Defining basketball IQ difficult

Patric Young was a McDonald’s All-American who entered college as the 15th-ranked player in the Class of 2010.

His game, analysts wrote, resembled that of NBA all-star Dwight Howard, and they wondered if the 6-foot-9, 245-pounder would last more than a few years at Florida.

A month into his freshman season, though, Young felt lucky just to get off the bench.

“Patric,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said at the time, “is a little behind on his basketball IQ.”

Yahoo! Sports national college basketball writer Jason King picks the best and brightest in the game.

Dogus Balbay, Texas: The point guard sees plays before they happen.

Jimmer Fredette, BYU: The high-scoring guard also averages 4.2 assists.

Markieff Morris, Kansas: Bill Self said he and his brother, Marcus, have a natural “feel” for the game.

Kyle Singler, Duke: The fundamentally sound small forward makes everyone around him better.

Jared Sullinger, Ohio State The 6-foot-9, 280-pound coach’s son has won at every level.

Being out of place on offense … not calling out a screen on the opposite end of the floor … bouncing the ball to a teammate on a play that called for a forceful pass to the chest.

Athletic and intimidating as he may have been, Young discovered quickly that basketball isn’t all about throwing down dunks and blocking shots. The players who excel the most, Young has learned, are the ones who are as strong mentally as they are physically.

They’re the ones with high basketball IQs.

More and more these days, the term “basketball IQ” is used to describe a player’s understanding of the game, which can go a long way toward determining his effectiveness on the court.

Can he visualize plays before they develop? Does he recognize a mismatch? How well does he follow instructions out of a timeout?

“Having a high basketball IQ is like having the answers to a test,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I honestly think it’s a feel thing. For the kids with the most basketball smarts – the kids with the best feel for the game – most of the stuff just comes naturally.”

God-given gifts aside, there are other theories as to why one player’s on-court intellect may be superior to that of a teammate or counterpart.

Some say coach’s sons and athletes who learn the game overseas are more likely to have a high basketball IQ than their peers. Another belief is that the structure of the AAU summer basketball circuit is more damaging to a prospect than beneficial.

And, of course, there’s the longstanding complaint that television’s glorification of the slam dunk and the crossover dribble is causing young players to spend less time studying zone defenses and proper footwork in the post so they can practice the kind of highlight reel moves that may someday get them on SportsCenter.

“ESPN never shows a guy stepping in and taking a charge,” Donovan said. “They never show a player getting into perfect position to grab a rebound and secure a win.

“Instead the Top 10 plays are of someone getting dunked on or a guy making some crazy, no-look pass. As a result, kids aren’t learning about the things that really go into winning.”

A few years ago, after Donovan went over some defensive schemes during one of Florida’s first practices of the season, he was approached on the sideline by a freshman.

“Coach, I don’t understand this stuff,” the player said. “I feel like I’m in calculus class.”

With his team leading Purdue by double digits in last week’s 87-64 victory, Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft caught an outlet pass from a teammate with just more than 2 minutes remaining.

Instead of running the ball up the court, Craft walked.

“Without me telling him, Aaron knew we needed to chew 30 seconds off that clock,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said a few days later. “That showed good basketball IQ.”

As much as any team in the country, Ohio State is loaded with unselfish players who take pride in playing basketball the right way. The Buckeyes don’t force shots, they make the extra pass and defensive lapses are rare.

Matta deserves a large chunk of the credit for Ohio State’s 22-0 record and No. 1 national ranking. Some of the players and their parents, though, heap an equal amount of praise Quentin Rogers, the coach of the All Ohio AAU squad that counts Buckeyes such as Craft, Jared Sullinger and Jon Diebler among its alumni.

Aaron Craft is one of several Ohio State players who played AAU ball for coach Quentin Rogers.
(Greg Bartram/US Presswire)

Rogers takes pride in the way he runs his program. Although playing 50-plus games each summer makes it tough to hold practices, Rogers said plenty of instruction occurs during actual competition. Players, he said, aren’t just getting better physically. They’re improving mentally, too.

“I realize there are some teams that just go out there and run around like they don’t know what they’re doing,” Rogers said. “But there are good guys – basketball guys – coaching most of these teams. They could’ve been high school coaches or college coaches but they enjoy working with kids at this level.

“For some reason, though, people keep trying to portray AAU in a negative light.”

Rogers said AAU’s most attractive quality is that it’s a national organization that enables athletes to compete against the best players in the country. Such an opportunity enhances a prospect’s competitive nature, increases his passion to improve and, eventually, leads to an elevation of his basketball IQ.

“AAU hasn’t hurt college basketball – it’s helped it,” Rogers said. “In the NCAA you’ve got Butler getting to the Final Four and a bunch of other mid-majors beating up on teams. The parity is there because the players are better now. They’ve competed against top-notch talent for three or four years on the AAU circuit.

“The competitiveness and skills they develop are carrying over into college.”

Because of programs such as All Ohio, the once-seedy image of AAU is slowly being repaired. Still, there are some who remain convinced that the traveling summer basketball circuit devalues the importance of teamwork which, in turn, makes it tougher for a prospect to develop a strong basketball IQ.

“With AAU, it’s all about the games,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “If you lose a game, you turn around and play another one an hour later. You win, you play another one. It’s not about winning and getting better. It’s about traveling and playing games.

“That’s what’s most disappointing. I’d like to see kids learning how to win and making winning a priority, because that will change the way they play for the better.”

Donnie Campbell, the head coach at Blue Valley West High School in Overland Park, Kan., has coached players who have gone on to compete at Division I schools such as Kansas, Texas Tech and Nebraska. Years ago Campbell made local headlines when he insisted his star pupil, forward Matt Freije, refrain from playing AAU ball the summer before his senior year.

Instead, Freije put himself through individual workouts at his high school’s gym with Campbell often there to assist. Freije eventually became a star at Vanderbilt. After coaching him through his first few practices as a freshman, Commodores coach Kevin Stallings placed a call to Campbell.

“You did a great job of getting this kid ready for college,” Stallings told Campbell. “He truly understands how to play.”

Campbell wonders whether Freije – who played in the NBA and is now competing overseas – would’ve fared as well had he competed on the AAU circuit.

“I realize there are exceptions,” Campbell said, “but [AAU] isn’t about team basketball. It’s about running up and down the floor and trying to get a scholarship. No one is teaching them anything.

“It can be a bad situation for some kids, especially a big man. Those guards aren’t going to throw him the ball. They think they need to score so they’ll get seen. If you’re a big guy the only way you’re going to score is to go to the offensive glass or outrun someone down the floor.”

Campbell said he doesn’t restrict his players from joining AAU programs, but he always offers one piece of advice.

“I say, ‘You’re going to get seen by playing AAU basketball, but you’re not going to get better,’” Campbell said. “The way to improve is to get in the weight room and get better as an athlete. Get in the gym and shoot 400 shots in an hour and then work on your ballhandling.

“With the way it is now, a lot of colleges are getting kids that don’t really care about competing.”

The day he was tabbed as Jud Heathcote’s successor at Michigan State, Tom Izzo received a tip from the Spartans’ legendary coach.

“Find as many coaches’ sons as you can,” Heathcote told Izzo, “and recruit all of them.”

Jared Sullinger had the benefit of growing up the son of a coach.
(Kim Klement/US Presswire)

As much as they like five-star prospects and future NBA lottery picks, college coaches love to sign players whose fathers worked the sidelines, as well. They’re usually more attentive and respectful, they don’t groan as much when workouts extend beyond schedule and, when it comes to implementing new plays and schemes, they rarely have to be told something twice.

In other words, before they ever put on a college uniform, their basketball IQ is high.

“For their whole lives, coach’s sons have sat around the dinner table each night and heard or talked about basketball,” Matta said. “That certainly can’t hurt.”

Freshman Jared Sullinger, who plays for Matta at Ohio State, is arguably the most prominent coach’s son in college basketball this year.

A future NBA lottery pick, Sullinger won a state championship playing for his father, Satch, at Northland High School in Columbus. Long before that, though, he was working on footwork drills with his father as a 2-year-old. A year later Sullinger was shooting regulation-length free throws with a men’s ball.

Eventually Sullinger began watching instructional videos featuring coaches such as Pete Newell and, by the time he reached elementary school, he was a regular at his father’s games. He remembers watching from the stands as his dad barked orders at his players and then asking Satch to explain everything on the car ride home.

“As he got older,” Satch said, “he got to a point where he could visualize things. He could see the play unfolding and had the ability to think one pass ahead. The moment that happens with a player, you know they truly understand the game. You know they’ve developed that basketball IQ.”

The greatest lessons Sullinger learned from Satch, though, had nothing to do with skill development. It was about being a good teammate and being unselfish.

“Goals are self serving,” Satch said. “If you want to have a goals, play golf or tennis or run the 100-yard dash, where it’s all about you.

“But if you want to be successful in a team sport, then you have to become purposeful, which means ‘What can I do to make this team better? What can I do to become a better teammate?’ When you think like that, guess what happens? You become a better player, too.”

Other notable college players whose fathers were coaches include former Duke star Bobby Hurley, whose father, Bob Sr., is the coach at St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City, N.J., and Mario Chalmers, the hero of Kansas’ 2008 national championship victory over Memphis. Chalmers played for his father, Ronnie, in Anchorage, Alaska.

Coaches’ sons playing prominent roles for their college teams this year include Jeremiah Rivers at Indiana, Mickey McConnell at St. Mary’s, Tyrel Reed at Kansas and Jon Diebler at Ohio State.

Coaches’ sons aren’t the only group of players who often enter college with a basketball IQ higher than that of their teammates.

More and more these days, Division I head coaches are looking overseas for prospects – some of whom spend nearly twice the amount of time as Americans honing their skills and learning the game.

St. Mary’s advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last season and is currently on the verge of ending Gonzaga’s 10-year run as West Coast Conference champions. Before they arrived in the United States, three of the Gaels’ top five scorers spent years developing their game at the Australian Institute of Sport.

“At [AIS], when you’re not in class, you’re usually training,” St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “They train two times a day for basically 11 months a year.

“By the time we get them they’re so advanced compared to other players their age. It’s like getting a juco transfer, only we get them for four years instead of two.”

Former Utah standout Andrew Bogut trained at the Australian Institute of Sport along with ex-Vanderbilt standout A.J. Ogilvy and former Baylor star Aaron Bruce.

Patrick Mills, another AIS alum, thrust St. Mary’s into the national spotlight two years ago before entering the NBA draft, where he was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers. Current Gaels star Matthew Dellavedova hopes to follow in his footsteps.

“Before they ever got here, Mills and Dellavedova had played against men – I’m talking about grown men, pros – in international competition,” Bennett said. “They’ve trained under well-respected coaches and have been exposed to things that most freshmen in college haven’t been.

“They’ve been taught to play the game the right way. Without question, that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to be successful here.”

During the Adidas Super 64 Tournament in Las Vegas last summer, as a prospect walked off the court following a loss in a tournament game, a videographer from a recruiting site asked if he could shoot some footage of him dunking.

Within minutes, the player was throwing down windmills and tomahawks on an empty court as the man filmed from the baseline.

“Why don’t you ask him to take some jump shots,” a college coach yelled from the stands. “I’ve been here two days and haven’t seen him hit one yet.”

Embarrassing as the moment was for the player, it may have also taught him a lesson.

As standout recruits continue to become infatuated with the dunks and lucky baskets they see NBA stars score off of ill-advised shots, the more coaches fear their basketball IQ will be lacking once they reach college.

The situation is especially frustrating when players don’t have anyone there to guide them at a young age.

For every good high school or AAU coach such as Campbell or Rogers there are others who are unqualified or who don’t have the players’ best interest at heart. For every caring parent such as Satch Sullinger or Ronnie Chalmers there are enablers and handlers who convince vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds that gaudy point totals and acrobatic spin moves have more value than crisp passes and solid defense.

“It can be aggravating,” Donovan said. “I’ve seen perimeter guys on really, really bad high school teams who think that taking a bad shot with three guys hanging on them is better than passing it to a teammate. No one complains. No one corrects them, so they keep doing it.

“Then they get to college and they don’t know what a good shot is. They don’t know what a bad shot is. They have no clue how to play, yet they’ve got all these other guys around them who do. It’s an adjustment period. The good news is that kids can always get better, they can always learn.”

And Young, the McDonald’s All-American who struggled early this season, is doing just that at Florida. Donovan said he’s becoming more and more comfortable with Young on the court, as evidenced by the 17.1 minutes he contributes each game.

“In high school, Patric could use his size, his strength and how hard he played and get away with it,” Donovan said. “Now he’s playing against guys that are just as strong, just as tough and just as physical.

“All of a sudden, teams are running misdirection plays and he’s not alert. He gets back-screened and his man catches the ball underneath the basket and lays it in. He’s never had to deal with things like that. He’s getting exposed to things he’s never been exposed to. He’s getting better on the go.”

Back at Kansas, Self is still convinced that having a high basketball IQ is something that comes naturally. Sure, being a coach’s son may help and, yes, players can learn a lot from a good high school coach or in a strong AAU program.

In the end, some players have an innate feel for the game that others never will. Self said he thinks it’s amusing that players who are a bit undersized and not as highly recruited are the ones who usually get labeled as having a high basketball IQ.

“Michael Jordan is one of the smartest players that ever lived,” Self said. “He had such a great feel for the game, but no one ever complimented his basketball IQ. They just talked about his athleticism.

“I coached Deron Williams at Illinois. He was as good as any player I’ve ever had at making everyone around him better. But no one ever talked about how smart he was.”

In other words, Self said, there is no single description of players who have good basketball IQs.

Self said former Jayhawks star Brandon Rush had as good of a feel for the game as any athlete he’s ever had at Kansas. Yet Rush was a basketball vagabond in high school who said he’d “never been coached” before he arrived in Lawrence. Asked before his first college game what he hoped to contribute to Kansas’ program, Rush smiled and said, “Highlights.”

“That’s my point,” Self said. “We’ve had guys come from unbelievable programs who I thought took too long to figure stuff out. Then we’ve had guys like Brandon who went to four high schools in four years that pick stuff up more quickly than anyone. I never had to tell him anything twice. It’s a natural thing. Some guys have it.

“Others don’t.”

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Feb 3, 2011