Off-Season Player Development

By John Leonzo

For many high school coaches, the basketball season has come to an end, and it is now time to begin the process of preparing for the next year. Between AAU, summer leagues, camps, and school ball open gyms, the opportunities for players to stay involved in the game and sharpen their skills are at an all-time high. That being said, it is vital that coaches put a program in place that is aimed to help their players develop purposeful skills that will translate into competition this coming winter.

Make no mistake about it, there is no short-cut to becoming a better player. If a player truly wants to improve, they will have to make sacrifices. That being said, I want to focus in on WHAT and HOW a player works in the off-season as opposed to HOW OFTEN. Being in the gym will not make a player better, it is what they do and how they do it in their time there that will make a difference. Here are some off-season player development tips that I will offer up:

  1. Evaluate: Watch tape from the previous season and determine what your biggest needs are. I see the game in two ways strengths (what you do well) and threats (what keeps you from winning). It is through this process that you determine how you will use your strengths more and eliminate the threats that surround your team. This is the WHAT of player development. To do this, ask yourself the following questions:
    • Why did we win?
    • Why did we lose?
    • What area above deserves the majority of my attention
  2. Plan: Once you know what must be worked on, the next step is to create a purposeful plan that will help drive results. This is the HOW of player development. I encourage coaches to use the spring and summer as a time to develop basketball players rather than teaching plays and doing new drills that you pick up from various clinics. Better players make for a better team. Use this time to help your players get better. Remember, anytime you chose to work on one aspect of the game, there is an opportunity cost because you are neglecting another. Be sure to spend the offseason getting good at the aspects of the game that occur the most. Here are some factors to consider:
    • How many summer skill sessions will we have?
    • How many players can I have in a session to ensure that they get the most value out of it?
    • What are the three things that every player on my team needs to have available for us to be successful next season?
    • Every session that you have must be centered around those three areas. You cannot emphasize everything, but be sure that your three points are front and center in every session.
  3. Execute: This is probably the biggest barrier to high school coaches. Because of spring sports, AAU commitments, and family obligations, it can be hard to get with players on a consistent basis during the time. My advice to the high school coach is to focus on what is under their control and to give their absolute best to whatever players attend the sessions that you have. Create an environment where skill development is not an obligation, but rather an opportunity. Create an environment in which players who miss know that they are missing out. Remind your athletes that practice is not a right, it is a privilege and an opportunity. Be all in with those that are committed to make the most of this privilege. John Wooden always said, “don’t whine, don’t complain, and don’t make excuses”. I know coaches like to volley that statement at players, but it is high time that coaches begin to model that statement in how they handle themselves as well.

Now that we have determined WHAT we are going to do and focus on in the off-season, it becomes vital that we pay careful attention to HOW we will do that. Not all practice is created equal, and you want to make sure that you get the biggest bang for your buck. Here are some tips that I will give you to ensure that you are able to maximize your training sessions:

Incorporate Decision-Making:

Basketball is a complex game and players are constantly making decisions on each and every possession. I encourage coaches to create opportunities for players to make decisions and practice in a game-like fashion in each drill that they do. All too often our player development sessions are 100% centered around situations in which the player has a ball in their hands, but the reality for most players is that the ball will be in their hands very little during a 5 on 5 game. Although a player may not have the ball in their hands for the majority of a game, they are constantly making decisions when they are on the court. It is for this reason that decision making (both on and off the ball) must be a vital part of player development. Here is an example of a shooting drill that you can do with a group of two players in order to teach reading and decision making:

For some ideas on how to make incorporate decision making, check out my player development course or my newest book, Small-Sided Games for Basketball.

Varied and Random Practice: 

If a player is going to have their learning maximized, it is essential that they are engaged in the practice session. Try to avoid drills where the player shoots the same shot from the same spot multiple times in a row. Science has proved time and time again that by varying the location of a repetition and the type of repetition that a player gets helps increase learning and transfer. For example, instead of doing the traditional 5-spot shooting where you must hit 5 to move to the next spot, try having the player take some shots off the dribble and some off the catch. If you really want to get crazy, have the player respond to a visual cue from the passer to dictate what type of shot they shoot (decision making). For example, if the passer puts their hands behind their back, the shooter executes a catch and shoot. If the passer puts their hands above their head, the shooter attacks with a dribble and performs a pull-up jumper. Here is an example of a shooting drill that creates random and varied practice:

Teach Through Games: 

If a player had to choose between drills and games, I think we all know what they will choose. Instead of fighting this, use it. If you are going to incorporate games into your training, here are some ways to maximize them as teaching opportunities:

  • Play 2 on 2 or 3 on 3 so that each player gets more touches and more game reps.
  • Play to a low score so that each possession matters more.
  • Place rules on the game that is designed to teach the skills that you want to emphasize.
  • Time your drills and challenge the player to get a certain number of makes prior to the time expiring.

I have been able to use all of the above techniques as a regular part of my training sessions with a very high level of success. The best part about it is that the players love it. If players are engaged and excited, they will learn and grow. If you have any questions regarding the implementation of these methods, please feel free to reach out to me on twitter (@john_leonzo).


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John Leonzo

John Leonzo is the CEO of John Leonzo Basketball where he seeks to provide the highest quality training for both players and coaches. Through on the court training with players and online courses for coaches, John is able to make an impact in all the areas of the game.

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Jan. 27, 2016 – Toronto, ON, Canada – TORONTO, ON – JANUARY 27 – – Ryerson Rams Mens Basketball team interim Head Coach, Patrick Tatham(all in blue) watching his players at the team practice held at Mattamy Athletic Centre. Vince Talotta/Toronto Star (Credit Image: � Vince Talotta/The Toronto Star via ZUMA Wire)

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