By Mark Singer
For the first hour and a half of every practice, the Senn boys’ basketball team focuses on one area: making layups. Early in the preseason, if someone missed a layup, all 45 players on the freshman, sophomore and varsity teams ran the length of the court and back three times.
The drills paid off last Wednesday night in Senn’s 56-40 victory at home over conference rival Steinmetz. The Bulldogs set the pace of the game at breakneck. Every miss by Steinmetz was a chance for a transition bucket. The Bulldogs shot just 31 percent from the field, but 11 of the team’s 16 field goals were layups.
“I want to score 80 to 100 points every night,” said Senn first-year coach Terrell Walsh. “In order to do that, we need to get out and go.”
Layups aren’t the only priority for Senn’s coach though. He intends to mimic the popular style of play in today’s NBA, focusing on scoring points in the paint, free throws and three-pointers. The Bulldogs attempted 16 three-pointers and took 29 free throws against Steinmetz.
“Be like a [Mike] D’Antoni team,” Walsh said, referencing the Houston Rockets coach famous for his up-tempo offenses.
That’s a seismic shift from the team’s previous style under former Senn coach Sebastian Szewczyk. The Bulldogs are averaging 66 points per game this season, up 15 points from last year’s group.
“Mr. Walsh and I have different philosophies when it comes to coaching basketball,” Szewczyk, who still teaches physical education at Senn, said in an email. “[I’m] very interested to see how the team will look.”
So far, so good for Walsh. His Bulldogs are 6-2 and are tied for second in the Chicago Public – Blue North conference. Last month the team scored more than 100 points in a game for the first time in six years.
His players enjoy the style of play as well.
“Walsh’s offense is much better than last year’s,” starting point guard Noah Chapman said. “We were never on the same page last season.”
Walsh has a strong case for implementing this modern, three-point and layups-style of offense. In an ESPN article earlier this month, senior writer Zach Lowe noted the NBA is on course to break the all-time record in points per possession, largely because of the recent explosion in three-point attempts.
Of course, the high schoolers at Senn aren’t as accurate from behind the arc as NBA players. The Bulldogs hover around 25 percent shooting on 18 threes per game, while most professional teams are a full 10 percent better on several more attempts.
Former Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson feared that the rise of three-pointers, led in part by his former point guard Steph Curry, would affect younger players still learning the game.
“To a degree, [Curry has] hurt the game …,” said Jackson, an ABC analyst, in December of 2015. “I go into these high school gyms, I watch these kids and the first thing they do is they run to the 3-point line. You are not Steph Curry. Work on the other aspects of your game.”
To Jackson’s point, Senn has frequently struggled with maintaining possession of the ball. The team’s trapping defense normally manages to keep opposing players away from the paint, but live-ball turnovers on offense typically end in easy points for the opposition.
Walsh’s staff hasn’t abandoned the fundamentals of the game, but he is emphasizing certain skills over others. Practices are devoted to hitting jump shots, making free throws and attacking in transition.
“We want aggression. Get out and attack the other team,” assistant coach Marcus Riley said. “They need to get to the rim in transition, or find an open man behind the arc.”
While coaching the Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000s, D’Antoni had two-time MVP Steve Nash orchestrating the “seven-seconds-or-less” offense. Walsh doesn’t have that luxury, but he has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.