Structuring an Effective Basketball Practice

By John Leonzo

One factor that separates great coaches from the rest of the pack is one’s ability to effectively plan and structure a practice session. A good practice is marked by clarity of purpose, proper sequencing of skills, and transfer of skills from the practice session into the game. In the article that follows, I will share a planning structure that I have found to be effective.

Deciding what to spend your practice time teaching should not be taken lightly. Some factors to consider are:

  • What are the greatest needs for your team?
  • What point of the season are you in?
  • What have you done previously?

Once you have carefully considered what you will teach/focus on, the next step then becomes HOW you will teach it. I like practices to have a very narrow focus. In my personal opinion, I would rather do fewer things and do them very well than do many things and do them like everyone else. For a team practice, this generally means having 2 or 3 areas of focus for a 2 hour practice, and for a skill session I generally stick with 1 focus only, but occasionally will go with 2 if I feel it is appropriate. It is essential that the key focus is made evident and clear to your team so that there is clarity and focus as you set out to practice.

As you consider how you are going to teach the main focus for that day, it is important that each activity build off of one another and emphasize the key focus for that day. I was once told that “a good practice should read like a book”, and I have kept that nugget in mind ever since. What the coach meant when he said that to me is that there should be a logical progression that follows as you transition from one practice activity to another rather than stringing together a series of unrelated drills and calling it a “practice”.

In order to maintain a logical flow and progression in practice, I use a teaching method called TLC that I have adopted from PGC basketball. TLC stands for teaching, learning, and competing. Each focus that you cover needs to go through this TLC sequence as part of your practice in order to create multiple learning opportunities and repetitions for your athletes.


In the teaching drill, the athletes are introduced to the skill at hand, taught the keys for successful completion of that skill, and then are afforded a chance to get lots of reps of that skill in without any interference. When teaching driving to the basket, our skill keys will be:

  • Catch the ball with your feet in the air
  • Get the ball out of your hands and onto the ground quickly
  • Lean forward as you attack so that your chest in pointed at the ground

I will teach those keys while giving a demonstration, and then will immediately get the athletes into the following drill:

Follow The Leader


Once the teaching drill has gone on for a short time and the athletes are beginning to grasp a general understanding of the skill, we will then transition into a learning drill. In the learning drill, we will start to build some context around the skill being taught. Context often includes what to look for before you use the skill, when to use the skill, what to look for as you use the skill, and what to do once the skill has been executed. The best way to build this context is to add in a guided defender or a decision-making aspect of some sort to the drill. Some of the contextual teaching points for driving to the basket include:

  • “Scanning” prior to receiving the ball
  • Reading your defenders closeout
  • Going shoulder to hip on your drive
  • Scanning the second level of defense on your drive
  • Learning how to use and when to transfer advantage

You can see how these elements have been added in the following drills (Click on any diagram to see more details of the drill):

Gate Drives


Scan Drives

scan drives

Combo Drives

Combo Drives

Finally, we will transition into a competitive drill. I like to start with a small-sided game so that the players get lots of touches and chances to use the skill, and then progress from the small-sided game into full 5v5. In both the small-sided game and the full game, the scoring will be manipulated and the rules altered so that the skill of emphasis is encouraged and used often.Here are some examples below:

Blind 1 on 1

Blind 1v1

1 on 1 with Advantage

1v1 w/advantage

2 on 2 Closeouts

2 on 2 Closeouts


3 on 3 Wildcat

3 on 3 Wildcat

After playing these small-sided games, I would then transition into a game of 5v5. For all the games I showed earlier, as well as the 5v5 game, scoring would be 2s and 3s, but any basket that occurs as a result of a drive (scored or assisted) gets a bonus point.

I hope that this article has been helpful in stimulating your thinking for how you structure practice. If you would like more information on the topic, as well as video examples of all the drills shown here as well as 40+ others, please check out my newest book, Small-Sided Games for Basketball.

To view a PDF of all the drills/games shown in this article, click here.

For a PDF and video of all the drills shown in this article, as well as 40 more, click here.

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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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Dec. 22, 2014 – Lakeville, MN, U.S. – MacKenzie Denk (43) during practice Monday afternoon at Lakeville North High School. ] JEFF WHEELER • The Lakeville North girl’s basketball team practiced Monday afternoon, December 22, 2014 at the high school. (Credit Image: � Jeff Wheeler/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMA Wire)

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