The Basketball Podcast: EP85 Nicki Collen on WNBA Defense

RELEASE DATE : 18/03/2020

In this week’s coaching conversation, Baylor head coach, and former Atlanta Dream, head coach Nicki Collen joins the Basketball Podcast to discuss building a WNBA defense. Before becoming the head coach of Baylor women’s basketball, Collen built the Dream into a top defense, and shares insights on what to she teaches, including the defensive analytics that shape her defense.

Collen was named head coach of the Atlanta Dream on October 30, 2017. In her first season at the helm, Collen led the Dream to franchise-best 23-11 record and the No. 2 overall seed entering the 2018 WNBA Playoffs. For her work, the first-year head coach was named WNBA Coach of the Year. Her 2018 team tied a franchise-best 13 home wins and won 10 games on the road, the most ever by a Dream squad.

Collen came to the Dream after pair of successful seasons as an assistant coach for the Connecticut Sun. Working for 2017 WNBA Coach of the Year Curt Miller, Collen helped the Sun compile an impressive 21-13 record and finished with the fourth-best regular season record in the WNBA, earning the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2012. Connecticut, who lost former No. 1 pick Chiney Ogwumike to injury prior to the 2017 season, improve on a 14-20 record in 2016.

Prior to moving to Connecticut, Collen served under head coach Karl Smesko at Florida Gulf Coast. Joining the staff in July of 2014, Collen helped guide the Eagles to consecutive 30-win seasons. The 2015-16 team recently completed a 33-6 campaign with a trip to the WNIT Championship game, where it was edged by South Dakota on April 2nd. The 2014-15 Eagles were 31-3 with a 26-game winning streak and an undefeated record in the Atlantic Sun Conference. That team also made history with its first Division I national ranking and its first NCAA Tournament victory, a 75-67 win over 10th-seeded Oklahoma State.

Before moving to FGCU, Collen enjoyed great success as an assistant coach at Arkansas, Louisville, Ball State and Colorado State. During her nine seasons as an assistant coach at the collegiate level, Collen helped teams reached three NCAA tournaments and five WNITs.

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Nicki Collen

Nicki Collen Video Playbook:

Nicki Collen Quotes:

“Our league is so good in terms of one-on-one ability that we want to basically create a wall and have help on both sides.”

“Players have tendencies . . in our league with 12 teams . . those tendencies are a lot easier to coach and understand from a defensive perspective . . We’re very tendency-based in terms of our help.”

“When you play four games in seven days . . sometimes you can’t break it down and get your players to understand every play . . but you can certainly go into it with ‘this is how we’re guarding pin downs, this is how we’re guarding ball screens, this is how we’re guarding floppy action.’”

“If there’s one thing that, especially in this league, that is a personal philosophy of mine is you don’t want to have to be in rotation . . you’re going to get beat in our league if you’re constantly in 2-on-1s on the backside.”

“We take the approach of ‘basket next’ any time we’re in rotation . . we’re always protecting the rim and playing out.”

“When we were number one in defense rating two years ago, so much of it was we defended the ball really well but we also had a post that could really move in rotations.”

“There are so many factors that go into a defensive rating . . We basically factor in more offensive analytics into how we guard people.”

“For the most part, you’re going to look at points per possession and how low can you drive that. Can you can drive it lower than 1 point per possession you’re going to be a really, really good team.”

“I want to be great defensively and always hang our hat on our ability to get stops but we want a good offensive team . . two years ago . . that’s why we went 15-2 in our last 17 because our defense stayed consistent but we were better offensively.”

“Defense is so much about being proactive; really moving when the ball’s in the air, it’s about understanding what teams do and why they do it.”

“If you’re not prepared to get around a screen before it comes, Sylvia Fowles is going to blow you up.”

“That’s one of my number one rules . . the way we play ball screens, you are not allowed to get rejected on a ball screen . . I want to be aggressive and go over top of screens but you’ve got to do it the right way or you will get rejected.”

“When we watch video with a player, we’re going to clip five, maybe six [possessions] . . so much of it is showing them the possession and how it starts and how it finishes.”

“I’ll get a ‘menu’ every game from my staff in terms of here’s what they run the most percentage of the time . . we’re going to start with looking at what they run and why they run it.”

“[Scouting] is two-pronged. It’s where do they score and how. And then what are we going to do to take away one or two of those things and we’ll be okay with something else.”

“A big part of our league that’s very different than college is in a lot of ways this having open dialogue with players and having them understand why you do what you do and why you would make adjustments.”

“You have to give [your players] confidence in their ability to do something . . if you don’t practice it, the first time you do it in a game . . and it doesn’t work, they’re going look at you and go, ‘That didn’t work.’ You have to rep things that you’re going to utilize.”

“When you’re playing against the best players in the world all the time, they’re too good to just think that you’re going to do the same thing all the time.”

“You want them to believe in the game plan but there’s also a time and place to just make a play.”

Nicki Collen Selected Links from the Podcast:


Connecticut Sun

Indiana Fever

Washington Mystics

Phoenix Mercury

Angel McCoughtry

Sylvia Fowles

Alyssa Thomas

Brittney Griner

Nicki Collen Breakdown:

1:00 – One-Pass Away Philosophy
2:00 – Recovery Philosophy
3:00 – Knowing the One-Pass Away Philosophy to her Players
4:30 – Defensive Scout
6:00 – Professional Ball Screen
9:00 – Trapping and the Analytics
10:30 – Less Switching in the WNBA?
12:00 – Emphasis of Covering Two-on-Ones
13:30 – Analytics
17:00 – Tracking Statistics
19:00 – Thinking of What Defense to Play
23:00 – Ranking Low
26:00 – Points Per Possession
30:00 – Defining Effort Best on Defense for her Players
31:30 – Improving her Player’s Defense
34:00 – Individual Player Development with Video Emphasizing Defense
37:00 – Defensive Game Plan For a Game
41:30 – Example for Defensive Game Plan
45:00 – Adding Credibility
46:40 – Conclusion

Nicki Collen:



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