Better than a blockbuster: The Spurs summer development program

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Kawhi Leonard’s development as a player this offseason might be bigger than anything the Spurs could’ve done in the free agent market. (Photo credit: Andrew Smith)

The Spurs have a track record of scouting and drafting well, being fiscally responsible and creating a strong team culture, arguably the best since the Red Auerbach Celtics. Where San Antonio doesn’t get enough credit, and maybe the NBA as a whole isn’t praised for this enough, is in offseason player development.

Players do not enter the league as finished projects, nor do they naturally improve as they mature. While many of the NBA’s players are what you might call naturally gifted, they’re by no means blessed with all that skill. Like everybody else, they get what they put in when it comes to effort and development. One of the ways the Spurs have done such a smooth job integrating so many younger players into what was once a veteran-filled roster, is through targeted practice and development.

For the Spurs, it starts at the top down. Head Coaches don’t spend a lot of their own time developing players during the offseason, that is handled primarily by assistant coaches. Gregg Popovich is normally no exception to this, but even he spent some time working in the summer with Richard Jefferson couple of years ago, trying to help Jefferson fit seamlessly into the Spurs system. While the RJ era was a failure in the long-run, the short term impact of Pop’s work with Jefferson was a success.

Going back to Danny Ferry’s Q&A with Grantland from earlier in the week, there’s a nugget that sheds some light on the Spurs’ approach to player development:

“It’s not just ‘Throw them out there and go ahead.’ It’s working on specific things and having a development plan for the player, and a buy-in from Pop that he’s gonna work with them and help them grow as people and players.”

For the Spurs, Assistant Coaches Chad Forcier and Chip Engelland are central to the current offseason development process. They meet with certain players on and off during the summer to go over areas of improvement, work at them and leave the player with specific instructions to work on.

Assistant coaches have their own lives to live, so they can’t all summer working with their players, many of whom keep their offseason homes in places other than South Texas. Instead they travel and meet with a player a few times during the offseason to run through workouts and gauge progress, then those players will work with their own trainers using the feedback left behind by the assistants. For instance, Danny Green and Forcier worked out five times over a period of three days in Las Vegas during the Summer League, then Danny went back to New York to workout on his own and host his basketball camp.

Forcier, it must be said, has a growing rep as a coach excelling in player development. We all know Chip Engelland‘s exploits as a shooting coach, including his time-crunched work with Kawhi Leonard last summer, but Forcier is making a name for himself with the Spurs player development program. He was a big reason for George Hill’s improvement with the Spurs and helped along the continual ascension of Tony Parker.

Hill serves as “Exhibit A” in the body of evidence supporting Forcier’s skill in developing players…”Chad wants to see you improve even more than you want to improve,” Hill said. “You don’t see that from many coaches. From watching film to breaking down every single aspect of a move you’re working on or putting you in scenarios that make you better, everything he does is unique.

“Since Day 1 of my rookie year, he told me the corner 3-pointer was where I was going to make a name for myself, along with my defense. I give him all the credit for that aspect of my game.”

For small market teams like the Spurs, where the free agents rarely flock and the luxury tax is a thing to be feared, investing franchise money in player development can garner some of the best return on investment. While the necessary players are still required to make that improvement a success, good player development can reinforce, and even improve upon, the gains made during the season and turn rotation players into All-Stars and D-Leaguers into NBA players.

 

  • imwithstupid

    Nice read, it is good to see these guys get some recognition, especially since they leave their fingerprints on all of the players they train.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=173600134 Ryan McShane

    Looking forward to Thursday and Friday

  • DorieStreet

    Appreciate the insight about the Spurs’ assistant coaches and their duties. Whether attending a game in person or viewing it on tv, I look at those guys on the leagues’s benches at times, and wonder what specific responsibilities and tasks each man has.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    Each assistant, both on the bench and behind the bench, has a certain number of teams that they’re in charge of for scouting purposes. So one assistant may have the Mavs, Lakers, Raptors, Rockets and a couple other ones that they have to provide the scouting reports on and should know more about than the other assistants.

  • STIJL

    I had a long discussion with somebody just a few days ago regarding this same topic. They thought I was crazy when I was adhering to players putting in “practice” to help develop their skill sets. Especially the one’s in which they are weak.

    Hope that person finds their way to reading your article.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    *cough* email button *cough*

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  • JustinFL

    Great read. Anyone who has followed the Spurs the last few years has noticed the role and success player development has had for this team. I think that’s why as fans we look at other teams’ mediocre players and think that the trainers and coaches can turn them into good players for the Spurs. I’m sure there’s more to player development than that, but as an optimistic Spurs fan, I tend to share their sentiment as well.

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  • lvmainman

    Can someone please explain, Why only once in the past 5 years has Tony Parker shot better than 30% from the 3 pt line? Shouldn’t that be added to his game, ala Magic and Jordan? Don’t the coaches emphasize that Parker would be more dangerous with the ability to make the 3 and drive as well? Or does Parker not see that as a weakness that needs to be improved on?