The most important lesson I ever learned in basketball?
My first two years in the NBA, coaches and veteran players said it to me over and over.
Young guys in the league don’t know how to “slow down.” I know, because I was one of those hot shot young players and I didn’t have any idea. Go slower? I wasn’t hearing it.
Was it like when you’re driving through a 35 MPH zone and you see a state trooper and you slow down to 30? Slowing down was the opposite of how I approached the game. I didn’t see the point.
Coming into the league, I knew I had two strengths: I could post guys up. And I was fast. Why would I want to take away one of my advantages? When I left college, I was nervous about competing in a bigger, faster league. On the Mavericks, my first two years in the league, I thought I had to rely on my speed to survive.
Looking back, my mistake was that I only had one gear. The fastest gear.
As a young player, you think you can take ‘em all. Three guys in front of me? I can take ‘em all. I thought I knew better. I would get the ball — I’d board it myself if I could — and I’d just take off. Fast break after fast break, I would beat my own guys down the court. My teammates would always be behind me, trying to catch up. They would say “We can’t run with you.” I was off to the races.
A lot of times I could take on the whole team. But I wasn’t a shoot-first point guard, so I would end up having to throw the ball backwards to make plays. Or I would force a tough shot. Sometimes I would get fouled or make a great shot, but there were a lot of bad shots in there. When you’re a rookie, it’s hard to realize, “That’s a bad shot.”
It took me more than two years to figure out that this wasn’t the best way to run the break. Around the time I joined the Suns, things clicked. There’s a saying in basketball, “Let the play develop.” Two and a half years into the league, I started to figure out what it meant. Passing lanes appeared out of nowhere. My options multiplied. The court opened up and the game slowed down. And I definitely stopped shooting as many forced shots.
There’s a rhythm to how a play unfolds in the NBA. There’s a certain song to it, and the good players move with the song. You have to be aware of spacing — that may be the most important thing. Look at the veteran San Antonio teams and how good their spacing is. They’re never right on top of each other and never too far away. Look at their ball movement. Look at how they move as a unit and how they never look frenzied. You can’t force spacing or timing — you gotta let it develop. Good teams beat you with speed. Great teams beat you with spacing and timing.
Now, as a coach, I see it all the time. Slowing down doesn’t mean taking it easy. It’s about not rushing. Nineteen and 20-year-old guys want to rush. Some rookies think they have to go fast because it’s the NBA, but a lot of them go so fast that it just messes up the whole play. You can be the fastest guy around, but if you match up the fastest against a guy with good timing, and I’ll choose the second guy every time.
When I got older and I lost a step or two, the concept of slowing down helped me even more. Young guys still couldn’t beat me because they were easier to predict. They’d be running around crazy, spending all their energy, and I would know exactly where they’d be on the floor.
Now, I’m not saying don’t dunk it once in a while. If you’re a point guard, you definitely gotta dunk it once in a while. Keep ‘em honest:
I know it doesn’t make sense yet, but try to take it down a gear. Soon you’ll be saying to yourself: Wow, the game just got a whole lot easier.
Maybe someday, a few years from now, you’ll be where I am, in the coach’s seat telling a new generation of young guys the same thing.