The Point Guard Mentality By Steve Smiley
This article was originally featured on Coach Smiley’s website: CoachSmiley.Blogspot.com
After playing at Northern State University and being a part of the program for the last five years, I wanted to give something back in terms of what I have learned as a player. Being a point guard and playing for Coach Meyer has taught me so many things about the game of basketball and how to approach it in every phase and aspect of the game. I wouldn’t say that I was blessed with great physical talents, but I think that I was able to help my team succeed because I learned how to read the game and understand what Coach wanted on the floor. This is just a type of manual or guidebook for players or coaches that are either playing the point guard position or trying to coach it. I hope that you can take something from this manual and use it for your own good as either a player or coach.
- Understanding Your Coach / Being an Extension of Your Coach:
I think that the most important thing that a point guard must do at any level of the game is to understand his or her coach and what their approach to the game is. It is crucial that the point guard knows not only the various plays and sets on both offense and defense but to also understand what the coach expects at various times during the game. Is your coach in favor of an up-tempo style of play, or does he like to slow the game down and get the ball inside? As a point guard, if you’re walking the ball up the court after every rebound or made basket and your coach wants you to push the ball to get easy buckets, you’re going to have a problem.
At NSU, it took me at least two years, if not three, before I understood that what Coach Meyer wanted before anything else offensively was to get the easy bucket. In my first two years of playing, I only pushed the ball at various times, but by the time I was a junior and senior I tried to get the ball up court as fast as possible and as often as possible. Obviously, there were certain times where we needed to slow the ball down and change the tempo of the game (maybe we had a lead late in the game and it was time to milk the clock, for instance), but for the majority of the time, we turned into a fast-paced team and it was amazing to see how many easy baskets we would get by relentlessly pushing the ball and searching for easy opportunities. Even if we didn’t get easy hoops early in the game, it was almost guaranteed that by the end of the game we would either get an easy layup or get a wide open three-pointer by one of our best shooters because the other team had broken down physically. There are so many possessions (and opportunities) throughout the course of the game to get an easy basket, and what we found was that much of the time at a very competitive level the game is usually determined by maybe only one or two baskets.
Of course, if your coach favors slowing the ball down and playing a methodical type of game, that is what you need to do as a point guard. The point here is that as a point guard, you are responsible for understanding how the coach wants to dictate the game, and you have to follow along with his plan if the team is going to be successful.
In more general terms, I also feel that the point guard must be an extension of the coach. The point guard must understand what is expected during practice, on the day of the game, behavior (both on campus and on the road), and of course during the game. I was lucky enough to redshirt my first year at Northern and learn from two excellent point guards; Scott Hansen and Matt Sevareid. This was also Coach Meyer’s first year at Northern, and it seemed to me that the glue that really held the team together by the end of the year was the leadership of Scott and Matt. Throughout the course of the year, as a team we had many guys leave and at times the sailing was “rocky,” but Scott and Matt were both seniors, and more importantly, they were both leaders, and they had an understanding of what Coach expected in practices and games. I always saw them as extensions of Coach Meyer, and when I went through the program I tried to also be that type of an extension. It is so crucial for the point guard (and any team leader) to understand what the coach expects because there are many times when guys on the team would rather come to the leader to discuss certain things than go to the coach, because they don’t feel as comfortable around the coach. As a point guard, you must understand what is the philosophy of the coach and the program in general, so you can help to communicate that philosophy to other people within the program.
- Mental Approach:
This is one area that I think I really excelled at and gained an advantage over the competition as my career progressed. This is an area that is so crucial to being a great point guard, because as a point guard, you have to always be thinking and you have to be prepared for every situation. The ball is in your hand the majority of the time and all eyes are on you, so you have to know what to expect in a game and that takes a great amount of mental preparation. The way I look at it, the mental approach includes understanding your coaches and teams philosophy, preparing yourself mentally for both games and practices, and doing things right off the court so that you aren’t distracted on the court.
As I have stressed earlier and will probably do so again later in this book, as a point guard you have to understand what the coach expects and you have to understand what the team needs and what makes your particular team “click” on and off the floor. It takes a great deal of mental preparation to really understand the concepts of the team and the coach. You not only have to understand plays, offensive and defensive sets, and other technical aspects of the game, but you have to be prepared for what may happen in different situations during the game.
At NSU, we were lucky because Coach made us write everything down in a notebook. We would meet both before and after practice and take down notes on all aspects of the game, including our philosophy, our set offenses and defenses, and maybe most importantly, the different situations that could occur during a game. On the floor, Coach would also take us through different situations that certainly wouldn’t happen every game, but would probably appear once or twice during the season and may be the difference between a win and a loss. For example, we practiced what we wanted to do on the jump ball to gain possession. We knew exactly where everybody was supposed to be, and we had a guy that would try to “steal” the tip if the other team’s jumper got the tap back. This may seem like a little thing, but how many games are determined by one possession? If we could gain possession of the jump ball, we felt that we had just increased our chances to win, so we prepared ourselves for what we needed to do to get that jump. Another example would be late game situations where we were maybe down two (2) points and had to go the length of the floor in only a few seconds to tie or win the game. We had set positions where our personnel would be and a set pattern that would hopefully allow us to get the best possible shot to tie or win the game. We would practice this many times during the course of the year and we would maybe only be in that situation in a real game once or twice during the season, but it was worth it because it put us in a position to win the game.
As a point guard, you have to know what your coach expects in every possible situation of the game, and this takes a great deal of mental preparation. Even if your coach doesn’t require that the team write things down, I strongly recommend that you go home right after practice and write down as much as possible about what was covered during practice. This may seem like a lot of work and hassle, but as a point guard, whether you like it or not, you have more responsibility to the team than the other guys because you’re running the show out there. You have to know what to do in certain situations, and that is what mental preparation is all about.
Mental preparation also includes preparing yourself individually for both games and practices. It took me a long time to really prepare myself for practice, but I think I began to learn how to do it by my junior year. My roommate and one of the best players that probably ever played at Northern, Sundance Wicks, was great at preparing for practices. I always wondered how he could always come to practice fresh and energized. First, I think that he did a great job of resting so he was physically fresh. There is a lot to be said about that. If you aren’t rested, it’s tough to bring energy. Second, before every practice he wrote in his notebook a little phrase to get himself going. Everyday he would simply put in the letters “WDTWT” in his notebook, and that was all he needed to get ready. WDTWT simply means “We Deserve To Win Today” and once he put this down, he knew that he had to put forth a championship effort in practice if we, as a team, did deserve to win. If you aren’t putting forth a full effort, you don’t deserve to win. By looking at five letters before every practice, Sunny was able to focus himself and bring everything he had to the practice in terms of effort and energy.
I never personally wrote down the same quote but I would try to take a couple of minutes by myself before practice and games to just sit and think about everything, clear my mind, and get ready to go. It worked for me. After I cleared my mind and tried to focus on the task at hand, I was usually able to bring as much energy to the team as possible. Coach Meyer always used to say that there are two types of people on a team; those that give energy to the team and those that drain energy from the team. No matter what you do personally to get yourself ready for practices and games, find something that works for you so that you can give energy to the team. You don’t want to be the one sucking energy from the team.
The last focus on mental preparation has to do with what you’re doing off the court. If you’re staying out late at night, skipping classes, and doing things you shouldn’t be doing, it’s tough to be focused on the floor. Coach always stressed to us that there were three focuses as a college athlete, and we had to constantly evaluate how we were doing in each area. First, are you taking care of things in the classroom? If you’re falling behind in school, a lot of your time is going to be spent worrying about classes, and this hurts your preparation for basketball. Secondly, are you doing the right things off the floor? Are you getting enough sleep, are you taking care of your body, and are you staying away from trouble? If you aren’t doing the right things off the floor, your body will soon fatigue on the floor, and more importantly, you won’t be fresh mentally and you will be a drag on the team. After looking at those two areas, then Coach asks if you are taking care of things with basketball. Are you going hard in practice? Are you hitting the weights hard? Are you eating right? Coach always made it clear to us that if you fall behind in any of the three categories, it’s impossible to stay on top in the other two categories. You must constantly evaluate yourself and ask yourself what’s really important to you. If you want to be at the top of your game, do well in each of these three areas.
- Understanding What the Team Needs:
This is basically what the role of a leader is. I’m going to assume that as the point guard, you accept the role of the leader because whether you like it or not, you are the leader on the floor, and hopefully this is the case off the floor as well. As a point guard, you must understand what your team needs. This goes back to understanding your coach and what he expects, but also, you have to have a feel for the game. I learned early on in my career that Coach expected the ball to go inside first. When I was a freshman and sophomore, I played with some huge guys that were really good, and if the ball wasn’t going inside to them at every opportunity, there was going to be a problem. As a sophomore, our center Brad Hansen was a Division II All-American and the MVP of the Conference, so I, along with the other players, had to understand that he needed the ball. As a point guard, you have to understand what it is that the team needs. During a game, there are times when you have to push the issue and try to get things going. At other times, if your team has lost the momentum or if it’s late in the game, you have to understand that the best thing for the team is to maybe slow the ball down and get organized again. The trick is that there is no obvious separation between these two times and you have to “feel” when it is best to speed things up or slow things down.
On a more general level, you have to understand what the team needs in terms of personnel, and you have to get a feel for the day-to-day attitude of the team. One thing I have learned is that on every team, no two personalities are alike. If you’re going to be an extension of the coaching staff and the leader of the team, you have to try to get a feel for which each individual person on the team needs and you have to try to understand how every teammate’s clock ticks. Some guys on the team are able to handle constructive criticism from coaches and players, but other guys have a problem with it and tune everything out if they’re yelled at. As a player and a teammate, you will probably understand your teammates better than the coaching staff (if you take the time to really get to know them), so you can maybe get inside their heads easier than the coaches can. It is one of the most difficult jobs of a leader and point guard to learn how to get through to teammates (I know that I struggled mightily at this all the time), but it is worth it because it can help to really build team chemistry.
Another job of a point guard is getting a feel for the day-to-day attitude of the team. During the course of the year, the team is surely going to go through many ups and many downs. At times, the practices will go very smoothly and everybody in the program will be totally involved, and at other times, practices will just “grind,” for lack of a better word. As the leader, you have to get the feel of the team and know how to encourage your teammates. During the course of the year, our coaches would ask some of the older guys from time to time if the practices were getting too long, if guys were wearing out, and just trying to get a feel for the situation. As the leader, you have to communicate with the coaching staff when it feels like everybody in the program has lost their energy and enthusiasm, so that changes can be made. Of course, there is no way to get out of tough practices and working hard, that’s just part of the game, but there are definitely times throughout the season where guys are worn out, and it would really help the team if the leader mentioned that to the coach.
- Sacrificing For the Team:
Possibly the biggest thing that a point guard must do is sacrifice for the team. If the team is going to be successful, the point guard must learn what his role is, and that usually means that something will be sacrificed. Coach Meyer likes to use this phrase for learning roles. He says, “Roles: Learn, Understand, Accept, Fulfill.” Once a person in our program learned his role, there was surely going to be much sacrifice.
I’ll use myself as an example for this one. As a freshman at NSU, I played about seventeen (17) minutes a game, backing up our starting point guard. At the time, the majority of my shots were three pointers. Of the 64 shots I took during the year, 38 of them were 3’s. That’s 59% of my shots. The next season, as a sophomore I was the starter and my role changed. Coach made it clear that he didn’t want me shooting 3’s (mainly because I couldn’t shoot that well), but he instead let me know that my role was to distribute the ball to our big guys down low, find our shooters outside, don’t turn the ball over, and be the best defender I could be. Coach said more than once that he didn’t care if I ever took another shot, just as long as I did the little things to help the team.
At that point, I had learned my role. It was pretty easy to understand it as well. We had great players, so let’s get them the ball. Next, I had to accept my role. I think that this is the toughest part for any player, but I was willing to accept it. I loved to be on the floor, and I would rather pass than shoot anyways, so the role was accepted. Lastly, I had to fulfill my role. I think that over the next three years, I had fulfilled my role. We won three conference titles, I led the league in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio each of those years, and I won the conference Defensive Player of the Year award when I was a senior. I also took a whopping 10 3’s my junior season, and I bagged that idea all together my senior year when I didn’t shoot any. I was able to sacrifice for the team and it worked out for everybody. As a point guard, you have to realize that there are certain sacrifices that must be made if the team is going to be successful. For each point guard, the sacrifices will be different, but as a point guard you have to learn what your role truly is. More importantly, you have to decide if you’re going to accept your role for the good of the team, whatever that means for you individually.
- The Physical Aspect of the Game:
I am what coach calls an “AWB.” I am an Average White Boy. I am maybe 6’1” and I don’t think that I have either blazing quickness or a great vertical. But, I would say that I pushed myself hard in the weight room and in trying to obtain the best body that I could possibly have. After my redshirt year, I weighed over 200 pounds, and while I was definitely strong, I realized that it was time to tone up and try to be the best athlete that I could possibly be. I had no problem getting motivated because I wanted to play the following year and because Coach Meyer was proclaiming me as “The Pillsbury Doughboy.” I didn’t have the quickness to guard college players, and I didn’t have the quickness to drive and get around college players. From that point on, I really tried to be the best athlete that I could be, and I tried to gain advantages in every way possible.
By the next season, I had trimmed myself down to 190 pounds, and both my quickness and vertical increased. I started to focus more on eating right and getting enough sleep, and I definitely saw gains immediately. My last two years of playing I was blessed to have a phenomenal strength coach, Derek Budig. Coach B had worked with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and at the University of Texas – El Paso (UTEP), and he brought an amazing amount of knowledge and enthusiasm to our strength program. He was able to take our entire team to new levels in strength, conditioning, flexibility, and doing the little things. Coach B taught us how to really eat right, down to the smallest details, and he was able to show us how to gain advantages against the competition by preparing yourself physically and mentally.
I guess the point is that to be a college athlete in general, and to gain advantages against the competition, you have to prepare your body physically. Although I did see great increases in my quickness and vertical jump over the course of my career, I was still at the very best a player with average quickness. Because this wasn’t my strength, I became as strong as I possibly could to use that to my advantage. When I had to defend a guy that was much quicker or bigger than I was, I could usually use my strength advantage to make up the difference. As a college player, you have to learn both what your strengths are, and your weaknesses are. You have to find a way to minimize your weaknesses (for example, I had to work really hard just to get average quickness and vertical), and you have to find a way to exploit your physical strengths (my strength was lifting power) to maximize your potential. Especially as a point guard, you will play against small players with great quickness and you will play against larger players that may not be as quick but have the size advantage. Regardless, you have to find a way to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses if you want to be successful. I know that if I didn’t work hard in the weight room, if I didn’t try to eat right, and if I didn’t learn how to rest and repair my body, I wouldn’t have played because I didn’t have great natural skills. If you are trying to be the best player that you can be, and if you want to raise your game to the highest level possible, really think about committing yourself to the little things (eating healthy, getting rest, gaining flexibility) and you will definitely see a big increase in your productivity on the floor.
The last part of the point guard mentality has to deal with fundamentals. To play basketball at a high level, you must have a high skill level. As a point guard, you can’t just only be a great shooter, you have to also be a great passer, a great dribbler, skilled defensively, etc. Throughout the course of my career, I was able to improve my fundamentals so that I could play at the highest level possible for me and, more importantly, so that I could help the team as much as possible.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a great shooter by any means. Coach worked with me throughout my career, and while I felt that I could hit the shot if given the opportunity, it was best for the team if I didn’t shoot. Our team always had a number of great shooters, so they needed to take the shots. What this meant for me is that I had to perfect all my other fundamentals and use whatever strengths I had to my advantage. Offensively, I decided to take pride in becoming a great passer. If I wasn’t going to be a shooter on the team, I knew that I better know how to pass or I wouldn’t be able to contribute much, which meant I probably wouldn’t have played much. Instead of sulking when coach told me not to shoot, I worked on becoming a great passer, and I think it really helped the team. I also turned into a threat driving the ball. Even though teams knew I wasn’t going to take the outside shot, I still had a knack for getting into the lane and distributing to a teammate for an open shot. When I was a freshman at NSU, I had a very difficult time getting in the lane, but by working on the fundamentals of driving (Coach spends a lot of time with footwork, explosion, etc.) I was able to be a valuable part of our offensive attack.
As a point guard, you must work hard on all the fundamentals to help your team. It seems to me that the biggest area offensively that is hurting in today’s game fundamentally is the art of passing. The majority of players can dribble, and there are always great shooters, but the art of passing seems to be lost. It’s amazing to me when I see that a point guard has more turnovers than assists. If you want to help your team win, minimize your turnovers by making high-percentage plays, and work on passing to your teammates where they can do something with the ball. It doesn’t help a shooter when he gets a pass at his ankles. Learn how to make a play that is efficient for the team. This is the responsibility of the point guard. I was never the fanciest point guard but I was efficient because I was able to get people the ball where they could do something and I didn’t turn the ball over much. As a point guard, you should have a goal of having an assist-to-turnover ratio of at least 2:1 (2 assists for every turnover). My senior year, my ratio was 3:1, and this helped give our team a chance to win.
The other part of fundamentals that is always overlooked is fundamentals on defense. I truly believe that anyone can be a great defender if they want to be. The biggest challenge on defense is wanting to shut a guy down and having enough pride to get upset when your man scores on you or when someone else’s man scores when you weren’t in the right position defensively. However, there are many fundamentals defensively that can give a player a big edge. During my junior and senior year, I had to guard the other team’s shooting guard because our shooting guard, Jarod Obering, was about 5’8” and he usually would take the point guard for size reasons. Much of the time, I would have to guard players that were four, five, even six inches taller than me and more athletic than me, so I had to use every trick possible to keep up with them. Luckily, I learned through Coach how to position my hands and feet initially to discourage a quick shot, and through practicing footwork and different defensive slide techniques, I was usually able to cut my man off when he tried to drive. It’s difficult to get into all the techniques now, but I must emphasize that if you want to become a great defender, learn technique. Coach Meyer showed me so many things that I never knew before defensively, and it gave me a great advantage. To be a complete player and help your team as much as possible, you must be a great defender. The point guard sets the tempo not only on offense, but also on defense. Everybody is watching the way you defend when your man is coming up the court, so you have the power to set the tempo and influence your team’s defense.
In closing, I again just want to thank you for taking a few minutes to look at some of my ideas. I was lucky enough to have the chance to play at a great program that was based on teaching and learning the game. I can’t even begin to describe how much basketball I learned throughout my five years at Northern State University, and I think that the most important lesson I ever learned was that as a student of the game of basketball and as a student in the game of life, you never stop learning. I hope you were able to pull out maybe just a couple of ideas that will help your game or help you to teach the game. I really think that the point guard position is a tough position to play and coach, but if you can maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses in the six main areas described throughout this guidebook, you will indeed be a huge asset for your team and its success.
Smiley came to Weber State after spending the six years as the head coach at Sheridan College, a national junior college powerhouse in Sheridan, Wyo. In the six years with the Generals, Smiley posted a 153-43 (.780) overall record and led Sheridan to four North Sub-Region 9 titles and two runner-up finishes. His teams also advanced to the Region 9 Final Four four times and appeared in two championship games. Smiley was twice named the North Region Coach of the Year.
During his time at Sheridan, Smiley had 21 players sign to play NCAA Division I basketball and a total of 38 players moved on to the four-year level. He coached two players who earned NJCAA All-American honors and nine players who earned All-Region honors. Several players wen on to play professional basketball across the world.
In addition to head coach, Smiley also worked as the Athletics Director at Sheridan.
Prior to his time at Sheridan, Smiley spent two seasons as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., where he worked under the winningest coach in NCAA history, Don Meyer. During his time at NSU, the Wolves posted a 50-12 record. Smiley was also the head assistant coach at Black Hills State University during the 2005-06 season.
A native of Denver, Smiley graduated from Northern State in 2004. He was a three-year starter with the Wolves and led the Northern Sun league in assists for three straight seasons. He ranks second in NSU history in career assists with 537. As a senior he was named the NSIC Defensive Player of the Year and the league tournament MVP. He helped lead the team to a 24-7 record and a trip to the NCAA Division II Tournament.
He played high school basketball at Pomona High School in Arvada, Colo, where he was a four-year starter and earned All-State honors twice. He also led the state of Colorado in assists during his junior season.
Smiley and his wife Nikki have two children, Madden and Avery.