Positionless Basketball is a newfangled approach in the NBA that could be coming to College Basketball.
Versatility and flexibility are trends in Basketball that are not going away, Positionless Basketball takes full advantage of these trends in a style that is challenging to combat with a traditionally composed lineup. NBA coaches not exactly known for innovation have found new ways to take advantage of international talent that are accustomed to spacing and playing a face-up game along with bigger, stronger and more skilled ball-handlers. Positionless Basketball is in a way the most extreme and fullest expression of some of the most core concepts of the Flex Offense and it creates interesting defensive matchups. What exactly is Positionless Basketball and could UGA be implementing it as soon as next season or even in the 2017-18 Season?
What is Positionless Basketball?
Here’s what everyone is accustomed to seeing in Men’s Basketball:
- Point Guard: Typically 5’8″ to 6’4″ in height with above average Free Throw Shooting, average or better perimeter shooting, above average ball handling, above average passer, man-to-man defense against the smallest guy on the floor and serves as the Primary Ball Handler or Floor General.
- Shooting Guard: Typically 6’3″ to 6’6″ in height with above average Free Throw Shooting, above average perimeter shooting, average ball handling and man-to-man defense against the second smallest guy on the floor. May be needed to score off cuts and opportunistic dribble drive attempts, but generally finds himself in a catch-and-shoot role on offense.
- Small Forward: Typically 6’5″ to 6’8″ in height with average Free Throw Shooting, average or better perimeter shooting, has a mid-range game, average passing capability, can play off the high post when needed and needs to be able defend face-up and posted up. Scores off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot.
- Power Forward: Typically 6’7″ to 6’10” in height with below average Free Throw Shooting, average or worse perimeter shooting, has a mid-range game either from the high post or in catch-and-shoot, below average ball handling, primary rebounder, can block shots and is called upon to set screens frequently.
- Center: Typically 6’9″ or taller in height with below average Free Throw Shooting, no perimeter capabilities, poor mid-range shooter, typically isolated to the low block in terms of activities, has back-to-the basket game, finishes effectively inside the restricted arc and is the primary shot blocker.
That’s the typical lineup and it is reflective of a by-gone era. For many programs and teams, the roles have changed and lineups necessitate different approaches, pace of play and systems that favor the composition of the roster.
Positionless Basketball was popularized by the Miami Heat under Eric Spoelstra in the Salad Days of the Big Three. The Miami Heat with Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the supporting cast were all a part of a Positionless Basketball system that was meant to take advantage of their power and versatility in positions that were not exactly known for it. The concept of Positionless Basketball challenges the paradigm that big men cannot be on the perimeter and that players of shooting guard height do not have to live on the perimeter. The shortest on the floor should not have to be the designated Point Guard, what does height have to do with ball handling skill?
How seriously did Eric Spoelstra take Positionless Basketball?
“Battier isn’t supposed to say the words “power forward.” Nor are any of the Heat players. Spoelstra has stricken the use of conventional position labels from the team’s vocabulary. What started as “pace and space” last season has evolved into what Spoelstra calls “position-less basketball.”” – Tom Haberstroh, ESPN October 22, 2012.
Was Spoelstra alone in his thinking? After all, he had two guaranteed future Hall of Fame Basketball players on his roster. The answer of course is ‘no’ because Coach K had a similar thought.
“Our game doesn’t have a position… You have five guys working together trying to stop the other five guys from creating a shot. The fact that a big guy is going to play closer — what if you didn’t have a big guy?” – Mike Krzyzewski
The way the game is taught at a younger age is actually better because taller kids are no longer parked near the basket to rebound and watch a ball-hogging short kid chuck up shots. Coaches and trainers are now teaching taller kids to play like guards and this has forced the change in the game. Defensive skills have taken a back seat with trainers, coaches and AAU, but the offensive skills have not.
In a true Positionless Basketball style, the following could apply:
- Man-to-Man Defensive Assignments are not based on height, but rather strengths and weaknesses in the individual matchup.
- Zone Defensive Assignments may dictate that a previously designated Power Forward come up toward the perimeter to utilize his length.
- The height of the players on the floor is not too disparate: Shortest man on the floor could be 6’4″ and the tallest could be 6’9″.
- Everyone can post-up and play face-up.
- Everyone can shoot the three point shot with respectability.
- Everyone is a threat to drive to the rim.
- Everyone is capable of cutting.
- The interchangeability of players in an offensive set can be demonstrated from possession-to-possession without substitutions or stoppages.
The last point is important because Positionless Basketball is not a simple extension of Dribble Drive Motion Offense or any sort of a specialized offense, it is an overall philosophy or style that changes the way the game is played for an entire game or for when a coach calls for it to happen during select portions of a game. Positionless Basketball can be within the confines of a Flex Offense, Motion Offense, Triangle Offense, Continuity Offense or even the Swing Offense. It does not make a difference, the numbers within the offense stay the same, but the personnel filling each role can change each time on offense and on defense. It is designed to eliminate predictability.
Can Georgia Go Positionless Next Season?
Yes and no. Georgia cannot reasonably play Positionless Basketball with J.J. Frazier on the floor. Frazier does not have the length or ability to guard everyone on the floor and his game requires him to start his action from the perimeter. J.J. Frazier has to cut, drive or shoot with everything emanating from the 3 point line or beyond. J.J. Frazier should not play more than 30 minutes a game as the concern is that he may wear down at points during the season.
When J.J. Frazier is not on the floor, it provides an opportunity for the crafters of the UGA Offense, Mark Fox and Philip Pearson to do something that they have not done before. During the Fox era, the talent has almost always fit into the traditional roles and the staff has pigeon-holed the talent. There have been tastes of change lately when Georgia faced Kentucky at Stegeman Coliseum in 2015 and of course the exercise of greater versatility shown in the last eight games of last season. Recruits are not blind, they know the game and they see what this Georgia team is doing and what may be coming down the road. When frontcourt recruits start using the word ‘versatility’ with regularity, it says something about what the coaches are doing and what the future holds. The word ‘versatility’ is used when it comes to UGA, not programs competing against UGA. These are recruits in their own words making these comments.
When J.J. Frazier is not on the floor, it is entirely possible to see a lineup that looks like this:
- Turtle Jackson
- Yante Maten
- E’Torrion Wilridge
- Pape Diatta
- Jordan Harris
This is just one lineup possibility, but consider this: Where are they going to be positioned on offense and defense? Good luck guessing. Opposing coaches are going to have a hard time figuring out who is playing each spot on the floor. All it takes is for Mark Fox to embrace cross-training his freshmen and the process becomes that much faster. There are only just so many sets that Fox runs and he already flips his 4 and 5 on the high post frequently as is for the same sets. The 4 and 5 spots have been blurred at UGA to the point where they can be viewed as 4A and 4B. How long before we see a 2 or 3 parked on the high post with cutting, screening and slashing 4s and 5s?
With E’Torrion Wilridge and Kenny Paul Geno, this is very possible as both proved themselves to be above average at passing and decision-making when driving to the basket. Wilridge and Geno can both shoot adequately enough to garner respect. Both can also play in the paint as well.
This is just ten minutes of a game when J.J. Frazier is not on the floor. When Frazier is off the floor, opposing coaches are typically viewing that time as an opportunity that must be seized. However, if the entire complexion of the Georgia lineup changes to the point where an opponent is completely unprepared, it becomes a nightmare to face. Not every coach has the lineup that Mark Fox has at his disposal. Without a designated Floor General making himself obvious and without pre-designated roles, things can get crazy out there. Coaches will have to adjust on defense like they are facing a team that runs a 5 out offense, but yet the offense can easily go 3 out 2 in with two men on each low block.
This season, UGA could be just giving everyone a taste of a Positionless style. 2017-18 may present the opportunity to play Positionless for all 40 minutes of a game. Mark Fox and his staff would have to be crazy not to consider playing Positionless considering the way this staff has recruited, prioritized and shifted.