6 Vital Skills For Youth & High School Players

Here is a great list of skills and drills (some are unconventional) that can be improved with one or two players. That way coaches, players, parents, and trainers can utilize this list.

We found that most high school players and even college players lack a few or even many of the skills below.

If you don’t focus on these skills, there is a good chance that you could lose out on playing time, making the high school team, or getting a college scholarship.

If you’re a coach, you’ll probably lose more games in the long run than you should have.

As Michael Jordan’s trainer Tim Grover said, great players aren’t great because of the highlight plays that happen. They’re great because they do the basics better than anybody else. And they work harder at the basic skills than anybody else. They become extraordinarily skilled at the ordinary things.

We believe that this is so important that the foundation of our basketball camps and many products are based on improving these skills. We list some resources below each section for the serious coaches, trainers, players, and parents.

So here’s the list...

1 - Make Lay Ups Including “Awkward” Finishes

Lay ups are one of the most efficient shots in basketball. Great coaches design their offense around getting as many lay up opportunities as possible.

So if you can’t finish near the hoop, you become a liability to your team.

First, you need to learn how to make basic lay ups. I would also add jump stop lay ups to the progressions below.

Notice, in the drill below, you also adjust the angle. Additionally, I would also adjust the distance. This will change footwork and distance jumping from the basket.

You never get the perfect lay up from the perfect angle in basketball, so you need to practice lay ups from different angles and distances.

Once you perfect basic lay ups, you need to learn how to make awkward lay ups.

Jump off your right leg and shoot with your right hand.

Jump off your left leg and shoot with your left leg.

As your competition improves, you don’t have time to take extra steps to get “proper footing.” This will result in your shot getting blocked more often and the defense sliding over to stop you or force a low percentage shot. So it’s very important to be able to make lay ups with either foot.

And remember to practice finishing in a competitive environment with defenders:

Advanced players can even proceed to finishing moves below.

Also, as we teach in our Elite Guard Camps, make sure just to pick a few finishing moves that complement and counter each other. We call them A, B, C moves. This will make you more effective.

If you try to practice too many different moves and they don’t complement each other, you’ll be poor to mediocre at most of the finishing moves. And they won’t be nearly as effective.

It’s better to be great at a few moves and have counters for those great moves… this applies to all aspects of the game.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” - Bruce Lee

You will find foundational finishing moves in our “Complete Player” Youth Skills Camps.

Once you perfected foundational finishing moves, you can find high-level finishing moves at our Elite Guard Camps and Basketball Decision Training Camps.

We also have competitive finishing drills in our 30 Competitive Skill Development Drills video.

2 - Develop great footwork for shooting, passing, getting open, dribble moves, perimeter moves, and post moves!

Great footwork...

  • Reduces travels
  • Keeps you on balance to make stronger passes and shoot with more range.
  • Helps you create angles to pass around defenders.
  • Helps you get into shooting positions more quickly and have a quicker release.
  • Gives you effective counter moves to help you score when the defense takes away the initial scoring move.
  • Improves your ability to get open and create separation from the defense.
  • Enhances your effectiveness at beating people off the dribble.
  • Improves triple threat, perimeter, and post moves.

Here is a great beginner progression that teaches jump stops and pivots from Bob Bigelow's Coaching Middle School Basketball.

As you advance and are ready to take attack moves for ball handling, perimeter, and post moves, we prefer Don Kelbick’s Attack & Counter Skill Development System. It shows you how to simplify and accelerate skill development for all aspects of the game through great footwork.

Additionally, you’ll learn unorthodox mental approaches that improve aggressiveness, assertiveness, and confidence from Don Kelbick.

You can also attend the Attack & Counter Basketball Camps with Don Kelbick.

Here is a video that shows you how he teaches footwork even with dribble moves:

3 - Focus on effective foundational dribbling and ball handling moves. Forget the fluff.

With so much fluff out there, it’s easy to get caught up in dribbling drills that don’t translate to better game performance.

That’s why we developed this article, 5 Things You Need To Know To Be a Great Ball Handler.

Here is the summary of the most effective skills to develop that will make you a better ball handler.

  • You need to develop a feel for the basketball.

    Developing a feel for the ball consists of drills that are stationary and slow moving. You will improve your hand-eye coordination, hand quickness, ambidexterity, throwing, catching and other important aspects of ball handling.

    I would only spend a few minutes on this every day. A common mistake is that players will spend a lot of time on these drills. If you spend most of your workout on circus drills from a stationary or slow moving position, is this going to help you beat the defense? Probably not.

    Here are some beginner drills:

    Here are some more advanced drills:

  • You must be able to dribble the ball down the court at any speed (all the way from walking up to sprinting) with both hands with your head up.

  • You must be able to change your pace.

    Changing your pace makes it difficult for players to keep up with you.

  • You must be able to dribble while moving backwards.

  • You must have a primary dribble move and a counter dribble move.

    If you perfect a go-to move that's very difficult to stop, good defenders will adjust to stop it. That's when you add your counter move to keep the defender guessing.

    I prefer the hesitation move and the crossover or wrap around dribble as a counter move. You need to focus on the strengths of your game.

If you focus on those things above, I guarantee you’ll be a much better “game player” than the guy who spends too much time on the circus/fluff drills.

We also have a resource that helps with developing your ball handling:
Progressive Youth Ball Handling & Footwork Workouts App

Players can do the workouts from anywhere. The coaching dashboard also allows you to monitor multiple players or your whole team.

You can also find effective dribble moves in all of our basketball camps.

4 - Work every day on shooting form routine.

Even though this is number 4 on the list, in addition to footwork, shooting is the skill that you should spend the most time on. The goal is to put the ball in the hoop.

Great shooters become better athletes without becoming a better athlete. Think about that one for a second.

It basically means being a better shooter makes you quicker. You can get by the defense more easily.

If you're a great shooter, the defense has to sprint at you or stay really close to you all of the time.

And which situation is easier to drive by… a defender that is ten feet away from you with their butt to the basket or a defender sprinting at you with the goal to be 6 inches from you so you don’t shoot?

Also, when you have great shooters, the help defense can’t play too far away. This opens up driving lanes and gives you more lay ups.

Every day, you should spent 10 to 15 minutes on form shooting progressions. Beginners or poor shooters may spend a lot more time on these progressions.

While there are more drills to the shooting form progressions, here are two of the first progressions that we start with:

Also, here are some resources to develop great shooters:

Breakthrough Basketball Shooting Camps

Basketball Shooting Course & Practice Drills - Discover How to Improve Your Shooting Stroke and Become a Lights Out Shooter!

Rick Penny's One Motion Shooting Video

5 - Improve your defense!

Defense can help you get playing time even if you have a low skill level.

If you just commit to giving as much effort and focus as possible to the defensive end, you will get more playing time. You can be your team's most valuable player by simply shutting down the other team’s best players.

In the clip from our Elite Guard Camps, defensive guru Jim Huber takes the campers through a footwork progression vital for 1 on 1 defense.

In 2013 when Jim coached in the Nike EYBL, he led the league in defense. During that season, the league included future college & NBA stars like Stanley Johnson, Tyler Ullis, Kelly Oubre, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, Thon Maker, and more.

Here are a couple of great 1 on 1 defense drills as well:

If you’re a coach or parent who is serious about learning about individual and team defense, reference Jim Huber’s Man to Man Defense.

We also get into higher level individual and team defense skills at our Elite Guard Camps.

6 - Develop athleticism and find a good coach!

I have done plenty of reading and research to give myself a basic understanding of athletic development and physical education. That way I can refer parents and athletes to great trainers that I personally know.

And as a coach, it helps me develop proper warm ups that develop athleticism and prevent injuries for my players.

Often times, athleticism can limit a player’s potential. While genetics are certainly a factor in your athletic potential, you still need to maximize your athleticism.

As you move up in competition, every split second and extra inch becomes more important.

Also, if you move quicker and jump higher, you are better at executing every basketball skill.

You have a higher, quicker release on your shot. You have better rhythm with your dribble moves. You can create more separation when moving to get open. You can pivot and face the basket more quickly. You can move your feet more quickly on defense to stop your opponent.

It’s not the end all or be all, but it certainly is a major factor in your potential.

You want to learn how to run, jump and land, skip, stop, move laterally, squat, lunge and any other basic movements.

If you don't know how to teach or learn this, ask a physical therapist, PE teacher, or some other professional to show you how, preferably someone with at least 10 to 15 years of experience. The more experience that the professional has the better.

You don’t want the coach’s learning experiences to be at the expense of your child’s development. While there are exceptions with some great trainers in their 20s, you have more luck when people have experience and a track record.

I would find programs that tend to produce great athletes year in and year out. Look for programs that are outliers.

There is a difference between training great athletes and developing great athletes. There is a difference between training somebody who already has a 40 inch vertical and increasing someone’s vertical from 20 inches to 30 inches.

There is a difference between safely improving somebody’s vertical by a few inches and improving somebody’s vertical by 8 inches only to result in an injury down the road. An injury that eliminates all gains and puts you behind.

I would also seek out coaches who use the terms “Performance” or “Athletic Development” in their titles or job descriptions. They tend to understand that athleticism isn’t just about throwing weights around.

There are things that relate to athletic performance that are hard to measure or see immediate results. These are things like injury prevention, rhythm, and coordination. However, these things improve performance over the long run.

I would advise to consult with many different people.

It’s better to do no athletic development training than to have a bad trainer.

For athletic development education, I really like Vern Gambetta & Brian McCormick. Brian McCormick is a basketball coach with an athletic development background. Here are some resources:

Vern Gambetta Blog

GAIN Podcast with Vern Gambetta

Brian McCormick's Learn To Coach Basketball Blog

If you're in the Kansas City area, Scott Moody has done some tremendous things with athletes that I've referred. He focuses on soccer, but Scott actually has a really strong basketball background.

More resources to improve your skills

There are certainly more skills like passing and basketball IQ that involves attacking the defense or defending in a team setting. However, the skills above are things that you can control and improve.

We developed all of our Breakthrough Basketball Camps with these skills in mind.

You can also find many products in our store that are helpful.

What do you think? Let us know by leaving your comments, suggestions, and questions...


Most Likes First   Oldest First   Newest First

CGR says:
6/14/2016 at 10:50:47 AM

"Jump off your left leg and shoot with your left leg."

Now that's awkward!

But a fantastic article and a great off-season guide for beginners on up. Thank you again!

  1 reply  

Joe Haefner says:
6/14/2016 at 4:17:42 PM

Yup... our players are REALLY skilled. This is a soccer site... right? :)

  1 reply  

Kaiden Martin says:
9/18/2018 at 1:33:08 PM



Angel Macedon says:
6/2/2016 at 5:08:49 AM

This is good stuff. I like the minimalist approach.I too am a basketball coach (Oakland-highvwith a performance coach and massage therapist background so I often find I see performance issues traditional coached don't always see.I had Damian Lillard and the AAU grind plus poor performance training had his young body in a mess and his coaches were clueless.

  1 reply  

Joe Haefner says:
6/3/2016 at 12:21:47 PM

I hear you, Angel. I have advised parents to take their kids on vacation in July during the "off weeks" of recruiting.

Some HS teams will schedule their kids to play 20 to 25 days out of 31 days. That is... Injuries waiting to happen. Not to mention, the play is awful since they're so tired.

Balance is key.

One of my coaching friends forwarded one of my articles on summer basketball to a parent of Top 5 nationally ranked recruit. Apparently, it had some sway because they dramatically reduced the amount of summer games played.

On a side note, we interviewed Phil Beckner for our podcast last fall. I believe he's worked with Damian Lillard for the last few years. Small world.


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