Monday, November 6

The Jrue Holiday Dilemma in Youth Sports

Just a few weeks after Jrue Holiday got traded away from another team (my Bucks), my daughter got "demoted" from her varsity basketball spot. Even after making the team in 9th and 10th grade. Even after showing her relentless defensive and hustle-points skills. Even before that, she didn't get the playing time she'd earned, so I told her she should have been showing her skills on JV for the past two years. But it's still a demotion, like a guy who's consistently the best defender in the league who keeps getting traded. As a parent, it's kind of hard to figure out what to say. Especially as a parent who has learned the importance of defense over time.

I was always good at defense, even in basketball. However, I also knew how to score in the low post, so in alleyball games, I normally tried to outscore the opponent. My only time spent playing organized basketball was for a high school church league (basically all the guys who got cut from their high school teams). In this scenario, I played hard-nosed defense, got lots of rebounds, set monster screens, and always looked for my guards (because there were always four on the court with me). I averaged a single-double (rebounds) and fouled out in several games. But we were league champions, mostly because I didn't try to score or dribble through double-teams. Even though I knew how to score points, my team was better when I played a hustle game, kind of like Jrue Holiday. The problem is that even Jrue Holiday probably had to be a ball hog on offense at some point in his career in order to get noticed, and it seems like he'll never get enough respect for making the players around him better. And that's also where my daughter is stuck as a basketball player.

She was chosen to be on a varsity team (that played at about a JV level) both 9th and 10th grade. The team regularly got blown out, and she regularly sat on the bench while the starters stayed in the game. When she did get to play, she was a fan-favorite for the hustle, and she seemed to make other players play harder, but that never translated to more playing time. And then a couple of star freshmen show up and she's relegated to JV for her junior year. As a parent, I don't have much to tell her. I used a hustle scoring system for her last year, and she probably led the team per minute in the kinds of stats no one seems to keep, like batted balls, virtual assists, screens, boxing out, getting back on a fast break, and passing out of the press. But fans, teammates, and coaches always seemed much more impressed with girls who would dribble through a double-team and turn the ball over or miss several contested three-pointers before finally, mercifully hitting one. My daughter did everything I told her to do to play the game the right way for her, and she did everything the coaches asked of her, and it resulted in her name being removed from the board in the gym. The reason given? Since she's 5'2" and can only point guard, she needs to be able to dribble through the double-team. Never mind that she successfully locked down D1 prospects on opposing varsity teams or outrebounded every guard she ever matches up against. She's the only guard I've seen in two years watching varsity girls play who could legitimately be the One in a Box and One defense. Like Jrue Holiday, I've seen her take over a game from the defensive end of the floor, but you have to be watching for that kind of thing. Her stats would never show what she did, and I'm not sure her teammates realized what was happening (because they were part of it). She was the one player who could come in and energize everyone else, but she couldn't do it by scoring 20 off the bench or dribbling around like a fool, so it's not valid.

When my daughter really got interested in basketball, I went to a couple of UNF games with her. I've also looked up D1 and lower schools online. The fact is that women's basketball is a tall girl sport. Also, kind of surprisingly, a heavy girl sport. She's short, strong, and fast. That can work in basketball, but it takes the right kind of coaching. For example, her team lost to one team that had a bunch of girls who looked like rugby players. Instead of playing basketball, they played rugby. Some teams look like track athletes, and they tend to run a lot. My daughter's team looked like a bunch of short guards who all had very good basketball skills, but they sat back in zones and dribbled way too much. And no one played much defense, like many talented guards I've known over the years. Jrue Holiday is different, like my daughter, but when your team loses (or doesn't win the NBA championship), people don't dig deep into defensive stats to determine your value. You just get blamed for not being the scoring machine that maybe you could be if you concentrated more on offense and ignored fundamentals a bit more.

I continued to play baseball for many years, even after I couldn't quite hit homeruns anymore. I could still bat for average, but no more doubles or stolen bases, either. However, I got better at defense. So good, in fact, that the last team I was on when I was over 45, I actually started at defense with a designated hitter. And while my hitter might have scored one run in the big game (the team's first playoff win), I was technically more valuable by making three solid plays and one amazing play at 3rd base. If I'd made a single error or missed the diving grab, we likely would have lost the game. Problem is, if my designated hitter got a homerun, or even an RBI by getting walked with the bases loaded, his stats looked more impressive than mine. My son played one year of high school soccer, and his experience was similar. He's fast and a solid defender, but his team spent most of the game playing defense (almost never advancing the ball past midfield). Therefore, he would inevitably be there when the other team scored. He seemed to blame himself more than his teammates did, but it felt like another example of offense getting any glory while defense only gets blame. And that's on a team that averaged one shot on goal per game.

In reality, defense is exactly as important as offense in any game. We don't celebrate great defense, though. MVP awards, Heisman Trophies, and most accolades are presented to top offensive players, and it's just an added bonus to say Michael Jordan also plays great defense or Barry Bonds also won some Gold Gloves. People will make a blanket statement about defense winning championships, but most of us aren't armed with stats to back it up. People get excited about razzle-dazzle dribbling and three-pointers, not the screens or rebounds that made those plays possible. So a few great defenders like Holiday will make their way to college and the NBA because they also play solid offense, but I'd say a lot more poor defenders who can score play the game than great defenders who can't score. Also, defense is kind of boring to most people.

Will the Bucks be a better team without Holiday? Will my daughter's team finally do well with her being sent to JV? You know, there's a chance, with a change in coaching and mentality, that teams can make up for defensive deficiency with new schemes or just more offense. Last year's coach seemed to imply the stars of the team needed to get better in order to beat my daughter's defense rather than everyone learn how to play defense like her. Frustrating, yet probably typical. But when the offense isn't working or the tone of the game needs to change, good luck if those kinds of players aren't around anymore. 

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