Creativity


Robert
Feb 07, 2017
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17 Comments

I watched a little of the Cavs/Wizards game last night. Yes, two NBA teams with immense talent which cannot and should not be compared to college basketball in any way. But it just reinforced for me the single thing that has been missing from Illini Basketball for a decade now: creativity.

As I'm watching LeBron and Kyrie do their thing - yes, I'm going to start with an opener which is more or less "we need players like LeBron and Kyrie" - it made me think of some of the things that Frankie did. Not just "uh oh get a TO baby" Frank Williams against Iowa, but non-conference game against Texas Southern Frankie. Basically, it made me think of the early 2000 teams and the great passing. Not just Frankie, but Brian Cook passing out of the post, or Lucas Johnson making a little touch-pass underneath - that kind of stuff.

Hmmm... this still sounds like "'we need to find a Kyrie and a LeBron". I need to back up.

When I was younger and could run up and down a court without wheezing, my friends would invite me to pick-up games. I now believe they did this for the laughs when I was rolling around on the floor with cramps in my calf, but really, I was the 10th and 10 is better than 9. I've mentioned this before: big guy camped out in the corner hoping to hit a three - that was me.

My number one takeaway from pick-up basketball games: I can't keep up mentally. There is no chance the game would ever "slow down" for me. I mostly stood around confused at how so many of these guys improvised on the fly. I'm mentally clicking through "OK, the rebound bounced to you, and this is half-court, which means you need to take it back there or pass it to that other guy whose already back there dear God why are these guys double-teaming me can I call a timeout?" The other guys just seemed to know what they were doing while I had to think about it.

So when I watch basketball, I'm always impressed by the players who seem to know what they're doing. And by "know what they're doing" I mostly mean "decision-making on the fly". Split-second decisions based on what is developing. If I drove the lane in a pick-up game, the shot was going up. It never even crossed my mind that if the other guy comes over to help, his guy might be open. And the thought of spinning and hitting the guy in the corner for a three - there's no way I would ever think of that. Everything was happening too quickly.

Remember that play Michael Finke made last year where he was driving the baseline and the big guy over to cut him off so he kind of tucked a pass around the big guy's hip to a wide open Mav for a layup? Finke had 0.42 seconds to think of that move before the big guy got his hands into position to deny any pass. And somehow, while driving, it just came to him. Something happened on the court, he reacted with the right move.

I feel like those plays are so few and far between since Dee and Augie graduated. We saw some of it from Demitri McCamey, a little from Ray Rice and Brandon Paul, and that's pretty much it. We're just not that creative.

And Illinois basketball was built on creativity. As I've mentioned a dozen times, I cut my teeth on Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters. 1989 was five extremely creative guys on the court together. And my favorite Illini basketball player of all time - Ken Norman - was maybe the most creative big we've had in 35 years. Creativity isn't just passing. Go watch Snake do his thing in the lane and you'll see overflowing creativity.

The thing I don't know is how much of creativity comes from recruiting and how much comes from coaching. It seemed to stop immediately after Bill Self's players departed, and neither Weber nor Groce were able to recapture any of it, so I'd tend to think it's a recruiting thing. Weber's offense looked great with Self's players and awful with Weber's players.

Last week I watched Ethan Happ do all kinds of ridiculously creative things on a basketball court, and I'm putting that mostly on Bo Ryan looking at a scrawny kid from Rockridge High School with no real basketball offers and seeing that creative potential. I'd love to tag along with Ryan at some July recruiting event. Every coach is over here fawning over Jimmy 5-star on court 1, but there's Ryan on court 19, finding the next Ethan Happ.

But it's not just recruiting. I'm sure it's also coaching. It's a system that teaches players how to react in certain situations. In order to drop the ball to a trailer the trailing player needs to be trailing. Ethan Happ arrived at Wisconsin with surprising talent for a guy with only Horizon League offers, but that system (and the players who know the system so well) make him that much better. We saw that here under Henson, Kruger, and Self.

I think the biggest "lack of creativity" void was emphasized by Trevor yesterday: not a single alley-oop this season. Kipper pointed for one (and the Minnesota defender had hesitated, meaning it was there), but Te'Jon didn't see him. I do think Te'Jon will see him in the future, given that he shows more creative potential then just about any Illini player since McCamey - but I really do think we're about to go an entire basketball season without one alley-oop. Somewhere, Kenny Battle is crying.

So as we begin to compile our wish lists for the future, this is probably #1 for me: a creative system with creative players to run it. I want to be in awe again, saying "how in the world did he see that?" to no one in particular as I pace around my living room. I want to get back to the Illinois Basketball of old. Someone, please: Make Illinois Basketball (C)reat(ive) Again.

Comments

ATOillini on February 07 @ 12:07 PM CST

It's funny that I too watched a fair amount of the Cavs/Wizards last night including all the 4th quarter and OT. Incredible game. But as to the Illini, I said to a friend several weeks ago that we're just a bad combination right now of innate basketball ability plus coaching. The whole thing just feels wrong.

You're analysis of Happ is spot on. He's no doubt massively better in that system with those coaches and teammates than he would be if he immediately transferred and was eligible to suit up in the orange and blue (or had somehow enrolled here originally). Wisconsin has so many players that somehow get better and better each year in their career. We seem to have constant plateauing and even some declines.

Like you, these days I also find myself perpetually reminiscing about excellent players from the past. You've named some great ones in this post (most of which were very high level recruits). If anyone has a tape of the Braggin' Rights game from Dee and Deron's freshman year I'd encourage them to watch it. Big stage, big game and you could already see things that portended a great future just over a month into their careers. Certainly we had a great coach, but those guys were creative and simply excellent basketball players on their own. Please (someone) get us back again.....

Efrem on February 07 @ 12:11 PM CST

I just think you get what you pay for. We don't have a good head coach who can teach team basketball or implement a real system on either end. We don't have good assistants so our players don't really develop or improve new/different skills. We don't have a good staff to help drive evaluation and recruiting. And so we have a team that finishes pretty close to .500 and towards the bottom of the conference

We basically need to do what we did for football. Pay for a great coach and give him the money he needs to hire great assistants and build a top notch staff to drive the acquisition of talent.

I'm hopeful Whitman will make that happen and in future years you won't have to write posts about our need for "creativity" as we'll have a staff that can teach kids how to play together and run an actual system that puts them in place to make shots and plays

larue on February 07 @ 12:24 PM CST

I think that what you are talking about can't be coached, not even at lower levels. You learn that stuff on the playground in pickup games. To have it at Frank's level, you probably need to be born with some natural aptitude.

And I'll go back to Self's assertion that you score 35% of your points from what you draw up, and 65% from talented guys making plays. None of that to excuse the coaching, which impacts every area in multiple ways, but if you want creativity on the court I think you mostly have to find it and recruit it.

Eagle on February 07 @ 04:08 PM CST

You’re correct that this is learned on the playground but incorrect that it can’t be taught. This is actually pretty simple. Our current Illini play like they are trying to match up with X’s and O’s that were drawn out for them, and when the play doesn’t work as planned, they don’t know what to do. Creativity only comes from teaching players how to think. I just taught this to 8th graders last week.

Once a player is taught to think like a football QB, they realize that all they are doing is continually looking for a defensive weakness to exploit. They have to dynamically evaluate the defense, find the weakness and exploit it. A QB can make that decision in about 3 seconds. A Bball player needs to continually do that. No plays need to be drawn out except to help create a defensive weakness. When basketball players are taught how to think, they are freed up to be creative, play moves quickly and baskets come pretty quickly. That’s why if you put the right 5 guys together on a pickup team, they can clean up even though they don’t have a coach and they’ve never practiced together.

After the game, the 8th grade point guard said, “That football analogy really helped,” and they played better than they’ve played all year.

HiggsBoson on February 07 @ 09:44 PM CST

Much truth here, but in Illini Land, I don't think dynamic and John Groce belong in the same paragraph.

Trevor on February 07 @ 02:15 PM CST

There's an element of this that has to do with players without the ball, not just with it. Off ball players need to create spaces and angles for creativity to thrive. That's something like flaring out to the corner after your man runs over the top of a screen to prevent you from catching on the wing. It's dragging your man away from the path of the ball rather than loitering in the paint.

If you're never rewarded for these types of activities you probably stop doing them as well so I can imagine it's a bit of a death spiral.

orangejulius on February 07 @ 02:57 PM CST

I happen to believe the game of college basketball (and football) for that matter is 95% recruiting. Not only getting the best-ranked players, but if you're in a position like Illinois and your program is down, finding the diamonds in the rough through scouting. Recruiting a well-rounded roster with players having complimentary skill-sets. The art of slow playing your secondary options so that if you miss on your primary target, you have a legit fallback.

I hate to pick on specific players, but Aaron Jordan, Jaylon Tate, Darius Paul, DJ Williams, Austin Colbert... too many misses. And there were many warning signs with some of these guys.

Even this being said, a little better luck and we might be having a much different discussion. Obviously, losing Kendrick Nunn was an enormous, enormous problem. The last minute decommit of Snyder. And one can go on and on.

Joe Edge on February 07 @ 04:17 PM CST

Too many misses, and too many 5th year guys who didn't mesh well with existing players. I know I've preached this often, and people are probably tired of me saying it... BUT.... the fact that JG didn't (couldn't?) recruit a top 100 high school PG or C for 4 years, just ruined this roster and this team... He gambled big, and he's now paying the piper....

orangejulius on February 07 @ 02:57 PM CST

I happen to believe the game of college basketball (and football) for that matter is 95% recruiting. Not only getting the best-ranked players, but if you're in a position like Illinois and your program is down, finding the diamonds in the rough through scouting. Recruiting a well-rounded roster with players having complimentary skill-sets. The art of slow playing your secondary options so that if you miss on your primary target, you have a legit fallback.

I hate to pick on specific players, but Aaron Jordan, Jaylon Tate, Darius Paul, DJ Williams, Austin Colbert... too many misses. And there were many warning signs with some of these guys.

Even this being said, a little better luck and we might be having a much different discussion. Obviously, losing Kendrick Nunn was an enormous, enormous problem. The last minute decommit of Snyder. And one can go on and on.

Groundhogday on February 07 @ 03:57 PM CST

Colbert was a reasonable risk - long bouncy big men are hard to find. But Aaron Jordan and Jaylon Tate just weren't that good in high school. We took Darius Paul TWICE despite huge red flags. DJ Williams was a disappointment in high school, with a notoriously poor motor.

Perhaps more importantly, loading up on transfers meant that we didn't actually recruit that many high school players. A fair number miss, all of a sudden we are heading into next season with perhaps five viable returning scholarship players.

But I'll disagree a bit on the importance of recruiting. It is certainly well of 50% of success, but when teams like Wisconsin win year after year without many top recruits or NBA players, you have to acknowledge the importance of implementing a system that gets the most out of available talent.

Bear8287 on February 08 @ 04:25 AM CST

But I'll disagree a bit on the importance of recruiting. It is certainly well of 50% of success, but when teams like Wisconsin win year after year without many top recruits or NBA players, you have to acknowledge the importance of implementing a system that gets the most out of available talent.

WORD.

mrmill on February 07 @ 10:18 PM CST

Other than Tate, all of those guys had legit p5 offers. Like the post said - there's a pretty good chance Ethan Happ isn't nearly as good if he comes here.

Hardly anyone gets better.

Groundhogday on February 07 @ 03:18 PM CST

Henson used to talk about this issue at length - how important it is to recruit guys who can create. You need at least one plus creator to be a top tier team, hopefully more. When the opposing team is playing really good defense, you need someone who can create their own shot, and/or create for others: Frank Williams, Deron Williams, Nick Anderson, Bruce Douglas. McCamey could create a bit, but was more of a guy who could succeed within a system. Malcolm Hill tries to be a creator, but he just doesn't have it - so more often than not forces the issue and hurts the team.

Of all the guys expected to be on next year's team, Frazier is the only one who might have a bit of that creative ability. In terms of targets, perhaps Mark Smith?

As for the ally oops - the problem there is that we lack the athleticism to execute reliably.

Groundhogday on February 07 @ 03:50 PM CST

Bruce Douglas. Can't seem to edit the post.

Bear8287 on February 08 @ 04:27 AM CST

Yeah, I think that whole "edit" thing was just a tease. :-D

OMG! I just hit "edit" and added this line! For reeeal!?

iluvrt on February 07 @ 04:04 PM CST

This team is so tense, any creativity is scared right out of them. Groce just cannot get this team to play and have fun doing it. The creativity we get is running into the lane crashing into three guys and getting rejected. That happens a few times, and we get the dribble around for 10 seconds, throw it around the outside and wait for a Hill step back or a JCL off balance three. I doubt there is one "creative" play a game. Dr. Scripto with his ouijie board substitution patterns and no shot is a bad shot philosophy does not engender creativity

HailToTheOrange on February 09 @ 10:08 PM CST

this is so spot on. and it hurts to no end. may brighter days be just beyond March...

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