Everyone has their preferences for which brand of basketball is considered to be more entertaining but basketball coaches can learn from both. In this blog post, let’s break down some of the schematic, skill, and coaching style differences between levels of play to illuminate how watching both can improve your coaching abilities.

Schematic Differences

Casual polling of the audience, could collegiate athletes transfer into another program mid-season and successfully play right away just as NBA athletes are asked to do after being traded?

My response would be, “I doubt it,” but don’t take my word for it. Charlotte Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford is basically telling you why it is easier for NBA players to change franchises mid-season because every team virtually runs the same offenses.

Sprinkle in a couple Horns actions and basically, you’ve put together a typical NBA playbook. Does this insinuate NBA head coaches aren’t creative, or is it more an indication of too much scheme can hinder skill from flourishing? It is likely the latter because the ability to manufacture ATO or late-game point production seems almost scientific – which are my favorite X’s & O’s to steal and talked more in-depth at the end.

Pro-style offenses often rely on a more free-flowing offensive scheme, with players given more freedom to create their own shots and make plays. A big part of enabling freedom of play comes from hunting matchups. In contrast, college basketball tends to feature more structured offenses with set plays, or even executing continuity systems.

The NCAA Tournament is a fascinating time to study the game because of all the schematic differences peppered from program to program. Yes, late shot-clock expect a high ballscreen to occur. And yes, many teams are shooting the 3-point ball with more frequency but it’s the variance of actions that leads to those shot selections that show a drastic difference between the professional style of play to college game. Some consider it inefficient while others recognize the intentionality behind it. The difference in style can have a significant impact on coaching strategies.

All of those concepts, and we haven’t even touched on the defensive side of the floor. With NBA staffs struggling to come up with stops, we’re starting to see a resurgence in zone defenses. Meanwhile, the college game still debates the packline vs sideline/baseline philosophy. Ballscreen defense is likely priority number one for every staff at either level:

Coaches looking to integrate actions can piecemeal the best of both levels. Watching NBA games can gain insights into how to develop players’ individual skills and how to create an offensive system that empowers players to make plays. In contrast, coaches watching college basketball can learn how to implement and execute specific plays and how to work with players to fit them into specific roles within a team.

Skill Differences

The key word in the quote from this year’s NBA Clutch Player Of The Year is obviously.

Don’t forget, NBA players are among the best in the world. College players are still figuring it out. Comprehension and awareness (self or game-) are key to effective shooting percentages. Learning curves are relative to the competitive gap shrinking at each level, and understanding when/what/where the best shot selection comes from maturity within an offensive system; takes time. This is why shot-making tends to be less proficient for freshmen in college compared to seniors, as are rookies chasing veterans in the pros.

Outside of shot-making, the biggest separation of skill set between pro to college:

  • On-ball defense
  • Finishing at the rim
  • Ambidextrous passing accuracy
  • Ball-handling

All of the above fall under the category of angles to me. The best on-ball defenders are the best at limiting advantageous angles versus matchups. Finishing at the rim is an ability to manipulate a contesting defender by adjusting tempo or release point to convert a field-goal attempt. Ambidextrous passing is largely dependent upon strength and repetition, but then, it’s all about finding the angles to complete the pass and the ability to do so with either hand is elite. Finally, and maybe the biggest separation in my opinion is the dynamic playmaking that exists nearly at every position across the NBA. Think about it, Embiid was primarily back to the basket with Kansas. Giannis doesn’t even exist at the college level or a Jokic. Steph Curry, well that dude is just different but obviously not the player he is with Golden State compared to still putting on a show while at Davidson.

It’s about optimization at every level. Watching college, it is interesting to see how these “unicorns” such as Chet Holmgren or Zion Williamson are utilized, knowing that there is likely a much higher responsibility request in the NBA. The role definition at the NBA level is enviable for coaches at the lower levels. There is a responsibility to develop younger athletes to the best of their ability, then an expectation to put the pieces together that position the team with the best opportunity to succeed. Those two priorities can collide when trying to convince high-school or college players their most impactful role at that moment comes with limited playing time or fewer shot attempts.

Coaching Style Differences

De’Aaron Fox also referenced the coaching acumen not being equal to the professional level.

There is likely more to the statement than generally labeling college coaches as bad, but I don’t think the comparison isn’t completely apples to apples. Coaching collegiately and coaching professionally are two different levels of education; it’s analogous to suggesting an elementary teacher is less competent than one at the high school level. So when observing different coaching styles, consider the aforementioned differences in skill and level of play.

College coaches can appear more active or involved on the sidelines than NBA coaches, which I struggle to really say with conviction because NBA coaches are not spectators by any means. These conversations do occur, but seemingly in a different tone. It’s the professional athlete’s job to perform; a college player might not have even developed the habit yet. So similar to the elementary school teacher versus high school, vigilance plays a significant part of the job for college coaches because mistakes could be more frequent due to inexperience, immaturity (not necessarily behavioral), and/or concept comprehension.

As far as general coaching styles of play, two things that stand out the most:

  1. Efficiency of offense within a possession
  2. Dead-ball execution, particularly in late-game situations.

There is less time on a shot clock at the pro level so playing at a higher pace can be considered a byproduct of the rules in place. But from my observation, even the teams that come off as more methodical in the NBA still don’t waste a ton of time getting into early scoring action or putting the ball in the hands of their best playmaker to start a possession.

College coaches tend to be more system-oriented so many – not all – encourage multiple side shifts via the pass or deliberate play execution to eventually land the ball in the preferrable hands or spot. The thinking isn’t necessarily flawed because the philosophies are equally based on exposing the vulnerabilities of the opposition. At the college level, the thought process is about creating more shifts of defense to lead to more breakdowns, thus scoring opportunities. At the pro level, it is either taking advantage of a disorganized defense in transition or my offensive player initiating the possession is the best offense to create gravity or points right away.

As far as play execution, both levels are tremendous study guides. There just so happens to be more opportunities in the NBA because of how time-outs are structured. Even then, the level of recognition, tweaks, and execution coming out of dead-ball situations are impressive.

Key Takeaways

  • Schematic Differences: NBA offenses are very homogenous; college has more variance
  • Skill Separation: Shotmaking, On-Ball Defense, Finishing, Ambidextrous Passing, & Ball-handling
  • Coaching Styles: Different levels require different teaching methods & focal points

Whether you’re a coach at the high school, college, or professional level, watching both NBA and college basketball is a must-do for professional development. By understanding the schematic, skill, and coaching style differences between the two brands of basketball, coaches can gain insights into how to develop individual players, create successful offensive and defensive systems, and build a cohesive team culture.


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