Guys like Mike Bibby, Luke Walton and Steve Kerr had it. Kerr and Walton's fell for the game elevated them form decent players with one or two really nice skills, into NBA players. Kerr was a step slow, but his feel for the game allowed him to anticipate on the defensive end and we all know about the amazing assist to turnover ratio. Walton is an amazing passer and just has a knack for knowing where his teammates are going.
Bibby had NBA talent, but that feel for the game is what took him to another level. Guys like Miles Simon, Damon Stoudamire and Sean Elliott all just instinctively knew what was going on around them. Even players like Ricky Anderson seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
This team lacks that. It is not a case of the fundamentals that can be taught, this is the feel for the game that you are either born with or develops the more you play. The older players do not have it. I think Marcus Williams has it and I'm not ready to write off other young players, but to date they have only shown flashes. Jawann McClellan seems to get it, but he'll have been away from the game for over a year by the time he returns next season.
A great example of this lack of understanding, this lack of feel came in the final moments of the Washington game. On the final three pointer Chris Rodgers tripped over a screen and allowed Brandon Roy to drain the game tying three-pointer. Rodgers showed a lack of basketball IQ by playing INSIDE the three-point arc, effectively guarding against the drive, when Roy HAD to have a three-pointer. Rodgers should have been playing outside the arc in an effort to keep Roy from getting a good look. A two-point bucket would not have hurt the Wildcats, but there Rodgers was inside the arc.
On that same sequence Rodgers never knew the screen was coming, or at least not until it was too late. Sure, a teammate needed to call out the screen, but the good players just have a feeling where a screener is. Whether it is a sixth sense, like a quarterback feeling "footsteps" or just an understanding of the game and the strategies of the opponent, I do not know but either way, Rodgers looked surprised to find a screener in his path.
The ensuing possession saw Shakur's lack of basketball IQ. With a chance to win Shakur did a great job driving the lane and getting penetration. From there he seemed to pause, eventually kicking out to Hassan Adams on the wing, but not in time to get a shot out. The difference between a good and a terrific point guard is a knowledge of where the clock out. They know every situation that is facing them. The great ones know where they are going, what they want to do and what they are going to do with the ball.
That is the problem with this team. Just a lack of feel. For the most part they have fundamentals and talent, but they just seem to not completely understand the game.
It is tough to tell if a player has it or not on the prep and AAU level. Some players jump out at you as having ‘it', but many don't display it until they get to the more competitive collegiate level. In high school most recruits are far superior to their opponents and teammates and they can oftentimes coast on raw ability and still thrive. The AAU circuit is far more competitive, but in many cases the games are free wheeling and less structured. You can oftentimes confuse a lack of basketball IQ for the wide open nature of summer basketball.
I saw players like Mustafa Shakur, Hassan Adams and Chris Rodgers on the high school circuit. They all dominated. It was a rare occasion that they were not the best players on the floor.
AAU tournaments and shoe camps can be deceptive. Rodgers was unselfish at the Nike Camp when he shared a backcourt with future Indiana standout Bracey Wright. In the AAU setting he looked like a five-tool player who could score, shoot, defend, rebound and pass. He showed flashes of those skill at Arizona, but never put it all together.
Shakur was unbelievable at the prep level. A great scorer and a point guard who was not afraid to get his teammates involved. He came to Arizona and was very good from day one. The problem is that while he can score and he can set teammates up, he just doesn't have that innate grasp of what is going on around him to elevate him to the next level. He's essentially the same player that he was three years ago when he stepped on campus.
Guys like Reggie Geary and Jason Terry left Arizona with an amazing feel for the game. Matt Othick and Matt Muehlbach were the least athletic backcourt in the Olson era, but made up for it with a great grasp on the game. All Muehlbach did was fail to lose a game at McKale Center for his entire career.
Look at the Wildcats who have thrived in the NBA, most have had an amazing feel for the game of basketball. Kerr, Bibby and Judd Buechler all just know the game. Richard Jefferson came to Arizona raw, but has really developed his basketball sense to go with his unbelievable athleticism. Even goofy Gilbert Arenas. He may come off as a silly, gunner, but he has a knack for finding the open space on the floor and gets his hands on a number of passes that seemed safe at the time.
The great Arizona basketball teams had great basketball IQ's. The 1988 team was chock full of future NBA players, but may have lacked the shear talent that future squads had. That team just knew where each other were and what needed to be done. They were an amazing passing team and made up for a lack of athleticism on defense with great timing and anticipation.
The 1997 and 1998 team had freak athleticism, but also a great sense. Watch Bibby and Simon in the NCAA tournament. Watch Michael Dickerson getting after it on defense. Watch how they passed. Watch how they anticipated. It was a great defensive adjustment and a bad shooting night that kept them from a second title. In 2001 you saw much of the same.
The good news for Arizona is that help is on the way. Say what you want about his height and his build, but Nic Wise has a high basketball IQ. Chase Budinger appears to have "it" as well. Add to them the further improvements of Williams, J.P. Prince, Daniel Dillon, Fendi Onobun and McClellan and the building blocks are there.
The Wildcats have talent. They have athleticism. They are well coached and well prepared. What they lack may be the one thing Lute Olson, no matter what his pedigree is, can give them. This team just does not have a feel for the game, an understanding of what is occurring around them, and more importantly what is going to transpire around them and that has been one of the reasons they have struggled. Athleticism can take you far, but it can't take you all the way.
Of course, basketball IQ is not the only problem this team has, more on that later…