Sue Bird's Shot and Game Awareness (Notes from the Hard2Guard Newsletter)

This topic warrants far greater attention to me and I've decided for a few weeks now to hold it until the end of the season.

But on multiple occasions this post-season, the topic of what Seattle Storm Second Team All-WNBA Sue Bird does as a point guard has come up.

Right now, the quote that's sticking with me -- to the point where I really can't get it out of my head -- is this one from Storm coach Brian Agler's post-game comments after Game 1 yesterday about how Bird read the screen on the final play of the game:

"I think Sue really has a calm disposition and it helps in tight situations, you know, she's the one who has the ability to be in the fray and keep an open mind and take what's given to her. I think a lot of times people -- most people in these situations -- get one thing in their mind and they're going to do that no matter what happens instead of coming through, coming off the screen and making a read.

"It's not like you have a lot of time to make a read, but when you have the ability to play with an open mind like Sue does, usually you're going to make good decisions."

In case you missed it, here's Bird's account of her own shot:

Seattle Storm WNBA Finals Game 1: Sue Bird's Jumper Gives Seattle Win Over Atlanta, 79-77 - SB Nation Seattle
"They hadn't covered our pick and rolls for the majority of the second half," said Bird. "I had a feeling if I went off the pick and brought it back to the same side that I came from I would be able to get a good look. Like I said, I got virtually the same look 45, a minute earlier so I had an idea that I was going to get it."

I'm going to suggest that Bird's play represents the game awareness that player development expert Brian McCormick has discussed on his blog and in recent newsletters. I previously posted an excerpt from a newsletter about two weks ago on the matter and he made further commentary in last week's newsletter that I hadn't gotten around to posting.

Bird's moment seems to be an opportune time.

While people usually comment on a point guard's "court vision", perhaps game awareness is a distinct ability that is more heavily about one's general "feel for the game" (as Bird did) whereas "court vision" is more about anticipating the actions of others in a situation. They're obviously connected, but clearly different as I think becomes clear below.

From McCormick's Hard2Guard Newsletter, Vol. 4, Issue 33 (posted with permission from McCormick):

Pick & Roll and Game Awareness

After last week’s article about the pick-and-roll, I engaged in a week-long email conversation with SBNation’s QMcCall, spurred by an article that I wrote about Team USA at the FIBA World Championships ( The conversation started with a follow-up to the newsletter, asking if my example of Tameka Johnson’s misuse of the pick-and-roll was an example of a lack of game awareness.

Yes, the ability to use an on-ball screen and maximize its potential is game awareness. Typically, coaches, if they teach the pick-and-roll, emphasize the pass; it's the same reason that young players always pass in a 2v1 fast break even when the defender does not guard the ball. Coaches teach players to pass, not to read the defense and make the right decision (incidentally, I stopped multiple 2v1 fast breaks in pick-up games this week simply by expecting and stealing the pass without ever making a move to stop the dribbler; the habit from an early age lingers into adulthood for most).

Further, coaches rarely know which cues to emphasize or use with players. For instance, I wrote about the euro-step recently. Most young players do it incorrectly. They give away their move two steps before they make it, but because most defenders do not see the subtle differences (it's in the hips or the angle of the foot strike), the bad moves work against most players. We take the relative success of a move as a sign of a good move, when poor defensive awareness enables a suboptimal skill to be effective.

In the PnR, coaches assume that the defense will hedge or switch and want the pass even if it is not the right choice. If the defense switches so their point guard plays my post player, I don’t want to pass to the post player above the free throw line (the immediate pass); if i take one more dribble and allow the post to get to the block, it's an easier catch and finish for my post player. Players often lack game awareness, so the game speeds up, and they make rushed decisions; even when the decisions do not result in a turnover, they often negate an advantage or are suboptimal.

The whole key is how one thinks of the play. Most people run a PnR because they want to get a basket for the ball handler or the screener. However, I think more generally. The tactical goal is to disorganize the defense. Once disorganized, the offense must see the play and make the best decision. That is game awareness. The PnR might create a corner 3; it might create a high-low; it might create a basket for the roller or the ball handler. The key is that players and teams with high game awareness make the right play more times than not and get the best or most open shot, not just the first shot or the shot from the player who "is supposed to shoot" (i.e. the roller).

I played this week and received several on-ball screens. In a couple instances, I used the screen and the defense switched. I took an additional dribble, and the big guy backed off to recover to my big guy who set the screen. I took one or two dribbles into the middle and hit a couple floaters before my defender recovered. If I had picked up my dribble to make the immediate pass to the screener, I may have had an out-of rhythm three-pointer when the defender left or I may have forced a pass into the screener out of habit and hope. Instead, I hit two relatively easy and open shots.

As a follow-up to the Team USA article, QMcCall asked about Derrick Rose since some have suggested that he is an ideal FIBA point guard because of his strength though he lacks the prototypical (stereotypical) FIBA skills (three-point shooting). I do not see Rose as a "FIBA" player if such a thing exists. To me, he is the epitome of the "NBA" player from the article who depends on out-athleting opponents rather than using different tactical strategies or skills.

QMcCall linked Rose’s college preparation into the question about his game awareness and FIBAness. I think the Dribble-Drive-Motion offense (the primary offense employed by John Calipari) has devolved into basketball for dummies. My Blitz Basketball( concept is similar, but I developed Blitz to simplify the game for 9-11 year olds and to create a framework for young players to learn to make decisions and work on their technical skills (passing, dribbling, shooting, finishing) without the burden of running an offense too.

I think it's amazing that the DDM is a fancy way of saying "clear out," and every coach that "cleared out" when I played was dismissed as "letting his best player do everything" where today there are entire sites devoted to the DDM and its clever vocabulary. The DDM is not bad, in and of itself, but it certainly can be when taught and executed poorly.

I think the DDM is horrible to watch at times because teams are stagnant and often poorly skilled - the DDM is an offense that depends on a high skill level and game awareness, but has been usurped by those who simply think it is primarily for athletic players. (see

In theory, and occasionally in practice, the DDM creates a perfect environment for players to develop game awareness as well as their technical skills. Unfortunately, more often, the DDM devolves into allowing one’s best athlete to out-athlete the opposition. From a competitive standpoint, this is not a bad approach; however, from a developmental standpoint, it is far from the best approach. At Kentucky, where Calipari is paid to win games, not develop game awareness, relying on Rose, Tyreke Evans or John Wall to out-athlete opponents is a good strategy. However, when every youth team relies on the same strategy, there is an absence of tactical development.

I think Rose and Evans were under-taught because they epitomize players who "out-athlete" opponents at every level, including the NBA. When forced to run pick-and-rolls, set up teammates and think the game, they have a limited capacity and fall back on their speed and/or power, which doesn't always work (to be clear, I think both are excellent players; I’m just not sure either possesses great game awareness, though they posses great feel - a subtle distinction, I know - as they know what shot to use and when and have good touch on their finishes around the basket).

I've written several times about popular writers (Chris Mannix) who write that NBA players are working on their point-guard skills because they are doing ball handling drills all summer. Nearly every NBA player handles the ball competently enough to be a guard. Being a point guard has almost nothing to do with handles. If these wannabe point guards wanted to improve their point-guard skills, they would watch video all summer, like NFL quarterbacks.

When one learns to drive, he must learn the proper techniques - how hard to hit the gas or brakes, where to look when changing lanes, how to manipulate the steering wheel, etc. After a small amount of time, however, these techniques are second nature. Once one learns the basics, being a good driver depends on one’s awareness of other drivers, situations, possible dangers and more.

For instance, I noticed a strange Escalade pull into my driveway about a half-block ahead of me. As I drive toward my building’s parking lot, there is a blind spot at the end of the next building. As I approached this blind spot, I did not see the Escalade parked ahead of me, so I slowed. The Escalade sped into the driveway before seeing me and slammed on his brakes. If I had not slowed, he would have plowed into me. In this example, slowing down had nothing to do with my technical driving skills; it was awareness.

Ball handling certainly has an effect on one’s awareness. The better that one dribbles the basketball, the less attention he must devote to the ball. Similarly, the difference between an experienced driver and a beginner is that the beginner has to concentrate on the activity of driving (which is the brake pedal and which is the gas?). This slows a beginner’s reaction time.

Few NBA guards struggle because of their ball handling ability. Instead, they need to train their awareness. Training your awareness is far more vague and elusive than developing a slightly better handle through numerous drills, so most focus on ball handling drills and hope for the carryover. However, did I notice the Escalade by spending more time practicing how to push the brake pedal? I noticed the Escalade because my experience as a driver has enhanced my awareness behind the wheel (and, maybe I have seen too many movies where something happens when a strange car approaches a building so I paid additional attention).

To develop this awareness on the court, players need to play and engage in different situations. To supplement this learning, one can study game film as a means of enhancing his learning. NFL quarterbacks study hours of film so that they react quicker to game situations when they see an opponent move to a certain formation. If Payton Manning sees that a cornerback plays the outside of his receiver when he has a safety over the top, and he knows that the linebacker is slow to drop off to take away the slant, as soon as he sees the opponent rotate into this formation, he anticipates his receiver being open on the slant. His anticipation creates a quicker release, which makes the linebacker appear even slower to drop off into coverage.

In the case of Rose and Johnson, they handle the ball well enough to possess good game awareness. If they make a mistake or miss an open player, it is not a lack of dribbling ability. In Johnson’s case, she appeared to fall into the habit of the immediate pass, which is common. Rose’s struggles (if they occur) tend to come from his development as a player who can out-quick and over-power opponents; as he complements his physical gifts with greater game awareness, he will become an even more impressive player.

QMcCall introduced me to Rand Spiro’s cognitive flexibility theory, which is "the ability to restructure knowledge in multiple ways depending on the changing situational demands (i.e. difficulty or complexity of the situation)." Game awareness or basketball I.Q. essentially is applied CFT.

To develop CFT, practice situations must challenge players in different ways and in different situations. Ball handling drills or 2v0 PnR drills do not develop game awareness because the lessons do not necessarily transfer between situations. Instead, players actually have to run on-ball screens against multiple defenders who defend in multiple ways to quicken the in-game decision-making process. Players need random, variable practice to take the basics (dribbling ability) and create game-ready skills for a variety of situations and plays.

Driving in circles around a track without any other cars will help a driver learn to handle and maneuver the car more effectively, but this does not necessarily lead to greater awareness in traffic or in an open environment with other drivers, children crossing the street, rain on the ground and more. The same applies to game awareness.

There's a lot there and as people talk more about Bird's shot and her selection to the All-WNBA Second Team, it's interesting food for thought.

The previous "game awareness" post: Game Awareness: A Look At The Phoenix Mercury's On-Ball Screen

For more on a point guard's role on the team and thoughts from the Seattle Storm about whether Bird should have been First or Second Team, visit SBN Seattle.