In Massachusetts, each team used to play 20 regular season games and then about 60% qualify for the state tournament. Two seasons ago, we lost game number nineteen to a team more talented than us. Everyone from players to coaches liked the energy and effort. We thought the loss made us tougher heading toward the state tournament. A coach scouting from a team that I have the highest respect for (Pentucket High School) was very blunt with me afterward. “What are you doing playing in that zone? Your point guard is so disruptive. Why don’t you run and jump the entire game?” My satisfaction quickly turned to reflection about run and jump defense. Was he right?
“Why don’t you play run and jump the entire game?”
The answers were numerous at the time. We felt like teams struggled to adjust initially to different looks. Run and jump was not something we fully understood or were qualified to teach as coaches. Certain players were comfortable in zone. Some players struggled to defend in man to man. We feared committing fouls far from the basket and giving up uncontested lay-ups. Diamond press and 1-2-2 three-quarter court gave us turnovers in the past, and as an added bonus put a rim protector in the back.
I remained open-minded and started months of research on the idea by watching Pentucket play on YouTube. I’m not proud to say it, but the only greater case of binge watching in my life came watching The Wire. As I watched I kept a spreadsheet of defensive possessions. Patterns began to emerge. Pentucket made minor tweaks to their defense based on the opponent, but they never took the pressure off. And I started to consider how their principles could be scaled for my team.
The Analytical Argument for Run and Jump
In the previous season, our opponents had an effective field goal percentage that was one percentage point higher than us. The season before that our opponents were 2.5% better than us at eFG. Not surprisingly, the gap between us and our opponents was even more dramatic in losses. We shot 15% lower than our opponent in games we lost.
We were also weak on the glass. The opponent was getting the defensive rebound 8% more often than we were on average the prior two seasons. And again, the gap was wider in our losses.
Where we made up the deficit in these statistics was in turnovers and free throws. We turned the ball over 5% less than our opponents. Even in our losses, the turnover percentage did not favor the opponent.
I initially perceived our turnover advantage to be unsustainable looking at our returning personnel. We lost the team leader in steals and our best decision maker on offense to graduation. That factor pulled at both sides of the turnover margin. Growing effective field goal percentage and rebound numbers also presented a challenge. We lost a different player that was one of our better rebounders and shooters. Optimistically, we had solid athletes returning and among our six seniors a high level of experience.
The Unintended Consequences of Run and Jump Defense
Our steals leader led the team in steals all four years of her career, so replacing her was impossible. Getting the opponent to commit turnovers needed to be a collective effort. A new system seemed worth the gamble. It is a tall order to repeat or exceed past success without key personnel. There were three potential unintended consequences of run and jump besides producing turnovers. I was optimistic about all three.
Defensive Rebound Percentage Increases
First, if we played exclusively run and jump, it meant that we would fall back into man to man quarter court. By playing man to man, boxing out is easier than zone. I read a good deal on pack-line and even attended a summer practice session at Virginia to see them and speak to their coaching staff. One of the coaches was gracious enough to speak with me for an hour after their practice and another hour on the phone. Size was a challenge for us on the boards, but there was no ambiguity about whom to box out. Thus, an unintended consequence of run and jump would be a better defensive rebounding percentage.
Our Turnover Percentage Decreases
Next, I thought our own turnover percentage would be aided by playing run and jump. Everyday our offense would have to practice against run and jump. Players making decisions and learning to play without structure might be painful to watch, but players also learned from mistakes.
The coaches are not the only people in a locker room that recognize the losses of great players. When I asked our players to write the greatest obstacles we faced after tryouts, they all referred to the departures. Ultimately I believe any system is only as good as the players, but changing our style of play also made it possible to change the way we viewed ourselves. Where we lacked certain personnel, the team found value in rallying around the system. They knew the reason we were moving to a new defense was to force turnovers that certain personnel used to get. They embraced the philosophy because they saw its purpose.
The Statistical Results of a Season of Run and Jump Defense
In the 2019-2020 season we played run and jump the entire game for almost every game. It felt like it was an effective decision, but I needed to see hard data. I compared the effective field goal percentage, defensive rebound percentage, and turnover margin from the last four seasons.
Perhaps it is more appropriate to credit man to man than run and jump, but we achieved a high-water mark in defensive rebound percentage this past season. Not switching up constantly and knowing who we were supposed to box out helped.
We also held opponents to the lowest effective field goal percentage of any season. The turnover rate was the second best of the four seasons. More importantly, the gap in turnover margin and effective field goal percentage was a team high over the four-year span. Our turnover rate was lower this past season than any other season. Employing run and jump defense meant the offense increased the number of decisions it needed to make in practice.
No two seasons are alike because opponents change and personnel changes. To try to negate the change in opponents, I changed what I measured so that I only looked at conference opponents. Once again, the run and jump team was the best of the past four seasons in all crucial categories.
Player Faith in the System
The impact of run and jump was significant analytically, but my gut tells me the system is not the main reason our ratios improved. I think the greatest factor in the team’s growth is the faith the players had in run and jump defense.
Players did not buy into the system – they fell in love with the system. In my exit interviews with seniors one of the questions I ask is what one thing they want to emulate from our program if they were ever coaches. Every player that replied told me they wanted their young players to play run and jump. The type of faith player had meant that when we practiced the defense, we did not go through the motions. Players asked questions and made decisions that made me rethink what we emphasize in the defense. Perhaps any system works if players buy in the way that the players bought in this past season.