Monday, January 22, 2018

The Jump: What it takes to go from high school basketball to college

By Blake Froling

So you think you're a pretty good high school basketball player, huh? Good enough to play at the next level, right? Well you better listen up, because the transition isn't a layup.

Ishpeming girls coach Ryan Reichel starred at the high school level for Westwood and went on to Northern Michigan University, where he said he was anything but a star. That switch from being the best player on the team to being a role player can be difficult for many kids to handle, and it sometimes derails careers.

"You gotta go in with the mindset saying 'I'm gonna do whatever it takes to be a player for this program,'" said Reichel, "and if that means I'm just gonna play defense or I'm just gonna be a passer, you better enjoy that role. If you don't you won't get on the floor and your experience won't be as enjoyable as mine was at the end of my career."

Many players say they love basketball. But do you really love basketball? Would you dedicate every second of your life to basketball? Many people wouldn't. If you're not a part of that group, don't bother trying to play at the next level. Negaunee coach Brandon Sager, who is No. 14 on the NMU all-time scoring list by the way, said you have to love the grind in order to succeed in college.

 "I think a lot of people don't understand the effort that has to go in every single day," said Sager. "It's a grind, but you really have to make that commitment to do it. It has to be your number one priority, and I think a lot of...high school players in general don't really realize it. It's committing to making yourself as good as you can be whether it be your body, your skill set, even the mental part of the game."

 A typical day for a college athlete looks much different than a typical day for a normal college student. Gwinn coach Ben Olsen played a year of college ball and gave an example of exactly what a player has to commit to.

 Tell me if this sounds like your idea of fun:

 "Six a.m. you're up lifting, working out, then you have classes somewhere between 8 o'clock and 2 o'clock. Then you try to eat together as a team, then you have practice or film and then you have practice after that. You're going from basically six in the morning until six, seven, eight at night. If you're not fully committed and don't truly love the game of basketball and being around it almost all the time, it really turns into a full-time job."

 I don't see any time carved out for afternoon naps or Netflix binge sessions, so there's no way I'd ever make it as a college basketball player.

Still want that lifestyle? Great. Keep reading.

 Notice a trend here? We haven't really mentioned any kind of basketball skills required, or what the perfect height is, or which summer camps you should go to. That's all secondary in the eyes of most college coaches. Jim Finkbeiner, the Gwinn boys coach, said scouts usually ask him about a player’s personality first and what kind of teammate he is.

 "They want to know what kind of person this player is," said Finkbeiner. "Is he easy to get along with? How does he interact with other players? Even bigger is what kind of student is he? If you want to succeed at the next level, it's going to take more than just your basketball skills to get there. These people are looking for good kids and that means in more than just on the basketball floor."

 Having a good personality is nice, being a good teammate is nice, but what happens when an opposing player dunks on you? Or what about when you turn the ball over five times in a half? Are you going to get mad? Are you going to make another dumb play?

 "They (college coaches) want to see how you handle tough situations," said Marquette boys coach Brad Nelson. "If you're gonna get down if something goes wrong, it's just going to compound the problem. That's something that college coaches at that level, they don't want to deal with having to fix that. They can take skill sets and work with that and make kids better and integrate them into the system, but if the kid doesn't have it mentally, it makes it pretty hard to do things at that level."

 So after all that, all the time spent in the summer, the 6 a.m. workouts, let's say you made the team. You have a decent spot as a role player. The hard part is over, right? Wrong, says Negaunee boys coach Dan Waterman. That's actually just the beginning. The next challenge is keeping your spot.

 "A college coach's job is to recruit your replacement," said Waterman. "So you can never be satisfied with how you're playing at the time, or what your role is on the team. College coaches are hired and fired on their win-loss they're always trying to bring in the best players and they're always trying to recruit someone better than you."

 There you have it, the blueprint to becoming a successful college basketball player. Still think you have what it takes?

Monday, January 8, 2018

Are basketball skills eroding among young players?

By Blake Froling

We hear the refrain from coaches all the time: “Back in my day…”

You’re going to hear it some more here.

I talked with local high school basketball coaches to see what skills they thought young players were lacking as they reached high school. What did they have to focus on the most in practice? Why is this happening? Most coaches didn’t hesitate in their answer. They've thought about this before and discussed it with their peers.

The overall sentiment I got from these coaches is that mastery of fundamental skills among kids entering high school is at a low point. The skills they focused on varied, as well as the reasons why those skills are lacking.

If you’re a young player looking to play for one of these coaches, you better take notes.

Marquette boys coach Brad Nelson thinks it starts with shooting, and most kids don’t put in the time required to become a lethal shooter.

“I think it has digressed over the years,” said Nelson, “and I think it’s a product of kids going into the gym and playing street ball and not taking the time to learn how to shoot properly. It’s something that takes thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of repetitions, not from the three-point line but starting at five feet, working on your form, doing that thousands of times, stepping back to ten feet, 15 feet.

“It’s a generation that wants instant gratification,” Nelson continued. “They want to see results the next day and shooting is not something that that happens. It takes years and years of experience.”

Other coaches, like Gwinn’s Jim Finkbeiner, saw ball-handling as the most glaring weakness of players today. Not an inability to cross players up like Kyrie Irving, but something as simple as being able to dribble with both hands.

“You get good at doing one particular thing,” Finkbeiner said, “whether right-handed layups or dribbling with your right hand and you want to go everything to your right. The game has changed over time...and you have to be able to use both sides of the floor and go both ways.”

Only being able to go one way makes it easy to scout against you and defend you, a refrain many of the coaches echoed. This isn’t only with middle school players. Some coaches even said they’ve seen a few varsity players have that same glaring weakness, on their own team and teams they’ve faced.

“A lot of kids can sit here and ‘two-ball’ and do things stationary,” said Negaunee girls coach Brandon Sager, “but live ball-handling with both hands is what I believe is the most lacking trait in the game today as they hit the high school level.”

If you’re a high school player reading this, they could be talking about you.

Negaunee boys coach Dan Waterman broke it down into three areas kids have to excel at in order to succeed and move on to the next level, and he used the top players from last year as prime examples.

“Last year’s senior class was really good with Dre [Tuominen] and Trent [Bell] and [Carson] Wonders and [Dawson] Bilski and [Jason] Whitens,” said Waterman. “I look at those five players specifically. They can all handle the ball with both hands...they’re all good passers and they’re all good shooters. Offensive fundamentals, overall, they’re lacking.”

One common theme among those five players, besides their mastery of offensive fundamentals? They’re all playing college basketball. Tuominen is at Bay College, Bell and Bilski are at Michigan Tech, Wonders is at Northern Michigan and Whitens is at Western Michigan. That’s no coincidence.

We can’t forget about defense. Defense wins championships, or so the saying goes. Ishpeming boys coach Anthony Katona sees scores on all levels of basketball rising, and it’s mostly due to a lack of defense, and not knowing what to do in game settings.

“Players could be a little bit more offensively advanced,” Katona said, “but I think knowing what to do in a one-on-one situation and a team situation on the defensive end is one of the things that we stress on teaching our kids and one of the things that we start from the get-go.”

Ishpeming girls coach Ryan Reichel went into more nuanced skills that might go overlooked, unless you’re at one of his practices.

“We see a lot of girls with the wrong pivot foot," said Reichel, "and a lot of girls that don't always line up the seams of the ball as the game gets faster on them as they move up the ranks. I think all basketball players, not just girls in general, need to do a better job of adapting to the speed, but also slowing down the skill set so they do it right, because that’s in the end going to make you a better basketball player.”

Think lining up the seams of a basketball is a trivial skill when shooting? Imagine throwing a ball without using the laces -- that’s what Reichel said it’s like when you don’t line up the seams, and why he emphasizes it to his players almost every day.  

Why are these fundamental skills eroding? Is it social media? Is it AAU ball? Is it just because of those darn Millennials? Ben Smith, Marquette girls coach, thinks kids just don’t play enough anymore.

“That trait is kind of a lost art almost,” said Smith, “where it used to be at Miners Park in Negaunee or Harlow Park in Marquette or the playground in Ishpeming, where people from different towns would get together and play all day and have fun and see who’s better that day, that game or that possession.”

The recipe to becoming a successful basketball player seems pretty simple according to these coaches: Spend thousands of hours working on your shooting form; line up the seams when you shoot; make sure you use the correct pivot foot; make crisp passes; learn how to dribble with both hands; play defense; and most importantly, go outside and play with your friends.