Evolutions of the Offense DVD by John Wooden, Swen Nater
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John Wooden's UCLA Offense

Book Excerpt - Evolutions of the Offense*

From John Wooden's UCLA Offense by John Wooden, Swen Nater

As a young high school coach in Dayton, Kentucky, my first offense was identical to what we used when I played at Purdue in the early 1930s. Although screens were used at times, for the most part, the offense was initiated with a pass to the high post or the forward, followed by sharp cutting to the basket. At the time, I believed the difficulties we had executing the offense were because of deficiencies in our personnel. Then I made an adjustment that helped a great deal.

UCLA Cut and Ball Reversal

I added the high-post screen, after the guard passed to the wing (see figure 1.7). I had two reasons for this: (1) to provide for an inside scoring threat to initiate the offense—something I felt, and still feel, strongly about—and (2) to allow the forward to pass the ball to the high post if the cutting guard wasn’t open. I wanted the ball at the high post so the center could immediately look to the weak-side forward positioned in the lane.

Side-Post Game and Ball Reversal

At South Bend Central High School in Indiana, my next teaching and coaching assignment, I added another option I think improved our offense—the side-post game. As successful as the pass from the forward to the high post was, after the UCLA cut, there were occasions when the forward was unable to pass to the cutting guard or to the center at the high post. His only option was a pass back out to the other guard. This usually resulted in resetting the offense. I wanted immediate action on the other side. I had to come up with something that would quickly attack the weak side and keep the ball moving. The result was what is known as the side-post game. When the forward passed out to the guard, the weak-side forward came to the high post to receive the pass from the guard, and the guard cut off this forward, looking for the handoff (see figure 1.8).

To keep weak-side defenders occupied away from the side-post action, and to provide another scoring option, I added a double down screen on the other side. If the high-post forward chose not to explore the side-post option, or if a weak-side defender became too concerned with stopping the side-post play, another scoring opportunity would present itself (see figure 1.9).

Guard Reverse

Something I learned early on was that the offense worked best when it was initiated by moving the ball from strong side to weak side by a guard-to-guard pass, followed by a pass to the forward. Since weak-side players generally sag toward the ball, quick ball movement ensured a guard-to-forward entry pass. For most of my teams, I preferred to start the offense this way because the guard-to-forward pass was immediately followed by a vertical cut—the UCLA cut. This worked well for some time. However, while I was at South Bend, one opposing coach was wise enough to have the second guard’s defender play the passing lane, preventing us from swinging the ball. As a result of this weakness in our offensive attack, the guard reverse became part of the offense.

I taught our weak-side forward to watch how the defense was playing the guard on his side and, if he saw pressure, to come immediately to the high post to receive the ball. I told the weak-side guard who was being overplayed to cut to the basket, looking for the backdoor pass from the forward (see figure 1.10). However, I didn’t want the offense to stop there; we needed another immediate scoring threat to follow the backdoor play. Therefore, if the guard did not receive the ball, he continued through and came off a double screen, set by the center and forward, on the other side (see figure 1.11). The guard who passed the ball to the forward replaced the cutting guard to balance the floor and provide defensive protection. The guard reverse worked extremely well, and when used occasionally, it continued to do so for the rest of my coaching career.

In the 1910s and 1920s, Dr. Walter E. Meanwell, Hall of Fame coach of the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin, strongly believed in backdoor action. One of his plays clearly demonstrates attacking the defense with a high set, passing the ball to the high-post area, and reversing players to the basket.

Guard 1 brings the ball into the frontcourt while 2 balances the floor in the two-guard front. The forwards, 3 and 4, sprint down the wings below the free throw line extended and come up to the two elbows of the lane. The center, 5, cuts straight toward the basket and then comes to the high post at the correct time. Player 1 passes to either one of the forwards (in this case 3). Player 3 “slap passes” the ball to 5, who arrives in time to catch the ball, and both 3 and 4 reverse to the basket, looking for the backdoor pass (see figure 1.12).

Pete Newell, coach of the 1960 national champion University of California at Berkeley and one of the finest teachers I have seen, often began a game with a guard reverse. An opposing coach was usually well aware of this strategy; it was infamous among coaches. But no matter how many times the opposing coach warned his players during the previous week of practice or even immediately before the game, the play always seemed to work.

Additional Adaptations

After adding the guard reverse, the general structure and movement of the offense were pretty much complete, and with various adjustments to place talented scoring players where they belonged, our offense was able to handle any defense I had seen. However, through the years, I continued to pick up ideas, and I implemented some of them. I also adjusted the offense from year to year based on my personnel, although I never compromised the principles of triangles, spacing, and defining specific and limited roles for the players.

For example, when Lewis Alcindor (now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) joined our team, I didn’t think that having him start at the high post was in our best interest nor his. Although the high-post offense would bring him to the low post eventually, I didn’t want him handling the ball up there at the high post; we had other players who could fulfill that responsibility better.

With Lewis at the high post when the UCLA cut occurred, his defender would surely sag and stop the cutting guard from scoring if he received the pass from the forward. In addition, I didn’t feel comfortable having him pass to the ducking weak-side forward. I wanted him close to the basket for scoring and rebounding reasons.

Determined to create an offensive system that would take full advantage of Lewis without diminishing the offensive effectiveness of the other players or sacrificing principles such as ball movement and flexibility, I came up with a variation of the high-post offense that we called the high-low offense (see figure 1.13). Although it did not have the degree of player movement I wanted, it was effective, both against zone and man-to-man defenses. Only two of my teams used that offense: Alcindor’s and Walton’s. The rest used selected plays and versions of the high post.

* To reprint this excerpt with permission from Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc., please contact the publicity department at 1-800-747-4457 or publicity@hkusa.com.

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