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Coaching Basketball - Reducing Turnovers

By James Gels, from the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook, @ http://www.coachesclipboard.net






If you read the sports pages, almost every day during basketball season there is a headline something to the effect that, "Tech Turnovers Cost Game" or "Turnovers Costly in Raiders Loss". And when television analysts discuss key stats, they often bring up not only turnovers, but "points off turnovers". And point guards are graded on their "assists to turnover ratio". So turnovers are a bad thing... a killer if you have too many.

First a definition... a turnover occurs whenever the team with the ball loses possession of the ball to the opponent as the result of a steal, a bad pass, an offensive violation (e.g. traveling and others), stepping out-of-bounds, or an offensive foul.

It should be the goal of your offense to get a good shot every possession... and then rebound. A turnover results in a lost, or wasted possession, and you get no shot at all. Additionally, if the turnover occurs near half-court or in the back-court, it may result in an easy lay-up for the opponent ("points off turnovers")... in effect a four-point turn-around.

Good teams value every possession and look for a good shot every trip up the court. We had a 14-point lead last night in the 3rd quarter, and then six consecutive turnovers later, it's a close game (which we managed somehow to win). Turnovers kill your momentum and your offense.

But don't despair... it's a common problem. All coaches and many teams go through it. Players just want to use their athleticism and "play the game", without worrying about losing the ball. As a result, oftentimes a player is in too much of a hurry, gets out of control and the turnover occurs. Coaches have to do what they can to reign them in and teach them to value each possession. We want our players to be aggressive and attack the defense, but there is a fine line between playing "on the edge" (under control) and "out of control".

In studying the problem of turnovers, I have categorized them in two ways... based on (1) an error in a fundamental skill, and (2) the game situation in which the turnover occurs.


Errors in Fundamental Skills


Game Situations/Settings



Ball-Handling Turnovers

Your team must be skilled in handling the ball and dribbling... if not, go back to the fundamentals and do ball-handling and dribbling drills every practice. All youth teams should be spending some time with this every practice. The double-dribble violation is quite common in youth basketball.

Point-guards and all perimeter players must learn not to "carry" the ball when dribbling... they must avoid getting the hand under the ball. Again, these are fundamental skills that must be drilled.

Point-guards must be tough and protect the ball. It's a bad turnover when your point guard "gets stripped" and has the ball stolen at half-court, and the opponent dribbles down for a lay-up.

When dribbling the ball into the forecourt, the point guard should protect the ball behind him/her and "go somewhere" with the ball. Point-guards that just stand out front and pound (dribble) the ball without going somewhere are a turnover waiting to happen, especially if he/she makes cross-over dribbles right in front of a defender who has quick hands.

If your point guard is having problems with a quick defender when bringing the ball into the forecourt, instruct him/her to pass quickly to the off-guard, and then get the pass back and run the offense. Why challenge the defender when you can simply pass to an open teammate? Optionally, you could screen for the point guard to help relieve the pressure.


Passing Turnovers - 10 Tips

Many turnovers are the result of poor passing.

  1. What is a good pass?
    A good pass is one that is caught in a spot on the court where something good can happen. A pass might be "on target" but if it's too hard for the receiver to catch, it's not a good pass. Or if the pass is caught by the receiver, but he/she is surrounded by defenders, it's not a good pass. Another example is a pass to a back-cutter... we want to deliver the pass early in the back-cut and not wait until the cutter is already near the basket.

  2. "On-target"
    A good pass needs to be delivered precisely in the right place, "on target", where the receiver can easily catch it and execute. If a pass is a little too high, too low, or a little off to the side, it might be caught, but the brief second required for the receiver to gather the ball allows the defender to adjust, and now the open shot is not there. Teach your players to pass the ball precisely where the receiver can use it to score... "on-target".

    Most often the target is the "shooting pocket" where one would place the ball in triple-threat position. However, when passing into the post, we want the target up higher near the post player's face... he/she can usually catch this pass and "chin the ball" with elbows up and out, or go right up with the shot.

    Post players have a difficult time catching and using passes below their waist. We always used to teach the bounce pass for feeding the post, and it's still a good pass if it's not below the post player's waist. But you now see more and more teams making the air pass to the post player's upper body or head area.

  3. "See the defense"
    Passers have to develop their court vision and "see the defense", and avoid passing into traffic where there are two or three defenders waiting. We want players to "pass away from the defense". How do you improve court vision? Teach players on the perimeter to get in triple-threat position, and they will see things better.

  4. Make the "sure" pass
    Players should make the "sure", easy pass... not a risky pass that might not be caught, or might be deflected or intercepted, or has only a 50% chance of success.

  5. Keep it simple
    Players should always keep things simple... make the easiest pass that will get the job done... usually a two-handed, sure pass. So many players nowadays are throwing one-handed passes and these are often simply not caught, either because the pass is errant, or perhaps because the ball has a sideways spin making it difficult to catch.

    Having said that, one-handed passes are good to use for a curl-bounce into the low-post, or when attacking on the fast-break. The behind the back pass is fun and sometimes is the correct pass to make, but most often the best pass is the simple two-handed pass.

  6. Use pass-fakes
    Players must learn how to make a good pass-fake. This is an often overlooked, important fundamental skill that needs to be taught. A passer can get the defense to move or shift simply by faking a pass in another direction, and this will often open up the intended passing lane. Teaching pass-faking also teaches players not to "telegraph" their passes.

  7. Don't hurry - patience!
    Much bad-passing comes from players being in a hurry, and this is often a problem with young, inexperienced teams. Your offense must learn to be patient. We want our players to sprint up the court for easy fast-break lay-ups as much as possible.

    But when the good shot off the break is not there, they have to recognize this, bring the ball back out on top and run the offense patiently and get a good shot. Teach players to catch the ball in triple-threat position and look into the post, look at cutters and see the floor before dribbling or passing.

  8. Keep grounded - avoid the jump-pass
    How often do you see a player attacking with the dribble and ending the dribble with a leap into the air, and then deciding to make a pass while in mid-air? -- the "jump-pass". I think kids see this on television and think it's a sign of athleticism to make the jump-pass.

    More often than not, the jump-pass results in a turnover. Teach passers to stay grounded and make good, controlled two-handed passes. We don't want our players making decisions in mid-air. The jump-pass also is often the result of a player being in too much of a hurry.

  9. Receivers use a hand signal or hand target
    Teach the receiver to use a hand signal, holding a hand up as a target for the pass. This helps avoid the problem of the passer passing the ball out-of-bounds just as the intended receiver starts to a cut in another direction. When the cutter starts the cut, he/she drops target hand down, and puts it back up when ready to receive the pass. Players do not pass to another player unless he/she is showing a hand target.

  10. Use the dribble to create a passing lane
    For example, a player in triple-threat position on the wing can sometimes open up a passing lane into the low-post by making one dribble either left or right before making the pass inside.

Try the "Bennett drill" to improve your half-court passing and help reduce turnovers.


Catching - Receiving Turnovers

If you don't catch the pass, it's almost always a turnover.

  1. Catch the ball with two-hands!
    So often players try to catch the ball with one-hand, and then simply don't catch the ball at all. Whenever possible, catch the ball with two-hands.

  2. Catch the ball in triple-threat position
    Perimeter players must get in the habit of catching the ball and getting right into triple-threat position, rather than immediately starting the dribble. In triple-threat position, the player can "gather" himself and see the court, look into the post, see cutters and see the defense. Triple-threat position helps reign-in a player that tends to rush and hurry things.

  3. "Ball in the air, feet in the air"
    We like to have receivers catch the ball with a jump-stop and establish a pivot foot. (show video)...

  4. Use a hand target
    As discussed above under passing, receivers should give a hand target to the passer, and drop the target when they start a cut and are not yet ready to receive the pass.

  5. Get to the ball
    Receivers should be moving toward the ball, with hands ready to receive. A post player also has to get to the pass, even if it means giving up the seal or position that he/she has worked so hard to get. All that work is wasted if the pass goes out-of-bounds. It's somewhat like a first baseman in baseball having to come off the bag to catch errant throw.



Traveling Violation Turnovers


  1. Perimeter players - triple-threat position
    Again, perimeter players must get in the habit of catching the ball in triple-threat position, and establishing a pivot foot. Players must be drilled on not picking up the pivot foot until the dribble has started. Teach a good shot-fake followed by a quick dribble move, but make sure the pivot foot doesn't come up too soon! See Outside, Guard Moves

  2. Post players
    Post play is all about footwork, using the pivot foot without traveling or shuffling the feet. Post players must be adept in post-moves, but also must recognize when it's best not to force things, and pass back out to the perimeter. A forced, bad shot or a blocked shot, although technically not a turnover, really is just like a turnover. See Inside, Post-Moves

  3. Use the jump-stop
    Teach players to use the jump-stop not only when catching the ball, but also at the end of a dribble. This allows the player to maintain control and avoids the jump-pass and making a decision while in mid-air. (show video)...



Offensive Fouls

Offensive fouls are turnovers too, as they result in the loss of possession.

  1. Avoid the charging foul
    Avoiding the charging foul involves having good court vision and seeing that the defense is already set... and playing under control. Here again, the jump-stop is very helpful at the end of a dribble-drive inside.

  2. Post player offensive foul
    Again, good post play involves good footwork and using post-moves and shot-fakes to beat the defender. If you lower your shoulder and bump the defender, you will probably get the charging foul. Or, if you "hook" the defender with your off arm, it's usually an offensive foul.

  3. Illegal screen
    The screener must have his/her feet set and keep the arms in - no pushing!


Other Violations

Without going into details, here is a list of additional offensive violations that result in turnovers.

  1. 3-seconds violation (in the lane too long)
  2. Shot-clock violation (if a shot-clock is being used)
  3. Free-throw lane violation (in the lane too soon on a free-throw)
  4. 10-seconds back-court violation (delay in getting across the half-court line)
  5. 5-seconds closely-guarded violation (guards who like to dribble too much)
  6. Over-and-back violation (ball in forecourt lost into the back-court)
  7. Stepping out-of-bounds (player with the ball)
  8. Passing inbounds violations (5-second call, stepping across the line, illegal moving)




Game Situations/Settings

Turnovers when Confronted by a Press Defense

You must have a good press offense(s) to help your players handle full-court, 3/4-court or 1/2-court press defenses. See Press Offenses. When preparing for an opponent, practice your press offense and how you will adjust based on the type of press defense your opponent uses. This helps prepare your players so that there are no surprises and they can calmly execute your press offense. Often you will have to make game-time adjustments against pressing teams.

Teach your players (1) to be calm, (2) attack the defense, and (3) the three "looks" - look and see the floor, look before passing, and look before dribbling. To calm your players (especially kids), you must be calm in your coaching and instruction.

Turnovers in Transition

Turnovers can occur when transitioning quickly from defense to offense.

Off the defensive rebound.
When the defensive rebound is secured, the point guard must get to an outlet spot or come back to the rebounder for an open passing lane. Rebounders must be strong with the ball, get triple-threat and pivot to find a receiver, or make a one-bounce power dribble just to get clear of the defenders and create a passing lane.

After a steal or interception.
How often do you see a player come up with a steal, a loose ball or an interception only to have his next pass intercepted right back by the opponent? It happens a lot... I call it the "steal->turnover".

Here's a tip... we teach our players that whenever they get a steal or interception, to never pass back into the middle of the court, because that's where the defense is sprinting back - down the middle of the court. Instead, after securing a steal or interception, get under control, get triple-threat and see the court, and advance the ball up the sideline. The exception of course is an obvious break-away lay-up situation.

Recognize when to abort the break.
Score off the fast break or secondary break whenever you can, but when the defense is in good position and there is no numbers advantage, pull the ball back out and run your offense. Do not force bad passes and bad shots in transition. Run your offense!

Turnovers in Your Half-Court Offense

Much of what has already been discussed above under passing and catching, ball-handling, etc applies to turnovers in the half-court. But to add some important points about half-court offense... maintain good spacing, use back-cuts (especially against pressure defenses), pass and cut, rotate on the perimeter, players must not stand around... keep moving! It's easy to defend a team that doesn't move.

Avoid the sideline and baseline... many turnovers occur within three feet of either the baseline or the sideline. Teach players never to pick up the dribble along the baseline... if stopped on the baseline, keep the dribble going and dribble (or pass) back out. Wing players should learn to attack the top seam, which affords more options than the baseline dribble.

Dribbling along the sideline can result in the player stepping out-of-bounds, or getting caught in a trap, or simply losing control of the dribble under the defensive pressure.

If wing players are being trapped, make sure you have a player in the high-post (free-throw line area) and one at ball-side corner for passing options, as well as the point guard helping out on top. Once the ball is passed out of the trap, immediately reverse the ball to the opposite side and you should have an advantage.

A savvy point guard will pass-fake to one wing, getting the defenders to jump, and then pass instead to the opposite wing or high-post... this disrupts the timing of the defenders wanting to immediately rush out and trap the wing.

Against the 2-3 zone, teach your perimeter players to drive the seams, but pull-up for a jump-shot near or just inside the elbow... don't get too deep inside where the three tall inside defenders are waiting.

Bad shots... forced, off-balance, "crappy" shots, while technically not a turnover, are just as bad, resulting in a poor shot for your team on that possession. Ingrain your players to value each possession. Be patient and don't hurry. Execute. Get a good shot. Rebound.


Finally, remember that in basketball there is no such thing as a perfect game, and you can never completely eliminate turnovers. As coaches, we ourselves must remain patient and encouraging, and teach our players how to play hard, but under control. As Coach John Wooden once said, "A good garden may have some weeds." - just not too many!



Copyright © 2001 - 2014, James A. Gels, all rights reserved.

Copyright © James A. Gels, all rights reserved.
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