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How returning college stars can improve

4/30/2013

As a coach, I often told my players that "great teams are made from October to April, but great players are made from April to October." As much as coaches want to improve individual skills during the season, much of practice time is spent, logically, on building on team concepts and in preparation for opponents.

But now that the season is over, this is the optimum time for motivated players to start to attack some of their own weaknesses and turn them into strengths. In fact, every returning player in college basketball should have a game plan for his own improvement.

Here are a number of outstanding players who can be even more effective next season with some extra sweat equity this summer.


Jahii Carson, G, Arizona State Sun Devils

What he should work on: Outside shooting and driving to his left

There are few players in college basketball who are quicker than Carson from baseline to baseline. He averaged almost 19 points a game as a freshman, and that's with everyone in the arena knowing he was going to dribble with his right hand. After considering entering the NBA draft, the 5-foot-11 freshman has decided to return for another season with a couple of goals in mind: improving his shooting and ability to attack with his left hand.

The Sun Devils' coaching staff has Carson shooting from the NBA 3-point line during his spring workouts, in part to motivate him to improve in anticipation of playing in the league some day. The other, and more important reason, is to create an "overload" situation during his workouts. As long as he isn't straining to shoot from 23 feet, 9 inches -- the NBA line -- the 3.5-foot difference should make the college shot behind the arc feel like a short jumper next season.

According SynergySportsTech, Carson drives right 76 percent of the time. Learning to attack off the dribble with his left hand can only add another opportunity to use his blinding speed. If that happens and he improves on his 32 percent 3-point shooting, he'd be nearly impossible to guard next season.


Doug McDermott, F, Creighton Bluejays

What he should work on: Play like a small forward

If McDermott can stay injury-free as a senior, there is a good chance he will end up among the top 10 scorers in NCAA history. His career offensive efficiency has been outstanding, shooting 82 percent from the foul line, 59 percent inside the arc and 46 percent from behind the arc. But there are ways he can get even better.

As effective as McDermott has been around the basket -- last season nearly 65 percent of his shots were in the lane -- he can be even harder to defend next year if he could play more like a small forward. It would mean spending time on his ballhandling creativity this summer. That would allow him to become more dangerous in isolation situations off the dribble, both from the perimeter and in face-up opportunities off post-ups.

McDermott moves well without the ball in cuts to the basket in part because the Bluejays' set-play offense is designed to post him up. But with his ability to shoot the long ball, I'd spend time working on getting him open off screens in order to take advantage of his perimeter strengths.

McDermott will never be a small forward in Creighton's offense, but there is nothing wrong with adding ways to be an even more effective offensive player. His fastball is already pretty good, but adding a changeup to his repertoire will make him even harder to guard next season.


C.J. Fair, F, Syracuse Orange

What he should work on: Attacking the basket with his right hand

Few are better than Jim Boeheim at putting a capable player in position to succeed on the offensive end of the floor. He's done it time and time again. And he will do it again next season with the 6-8 Fair, the Orange's leading returning scorer.

Fair averaged more than 14 points and seven rebounds a game last season, and he's continued to improve his shooting stroke and ability to move without the ball. But in isolation situations -- a big part of Syracuse's offense -- opponents know he is a dominant left-handed driver. In fact, when he drives right near the basket, he likes to spin back to his dominant hand. On the perimeter, he drives right to a step-back jump shot. It's fairly predictable.

If Fair is willing to improve on his ability to attack the basket with his right hand at full throttle, it's going to help him enormously by adding another way to score, putting defenders in foul trouble and keeping them guessing. If he puts the work in this summer, he is capable of an All-American season. An average line of 20 points and 10 rebounds per game as a senior is not out of the question.


Glenn Robinson III, F, Michigan Wolverines

What he should work on: Using and reading screens

Until Trey Burke joined the Wolverines and enjoyed the opportunity to operate off ball screens, coach John Beilein's offense usually involved more ball movement. With Burke and his ability to attack off the dribble departed to the NBA, the Wolverines will be back to relying on that ball movement even more next season. That will require an electric talent like Robinson to make intelligent cuts off screens to be a big part of his improvement plan this summer.

Robinson was a great garbage man as a freshman, scoring on energy baskets in transition, on cuts to the basket and on offensive rebounds. If he wants an increased role in Michigan's offense, he'll spend time in the gym utilizing a variety of shooting drills that involve reading his defender and moving off screens.

Though Robinson struggled from behind the 3-point line as a freshman, he actually made 43 percent of his 2-point jump shots, according to hoop-math.com. Few coaches teach shooting like Beilein, and Robinson clearly has the raw tools to develop into one of the Big Ten's best players, if he puts in the work.


Davante Gardner, F, Marquette Golden Eagles

What he should work on: Low-post defensive pride

Gardner will never be mistaken for a member of the Joffrey Ballet, but he has improved his conditioning and agility significantly since he arrived on the Marquette campus three seasons ago. And while the hard work has been reflected on the offensive end of the court, he still played only 22 minutes a game as a junior.

It's a safe assumption that coach Buzz Williams will keep Gardner in the gym and on the treadmill this summer to continue to keep his weight under control. That will be critical, because the biggest jump Gardner can make in his game is on the defensive end. Both his defensive rebounding rate of 14.9 percent and block rate of 3.1, according to kenpom.com, are pedestrian at best.

Defensive success for Gardner requires motivation, and motivation requires effort, and effort requires a high level of fitness. If he is motivated to improve, Gardner can be a dominant Big East player almost every night and not just once out of every three or four nights. That's my goal for him this summer.


Gary Harris, G, Michigan State Spartans

What he should work on: Ballhandling

No one should question Harris' toughness. The former star high school wide receiver played most of his freshman season with a left shoulder injury that kept him from being 100 percent after November. Despite the injury, he was second on the Spartans in scoring and was voted the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year.

With no surgery needed and rehab on the shoulder underway for Harris, being completely healthy is the first order of business. Then he will have the rest of the summer to shore up an offensive area that I believe will make him even more dangerous next season: ballhandling.

Harris proved to be an accurate shooter from the 3-point line this season, making 41 percent of his attempts. But his midrange game and ability to draw fouls at the basket will be enhanced if he can improve his ability to escape pressure defense off the dribble. He'll improve on his rate of 2.7 free throw attempts per game and his 34 percent shooting on 2-point jump-shot attempts.

Tom Izzo has said that Spartans fans have not seen the real Gary Harris because of the shoulder injury. The former Indiana Mr. Basketball should take care of that this summer in the Berkowitz Basketball Complex with hours of ballhandling drills. I can't wait to see the result in November.


Isaiah Austin, F, Baylor Bears

What he should work on: Becoming a dominant low-post scorer

Time will tell if the 7-1 Austin made the right move in returning to Waco for his sophomore season. A couple of NBA scouts whose teams pick in the middle of this year's draft were disappointed because of the dearth of big men left by the time they select, and that's right around the time that Austin was projected to be picked. But in my mind, Austin can make this a great decision and improve his draft stock next season by becoming a dominant low-post scorer as a sophomore.

First of all, Austin plays like a guy who believes his offensive strengths are on the perimeter, and that's not necessarily bad because he has unique skills for his size. But that terrific shooting touch and ability to use both hands accurately around the basket, along with a commitment to gaining weight, adding muscle and strengthening his lower body base, could turn him into the country's best low-post scorer next season.

I watched Austin get banged around last season and it was not because of a lack of toughness. Although he played the season at 220 pounds, he has a good competitive motor and ended the season with 10 double-doubles, the most of any freshman in a power conference. Committing to become a stronger player and utilizing his tremendous length and scoring touch around the basket will transform his game.

Sticking in the NBA long-term has a lot to do with who you can guard. Austin's not going to want to spend his time chasing small forwards off of screens. So the best way for him to have success next season and beyond, in my opinion, is to become an offensive force inside and stretch the defense on occasion with his perimeter skills.