John Fortunato talked to me about forcing weak hand and when to reach for a steal this past week. He also broke down what statistics he finds most valuable during a game, his scouting philosophy, and an interesting perspective on playing multiple sports. Coach Fortunato is a former coach at Salem High School and current coach at Masconomet Regional High School.
Forcing Weak Hand
Coach Fortunato teaches on ball defenders from day one to force the offense to use their weak hand. One of the more memorable lines that he had was “Never reach, look to take.” Most offensive players dribbling with their weak hand will eventually take a comfort dribble with their strong hand. If the defense is playing it correctly, this should lead to a deflection or a steal because that is exactly where the on-ball defender is playing. Reaching across when the ball is in the weak hand is discouraged. The act alone without any contact sometimes gets called a foul because a referee is used to calling it. If the ball is exposed as it would be when a player comes back to their strong hand which the defender is sitting on, that is not reaching.
In funneling players to their weak hand, the on-ball defender must know there is help. Coach Fortunato stressed that players should be thinking it is one on five instead of one on one. Until trust is built, it is hard for a player to get used to overplaying the weak hand. Coach Fortunato also talked about dividing the court into three sections – the middle of the court being the place that was most dangerous.
Statistics Worth Tracking
Two statistics are most valuable for Coach Fortunato during games: his team’s turnovers and the other team’s offensive rebounds.
Morgan Wooten, the legendary DeMatha High School coach, described how a sixteen-point loss can be viewed when looking through the lens of the turnover stats. Coach Fortunato had attended a clinic and heard him preach that those sixteen points equate to one turnover per quarter which led to a lay-up. Four missed opportunities on offense, which led to four easy opportunities for the opponent. For many players, a scoreboard is often an explanation that says we do not measure up. This was a way of explaining that scoreboards can be misleading. What might appear to be an insurmountable deficit was four plays in reality.
Opponent Offensive Rebounds
The other statistic that he holds sacred is opponent offensive rebounds. Within this statistic, he assigns the number of points that were scored and what player or players are doing the damage. The expectations for getting an offensive rebound were put in extremely simplistic terms. An offense should always be facing the hoop, so a defense should always have their butts to the hoop. Under that principle, the defense naturally has position and should be able to limit second and third opportunities. At no point did he mention a player’s height in this statement, and in fact he argued that sometimes these quick players can be the best rebounders.
Having these two statistics at halftime or even during a timeout, players can be held accountable. The score usually has a correlation with these two statistics. Both of them come back to a degree of mental and physical toughness. In the event that the game is getting away from a team, saying ‘Let’s just get back to taking care of the ball and boxing out,’ would make a team feel like they can plug the leak in the boat.
Coach Fortunato will scout everyone he faces. The records of his team and the team that his team will eventually face is irrelevant. Being the better prepared team is an issue of pride for Coach Fortunato. If his own team does not have a game or practice and a future opponent has a game, he will be there. Even if he’s already seen them play.
As part of scouting, he hangs on to individual personnel notes from year to year. He wants to know the individual’s quickness level and relative strengths of each player with their weak hand. This goes back to his philosophy of forcing players to use their weak hands. Similarly, knowing what players are most dangerous as offensive rebounders is essential to the scouting report.
Scouting does not end with the opponent. He loves to break down film and scout his own team. In breaking down film or showing the players still shots, he always tries to preface it by saying that the goal of film is for everyone to get better. There are many versions of a single play that he shows which might happen over the course of a game. The play the players ultimately see might involve Player X, but it could be anyone. It is not about calling out Player X, it’s about trying to give everyone including Player X the opportunity to grow. I am usually overly sensitive and try to show multiple players making the same mistake. This repetition cuts into valuable practice time. The way Coach Fortunato does it is more efficient.
A couple quick notes that just came up in the course of our conversation that I found valuable.
In terms of team building Coach Fortunato said he would rather be a less talented team if it meant being a more together team. Front and center for everything is the theme that the group must be better than the sum of the parts.
Play Multiple Sports
Every coach has a place where they stand on whether or not players should focus on only basketball or play multiple sports. He was in the latter group. If your best basketball player was your ninth best softball player, Coach Fortunato explained that the player learned to empathize better with role players on the basketball team. As part of getting players involved with multiple sports, he let his players focus on their sport out of season, but expected complete dedication during the basketball season. Once again, talent could be off the charts, but if a player was going to be missing action for another commitment, he took up the hardline of making the player make a choice.
I Want LeBron
At times, Coach Fortunato would come out of scouting an opponent and could quickly recognize where his team was overmatched. That is where the competitor in him came out. His expectations were clear. Under no circumstances was a player on the opponent permitted to get in front of his defense in the paint. The girl might be stronger, faster, and bigger but he could expect his player to deliver maximum effort. The take that I found most worth repeating from our whole meeting was when he said, “If we’re playing the Cavs, I want players who will say I’ve got LeBron.”
This is one of several posts that have been written after meeting with a coach in the offseason. My goal is to meet with 37 before the offseason is over. I’m a little behind the pace, but I’m still optimistic. Here are three earlier posts: