Building a Team Identity around Shooting

I was told to reach out to Mansfield High School boys coach Mike Vaughan by Kristen McDonnell. She told me his shooting drills and efficiency at practice are some of the best she has seen. I reached out to Coach Vaughan and he proved to be one of the most generous basketball coaches I have met. The two of us never met and he is not familiar with Zoom, but he spoke with me over Zoom for two hours. I came away from our conversation questioning my stubborn commitment to building defense. Coach Vaughan used to focus mostly on defense too, but he evolved. Today, he enthusiastically embraces shooting as the essential skill in his team’s on-court identity.

Mansfield High School’s Basketball Evolution

Coach Vaughan took over the boys basketball program at age 25. He played collegiately at Framingham State. As a player he learned to value defense above all else, and so that became a theme for the early teams he coached.

The results were mixed in the beginning. In year one, the team scored about 48 points per game, but only gave up 51 points. They finished 8-12.

In year two, the record slid to 5-15. The defense remained solid. Doubt crept into his mind though about the defensive emphasis. One game that year still remains etched in his mind almost two decades later. They led for the entire game and lost late. The final score was 41-39. Again, the defense held up its end of the bargain.

In year three, the team finished with a record below five hundred for the third straight season. Mansfield still held teams in the low 50s defensively, but it was time to change their brand. Coach Vaughan’s justification is familiar to anyone that has stubbornly stuck to a belief. The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over, and expect different results. He resolved to make year four different.

The Changes

From year four until today Coach Vaughan’s team emphasizes shooting more than any other skill. He told me that they score eighty percent of their drills and when players miss a lay-up there is a consequence. They are no longer content to just dump the ball in the post and let their four or five go at a defender. To him a one on one contested look on the block is not as good of a shot as an uncontested three-pointer. The program places a significant emphasis on effective field goal percentage.

Shooting Practice Structure

If I were asked to summarize what I learned from Coach Vaughan in a sentence, I would use many commas and semicolons. If it were a Tweet it would be this: Every other drill needs to be a shooting drill.

Mansfield might start out with partner shooting. In the next drill, they might go to three man, two ball. Several other shooting drills and competitions were implemented throughout. To ensure that drills do not get stale, they make tweaks throughout the week and the season. If it means a drill is not won until a player hits two free throws, that is what they will do. By the end of practice each player takes at least 100 to 150 shots. It might not seem like much, but for any coach that has ever tried to track the number of shots on a high volume shooting day, it is not easy to meet these numbers consistently.

In terms of scoring and tracking the information, players are responsible. I asked Coach Vaughan if he worries about players cheating. He told me that they generally do not have any issues with players lying about their performance. Occasionally the coaches will keep track of a a player without announcing it ahead of time. If the player lies about their score or lost track, they need to be lower than their actual result. If the player is lying and their score is higher than it should be, they will do what Mansfield refers to as a two-minute drill (10 up and backs). Thus, players tell the truth.

End of the Season Practices

Many coaches prefer to shorten the length of practice time in the second half of the season. Coach Vaughan is not one of them. Coach Vaughan does recognize fatigue and knows there are diminishing returns in players grinding through the season mentally and physically. He stays away from traditional two hour practices in February. A practice with heavy shooting emphasis is different than traditional practices though. Players do not tire mentally or physically of shooting. Thus, Mansfield will practice one hour in a traditional sense (shell, scrimmage, etc.) and do one hour of shooting. Form shooting is a huge component of this format. Coach Vaughan told me that none of his players have ever complained about the shooting portion of practice.

The Impact on Player Psyche

In a shooting system, players start to identify themselves as shooters. And when that happens, they want to maintain that label. Shooting can be a very self-motivating skill. Traditionally teams value size, but the ability to shoot negates that to some extent. Seniors that typically never pass the eye test athletically or in their body type end up hitting three three-pointers in a game.

Coach Vaughan acknowledges that these players struggle defensively. It is a trade-off. Hiding these players based on scouting reports or teaching them to give the opponent an extra step helps. Providing that these quality shooters do not commit turnovers, they are going to add value despite a lack of other qualities. In the off-season, players know that if they can shoot, they can score. And if both of those boxes are checked off, they are going to have a role and get minutes. Thus, players in this system are more willing to work on driveway skills than other systems.

Can We Totally Dismiss the Other Skill?

Obviously to get open as a shooter is also a skill. Even Fulton Reed of Mighty Ducks fame will acknowledge that.


Coach Vaughan told me that they need a couple players who have the ability to get to the rim. If these players exist in your system, the rest of the team can stretch the floor as shooters.

In 2018, Mansfield won the state championship. There were four players on that team that shot 40% or better from three-point range. They also had a really great player to get into the lane and put pressure on teams inside. With that combination, you are really tough to guard.

Coach Vaughan does not utterly dismiss defense. The player in him still exists, but the amount of time he spends teaching defense is way down. He told me that defense is more about making demands than teaching strategy. In a perfect world, coaches would spend an hour on every skill, but you have to choose. He added that playing deep into the month of March happens with efficient shooting. Opposing teams are rolling the dice if they are going to hope for an off-shooting night. The team that shoots the best if all things are equal, is the team that shoots the most. Or as Geno Auriemma put it in a recent conference it’s called ‘basket’ ball.

Shot Selection

I mentioned earlier that Coach Vaughan values effective field goal percentage as a stat. Shot selection is the most important factor in raising effective field goal percentage. The good shot or bad shot discussion fuels the mental part of the game in Mansfield. About 50% of the time that they spend reviewing film relates directly to shot selection. Their definition of a good shot is fluid based on time and score as well as the opponent. If they believe they are the better team, he wants quicker shots to increase the number of total possessions.

Extra passes is another high point of emphasis. The exception to the rule is if the best shooter is open. Coach Vaughan tells the best shooter to stick it instead of making one more pass. After the game, coaches need to know how many shots the best scorer took. If it is not the most on the team, it is worth examining why that did not happen.

Mansfield also uses a heat check rule. If a player makes three shots in a row, that player is entitled to a heat check shot. I love the idea – if for no other reason than it makes the game really fun for players. The shot selection qualifications essentially get tossed out the window. In practice it is an impactful rule because it teachers high-skilled offensive players how to take and make tough shots. It is also an effective way to engage players in a conversation on employing a shot fake and when to deploy that move.

Is there Measurable Improvement in Shooting during the Season?

No. Coach Vaughan admittedly does not see a positive correlation with the amount of shots they take in practice and the percentage that get made in games. I would not dismiss his practice tactics as a waste of time though. The results in Mansfield speak for themselves. I went to the MIAA tournament website and searched for myself. For the entire decade, Mansfield won the sectional title five times and was the number one seed in Division I six times. Since 2010, they have made the sectional final eight times.

Coach Vaughan attributed the fact that the numbers do not progressively improve as the season evolves to two factors. First, the off-season preparation. Players are pretty good about hitting the ground running when they enter the gym in December. Second, the competition is tough later in the season. Facing a division opponent for the second time is a challenge. Opponents tend to adjust well to do what you did in game one. Coach Vaughan takes a balanced approach with the eFG essentially remaining flat. As long as the team is taking efficient shots, it does not make sense to overreact. Off shooting nights happen, regardless of the quantity of time a team spends shooting.

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