, you have five months to be locked in and prepared mentally to win a championship. That's where all the the blood, the sweat, the tweaked ankles, the exhaustion in conditioning and wind sprints, and the physical demand pays off. NBA legend George Karl once told me, "Be at your best when your best is needed." To be at your best is to encompass all your work and then to simplify it. You will play freely as a player when the reps, the shots, the grind have already been put in during the summer and fall. Games are the easy part, the summers and fall practices are where you are really tested. That's where you make the biggest and most important strides in your growth as a player. Whatever it may be you want out of life, basketball or otherwise, what you put into it is what you get out of it. If you put in the time, you will be amazed at where you can end up over the course of a year.
Every yea,r no matter what the level of the recruit somebody will be asked to do more as a player than they were the year previous. To do more they must embrace and attack their individual weaknesses in the off-season. The trust and bond between player and coach is so important because of this. You see it every spring with players that are on the fence about returning or possibly entering the NBA Draft. You also see it with players that transfer from programs because they think they are better than they actually are, or because they do not see eye to eye with a coach regarding their role or perceived skill level, or maybe they're behind a player who will hinder their chances to get the playing time they feel they deserve. It always starts with the player understanding his own self first, being honest about his skill level and what he needs to improve. You have to have a plan for how you will get to where you want to go, that's where the importance of a head coach and staff is vital. To be able to show a player on film where he needs to work, as the film doesn’t lie and is a valuable teaching opportunity and a way to humble a player.
The challenge for a coach is that every player's thought process is different. A recruit is looking for exposure for his game and to build a brand, and to surround himself with talent. Every now and then you'll find a player who wants the challenge of rebuilding a program (see Ben Simmons at LSU last year or Markelle Fultz this year at Washington.) Now, more than ever, you are seeing high school prospects discuss potential partnerships in their recruiting process to go to the same program as a package deal. High school player rankings and the AAU circuit supported by shoe companies like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armor can play play a role in fostering these relationships. It's changed the dynamic of recruiting in college basketball to help the best talent in the country compete at the highest level. It also has made an impact on how hard a kid is willing to work, knowing their god given ability could be enough to get them to the next level.
With a prospect being able to leave after a year in college, it leaves college coaches wondering what's most important. The age limit benefits the NBA, giving them a chance to get to view a player develop over a season, while also giving the player more time to prepare for the riggers of playing in the NBA. It gives the prospect, or draft pick, a chance to physically, mentally, and emotionally develop for a career within the organization as a building block. College coaches understand this, they know they might not have a high level talent long, and they know the window to win in a big way can be short.
“One and done makes it tough for college coaches to impact upon a player because they only have them for such a small period of time. Improvement takes time and most of these one and dones are only on campus for a few months. Getting players to buy in to the improvement process, which can be a long process is the hardest part. Understanding that they might regress in the short term in order to progress in the long-term is tough,” said Drew Hanlen.
This is why you'll see collegiate players with all the upside and ability to be a great player struggle and not show well. They get frustrated, struggle and overthink, then they force and rush the process not realizing they have five years to play four. I look at Buddy Hield, Denzel Valentine, and Caris LeVert as examples of players that stayed all four years and improved immensely in that time. They were patient, they didn't panic, they stayed at their original school and they worked to improve their skill set. They weren't even close to the players they were as freshmen when they were seniors. That work, determination, and effort paid off in a big way.
There are so many factors in play when discussing player development. As a coach, and as a player, there are factors that you can and cannot control. A plan for a player has to be in place from the minute he steps on campus. You cannot worry about anything else, either as a coach and as a player, to what the future holds. All you can control is what you do on the floor at the university whose name is stitched across your chest. That's all that matters. Be in the moment, understand that what you do every day should never be taken for granted. Nothing is promised, so embrace the process and the journey.