One of the worst mistakes a small player … any player for that matter … can make is to jump in the air in order to make a pass. Taller players, as a rule, don’t have to do this because they are … tall. That is, they can see over a defender, a double-team, outstretched arms. So, it’s the smaller man that thinks he’ll have a better view of things if he’s just able to get a little higher up that he would be standing still. So, he goes airborne. That is the start of a major risk and, most often, a major disaster, a ‘live’ turnover, an intercepted pass.
When I was a freshman at the University of Illinois, 1954-55, I had the privilege of watching a truly great coach ever day: Harry Combes. He coached Illinois 20 years, was 316-150 in that time, a .682 WL%. He won four Big 10 titles and made three NCAA Final Fours back when just a handful of teams made the NCAA Tournament. He was 110-61 vs. Hall of Fame coaches, a staggering .643 WL% vs. the best. Only a few men have over 100 wins against Hall of Fame coaches. He was the genius of the fast break and the switching defense.
He had several rules he stressed every day. One was that the middle man on the fast break should never cross the free throw line … and I’ll come to that later on in this series. The other rule he pounded home was that a player should NEVER jump in the air to make a pass. He said that a player would be in the air for about one second and that things could change in one second. If a player tried a jump-pass in practice, he made that player run a lap. If it was done in a game, he’d take that player out of the game.
There is no question but what my penchant for ‘rules’ came from Harry Combes. He often said, “A bad pass is always the fault of the passer.” That motivated his players not to try risky or flashy passes. If you were turnover-prone, you were not going to play for Harry Combes. With this, his players worked on making good passes: never a too-hard pass in close to a big man, never a pass from one teammate to another if both were in the three-second lane, never a bounce pass in the three-second lane.
The emphasis he put on these rules was daily. He didn’t talk much in practice. They ran the ‘Continuous Fast Break Drill’ for at least 45′ every single day, with no breaks. It was a tremendous conditioning drill. John Wooden, of course, used it at UCLA, calling it the “11-Man Drill.” Well, I’m here to tell you that those Illinois players had very few turnovers due to bad passes. That was true of his small men, and he had 5’7″ All-American Billy Ridley as a prime example. Ridley followed Combes’s rules to the letter.
So, the rule is this: If you jump in the air to make a pass, you’d better have a receiver! I had the good fortune to have some outstanding point guards over my career, even before coming to Italy. Yes, I stressed ‘staying down’ but they were all way ahead of me on this principle, meaning they had received excellent coaching before coming to me. The Rule: Stay Down = Stay out of trouble.