EuroLeague.net invited the head coaches of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, some of the very best teachers in the game, to talk about the latest trends in basketball. We start with Valencia Basket coach Jaume Ponsarnau. The 48-year-old began his career on the sidelines with amateur side Tarrega in the mid-1990s and gradually worked his way up to the professional level as he took over at Manresa in 2006. He won the 7DAYS EuroCup title with Valencia last season and is making his EuroLeague debut in this one. At the top of the game, he says, speed and physicality are greater than ever.
Over the course of his two decades in coaching, one particular aspect of the game has stood out to Valencia Basket coach Jaume Ponsarnau as a highlight of change: the velocity of the players.
"In the last few years, basketball in Europe, especially at the highest level, has changed so much in terms of physicality," he explains. "The physical capacity of players is much higher than a few years ago – and not necessarily in terms of their height. I am talking especially about their athleticism, their endurance over long periods and, more than anything, their speed."
"At every position, players now are dynamic and explosive."
As an example of players who thrive in the modern game but perhaps would not have been able to reach the top in previous eras, Ponsarnau points to a pair of point guards whose speed of thought and action has thrilled fans all over the continent.
"Facu Campazzo and Ali Muhammed are effective players despite their lack of height because they are very, very fast," he says. "They are also very strong and have unbelievable physical skills, but their main advantage is their velocity. They are quick to cover every part of the court, with fast hands for defense. And they can take a lot of shots because they are always fast enough to find space. They have such amazing velocity. So this is what I mean when I talk about physicality – not the size of the players."
In fact, Ponsarnau even believes the need for speed can be a drawback to the traditional big-bodied player.
"Modern basketball is played very fast, and having a big body can even be a disadvantage because very tall players generally struggle to play so quickly," he points out. "At every position, players now are dynamic and explosive. This is very important on the offensive side of the game, because the first step can give you a big advantage over the opponent. But at the same time, defenders have to be just as fast because they don't want to lose that first step! So it is significant on both sides of the ball.
"We are losing specialists in the low post and inside the paint."
"The first step has always been very important to gain an advantage, and you can do that either through technique, power or velocity. Modern basketball requires players to have all three of those qualities, but in particular the velocity of players has increased so much in the last few years."
Ponsarnau is concerned that the increase in tempo and intensity has seen some time-honored aspects of basketball lose their importance, but he believes the sport will continue to evolve as coaches attempt to gain that all-important edge over their opponents.
"Now, we are seeing much less action where the players have their backs to the basket," the Valencia coach says. "We are losing specialists in the low post and inside the paint, because nearly everything comes from the perimeter. But I believe most coaches are thinking of ways to recover these concepts of play, even with small players, because they are now strong enough to play well in those positions closer to the basket."
He also believes the physical improvements in players – which are perhaps rooted in offensive strategies – are equally valuable for defense.
"Transition defense has greatly improved thanks to the added physical capacities of players," he explains. "Defenses can recover position quickly, so it is more difficult than ever before to take advantage of transition situations. The means offenses try to start even more possessions in transition and become even more dynamic. We are trying to create advantages every second.
"It's more about being explosive, not just pumping iron!"
"Every player has become more versatile. Guards can play in the paint, and big men can play on the perimeter. They have the physical capacity to do both. Small players can attack the basket because they are so fast and strong, and big men can do many more things like run up and down the court, arrive quickly to help on defense, or block shots on the run. Some big men, a minority, still only feel comfortable inside the paint, but now they are really specialists. They are unusua now; a few years ago they were normal."
Naturally, the evolution of the game has forced coaches to adapt their work habits, both in everyday preparation and gameday itself.
"In terms of our day to day work, the change in athletic abilities has changed the philosophy of the physical trainers," Ponsarnau notes. "In the past, it was always important to lift heavy weights and improve the muscle mass of the players, but now the culture is very different. It's more about being explosive, not just pumping iron! Coaches also have to think about the diets of our players, how they are eating before and after games.
"In terms of game management, the increased speed and athletic abilities of the players means that coaches use more rotations. Players are more versatile, so we can use them in different ways. There are many more combinations available to coaches, which also means we can ask the players to perform at one hundred percent and give everything while they are on the court. They have more chance to rest and can play for 20 or 25 minutes, not 35 or 40, so they don't have to manage their bodies in the same way.
"Coaches are always searching for the highest possible levels of intensity and energy on the floor at all times, but it's not possible for players to do that for 40 minutes so we use more rotations, which we are able to do because of the improved versatility of the players, and the ability of all players to perform at top speed."