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The Process of Learning Brian Agler's Defensive Schemes and "Pavlovian Basketball"

It is no secret to incoming players that Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler's defensive schemes can be among the most difficult things for newcomers to adjust to.

"The pace of the game and the defense," said Storm rookie guard Alison Lacey. "I came from Iowa State that is very zone oriented, very contained and here it's kinda pressure at half court which I've never done in four years."

With all the other action occurring at any given moment of a basketball game, it's not uncommon to gloss over the difficulty of learning the intricacies of a professional defense. We cannot quantify it and it's not merely about a player's skillset coming in.

"The hardest thing to me is just how physical the game is," said Agler last Tuesday. "Just how good some of these players are in one on one situations. And then just picking up our system of some of our rotations -- they're different. I'm not saying they're better than what they've done, but they're different. So that's the difficult part."

In addition to adjusting to the differences and digesting all the new information, anybody who has coached or played basketball can tell you that the final challenge is getting to a point where a player no longer has to "think" about processing all of the information while trying to respond to a given situation. In psychological terms, to maximize the defensive effectiveness of a player, a coach needs all of that information to become "tacit" or to a point where they can process all of it without it consuming their cognitive load. The process of accomplishing that is what the late Dick DeVenzio described as "Pavlovian Basketball" in a book excerpt post on on Wednesday.
Basketball is a thinking game but, as a coach, one of your major responsibilities is to take as many situations as possible out of thought processes and turn them into quick reactions requiring no thought at all.


Those words are key: immediately and every time. I think it makes sense for you to make a list of things that your players recognize as requiring instant reactions. This is what I call Pavlovian Basketball, because these things are as automatic as Dr. Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell.

Yes, the psychology scholars among us might recognize this as "behaviorism". However, the basketball application of Pavlov's dogs is a bit more than that.

Since the cognitive revolution, behaviorism has been demonized by some, especially in the field of education. Yet it hasn't entirely disappeared -- it's still quite significant in the area special education and Direct Instruction programs. To the surprise of many, it is even quite present in the most progressive early childhood programs that leverage the insights of behaviorism to accomplish their goals. However, it's also something that any good teacher uses on a daily basis: routines. Once a student gets to a place where they know what to expect, they spend much less time trying to figure out what to do in the moment, and thus they can put more effort into responding to the task in front of them.

As noted by DeVenzio in his book, part of getting to that point of immediate reactions is by establishing routines - scaffolding behavior with a structure that frees players respond immediately every time such that they are better able to not only respond to situations as a unit, but also anticipate each other's actions. But meshing into a cohesive unit is not easy -- the question for both coaches and players is how to navigate that process of getting to immediate reactions.

"I think it depends on the individual," said Agler when asked how long it takes for the defensive rotations to become second nature. "Some people pick it up right away, for some it takes years for habit."

As exemplified by the Storm's newcomers this season, the reason for individual differences in players' ability to adjust to Agler's defense is not just a matter of intelligence or innate ability, but also a matter of previous experiences, positional demands, and -- for players like forward Ashley Walker -- learning a new position.

For players like Lacey, the defensive concern that people bring up most often is her athleticism and it's a concern that she's aware of but not worried about.

"Coming out of college, that's the one thing I've heard that I'm not athletic enough," said Lacey on Storm Media Day. "But that's something I'll work on and I'm not going to apologize for it -- I'm going to embrace what I do well and if I'm the slowest person out there then that's what I am."

Swish Appeal's Freelantz had an opportunity to interview both Iowa State coaches and they redirected the conversation to her basketball ability.

"The more you watch her play and the more you understand her understanding of the game you'll appreciate her ability more," said ISU head coach Bill Fennelly. "Those are things I talked about with Brian -- she's not going to win a 40-yard dash against some people. But athleticism- that's part of it, but you still gotta be a great basketball player. And I told him, I said you draft her, you're drafting a great basketball player. You're not drafting someone who could be on the track team."

As Fennelly alluded to, Lacey's defensive ability comes not from standout athleticism, but her basketball IQ and the ability to use angles to play strong position defense. Her mastery of some of the fundamental defensive principles helps her overcome what might be perceived a lack of athleticism.

"That's the joke of Iowa State's team that we don't have athleticism," said ISU assistant coach Jodi Steyer. "But she does have a quickness that's not easily seen. Like it's not something that you look at her and you think she's fast or she's quick...but when she's out there, she [made] the play of the game to get us to the Sweet Sixteen: sliding her feet and cutting somebody off. You don't understand how quick she can be, it's a little bit deceiving. She anticipates very well -- anybody that doesn't have that extra bounce or that extra speed, if you can anticipate that's half the battle and I think that's what she did for us here. She sees the play a step ahead and so maybe she's not the fastest and can't jump the highest, but if she's in the right spot she's going to get the play made.

However, the biggest challenge for the player Fennelly considers the most WNBA-ready he's ever coached is likely Agler's attention to detail. Fennelly has traditionally favored zone defense principles emphasizing a switching man defense, according to Steyer. While both Fennelly and Steyer spoke highly of Lacey's defensive ability, she will have to adjust to a coach that demands things that the ISU staff might have been more relaxed about.

"We don't spend a ton of time breaking down things -- it's just like we find a way to get it done and you get it done," said Steyer. "[Assistant coach Jack Easley] told Alison when she was going out there he's very much a defensive stickler -- it's jump to the ball. It's maybe all the things that we talk about but don't drill all the time and it's very much like that out there. I would hope she knows -- we've talked about getting in a stance and things like that, but it's not something we've harped on, harped on and just drove it into them because we're just moving at a quicker level and talking a little bit more about switching defenses."

Easley's advice that Agler is a "defensive stickler" was reflected in the words of the players on Storm Media Day. And apparently, the transition from college is not the only difficult one. Players like power forward Devanei Hampton and forward Laura Kurz -- both a year removed from college after valuable experiences overseas -- are experiencing a similar adjustment. Again the issue is intensity and timing.

"Training camp is a lot of teaching and Brian emphasizes defense," said free agent power forward Devanei Hampton. "Coming from overseas it was moreso the help defense and how he wants you to position and just being tough. Like I've always been tough, but he just wants you to get up in them and no breathing room. And I want to say the thing that I had trouble with was the rotations -- I had to get the rotations down and get it quick. And that's one thing that's stuck out to me -- right now my hard hedging and timing."

There's a whole other layer of complexity for players like forward Ashley Walker, who is not only still adjusting to Agler's system after playing only 13 games in her first season, but is also still transitioning from the interior to the wing.

"Offensive is ok because I pose a lot of mismatches for people, but defensively, post players don't chase off screens -- like we don't curl and shoot the gap," said Walker when asked about the most difficult adjustment from post to wing. "No, we play post defense: get a body and be a little bit more rough...But I think that was the hardest part for me: being able to transition from being able to bang and push and shove to using my feet and my hands and my quickness to get people guarded."

Learning how to play a new position on top of the intense demands of Agler's defense, has to make Walker's ongoing transition difficult, even though she has been learning it for a year and has overseas experience.

However, despite all the potential difficulties for various players, the purpose of Agler's demands is not lost on Kurz: the intense demands and attention to details are primarily about building the team into a unit that can not only has strong individual reactions to situations, but also the ability to adapt when individual breakdowns occur.

"One thing I really like about this defense is he stresses you want to keep your man in front of you, but if you do get beat, your teammates gotta have your back," said Kurz. "So you all have to be on the same page, communicating the entire time. And overseas it's not nearly -- at least the league I was playing in -- it wasn't nearly as intense. And here he wants you all up in your offensive player's grill all the time, don't let 'em breathe. So it's really just buckling down and focusing on defense."

The intricacies of Agler's defensive philosophy at this level of nuance is not necessarily something that fans take note of when considering a player's chances to make the team. However, getting that timing down to a point where a player can respond immediately and every time figures to be a factor in decision making as cuts loom.

"I think first couple days they were taken aback," said Little of the new players in camp. "They have to get used to how aggressive he is, how blunt he is. So I think once they kinda get comfortable with him and once they just play, I think that it will be good for everybody...So I just try to keep making sure they calm down and just play, ya know?"