Practice cures rash of missed layups

Making layups, whether after contact in traffic or as "gimmes," requires more focus and practice than players often give. Glenn Nelson/ESPN.com

Any time I mention my association with girls' and women's basketball, men invariably will say, "They sure miss a lot of layups!" Women will say the same, come to think of it.

I feel their pain. When I coached club ball, missed layups were public enemy No. 1 to me. They still are, and it drives me crazy to see sequences even in the WNBA where women seem merely to be flinging the ball up at the rim in hopes that the ball will go in.

Layups, especially uncontested ones, are supposed to be the easiest shots in basketball. That's why they're called "gimmes." And that's why missed layups feel to coaches like leaving easy money on the table. Moreover, big misses can be devastating to a team. Consider the case of Dee Dee Jernigan's two misses in the final seconds during the 2010 Elite Eight matchup between her upset-minded Xavier and Stanford.

Missed layups are a plague for which few administer the sure-fire cure: practice. More and more these days you see teams unveil impressive and intricate warmup drills that don't involve layups. What happened to the old-fashioned layup line? Too often we see players running onto the court and the first practice shot they take is a 3-pointer. Fundamental shooters are taught to practice inside to out.

Players miss layups because, as the easiest shot in basketball, they are taken for granted and there is not enough focus on practicing them.

Because I so detested missed layups, I dedicated at least 15 minutes of every practice to making them. Players had to make 20 layups in a Mikan Drill before every practice. And we did modified Mikans every practice, too. Demonstrations of both drills proliferate on the Internet; they should be in every player's routine.

My favorite drill, I saw the basics of it somewhere and cannot remember where to give proper credit. I've modified it, to keep it different and hold players' interest, so let's just call it the HoopGurlz Drill. We did this every practice, too, with variations. The drill can be performed solo, with the player spinning the ball to herself, but is best in pairs -- and also can be done as a team with coaches making the entry passes.

The player starts, in an athletic stance, a few feet from the lower block, ahead of the backboard extended and facing forward, toward the coach or partner with the ball. After receiving the entry pass, the player performs a reverse pivot so she is facing the back wall. Keeping her shoulders square (or parallel) to the backboard, she takes a power dribble (if necessary; some bigs can get to the basket with one stride) and makes a layup, shooting the ball high off the glass. She gets her own rebound, passes to her partner and sets up on the other side.

The key coaching points involve protecting the ball. The concept of ball-you-defender (keeping the player's body between the defender and the ball) is emphasized. So is keeping shoulders square to the backboard. If the shooter does both, the only way an engaged defender can stop the shot, unless she is considerably taller, is to reach across the shooter's body and foul her. Players tend to open up, so their shoulders are at an angle to the backboard. Open up, let the defender in. To help correct this, coaches eventually can introduce a third player or coach who stands underneath the basket and blocks or slaps the ball away if a player opens up.

Other coaching points include ensuring the player goes low to high and that the shot is taken high off the glass. If a player gets in the habit of shooting layups with touch and high off the glass, she still has a chance of the shot going in, even after contact, when the attempt would be shortened and otherwise shy of the target. Coaches can simulate shooting through contact by introducing a blocking pad to safely replicate hits during shot attempts.

Players also need to practice making layups at speed, whether off the dribble or after receiving a pass, to develop rhythm and focus, and maintaining a soft touch in motion.

Almost two months remain until the main NCAA-certified evaluation period. Whether you are a player or a coach, there's plenty of time to do your part in halting the usual, very annoying, extremely deflating summer storm of missed layups.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.