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Basketball IQ vs Basketball Instinct

Prior to switching over to player development full-time I spent seven seasons on the sidelines as a college basketball coach.

During one of those years I had the opportunity to coach a player that was different from any other player that I had previously worked with. We will call him "John".

Our offensive philosophy included several variations of a ball screen continuity and a play book of over 75 set plays. (Yes, you read that correctly. 75+ sets!)

I was responsible for calling set plays and managing the offense & several times each week we would run through 30-35 sets in a 5 on 0 setting.

Let's just say that John wasn't the greatest in this setting...both in 5 on 0 in practice and while running set plays in games. I quickly started to realize the difference between basketball IQ and basketball instinct.

Our sets were systemically designed to get a specific shot or put a player in a specific spot. We were trying to work through an action or attack the defense in a way that was intentional.

That was the IQ piece.

But John struggled with that.

Where John flourished was playing fast and without a ton of structure. He would back cut at the perfect time and dunk the basketball violently. In transition he would thread the needle on a bounce pass, showcasing his incredible anticipation. He always was in the right spots.

I remember John coming out of the game once after he had just made a nice play. I asked him what he saw on the previous possession and I will never forget his answer.

"I don't know man. I'm just hoopin'."


For some players, the game tends to move really slow internally. They are able to process things quickly, make intentional movements based on specific strategy and even breakdown what they did after the fact.

But that's not always the case.

For a lot of players the game moves really fast and the idea of making quick decisions based on the information in front of them would almost seem impossible. But that doesn't mean they can't find success.

Basketball IQ vs Basketball Instinct - when given the choice I think most coaches would lead towards the side of basketball IQ. We want smart players. "Coach on the floor" types of players.

But at times players can actually play too slow and miss opportunities because of how they process everything. They understand what they are looking for, or how to attack something, and they end up holding the ball too long. "Paralysis by analysis" is the phrase that I would use.

Personally, the older I get the more I lead towards the instinctual side. Don't get me wrong - we have to have some basketball IQ. That is incredibly important. But I think that the instinctual side is more difficult to teach.

I can teach you how to be more skilled, shoot better and finish at the rim. But it is really difficult to teach someone to play free and utilize their instincts if they don't already.

My point in writing this is to help coaches decipher between the two ideas: IQ & instinct.

Some players will never accomplish what they are capable of due to the fact that they are not allowed to play free and utilize their instincts. That doesn't mean that you need to remove all structure and not hold those players accountable to playing within the team. The purpose is to understand that for some players, their instincts are their best attribute.

Don't suffocate that.


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