Can Volleyball Coaches Learn from the NBA?

I don’t consider myself a fan of the NBA, but I enjoyed watching the recently completed playoffs. The NBA is moving in a different and more exciting direction with how the game is played. The offensive systems of basketball are evolving at the highest level and are already impacting the younger players and teams. For an open-minded volleyball coach, there might be concepts used in the NBA that can be implemented into their offensive systems and player evaluation.

Traditionally, the NBA had positions. Teams would have a big guy as a center- (position #5); two forwards, one a power forward who was physical (position #4); the other is a shooting forward, more finesse (position #3); then two smaller guards, a shooting guard, (position #2); and a point guard, (position #1). Players referred to the position they played by number. Most levels of basketball replicated this system.

The NBA game is trending away from this model and towards a model that emphasizes multi-position players, movement, athleticism, and shooting skills. How tall a player might be, although not unimportant, is of secondary importance. NBA champions, Golden State, played a majority of the time with no player taller than 6’8″, which by NBA standards is relatively small. With five athletic players, they spread the floor, allowing the skill and athleticism to shine while providing a great deal of diversity in the offense.

Volleyball, over the years, has been caught up in a philosophy of player specialization. This is especially true on the women’s/girls volleyball side. Tall players in the middle, short players in the backrow, right-side players are tall, can hit and block, but can’t pass, so they come out in the backrow, short setters have no chance of front-row play, etc. The primary focus is on height instead of skills or personality traits. It is not unusual for a tall player with marginal athleticism or skills to have a greater value than a smaller player that is athletic and possesses good skills.

Because the physical model is static, the offensive and defensive systems used also remain static. There is limited creativity offensively because of the physical or technical limitations of the players. Subsitutions are employed to mask skill deficiencies. Coaches either lack the time, desire, or expertise to develop the technical aspects of the player.

Candace Parker

Volleyball is not the only sport that has been pained by specialization. Women’s basketball has approached the game similarly—the tall players underneath the basket, hesitant to shoot from outside, lacking in dribbling and passing skills, small players on the perimeter, etc. Players such as Candace Parker, who is tall (6’4″), athletic, capable of playing multiple positions, and possesses a multi-faceted skill set, are scarce. Not that there aren’t potential Candace Parker’s out there; similar to women’s volleyball, there is a tendency to put the athlete into a box relative to their skill development.

What would volleyball look like if the model was the NBA style of play? 

  • There will be an increased emphasis on athleticism, quickness, and jumping. Of course, even better if a player is tall with those items! However, shorter players with those attributes would have significant value. Tall, slow players do not fit into the ideal model; opponents would exploit the lack of speed.
  • The attack would come from all areas of the net, both front, and backrow
  • Players capable of attacking would stay on the floor for six rotations, mandating a well-rounded skill set.
  • The quickness of the players would be a priority.
  • Offenses would be up-tempo, with fast sets to the antenna and the backrow.

At the collegiate level, the play on the men’s side replicates the NBA more than on the women’s side. There is no reason that women’s offenses should not pursue the concepts of more hitters than blockers; attack from the antenna to antenna, and a fast set tempo for all attackers.

To demonstrate these concepts, we use the offense of the OSU men from a few years back.

Here are a few thoughts on putting together your team for the upcoming season.

  • Experiment with a “positionless” system. Players should develop comfort in hitting and blocking at various positions along the net.
  • When recruiting or selecting players, make sure the focus is on the right things. A well-skilled player with quickness will always add value to a team, regardless of height. 
  • There is no denying that height has value in our game. However, the coach must commit to teaching the tall player all the skills, not just the front row skills. For younger players with good height, be patient with their athletic skills. Taller players will take longer to develop their athleticism.
  • Encourage six rotation players and work hard as a coach to develop the skills needed for front-row and back-row play. Having attackers in the backrow will add diversity to the offense. However, one caveat is that occasionally attacking out of the backrow will not guarantee success. The backrow attack needs a quick tempo set that operates in conjunction with the front row attack.
  • There are more talented short setters than there are tall setters. Make every effort to keep the excellent setter on the floor regardless of height. You will find they will score more points for your team with their setting than they will lose for you with marginal blocking.
  • When looking for players for your team, don’t look for a “middle” or a “right-side”; look for players with skill and athleticism, then find a place for them on the floor and develop a system to take advantage of their talents.
  • Gradually work toward the implementation of speed in your systems. Teach the skills with speed as a factor.

Incorporating the ingredients of an NBA system might lead to some positive results in volleyball. If nothing else, it will be exciting to watch!