With the Clips off the tube for, like, three weeks, I thought I'd sate my Basketball Jones by traveling down to Santa Fe Springs to watch Friend o' Clipperblog Dave Han's fightin' St. Linus Lions (3-1) battle St. Gregory (3-1) in a matchup of two elite Catholic Youth Organization League teams [Big Ten Division].

When you watch an unhealthy amount of pro and college ball, it's always interesting to see a suburban middle-school Catholic league game.  These kids are 12, 13, and 14.  It's fascinating to observe, because the game is governed by the same basic rules.  But, obviously, the skill sets are different.  Kids at this age are just beginning to grow into their bodies.  Most of them have probably grown several inches in the past couple of years.  Remember when you were a kid how the hoop seemed to get closer and closer with each passing season? 

The Lions lose a heartbreaker.  They jump out to a 12-1 lead and lead most of the way, with the exception of a couple of lead changes down the stretch.  They’re a great hustle team with a sound collective basketball I.Q. But St. Gregory’s sharpshooter (#10 in your playbook) is aflame from beyond the arc, and he hits a huge 3PM with about two minutes left that puts St. Greg up four.  St. Linus doesn’t have enough time to recover and falls short.

As is the case with most pre-pubescent ball, the team with the hottest shooter wins the game.  But my sense is that the Lions are undoubtedly the better fundamental team – and certainly better-coached. 

A couple of notes:

•    I don’t know why it surprises me, but both teams operate so much better in transition.  That’s how a disproportionate amount of the points are scored.  Here’s how St. Linus builds its early lead:  On the second possession of the game, the Lions clear the glass.  Quickly, they get the ball into the hands of their combo guard (#5); all the while, one their big dogs (#38) immediately situates himself under the basket.  Before St. Greg can orient themselves, St. Linus has already pushed it ahead to the biggest kid on the court.  Easy layup.  It’s a case of knowing where to be on a basketball.  If you’re the kid who towers over all the others, get your body down on the left block at any point the ball is moving upcourt in transition.  #38 was heady enough to realize this.  But Catholic League middle-school ball is just like the pros:  As the game wears on, there are fewer transition opportunities and things begin to settle into a halfcourt game. 

•    When St. Linus runs a set, it’s generally a high S/R to let their point penetrate.  Their PG (#23) is a cerebral kid.  The pick generally doesn’t result in the easy layup you’d want for him, but it tends to force St. Gregory to move off their assignments and collapse on the driver.  Meanwhile, Linus’ bigs (#38, #28…in my day, you couldn’t have digits larger than 0-5 on your jersey.  What gives?) set up directly on the block.  And that’s how St. Linus wins the rebounding battle.   Moral:  Even at this level, motion in the offense tends to open stuff up.

•    Entry passes are tough things to execute until you’ve really mastered the game.  It requires precision.  That was the toughest thing for these kids.  There were definitely post-up opportunities, but kids at this age are still working on that kind of stuff.  Hell, so are a quarter of the players in the Association.   

•    Your 5th grade coach told you ad naseum, but it’s true:  The better outside shooters are the ones who get the most arc on their shot. 

•    Defense is a tough thing to learn.  Dave has the team playing a 1-2-1….maybe a 2-3  The kids have been taught well, but one thing that kills the Lions’ is their tendency to leave their assignment to double an opponent who’s still 17 feet from the hoop.  [I think there's an inclination to swarm the kid with the ball].  They’d be better off patrolling the arc, and making sure a killer like #10 is never left uncovered.  It’s just like Gregg Popovich would tell ‘em:  Stay At Home.  The value of the double-team at this level is probably overrated.  Because most of these kids are going to have trouble sinking a 17-footer with a single defender all over them.  But they can hit open shots – even from beyond.  As sharp as St. Greg’s #10 is today, only one of his 3PMs is truly contested because the Lions drifted off him.  And he’s deadly when left alone. 

•    The refs call a bunch of illegal screens on St. Linus, which is frustrating – not only because they’re sound screens, but because a guy like Dave is trying to teach these kids some quality fundamentals.  But when a ref starts nit-picking a 13-year-old’s screens, it discourages the kid from performing them in the future.  If the kid is truly pancaking the defender, then, yeah, the ref should call it – if only to demonstrate what’s permissible and what isn’t.  But what I see today from St. Linus’ bigs is good, sound – if inchoate – offensive work.  And when the whistle blows, you could see the confusion and dejection.  That’s not good for kids trying to learn the game. 

The Lions will continue to improve.  They’re a pretty good fundamental team.  A great hustle team.  They take far fewer bad shots than St. Greg’s does this afternoon.  They rebound exceptionally well (#28 & #38 are beastly, know how to establish position).  It’s those turnovers on ill-advised passes in the halfcourt that hurt them.  A quick appraisal of what’s available – which guys are truly open and which guys aren’t – will vastly improve their point total and prevent their opponent from getting out in transition.  Most important, they need to guard the perimeter.  When there’s a solitary shooter like #10 who’s killing you, you put a GPS device on him and never let him breathe.