"There is no such thing as talent. There is pressure.” --Alfred Adler
As a young high school coach, my teams were known for their diversity of defensive pressure. We'd full court, 3/4 court, 1/2 court man or zone trap in multiple different ways depending on the situation of the game. For instance, if we were shooting a free throw, a made free throw would put us into an on-the-ball diamond and a miss may put us into a 3/4 court 1-3-1. We utilized upwards of 6 different presses in a single game. It made us extremely hard to prepare for, and because we had the talent and basketball IQ to handle it, we were very successful.
Not everyone is so lucky. As I progressed to the college ranks, I still wanted to press, but the coaching, scouting, and ball-handling was so exponentially better that I found my schemes were often quickly foiled. I lost a lot of my defensive cockiness early on in my college coaching career because I was still learning to adapt at the rate the seasoned college coaches were adapting to me.
All of that changed when I watched Billy Donovan's (Head Coach at Florida) clinic video on the "Ball Press." He had adapted his own version of the press after playing for Rick Pitino during the Providence years and then coaching under Coach Pitino at Kentucky. The Ball Press blew me away with its efficiency, misdirection, and lack of consistency and scoutability. On top of that, it looked really fun. I got to see it first hand in my early days coaching at Maryville University because my teams had to play against Greenville College and Coach George Barber (a former Pitino staffer) twice a year. George's kids were aggressive, smart, and played extremely hard. It was a great challenge every year to prepare for his unique approach.
I liked it so much that I quickly learned to make it my own. I loved the freedom it gave my players (and so did they), and I quickly found that it gave them confidence through aggression. It is definitely not a press players master in a few days, but with a commitment to it, most college players were able to make sense of it within 2-3 months into the season.
The Ball Press is not a zone or man-to-man press. It is what it says it is...a ball press. All 5 defensive players are focused on always having their chests square to the ball. It shows itself as a man-to-man to the inbounder, but then the zone schemes can confuse the ball-handler. The more you watch film of the ball press, you realize that players are marking a man while covering a zone on the floor, but the defenders are always rotating based on the rotation and movement of the ball and with the ball.
To a novice, the Ball Press is a simple run and jump based on timing and ball and player movement. However, the principles are much more concrete:
1. The ball should always be pressured in a physical, hands up high intensity 100% of the time forcing the ball-handler to speed dribble and beat the on-the-ball defender. Force speed.
2. Each off-the-ball defender puts him or herself in the passing lane between the ball and their offensive mark.
3. When the ball-handler dribbles toward a defender, the defender stunts (think a base-running pickle in baseball with the base-runner being the defender) to confuse the ball-handler. Is a trap coming or is the defender retreating to the offensive mark?
4. The stunting defender only leaves to trap if the ball-handler is utilizing a speed dribble AND has a defender on his or her hip. It must be both or the press will break down and traps will be easily split.
5. Finally the players on the back-side (or two passes away) rotate to the rim and to the strong-side of the court putting themselves between the next offensive player in the rotation and the ball. Quickly moving from zone to man-to-man.
6. Never, ever foul.
7. Deflections are the goal. Never go for steals on the ball by reaching. The idea is to create steal opportunities for the players off-the-ball.
It is, in my opinion, the King of all Presses because you can make it look like any press in the book. You can put a man on the ball. You can set-up as a 1-2-2 or Diamond. You can show a pure denial man-to-man. You can play passive and soft until the ball is inbounded. You name it. You can run the ball-press out of it.
The reason more coaches don't use it is because it requires a huge amount of patience. Steps 1-3 and 5 are fairly easy to teach and for any level of player to learn. However, Steps 4 and 6-7 can make a coach go crossed-eyed because players have such great trouble learning to be deceptive, patient, and unselfish in such an aggressive press. Even Pitino and Donovan struggle with teaching those concepts to the top athletes in the world.
Although I have had great success with it and watched some great D1 coaches run it to great success (Louisville's recent National Championship and Florida's back-to-back National Championships were Ball Press driven), the best I have ever seen it coached is by Carol Jue, the Head Women's Coach at Chapman University in Southern California.
Carol dominates teams with her version of the Ball Press by often having the 4 smallest players on the floor playing together. The 5th player is often playing center while giving up 5-6 inches to the other team's center. Does size matter? Not if you play at Chapman. With a bunch of ankle-biting shorties, Coach Jue's girls intimidate, scare, and completely wear-out the opposition.
So, like my post on "The System", you don't need great size, speed, and depth to make it work. You just need the patience and conviction to see it through.
Stay aggressive, Coaches! Trust your kids and allow them to reach their potential!