True Hoops

True Hoops

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Point Guard Project - Sam Cassell

Welcome to the 12th edition of the Point Guard Project.

Previous participants:
PGP1 - John Lucas
PGP2 - Luke Ridnour
PGP3 - Jrue Holiday
PGP4 - Ricky Rubio
PGP5 - Royal Ivey
PGP6 - Damian Lillard
PGP7 - Derek Fisher
PGP8 - Stephen Curry
PGP9 - Chauncey Billups
PGP10 - Derek Rose
PGP11 - Ty Lawson

Today we are joined by Sam Cassell

What you thought the PGP would be limited to only current NBA players?
Well, you thought wrong.

Why wouldn't we jump at the opportunity to talk to Sam? He played 15 years in the NBA with career averages of 15.7 points and 6 assists a go along with three NBA championships.  His numbers may not seem too astronomical by today's point guard standards - but the chips mean a lot.

His first two years in the NBA he won with the Rockets. While he didn't have to do too much heavy lifting on those squads - he still made some really big plays during the playoffs (as many Knicks fans remember). After that he bounced around several teams throughout his career - but at almost each stop he had a dramatic affect on his team's performance.

He helped lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2001 - averaging 18 & 8 that year. He helped lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Western conference Finals in 2004 (this was the first time Kevin Garnett got out of the first round) - averaging 20 & 7 along the way. His first year with the LA clippers he led them to the playoffs for the first time in 8 years (ultimately the 2nd round) - he averaged 17 & 6 that year. And finally, his last year in the NBA he served as a role player to help Boston win the NBA chip in 2008.

That means 1/3rd of Sam's career was spent in the conference Finals/NBA Finals. He also made one all-star appearance.

Sam is listed as 6'3" and 193 ibs. He was drafted 24th in the '93 draft out of Florida State. He currently is a coach for the the Washington Wizards and in particular works with John Wall.

Mr. Cassell, welcome to the Point Guard Project:

Summary of answers:

1) Grew up watching Jeff Hornacek. Favorite player in the NBA. When he got his time to play in the league and he saw him , he was like "wow, that's my idol right there." Hornacek was slow like him and crafty like him. He felt their games were similar.

2) First memorable Point guard match-up (or person he hated to play against): Kevin Johnson. Yes. Yes. Just speed... with a jump shot. He was John Wall with a hell of a jump shot. Had a hell of a first step. He was trouble.

3) Definition for the job of a point guard: Extension of the coach. Got to be able to pull guys together
and communicate on the court like the coach wants you to. You are the coach on the court, you orchestrate everything.

4) Pass vs shoot: He liked to shoot. But the game tells you what to do. If you play it the right way. Some nights he had to score 30, some nights he had to get 14 assists. He had the luxury to do both.

5) Typical workout: Never worked on ball handling. Just gifted and natural with ball handling. To work on got to dribble. No drill will teach you. There are certain gimmicks guys practice - bouncing two balls, between the legs - but those are just gimmicks. You have to be able to handle the ball. Change speeds, change directions - with pressure on you. Dribble the ball with pressure on you. Can't really teach that.

As far as shooting - wasn't a great three point shooter. So really mastered the mid-range game. Thought every pull-up jump shot was going in. Some times it didn't. But thought it was going in.
Make a 1000 shots a day - Pull-up jump shots, mostly off the dribble. Never got too many shots off the pass, his game was catered to shooting off the dribble. And utilized a lot of pick and roles because he couldn't out quick nobody.

6) For aspiring point guards: Oh. It's a hard job. It's a demanding job. But it's a fun job.
There are a lot of responsibilities to being a point guard, especially on this level (NBA). Everyone wants the ball. You just have to maintain a strong mind. And make the next play.

Wow. This was fun.
There are some guys that you can tell just love to talk about basketball. Line up the questions and they'll knock 'em down! Sam Cassell is one of those guys. He was just gushing and smiling while dropping knowledge. And after the interview, when I said "thank you," he shook my hand! It was as if he was saying, "thank you for letting me rap about the game."

I never would have guessed Hornacek was his favorite player. Besides that fact that Hornacek was a shooting guard - would you expect a black kid from Baltimore to grow up idolizing a white guy playing in Phoenix/Utah? But that is part of the beauty of the game - what it transcends. Surprises aside, perhaps recognizing a similar style of play (slow and crafty) is an important thing. Such a commonality with someone in a profession you dream about having enables a certain confidence that it is possible to achieve it yourself. It provides sort of a tailor made blueprint.

There are a couple of things that really interest me here.

Remember last time, with Ty Lawson, I brought up the fact that he mentioned that he doesn't really work on ball handling? Here is what I said:

"Why waste time with convoluted moves when you can simply blow by your man? And what is complicated about a quick change of direction to create space......and if worse comes to worse, just use a screen to either get by your man or create a mismatch on a switch. 
Perhaps more than anything, the essentials of ball handling for points are: changing speed, changing direction..... and mastery of the pick and roll. All of these are suffice to keep your defender at a disadvantage"  

Well, Sam Cassell told me that he never really worked on ball handling and that:

"No Drill will teach you......bouncing two balls, betwen the legs - those are just gimmicks. You have to be able to change speeds and change direction.......and utilize(d) a lot of pick and rolls." 

How amazing is it that Sam Cassell  - perhaps a future hall of famer - essentially said the same exact thing?!? Not bad for a biomedical scientist. I guess you can say that "I'ma get Bucks like Milwaukee cause like Sam, I Ca-Sell."

But let me just clarify something. It is important to work on ball handling - just in a fundamental way. There are perhaps several essential moves/adjustments (crossover, changing speeds, hesitation, protecting the ball) that through repetition develops conditioning and strength as well as a level of comfort when faced with pressure by a defender. And of course you can always get creative - nothing wrong with having a diverse repertoire in you tool box. Most you'll never use, but will have just in case a situation in a game requires it.  The trick is to make sure you practice game relevant moves.

I also love Sam's description of his practice routine for jump shots. He knew his strengths and weaknesses. "Not a great three point shooter - so master the mid-range game." "couldn't out-quick no one, so utilize a lot of screen and roles." And therefore "practice pull-up jump shots, off the dribble."
For practice, form fits function. And for point guards, that means handling the ball a lot and trying to penetrate - which means shooting off the dribble and coming off screens. Now get up a 1000 of those shots a day!

Finally, working in a genetics lab you learn to appreciate evolution. How unexpected it can be but looking back, how purposeful it is. So think about this lineage development:
Jeff Hornacek to Sam Cassell to Chauncey Billups to John Wall.
The middle might be unsurprising but could you have suspected the origin or current iteration?

How about a slow and crafty shooter becoming a slow and crafty point guard? This step, Hornacek to Cassell, is perhaps a minor step in terms of evolution - a merging of functional skills that may be found in cis.  The Cassell to Billups path is more of a duplication event that validates the importance of this new trait/type of player for overall fitness/survival in the ever changing landscape of the NBA. So what's the next logical jump in terms of evolution? How about transferring all these crafty shooting/balling handling skills as well as the leadership qualities of a point guard to a freakish athlete? How much of a major leap is this? Now we're talking about the merging of traits found in trans - functional skills and physical attributes.

Can't wait to see what John Wall evolves into!

Of course, while some components of this evolutionary process are genetic - it by no means is a passive event. Much of the skills have to be learned and practiced to a level of mastery. And that indeed is a difficult job. But when considering the end results - it can surely also be a fun job!

Much thanks to Sam Cassell for his time!
I hope you enjoyed this edition of the Point Guard Project!
Stay tuned for more!

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