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Basketball Skill Development: An NCAA Coach’s Perspective

By Chris Horton @HortonBBallSite

College Basketball Assistant Coach Chris Horton details his approach to player skill development.

Let’s start here. Although this Dame video is a spoof, this is modern skill development in a nutshell. With competition for clicks, shares, likes, and subs at an all-time high, many basketball trainers turn into social media influencers, using wacky equipment and the coolest moves from NBA stars to gain eyeballs. This is not a condemnation of those social media basketball trainers, in fact, you’ve really got to appreciate their ingenuity.

For me, as an assistant college basketball coach with about a dozen players and even less followers on The ‘Gram (that’s what the cool kids call it, right?), my training sessions might not have as many hula hoops, Nerf guns, or be as click-worthy, but I try to thoughtfully engineer each workout. When designing a training workout for my players, I’m guided by the following ideas: connection, tracking, game scenario simulation, competition, and novelty.


As coaches and trainers, we’re all consumed with working as efficiently as we can, but individual and small group skill development is a setting that I like to use to slow down just a little bit. All of my sessions start with Storytime. For storytime, I pose a question to the player that we both answer. These questions range from “Who’s your hero?” to “What’s the biggest source of stress in your life right now?”. Sometimes storytime is a giggle fest, other times, my players and I have had to wipe away tears before starting our workout. That’s the beauty of storytime--you never know what you’re going to learn about your players! I don’t think I have to sermonize too much about the importance of connecting with players, building trust, and establishing mutual vulnerability, but these are things that can get overlooked in our quest to maximize every minute.

I would be remiss without shouting out the University of North Florida (UNF) and Coach Matthew Driscoll who inspired this addition to my training sessions. On a visit to UNF a few years ago, Coach Driscoll told me about how his team grew closer by sharing their “7 H’s” over the course of a season. These H’s include hero, heartbreak, and 5 other H-words that I struggle to remember. (Would it be great if I remembered all 7 H’s? Yeah, of course. But if I was a better notetaker I wouldn’t be a basketball coach. Just know that ham, rum ham, and Jon Hamm were not discussion topics.) Despite my hazy memory of all the H’s, the idea of sharing and being vulnerable has stuck with me for years. Thanks, Coach Driscoll!


This is the part where I nerd out a little bit. You ready?

Okay, here we go. My tracking starts with planning. The vast majority of coaches approach team practice with some type of written plan. When it comes to individual or small group training, my approach is no different. My goal is to map out everything I want to accomplish down to the minute and lay out detailed written instructions so my player can replicate or refer to my drills even without me. Once I complete a training plan, I share it with my player via Google Docs and also add the link to our Google Calendar event so my player can have multiple points of access to the plan and an easy way to remember when we worked together. This is a look at a piece of one of my training plans.

I know what you’re thinking…Okay, adding cardinal and gold to the template is a little nerdy and accounting for camera and chair setup time is pretty nerdy in an OCD way, but this isn’t thaaat nerdy.

Well get your calculators ready because we’re about to go nerdier!

After each training session, I total the time spent performing each drill to make this.

This is my training log that details what I’ve worked on with each player. Based on these results, I can reach various conclusions about the totality of my training time with each player. For example, I really wanted Player 1 to be able to make shots (over 38% of his training time was spent on some type of shooting); I wanted Player 2 to be able to finish better in the paint (over 17% of his time); and I must not have wanted either of them to play any transition defense at all (24 out of a possible 1449 minutes). So is it Player 2’s fault when he’s terrible at transition defense? Maybe, but I certainly didn’t use my individual training to make any positive impact either.

I share my training log with each player and our coaching staff throughout the season. Collectively we evaluate a player’s performance, create a plan for their future development, and hopefully I figure out new ways to drill transition defense.

Was that too nerdy? Did everybody carry the one and move the decimals? Are we still here?

Game Scenario Simulation

We’ve come a long way from the days where shooting a bunch of elbow jumpers constituted as training...thank goodness! And at this point “shoot game shots” is a more modern mandate we’ve all heard. And I certainly agree...with a couple additions, that we’ll get to.

Before I can even touch game-specific training with my players, there has to be an underlying skill base that supports game movement and action. Sometimes this requires talking through concepts, watching video, tweaking foundational skills, and introducing new moves--even at the college and pro levels.

Once a player has an understanding of the game concept and the requisite skill to perform the task, it’s time to hop into game-specific situation training. In these scenarios, I’m trying my best to replicate game situations and shots a player gets in our offense. Before we go any further, please allow me to momentarily divert us into a quick rant....

This is something that commonly frustrates me with both players and trainers. James Harden stepbacks are cool. Absolutely. But when less than 5% of NBA shot attempts are stepbacks and even fewer 12 year olds are indeed James Harden, the majority of your #FearTheBeard Workout could have been better served. Phew, glad I got that off my chest. Now back to our level-headed discussion on getting game shots...

My goal is to get as many game-like shots with my players as possible. If our offense uses a bunch of pin downs, let’s rep that action in those places. Simple. Now, there is also an important addition from Coach and PhD Brian McCormick, whose resume is too long to list but suffice to say I consider him one of the best minds in the industry. As McCormick states and I agree, “a ‘game shot’ at minimum requires a defender and a passing option”. Being able to identify when to shoot can be just as important as actually being able to shoot-- just think about some of the players that make you prematurely grey. In individual workouts, I may not always have access to the resources to fulfill the defender and passing option criteria, but this concept constantly informs my training design.

Here are a couple of examples of how I try to incorporate pieces of the ‘game shot’ criteria (amongst others things), during individual workouts.

Video 1: 0-Second Catch Decisions

In this training segment, we’re using a remarkably agile and lightning quick defender to force the player to make an immediate and correct attack read on every catch. We call these on-the-catch reads 0-Second Decisions.

Video 2: P.O.O.P Kick/Score w/ Pass Option

In this segment, there is no defender but we give the player a passing option. As the player attacks the paint, he must maintain vision of his handsome coach to see if a pass option is available. In this drill we also stack a few of our other concepts like P.O.O.Ps (aka pivots out of pressure, a term coined by PGC Basketball) and our Paint Scoring Progression.

Outside of the strikingly good looking coach, these videos might not help you build your social media brand, but as long as the drills have utility that can build your players’ ability and comfort performing in games, you’re doing your job.


Great players love to compete. Not-so-great players usually need some competition to maximize their talent. So everybody needs to compete, even in training!

If you have multiple players in a workout creating competition is easy and you don’t need further explanation. For solo player workouts, I like to have players compete against certain scores or against the clock. Right now, for example, a couple of my guards compete in a timed ball handling warmup; our perimeter players all compete in a shooting drill where every player’s score is added to our Compete Everyday Board (below); and the easiest way to have someone compete is by giving them a target to strive for during a drill.

With competition during training, one of the things I’m constantly weary of is technique. If technique suffers because a player is in a hurry to compete, I either need to redesign the drill or personally take the L and scrap that particular competition entirely. Establishing a game-skill and making that skill a habit is always more important than some score on a Wednesday afternoon.


What do you do when your training routine is getting old? You’ve got to spice it up! Introduce someone or something new. Maybe a new training partner to push your player. Maybe another ball or whatever magic beads your favorite IG trainer is using. Whatever you can do to keep the training relationship fresh and keep your players engaged.

Even with that said, I don’t want to introduce new things just for novelty sake, I still want to get utility and practicality out of whatever I’m doing. Don’t try to fool your players or yourself by saying, “the Hula Hoop trains you to have greater hip flexibility which allows you to drop lower and attack with greater leverage and hip flexion, not to mention all great defenders have the ability to flip their hips quickly to stay with shifty offensive players”. That sounds cool and borderline brilliant, but if you’re not sure why you’re doing something, either don’t do it at all or at the very least don’t act like you know.

Sometimes I introduce novelty by simply creating a new drill that works on whatever skill we need to keep working on. Other times I might use offensive movements--like retreat dribbling or moving without the ball--to simulate a defensive technique so we can avoid the typical boredom and hatred that overtly practicing defense in a training session usually stirs up.

This is your time to be creative, but whenever you go way out-of-the-box with an idea make sure you remember to do one thing--tell your player WHY they are doing what they are doing. If you don’t remember, the “what the hell” look on the player’s face should be enough to remind you. When you tell players WHY, they can understand your vision, buy-in, and even achieve greater results. Don’t underestimate your player’s ability to engage with you at this creative level. The combination of novelty and WHY really helps learning stick.


So now that I’ve given you my basketball training dissertation, what’s next?

If you’re a player, I’d encourage you to consider which of your favorite trainer’s drills are useful for making you better for your games to help your team, not what people on your timeline are doing or what Kyrie is working on this summer (please see previous rant for more info). And as you train by yourself, create some competition, track your progress, replicate game-like shots and scenarios; and on the days you don’t want to get out of bed, try to add something new to your workout to get you excited.

If you’re a coach or trainer of any kind, hopefully my philosophy brings some value and helps you add to your repertoire. Or maybe you’ve just made a substantial hula hoop and pool floaty investment so your players can train like Dame and my ideas don’t float your boat. Either way, I know we’re both trying to make our players better in the best ways we know how...I’m just thankful I don’t have to try to find all the Nerf bullets after every session.


If you’d like to know more about my approach or any of my other basketball thoughts, shoot me a call, text, or email (954-790-8497, For more of my work, check out some of my previous content below:

YouTube Feature: Run It Back

ATOs: The Untold Story Of The 2017 NBA Finals

Major Keys to NBA Championship Caliber Defense


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