While the majority of recent high school graduates may tell you a slightly different story, the point of going to college isn’t to perfect your beer poing stroke or to break away from the rules of oppressive parents that believe a 1 a.m. curfew for a teenager is fair.
You go to school to learn, to get an education. When you eventually make it to the world of paychecks, taxes and 9-to-5 jobs, your employer can develop the skills that you learned while in the classroom. They can teach a day-trader when to buy and sell a stock, or help an elementary school teacher learn how to better connect with kids, or help a journalist become a more compelling writer.
College is there to teach you a skill. You develop and grow and perfect that skill once you’re beyond the college ranks.
The way that Eric Musselman tells it, the same thing goes for college basketball players.
“The biggest difference at the college level is that you’re dealing with much more simplistic fundamentals, teaching guys to jump stop and body balance,” he told NBCSports.com in a phone interview. “Some guys that are left-handed struggle to deal with right-handed lay-ups, so you’re dealing with a bunch of stuff like that.”
Musselman would know. After finishing up his collegiate career with San Diego, Musselman went directly into coaching. He was a head coach in the CBA by the time that he was 23. At 38, he became the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, where he was named runner-up for NBA Coach of the Year in 2003 to Gregg Popovich. He was also the head coach of the Sacramento Kings at one point, and was the Coach of the Year in the D-League in 2011-2012, a year before becoming an assistant coach at Arizona State.
He’s been coaching professional basketball since 1988. I think it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about it, which is why you can take him at his word when he tells you that teaching the fundamentals of the game takes priority in college.
“I think one of the big phrases in college is that you can’t take for granted what a player knows,” Musselman said. “In the NBA, most of those guys have heard the terminology and understand the basics, and a lot of it is because they’ve played college ball, too.”
“The big thing with the player development stuff is that you’ve got to educate, you’ve got to teach, you’ve got to break it down more. And it’s a constant theme.”
This goes well beyond simplistic fundamentals. At the high school and AAU level, the best prospects in the country don’t necessarily need to have high basketball IQs. If you’re a point guard and you’re quicker than anyone that is going to be guarding you, do you really need to know how to read the way a defense is playing the pick-and-roll? If you’re a 6-foot-10 center with a 36 inch vertical, do you really need to understand defensive rotations to block the shot of someone four inches shorter?
And while that is a partial indictment of the level of coaching in our grassroots basketball culture, it’s also an understandable side effect of being better than your competition. When you already are the best, can you really have an understanding of what you need to do to get better?
The perfect example is Jahii Carson, who averaged 18.0 points and 5.1 assists as a redshirt freshman for the Sun Devils last season. Carson is a phenomenal athlete with an explosive first step and an innate ability to get into the lane, but he relies a bit too heavily on his right hand and has struggled with his perimeter jumper. In high school, he never needed a left hand or a jump shot. In the NBA, he will, so in addition to working on going left, the ASU coaching staff laid down an NBA three-point line in their practice gym.
But that’s not the only way that Musselman has worked with Carson, however.
“With Jahii, what we do is give him a lot of tape,” Musselman said. “Like last year, Bo McCalebb was playing in Europe and I had coached against him for the national team when I was with Venezuela, he was playing with Macedonia. So what I did was I broke down 20 or 30 clips of Bo McCalebb and how he gets people shots, and how he gets his own shot, where he’s getting his floater from. And then we’ve taken it a step further. I called Weber State and got from them the exact tape that they had given Damien Lillard so you can sit down with Jahii and say here’s a tape that while Damien was in college, that he watched, and it had a variety of NBA players.”
They’re not only watching tape with Carson, they’re teaching him what to look for when he’s doing it. They’re teaching him how to get something out of watching what more-or-less amounts to a highlight reel. How he uses his body to create room for a floater in the paint; his footwork splitting a double-team; patience working in the pick-and-roll.
NBA veterans understand a lot of this.
College freshmen don’t.
So while Musselman is emphatic that the best skill that he can teach any young player is a work ethic — “Players that aren’t in the NBA have no idea what great work ethic is and how hard guys work on their own, and how they work on their craft and their game when they’re not in practice,” he said — his most important job isn’t getting them to work harder.
It’s showing them what they have to work on and teaching them how the pros do it.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.