Training Camp with George Karl and the Sacramento Kings

In the midst of the 2015-16 basketball season, I found myself on a sabbatical from coaching, presenting a unique opportunity to delve into the practices of teams across the globe. As my family and I embarked on our travels, I seized the chance to observe firsthand the inner workings of a George Karl NBA practice when he was coaching the Sacramento Kings.

Over the course of three days spent with the Kings, I diligently documented my observations and insights, eager to glean valuable lessons from George Karl and his coaching staff. While there were aspects of the practices that resonated with me, I also encountered elements that gave rise to contemplation. In sharing my notes from these experiences, I invite fellow coaches and basketball enthusiasts to engage in dialogue and reflection, offering their perspectives and insights as we collectively strive to enhance our understanding of the game.

TRAINING CAMP NBA PRACTICE #1

10:00 am Huddle to Start Practice

– George Karl Message to the Team on Togetherness

  • Make each other better
  • Transition game emphasis
  • Loves the rim. Getting to the rim makes things happen on offense and brings the action to the defense.

“Playing hard with enthusiasm and how you bring that to your team is what matters.” – George Karl

10:08 am Warm-up and Activate/Transition Defense Walk-Through

  • Divided the group into two teams. One team was with the strength coach doing dynamic warm-up exercises. The other team was with an assistant coach going through transition defense.
  • The transition defense group was coached via a lecture, followed by a 5-on-0 Transition Defense recovery drill.
  • The last sequence involved 5-on-5 vs. five assistants to emphasize getting back and covering a set number of passes from the strong side to the weakside of the floor.
  • After 10 minutes the groups switched courts and concepts.

Defensive Transition Concepts

“The first three steps in transition have to be important for us to be a successful transition defense team.” – George Karl

  • Load to the Tunnel – They want the majority of their players to recover through elbows or what they call the tunnel. The tunnel is the area between the two lane lines extended. He wants the second big to help stop the ball. All weak side defenders should recover through the tunnel.

George Karl Tranistion Defense

Figure 1 Load the Tunnel Concept

  • They want to avoid “buddy running” in transition (running beside your check). Recover to help not to your check.
  • The first three steps in recovery are used to get ahead of the action. Those steps help the recovering defender find their check.
  • They emphasize getting the ball out of the middle of the floor once they have it contained so that they can load up with weak side help.
  • The weak side wings hold the rim until the first post is back.
  • Their transition defense system is basically to double the ball if the trail big is not a threat (ie. Not a shooter).
  • George Karl made a point of explaining why they needed to be effective in transition as he felt like they would figure out the other aspects of the game but transition would be key. He suggested that as a team they had rim protection and the ability to cover one-on-one match-ups so transition defense could help them move from a good to great defensive team.

10:29 am Five Ball Drill

Drill Description:

  • Three players go 3-player weave. 3 passes to score a lay-up.
  • The two wings get passes from the waiting wings on the baseline and shoot a shot.
  • The player that shoots the lay-up rebounds their ball and outlets to the wing to start a 3-player weave back to the original end.
  • The two wings who shot, rebound their ball and become the next passers.
  • The goal for the Five Ball Drill was 116 makes in 4:15. Every make was worth one-point and only lay-ups and three-point shots were allowed (this is in line with their offensive philosophy).

George Karl  5 Ball Shooting Drill

Figure 2 Five Ball Drill

10:33 Penetration Reaction Breakdown

  • Two teams were on separate courts as one group worked on penetration reaction off of a hit ahead pass, and the other group worked on post reaction on various perimeter penetration situations.
  • Since Vance Walberg was an assistant coach you could clearly see the Dribble Drive Motion Offense influence in these drills.
  • They always had multiple assistant coaches/helpers at each breakdown basket so that every player could end a repetition with a shot.

Group 1 Drill Description (Perimeter Reactions):

penetration reaction practice

Figure 3 Perimeter Penetration Reaction Actions

Group 2 Drill Descriptions (Post Reactions):

penetration reaction practiceFigure 4 Penetration Reaction Actions with a Post

10:49 am Defensive Stations

  • 2-on-2 Perimeter Position Shell (Guards)2-on-2 Shell Drill2-on-2 Step Up Ball Screen Defense (Posts)Step Up Defense
  • 3 Closeout 1-on-1

George Karl 3 Close Out Drills

George Karl Teaching Concepts

  • They teach a lot referencing other NBA players. For example “We use this (ball screen) defense vs. Duncan on the roll but this one vs. Dirk” to give their players context.
  • A big goal of their defense was to “shrink gaps.” A player defending the corner should be up the line and not flat defending their check.
  • They worked a lot defending the transition skip pass.
  • They emphasize how early in the shot clock they can get into their offensive actions
  • The coaches played a lot in practice especially during transition simulations.
  • George Karl let his assistants coach.
  • Utilize a shorter shot clock to get guys into the habit of operating quickly and efficiently on offense (24 seconds down to 18).
  • To force people to help get your eyes on the rim when you dribble attack.

11:05 am Chat

  • The team divided into three groups. Each had an assistant coach who was addressing a topic.

11:10 am Free Throws and Water

11:13 am 3-on-0 Reps

  • Three courts were used to run 3-on-0 repetitions of different offensive actions.
  • Action 1: Pistol Early Offense
  • Action 2: Drag High Ball Screen 
  • Action 3: Down Screen Action

11:28 am 5-on-0 Reps

  • Two groups ran 5-on-0 Two Trips of the actions they just worked on.

Concept on Drag

  • The posts did not go up-down after the ball screen but rather the post that set the screen short rolled and the bottom post held the weak side block.
  • This created room for the pocket pass and prevented the low post defender from rotating up to take away the short roll.

11:38 am 5-on-4 + 1 (Or 5-on-3 + 2) Three Trips

Scrimmage Rules

  • 18 second shot clock
  • 6 seconds to get the ball over half-court
  • 4 points for a score at the rim
  • Play a live ball turnover on the 3rd trip only
  • On the 1st defensive foul on the three trip series, the team runs an inbound. On the 2nd foul on the three trip series, the offense gets a point.
  • To win the game must make a free throw. If they free throw is missed or the offensive rebound is not score than the game plays on

“Karlisms”

“The best offense in basketball is simple. Make it simple and trust it.” – George Karl

  • Got to run the spacing.
  • The defense makes mistakes so find the mistake.
  • We are trying to find the rhythm and flow of our offense. Holding the ball doesn’t help that.
  • Most of the time holding the ball helps the defense.
  • Everything we want on offense we don’t want to give up on defense.
  • Need sprinters, not runners in transition.
  • Need a big guy to run the middle. A rim runner opens up everything else.
  • A committed wing runner will run the floor 10x to get two shots. That’s why it is a discipline.
  • Ball movement to the weak side is a good play.
  • The big guys catching and handing it back to a guard is a good play.
  • Getting the ball spaced is what we do.
  • The pass into a crowd is just as bad as dribbling into a crowd.
  • Ball screen defense is a zone for 4-5 seconds. It goes from man to zone to man.
  • What’s comfortable and what’s simple is our goal in ball screen coverage.
  • Pet Peeve “Shooter who misses short” (He used a statistic that 73% of three-point shot attempt misses hit the front of the rim.
  • Take shots we think are good to great shots in the first 11 seconds of the shot clock.
  • If we don’t find flow out of transition (i.e. ball movement) run a drag ball screen.

11:58 am 5-on-5 Scrimmage 3 Trips

  • There was very little stopping during the scrimmage to coach.
  • Three referees were present to ref the competitive 5-on-5.

12:35 pm Practice ended with a huddle and post-practice shooting work by the players.

Conclusion:

As I reflect on the insights gained from my exclusive insider access to NBA practices, I am reminded of the immense value of such experiences in deepening our understanding of the game. Through meticulous note-taking and detailed observations, I have sought to provide fellow coaches and enthusiasts with a glimpse into the inner workings of one of basketball’s premier organizations. While my time with the Sacramento Kings and head coach George Karl revealed both strengths and areas for improvement, the opportunity to witness firsthand the intricacies of NBA-level practices has undoubtedly enriched my perspective on coaching and player development.

As I share these notes with you, I invite further discussion and analysis, recognizing that our collective insights can foster growth and innovation within the basketball community. Whether it’s identifying effective strategies, questioning conventional wisdom, or contemplating alternative approaches, the exchange of ideas serves as a catalyst for continuous improvement. I am grateful for the opportunity to have experienced these practices and extend my appreciation to those who have engaged with my notes. May our ongoing dialogue inspire new perspectives and insights as we collectively strive to elevate our coaching craft and unlock the full potential of the game.

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