During a high school girls’ holiday basketball tournament I watched just before the New Year, I saw a coach whose team was rapidly falling behind call a timeout and introduce a full court trapping scheme in the huddle.
He spent the majority of his 60 second timeout diagramming where he wanted his players – which included for in the rotation who I found out hadn’t practiced or played much because they had been playing soccer prior to basketball season – to trap, including how they should orient themselves around the ball handler at the point of the trap. But instructing his players to trap on the fly didn’t help at all – they just got beat repeatedly in a variety of ways until they eventually fell behind by 30+ points. When they seemed to correct one problem, their opponent found another way to beat it. Undeterred, they stuck with the trap and lost by 30+ points.
However, it’s not the final point differential that really made this stand out in my mind.
The tournament I watched featured teams at a variety of skill levels and styles of play, but almost every single one attempted to trap in some systematic fashion at some point. The reason for that at the high school level should be clear to those who watch high school basketball frequently: From my somewhat limited observations and in talking to others, few teams at the high school level have a) two competent ball handlers or b) a ball handler comfortable using both hands. So without many individual players that can handle a trap, trapping – or aggressive pressure schemes – it would seem as though it’s a pretty simple way to force turnovers.
The problem is that there are so many ways that trapping incorrectly can go terribly wrong and just lead to a disadvantage situation for the defense after the two players who committed to trapping are left behind the play. I saw at least eight overlapping things that led to an advantage break for the offense when executed poorly:
Eight keys to trapping:
- Pacing: Just as when players close out, sprinting out of control at a ball handler puts the defender in a poor position to adapt and change direction when the ball handler does.
- Timing: The best executed traps involved a defense working together to bait a ball handler into a bad spot, the trappers remaining patient, and then quickly converging at a point when the ball handler can be caught off-guard.
- Location: Obviously, the easiest spots to trap are in the corners (e.g. baseline-sideline, halfcourt-sideline) or just over half court where there’s risk of a backcourt violation. Trapping in space – particularly in the backcourt where there’s a 10 second violation for boys – can work, but it inevitably leaves a poised ball handler an “out”.
- Communication: It’s also not terribly uncommon to see two players see an opportunity to trap, but end up in trying to trap literally in the same spot – it has the somewhat comical effect of looking like two defenders lining up to get beat. Some sort of communication – non-verbal might be preferred to yelling “GO!” and tipping off the opponent – would seem necessary. Fast Model Sports had a great post about communication on defense last year.
- Positioning: It’s no good to trap a corner at half-court if you’re just going to give up the sideline to a player who can keep their dribble alive. I think many players have a perfectly understandable fear of stepping out of bounds even on defense, but failure to do that leaves a trap vulnerable.
- Decisiveness: You also see this a lot – a defender not sure whether they want to go over to trap or stay somewhere else…so they end up taking themselves out of the play completely, neither guarding anyone or going to trap.
- Ball-shadowing: This drives me absolutely nuts – a team will do everything they need to execute the trap well, get impatient and start slapping at the ball of the panicked ball handler. Naturally, even if they knock the ball away cleanly, the ref sees someone’s arm coming down on the ball and blows the whistle for a foul. The solution is obviously to teach players to shadow the ball to prevent a pass rather than taking the ball away. But that, of course, depends on whether the coach/situation demands that players are trapping-to-steal or trapping-to-stop.
- Denying the first pass: But even if the goal is to force a turnover, what I saw far too often was two players executing a great trap but nobody denying the first pass – if a ball handler stayed calm, they could just be strong with the ball for a few moments and then find an outlet. The teams that trapped the best did two things: going back to communication, a) if the trappers call dead it was a signal for everyone else to b) close and deny passes everywhere else. Of course, if the other three players are in denial mode, someone is left open, possibly on the weak side. But a player that dribbles themselves right into a trap and picks it up is not the likeliest candidate to be poised enough to find a cross-court teammate. In other words, if a team can play good denial defense, they don’t need the turnover to come at the point of the trap
Obviously, coaches have to prioritize what they work on so trapping effectively might end up being low on the list. Yet at the same time, it seems that everyone – players and coaches – assume that the players will know how to trap when asked to do so. But what stood out more than anything in that tournament is how complex a seemingly simply tactic can be.
One of the things that Ray has written about a few times is the use of the press and, most recently, the fact that most presses are designed to trap ball handlers. Yet setting aside Ray’s repeated point (via Detroit Pistons coach Lawrence Frank and countered by Brian McCormick here) that you should “learn the trade before you learn the tricks”, the implementation of the trap within full court – and aggressive half court – schemes is an example of how failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
A Trapping Drill
But facing a combination of all eight of the above problems with a JV boys team, I tried a 2 on 1 trapping drill from the Coach’s Notebook.
…we allow the offense to dribble on court. he is met by a defender right away. At this point, its like the well-known zig zag drill where the ballhandler drives one direction, crosses over and works up the other direction. You may decide to limit the dribbler’s movement to only the right side of the court. Not only does it shorten the chase, it also lets you run the drill starting at the other end of the floor at at the same time.
The description of the drill is pretty thorough in outlining the mechanics of the trap I alluded to above in more depth, but there were a couple things I liked about this drill:
- It simulates a game-like situation in isolation, which helped us ramp up the intensity in practice.
- In forcing the ball handler to run right into a trap, it was a good way to practice anticipating and responding to traps – even if you know where a trap is coming, it’s not a good idea to dribble right into it with one’s head down. The need for patience, changing speeds, etc. were all easy to emphasize for the ball handlers.
We also took the next step of adding an additional offensive player as an outlet for the ball handler, which was a good way to simulate the next step: getting back to play defense if the trap is broken or the ball is reversed before the trap can get set. This did two things: first it meant that there was a consequence to failing to trap; an extreme consequence given that there was no help, but a consequence nonetheless. Second, it turned into a transition/recovery drill with the defenders forced to turn and defend a transition 2 v 2 situation if their trap failed.
Yet while I think the drill does offer something to build on, it also leaves out something else that requires work in more game-like situations: recognizing when to trap in a dynamic situation where the ball handler isn’t confined by a drill (e.g. when a ball goes to the corners in a zone scheme). A coach can yell trap (or dead) from the sideline, but it’s ultimately the players who have to anticipate the opportunity and recognize when they need to go for it.