Good shooters are constantly searching for space. A few inches here and there is often the difference between a clean look and an altered shot. One way that great shooters create space is the way they step into the shot.
Depending on where the nearest defender is, shooters can either step towards the ball or away from the ball as they load up to shoot. One step in either direction as they receive the ball can help create a few extra inches of space.
In the following clips check out how Jalen Brunson (#1 on Villanova) steps into his shot. Specifically, watch how his footwork varies depending on where the nearest defender is. It's very subtle.
Brunson will take his last step (or hop) either away or toward the ball in order to make that defender’s closeout just a hair longer. It's a smart tactic that he likely does unconsciously.
In the last clip you can see that the extra step away from the ball causes a longer closeout, which makes his pump fake more threatening.
This has implications for how we structure workouts.
What kind of creative drills can we think of to train this skill? Here's one I'll call The Brunson Drill.
1 is the shooter and 2 is the passer. 1 starts with his eyes closed and x1 has the choice of either starting to the left (Frame 1) or right (Frame 2) of the 1. On the passer's cue, 1 opens his eyes, receives the pass and has to shoot against x1 who's closing out from either direction.
When 1 opens his eyes, he has to find the defender, catch the ball and execute the footwork that gets him the most space to get his shot off. Sometimes he'll step toward the ball, sometimes away from the ball depending on where x1 starts.
You could make it a competition between shooter and defender. Best of 5 to incentivize the defender to give a good contest.
Another option is to play 1 v 1 out of this drill to add more variability. That would require 1 to both read the initial starting location of x1 and make a shot/drive decision based on x1's length, closeout speed, angle, etc.
Often, when we’re doing drills on air, players step into the shot the exact same way over and over again. And why wouldn’t they? They want to make the shot and there’s no defense forcing them to adapt. There’s no need for the player to change up their footwork based on the defense.
That’s one of the problems with an overreliance on drills without defense. It doesn’t transfer as effectively because drills without defense fail to train important skills that are required to have success in a game setting. Game settings force players to adapt to environmental constraints such as position of defenders, length of defenders, position of teammates, etc. But on air drills don't prepare players to deal with all those constraints.
If we accept this premise that athletes must be able to analyze environmental constraints and adapt on the fly in order to be successful in games, then it means we should use that information to to enhance our training methods. Specifically that might mean not spending as much time pounding in some of our beloved techniques (gasp!) in the expectation that it will be the most effective technique for all situations.
As much as it would simplify coaching to prescribe a single, universally perfect technique, the reality of the game forces players to adapt to a changing environment. And I think we as coaches ought to keep that in mind when designing drills and player development programs.