There are few buzzwords that get thrown around more frequently amongst basketball circles than “IQ.” It’s complimentary, usually signaling that the said player is intelligent, competent and holistic. Those were the first three words that came to mind for me, but it could be completely different for someone else. Here, lies the issue with “IQ” and it’s unclear connotations. It’s widely known as positive, but how positive? How can it move the needle on the basketball court? Where does it move the needle on the basketball court? In reality, the answers to these questions are going to be extremely broad, because the topic itself is extremely broad. In my eyes, “IQ” refers to how quickly you see and act on everything around you, which brings us to processing speed. While you might think it’s simply a sexy twist on the traditional term, I think it provides much more clarity on the term and its effects on the court. Similar to end-to-end speed, lateral quickness and vertical pop, fast processing speed is genuinely a skill. There isn’t a number to measure it — which is why it sadly flies under the radar to some — but there are multiple ways to detect this skill through film, and I’m going to lay some out in this piece. I subscribe to the philosophy that in high leverage basketball situations, processing speed is the most valuable “non-basketball” skill you could have. When it matters most, there aren’t any athletic tools that can save you from not understanding the game, everything moves too quickly and the margin for error is too thin. As I mentioned above, I’m going to take you through what I look for while watching film, and how success in that area will be beneficial later on. Let’s get to it.
Plus-One Passes/Quick Swings/Short Roll
The “plus-one” pass is actually what inspired this entire piece. It has long been one of my favorite plays in basketball, due to the nuance that lies within. Many times it’s credited for being the unselfish play — which is certainly true — but there is so much more that goes into it. All of the passes mentioned in the title share the same core characteristic, understanding and anticipating defensive rotations before the ball even comes to you. We’ve all seen the coach that screams “one more,” and while they are preaching the correct idea, it often programs players like robots. Understanding the difference between a premeditated pass and an anticipated pass is ultimately what separates the quick processors from the fraudulent teammates, who can’t get their coaches’ voice out of their head. The three passes mentioned above are thrown when you’re operating with an advantage that’s already been created. Sure, this certainly makes a possession easier to capitalize on, but help rotations are filling quickly, and if you can’t act efficiently then your advantage will evaporate before you can blink. Now, what does acting efficiently entail? Whenever a prospect catches the ball in an advantage situation, they should have at least two options. Occasionally, you’ll see the extra pass get jumped by the lone defender in the 2v1. This is because the player who caught the initial pass didn’t weigh his options. He made a premeditated plus-one, rather than reading the defender, and countering by pump-faking the pass and taking the jumper, or even attacking the half-closeout. If you want an example of what to do, Tyrese Haliburton was an absolute genius in these scenarios, practically trademarking the fake-pass and consistently toying with backside help. It often looks like the prospect is playing hot potato, but in reality, it’s insanely quick processing. They see the window and waste no time exploiting it. Making a successful extra pass requires you to anticipate the defense’s rotations, and pick out the open teammate based on who is covering where. In the long run, unless you’re a big in short roll situations, these quick off-ball passes might not directly correlate to consistent impact, but the processing speed showcased in these examples is monumental on the court. For players who don’t get a consistent diet of PnR reps, or have the opportunity to manipulate defenses off the bounce, I look for these little moments to extrapolate into their overall evaluation. Reading the defense prior to catching the ball and then acting accordingly is a skill, and these passes epitomize that.
For those who are already plotting their counter of “anyone can be a good cutter,” I have a counter to your counter, then why isn’t everyone? If cutting was as easy as people theoretically say, then every player would be effective in this aspect, and that factually isn’t true. The first step to cutting is actively wanting the ball. Based on the amount of contested jumpers I watch on a daily basis, I’m going to act under the assumption that every player would like the ball in their hands. Now, that brings us to our next point. Back in the good old days of NBA 2K13, you could simply spam the A button — I personally had no regard for “excessive call for pass” — when you wanted the ball, but that’s far from the case on a real court. Being a proficient cutter requires you to find holes in the defense. Big enough where they’re exploitable, but small enough where a step towards the open space doesn’t set off an alarm. Cutting is all about timing. Similar to the passing blurb above, it’s about finding that window, and taking advantage of it in a timely manner. Although we’re about 800 words in, I’m finally starting to lay the real groundwork for why quick processing speed is vital on the basketball court. Everything on the court happens in windows. Whether you’re slipping in a drop off or sliding in for a charge while tagging the role, you have a certain amount of time to successfully take advantage of that window before it closes — aka the help rotating back or the opponent taking off for a dunk. In traditional scouting, it’s normalized to think that the prospects with the longest arms and highest no-step vertical have a head start in this regard, however, I’d argue the opposite is true. The prospects who actually process that these windows exist at an above average rate, have the real head start. Back to cutting, there is such a thing as “bad” cutters. Those typically consist of score-first players with tunnel vision, eager to find the ball when they’re off it and often clogging up their teammates as a result. The cuts that truly catch my eye are a unique type. I’m not talking about the scripted backdoors in the Princeton offense, although they are beautiful. I’m referring to the impromptu cuts that are effective in surveying where the defense is lacking, and decisive in exploiting them. The cuts where the defender looks away for a split second, and the prospect is already at the rim when he turns around. I love cutting because it genuinely can’t happen by accident. Good cuts require the prospect to proactively seek out an achilles heel in the defense on that particular possession, and capitalize on it before the defense can adjust. In theory, no two cuts look the same, and that’s why being a consistent cutter requires quick processing speed. If nothing else, cutting keeps the defense honest at all times. All five guys need to stay locked in for the entire shot clock, because all it takes is one guy to collapse an entire scheme.
Relocation three pointers are one of my favorite plays in basketball, plain and simple. Seeing two teammates completely on the same page, while knowing the connection was spontaneous, is pretty satisfying. While the passer typically gets most of the credit for finding the shooter, it should really be the opposite. Most of the time, the handler is probing inside the arc, looking for a teammate to take advantage of the help they’ve drawn, and that’s where the shooter comes in. I don’t want to sound too repetitive, but the traits found in good cutters are extremely similar to those of a good relocator. When operating off the ball, opportunities to relocate often come when your matchup has to help the helper. Most schemes opt not to help one pass away on the three point line, taking away the easy drive and strong side kick out. If the defense executes properly, guards are forced to keep their dribble alive inside the arc and draw a different help defender to create an outlet. Typically, the guard will draw an interior help defender, requiring the backside help to drop down and tag the big. This is where the shooter’s window comes in. The sooner he recognizes that his defender needs to help, the bigger his window is. The shooter now has a certain amount of time to place himself in a position where his teammate can find him, before the final help defender completes the rotation. That might not seem very complicated when I lay it out, but in order to have a successful relocation, the prospect needs to evaluate and act on my last three sentences in a matter of seconds. More times than you would expect, we see passes to relocating shooters get picked off. While it’s certainly on the handler to read the help, great relocators not only know where their defender is, but they’re aware of where his help is coming from, and they avoid that area. Similar to cuts, no relocation happens inadvertently. Every successful relocation means the shooter understood the opponent’s rotations well enough to create a clear window for his guard, and that requires processing skills. I’m sure you’re starting to catch on to a common theme in all of these paragraphs — every instance is represented in a bang-bang setting. That is completely intentional and will undoubtedly continue throughout the piece. Your processing speed isn’t leveraged in iso situations where you have eight dribbles to read the help, it gets tested in scenarios where you have a split-second to make the right or wrong decision.
This is the first — and only — sector that is derived from playing on the ball. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, your processing speed is shown when you’re forced to read and react. Unlike off-ball situations, there are on-ball possessions where a prospect can get bailed out by sheer skill. They can misread their POA defender’s feet, but still create enough space to knock down the jumper. They can have no regard for help at the rim, but still have enough strength to finish through it. Good offense always beats good defense, and most of the time, “good offense” is derived from skills or tools, rather than reads. However, there is one on-ball situation where you can’t fake your way through it — playmaking progressions. In football, the sign of an inexperienced or unintelligent QB is spending too much time on one read, or “not getting through your progressions.” The same holds true for basketball. On every action, the ball-handler has multiple options, multiple progressions they must go through. Let’s take a regular side pick and roll for example. The first option is the roll man, which is the easiest read to make. If the roller isn’t open, it usually means he was tagged by the corner help, which means your next option is the strong side shake shooter. If that shooter isn’t open, it usually means the opposite corner came for the tag instead, opening up a 2v1 on the opposite side for the ball-handler to manipulate. Finally, the handler must read that lone defender, and can choose between his two teammates across the floor. Again, it doesn’t seem overly complicated when I break it down sentence by sentence, but the handler has a couple of seconds to go through every progression I just mentioned — while usually being pressured. The easiest way to detect fraudulent processors is when the first read is forced. Whether it’s a drop off to the roll man, or a lob for a scripted ATO play, blindly following the first read is a huge red flag. Not only does it show they didn’t read the defense on that particular play, it also means they were too overwhelmed with the idea of going through progressions. Similar to when a QB hits his checkdown after surveying the entire field, the best initiators are perfectly content with taking their medicine. I’m always impressed when a ball-handler goes through every read, and decides nothing is truly worth it. Now, there is a big difference between giving up on the action early and actually going through every progression, and that’s crucial to recognize on film. In my previous philosophy piece, I talked about how detrimental “the wrong initiator” can be. In its simplest form, anyone who doesn’t check this box unfortunately falls under that category. I subscribe to the philosophy that baseline passing ability and court vision can probably be improved. Through enough reps, prospects can likely learn how to throw a live dribble skip pass. However, I’m rather skeptical that someone could make a big leap in progression speed. It’s feasible to engrain “if the corner defender does this, then you throw this pass” into an NBA player. But, maintaining that line of thought with three defenders at once is a completely different animal, and that’s what the league’s best processors are capable of.
Timely rotations are perhaps the easiest and most common way to identify processing speed on the court. It combines awareness, anticipation and reactivity into one, and epitomizes what plus processing speed provides on the floor. Some evaluators get carried away with defensive event-creators and prospects who consistently make sound rotations seem to get underrated. It’s not flashy, it doesn’t even show up on the box score, but it’s one thing that all high-impact defenders have in common. Evaluating defense seems to be a source of weakness for some, with a tendency to focus on the flash plays, and taking the possession-by-possession grunt work for granted. Most defensive analytics also have a tough time encapsulating real impact — which is why I don’t really trust them at all. While one rotation that takes away an easy-drop pass isn’t as valuable as a steal that immediately results in a dunk on the other end, the consistency found in the rotations is far more sustainable, and more beneficial long term. Now, back to processing speed in relation to rotations. Being on time and alert for rotations is the best way to grasp a prospect’s ability to understand and execute schemes. In the NBA, and in the playoffs especially, defense is extremely reliant on playing within the scheme. Of course, there are opportunities for gambles, but when push comes to shove, every player has a job and is expected to carry out that specific task. Understanding basic tags and digs is certainly step one. If you’re lacking on those fronts, getting on an NBA floor is going to be extremely far fetched. But, the rotations that truly catch my eye are the unscripted ones. Similar to every other aspect I’ve talked about so far, there is always room to freelance in spurts on the court, and that holds true on the defensive end. Prospect’s show off their special on possessions that haven’t happened in the shell drill. I want to emphasize that unscripted rotations don’t necessarily mean gambles or events. Unscripted rotations occur when the offense is running an orthodox quick hitter, set play after the break, or any possession where the defense is out of its normal positioning, forcing the prospect to read and react accordingly. During these scenarios, the prospect acts solely on instinct. One of my favorite instances to evaluate this trait is transition defense. The prospect is typically outnumbered and operating at a disadvantage, how does he try to halt the attack until reinforcements come in? There isn’t a script for that, but can you still make the right play? There is a fine line between hunting opportunities to prey on the offense, and being flat out reckless in pursuit. In my opinion, the best way to decipher the two is reading where the remaining help is. Basically, if player A strikes out trying to create an event, can players B and C cover for him? If you’re the lone defender on the weak side wing, gambling for the steal is likely ill-advised. Not understanding the risk-reward in those examples is certainly a sign of poor processing. Conversely, being aware of your teammates and their responsibilities is a huge component of proper processing. Again, while stocks are cool, consistency is the trait most correlated to high processing speed. Can you do it every possession, no matter where you are on the court, no matter what the other team is running? Versatility is the name of today’s game, and being able to rotate out of multiple spots on the court is an underrated aspect of that. Sure, you could be great digging at the nail, but if you can’t tag the roll consistently, how valuable is your team defense? The best processors are effective and competent anywhere on the floor, because they’re simply reacting to what they see in real-time. I’ve talked a lot about margin for error, and how processing speed relates to it. In this aspect, there’s no better advantage than getting to the spot first. On a regular basis, the quickest processors are first to the spot. There will be times where their wingspan is too short and their vertical jump is too low. But, in the long-term, constantly being first to the spot is far more valuable than an occasional block from someone who was two seconds late on the rotation. If you leave with one thing and one thing only, let it be this: when you get a processing speed and tools intersection, sprint to the podium and don’t look back.
Recovery From Rotations
Last but certainly not least, recoveries from rotations. You could do everything I talked about in the paragraph above, but if you don’t recover properly, all it takes is one extra pass to make it all worthless. When a player rotates over, whether it’s a simple dig or full sprint across the lane, they typically lose sight of their initial assignment for a split second. However, most possessions don’t end at the occurrence of one rotation. The players and ball keep moving, and it’s up to the defense to regroup on the fly. In a perfect world, coaches will drill recovery methods into their players, but within the chaotic 40 minutes of college basketball, there are multiple possessions where those plans fly out the window. On those particular possessions — which I consider fascinating — there are a couple things to look for in a prospect. First, how quickly do they get out of the rotation? As I mentioned before, the ball keeps moving, and keeping your feet in quicksand thinking your job is done can be detrimental. It’s important to remember that until you find a new assignment, your team is still at a disadvantage. If it’s rotation at the rim, prospects often have trouble finding — and getting out — to their new man. However, the best processors’ first instinct is to locate the open man, which is very different from “their man,” and fill the rotation. I love watching prospect’s get tested with long rotations in this scenario. Some ultimately fail, but watching 99th percentile thinkers hustle across the court with absolute certainty of their responsibility, is enamoring. Hesitating is the root of failure on the basketball court, and that split-second window is even more evident in these scenarios. But, before you can even sprint to a man, you have to locate him, and the quickest processors do that immediately. Another frequent example is digging for too long. Helping one pass away is always incredibly risky, and while I do appreciate a disruptive dig, the timing has to be very precise. Oftentimes, a prospect will get so infatuated with the potential of a steal, that they’ll stay on the dig for a second too long, allowing their man to relocate with no help to show for it. Knowing when to leave is equally as important as knowing when to go. Examining the angle of recovery is another key point to look for. Even after some prospects identify their new assignment, they can be so unaware of the new court map that their angle to closeout is disastrous. Getting to your assignment in a timely — yet under controlled — fashion is a crucial balance to strike. I’ve said this multiple times throughout the piece and I’ll say it again, the best processors are aware of their teammates and use their presence as leverage. I love recoveries because they epitomize organized chaos. On the surface, it looks like five players running wild, but in its purest form, it’s thought out and meticulous. Completing a successful recovery requires everyone, but the biggest responsibility falls on the player who initially helped. The inability to successfully recover on a consistent basis not only limits your individual defensive potential, but also creates uncertainty about your ability to be a part of a successful defensive unit.
I’m very high on processing speed because I’m skeptical that it can be vastly improved. We’ve seen players become stronger, we’ve seen players become better shooters, but how many prospects have moved the needle on their processing speed while in the league? I like to imagine that list is very short, if it even exists at all. I find that prospects who have it, often don’t get the credit they deserve. While prospects that clearly lack in this area, usually get a pass. In order to play the game at the highest level, you need to think the game at the highest level. The previous sentiment has always been at the core of my evaluation philosophy, and I hope it becomes more widespread in the near future.