How to Develop a High Basketball IQ (and 14 Examples)
A high basketball IQ is the most important trait a player can possess.
Like a Grandmaster in chess, it’s the players who are able to think 3 or 4 moves ahead of the other players on the floor who excel and separate themselves from the competition.
Which is why improving basketball intelligence is a requirement for any player who has intentions of stepping on the floor to compete in the best leagues around the world.
But knowing how to improve it isn’t obvious...
When players are asked how to improve their basketball IQ (or when coaches are asked how to improve the overall basketball intelligence of their team) most struggle to come up with even a semi-decent answer.
In this article I’ll do my best to clear up the confusion.
I’ll show you 5 ways to start improving your basketball IQ today, and I’ll also give you 14 examples of high IQ basketball plays that you can learn from.
What Exactly is Basketball IQ?
Here’s my definition...
Basketball IQ is the ability to pick up on small cues during play that will allow players to anticipate what’s going to happen next with a higher probability.
This requires deep knowledge of the game and a sharp eye for detail.
The player who is consistently able to slide across the key just in time to plant their feet and draw or charge, or the player who is consistently in position to grab offensive rebounds.
Both of these players are reading the game, picking up on small cues (arc of the shot, reading opponent’s eyes, etc) and then reacting instinctively and immediately to what they’re seeing.
That’s why high IQ players always seem to be in the right place at the right time.
Here’s another definition I read from an expert on the topic:
Ben Alamar, who is the former director of sports analytics at ESPN, said the following about basketball IQ when he was on the Counterpoints podcast:
“The general concept is that the very best players in the world can understand what’s going to happen on the court before everybody else does. So they’re not reacting to what’s happening right now. They’re reacting to what’s going to happen in two or three, four, five seconds. It’s like a chess master who is thinking four, five, six moves ahead. Or as Wayne Gretzky once said, you don’t skate to where the puck is. You skate to where the puck is going to be. And that’s what I try to talk about and try and measure what I’m talking about - the basketball intelligence.”
How to Improve Basketball IQ:
Without any further ado...
Let’s go over 5 ways you can start improving your basketball IQ immediately...
1. Watch Basketball Games to “Learn”
There are two ways to watch a game of basketball:
- To enjoy
- To learn
I’m not going to tell you that one is better than the other because there is a time and place for both, but you must understand that they’re very different.
When you’re with a group of friends and watching a game for enjoyment, you’re usually not focusing on anything in particular or actively trying to learn from the game.
It’s just entertainment.
Whereas when you’re watching a game to learn, you’re focusing on specific parts of the game with the goal of improving your basketball IQ.
What you’re looking at specifically depends on what you want to learn.
A few things you could focus on:
- What defense are they running?
- How are they guarding pick-and-rolls?
- How are they guarding the opponent’s best player?
- Which shots are they allowing?
- How are they defending the three-point shot?
- Are help defenders in the right position?
- What offense are they running?
- Are they keeping good spacing on each possession?
- Which matchups / defenders are they targeting?
- What do their set plays look like?
- How is their best player scoring most of his / her points?
- Are they playing fast or slow?
Depending on the level of basketball you’re playing and the amount of time your team spends together, this “film study” is sometimes done as a team.
The coach will pull specific clips from games to show the team what they are doing correctly and what they need to improve, or the team will watch the full game together while the coach highlights specific things to look at.
But players should watch games by themselves, too…
Along with the team concepts written above, players should watch individual players they want to learn from and emulate.
If you’re a point guard wanting to improve your basketball IQ, watch Chris Paul or Sue Bird.
- What do they look for in the Pick and Roll?
- How do they space the floor?
- What are their go-to moves?
- How do they create space using the dribble?
- How do they score most of their points?
Looking at games in this much detail can be time-consuming, but it’s well worth it.
2. Spend More Time Playing
As I said at the beginning of the article…
Basketball IQ is being able to pick up on small cues that allow players to read the play and anticipate what’s going to happen next.
Well, there’s no better way to start noticing those small “cues” than by playing!
This doesn’t exclusively mean live games of 5-on-5 with coaches on the sidelines and parents in the stands either…
- Random pick-up games with friends at school
- 3-on-3 during team practices
- 1-on-1 games against your best friend
Any of these competitive games with offense and defense counts as playing games.
And the more you play, the more “cues” you’ll pick up on that will improve your basketball IQ.
But here’s the thing…
Players aren’t going to consciously realize it as they gradually pick up these cues and get an understanding for them. Most of this process will happen subconsciously.
Let’s think about a player executing a backdoor pass.
If you were to ask a player how they knew the backdoor pass was open, most would say:
“I don’t know. I just knew I could make it.”
But what actually happened is they subconsciously picked up on many small cues within a split second that told them (subconsciously) there was a good chance the pass could be made without committing a turnover.
Cues such as:
- Defender’s back to the hoop
- Defender not on balance
- Defender not watching the ball
- Teammate in explosive stance
- Eye contact with teammate
- Noticing there’s no help defense
- On-ball defender relaxed
These “cues” that allow players to learn the games are skipped over when players spend too much time training individually or 1-on-1 with a skills trainer.
3. Know the Scouting Report
The next thing that will give you a higher basketball IQ is knowing the scouting report.
To put it simply:
You need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents and teammates.
Knowledge of the 9 other players on the floor is absolutely crucial if you want to make the best decision possible in each situation.
A defensive example:
If a player is put in a position where they need to closeout on an opponent…
It’s important to immediately recognize whether the offensive player is a great outside shooter, a great driver / attacker, or if they can do both well.
Their strengths will determine how a defender closes out on them.
- If they’re an elite shooter - run them off the three-point line.
- If they’re an elite driver - closeout short and don’t let them attack.
- If they’re elite at both - attempt to prevent both options (not easy).
The same is true on the offensive end of the floor…
In a 3-on-1 fast-break situation, the player with the basketball must take into account the finishing ability of both players when deciding who to pass the ball to.
4. Sign Up to YouTube Channels
Listening to some of the best basketball coaches on the internet break down games and specific players is guaranteed to improve your basketball IQ.
Here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order):
(a) Evin Gualberto
Evin does a fantastic job highlighting specific areas of a player’s game.
This is fantastic for players (and coaches) because it allows you to focus on how great players read the game and perform specific skills in a number of different situations.
For example, Steph Curry passing and relocating:
Listen to Coach Nick go in depth analysing NBA games.
He points out specific plays / actions teams are using, high IQ plays and smart decisions that occur throughout the game, and shows us how teams could improve.
For example, Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals:
Bryan spent 7 years working in the NBA (Wizards, Raptors, and Hawks).
He know shares his basketball knowledge online which gives people the chance to learn X’s and O’s, analytics, playcalls, tendencies, etc, from someone who has been in the locker room with the best teams / players in the world.
For example, the 4th quarter play the Warriors used to score 8 times:
5. Understand Your Team’s System
Another thing that will assist you to make smart decisions as quickly as possible is knowing your team’s system (offensively and defensively) like the back of your hand.
There’s nothing worse than being “lost” on the court.
Players should spend time learning the roles and responsibilities for all positions in case they find themselves required to fill another position on a specific play.
Knowing the team’s system can include:
- Main Offense
- Main Defense
- Defensive Rotations
- Set Plays
- Full-Court Press
Everything your team runs throughout a season on both ends of the floor.
And if you’re not sure about something, ASK!
Any basketball coach worth their salt will be more than happy to answer your questions, and this often helps them realize there’s something they need to explain better to the team.
If you’re not sure, there are probably other players who aren’t sure either.
6. Game Awareness (100% Focus)
Another key to executing high IQ basketball plays is game awareness.
Many plays that are considered ‘high IQ’ will depend on making smart decisions based on factors such as time, score, foul count, timeouts, etc.
This requires intense focus and discipline.
a. How long is left on the clock?
It’s important for all players to know how much time is left on the game clock (and shot clock), especially towards the end of a close game.
This knowledge can assist you to make smart decision based on time left in the game, such as:
(a) Fouling to send the opposition to the line and get possession
(b) Executing a 2-for-1
(c) Holding the basketball for a last-second shot.
And knowing exactly how much time is left will prevent players from doing silly things like running out the clock during Game 1 of the NBA Finals (2018) when scores are tied instead of passing to a teammate to shoot.
A second example just for fun...
Leading by 2 points with 14.6 seconds left in the game and the shot clock off, Andrea Bargnani took a three-point shot (which he missed) instead of holding up the ball.
Had he done that instead, the Bucks would have been forced to foul and the Knicks likely would have won the game fairly comfortably.
Know the clock, people.
b. How many timeouts does each team have?
For players who are competing in a league that allows players to call timeouts while on the court, it’s important to be aware of how many timeouts your team has left.
If you accidentally call a timeout when your team has zero left, it’s an automatic technical foul.
And if you make this mistake at the wrong time, it can cost your team the game.
Or an NCAA Championship (sorry, Chris Webber).
c. Which players are in foul trouble?
Knowledge of which players are in foul trouble can play a big factor late in games.
If an opponent’s best player is in foul trouble, you might choose to run a play that makes them the primary defender on a player attacking the basket or in a post up situation.
To avoid fouling out, they’ll often play mediocre defense and won’t challenge the shot.
14 Examples of High Basketball IQ Plays:
A high IQ basketball play doesn’t need to be fancy…
It can be as simple as making an extra pass on offense to a wide open shooter, or holding a box out against a bigger player to allow your teammate to grab an easy rebound.
With that said, below we’ll look at several “interesting and fun” high IQ moments.
These aren’t all thing I’d recommend players copy as there are some controversial plays that may not go with the “spirit” of the game…
But they are all definitely high IQ plays.
Let’s kick things off with...
1. Finding and Exploiting a Mismatch
Coaches and players should be constantly scanning the floor looking for mismatches to exploit.
In the following video, Brad Stevens notices that Horford is being guarded by Aminu as he dribbles the basketball up the court.
Knowing he has the isolation / post advantage, Stevens tells Theis to clear out to the other side of the floor which will create space for Horford to back down his opponent.
This high IQ play leads to two points:
2. Knowing the Weaknesses of Your Opponents
Here’s another thing intelligent basketball players do:
Instead of focusing on which offensive player they want setting the screen in a pick-and-roll, they think about which defender they want to put in a pick-and-roll situation.
In this video, Jokic instructs his teammate to be the screener which forces Boban (who is a poor pick-and-roll defender) to be the screener’s defender.
This leads to an isolation which Chandler was able to take advantage of.
3. Anticipating How the Defense Will Rotate
Most teams have similar rotation rules on defense.
On a drive to the basket, nearly all teams help from the opposite side of the floor (split line) and then everyone rotates down to “help the helper”.
Smart offensive players can take advantage of this by anticipating where the help will come from, and then passing to the player who will be left unguarded.
Lebron is a player who does this all the time:
4. Faking a Timeout Call
Players need to be sure they’re playing hard and concentrating on the play until they hear the referee’s whistle or the sound of the buzzer.
Because if they don’t, high basketball IQ players can take advantage.
Assuming that Andre Miller was going to call a timeout, the Hornets players stopped paying attention to the ball and started walking towards their bench.
That’s when Miller exploded towards the basket and finished with a relatively easy layup.
5. Holding the Ball for a Last-Second Shot
Smart clock management is a clear sign of a player with a high basketball IQ.
The most obvious example of this is when a player keeps possession of the basketball while the clock winds down, and then takes a shot with only a few seconds left.
Doing so ensures your opponent won’t get another shot attempt.
Damian Lillard’s incredible 37-foot last-second shot, for example.
(he probably could have got a better shot than this)
6. Get an Extra Shot Using the “2-for-1” Strategy
This strategy only works for teams who play in a competition with a shot clock.
(that should be every high school team)
Here’s an example:
The Lakers are down by 4 points with 31.7 seconds remaining on the clock.
To ensure they’ll get two more shots before the end of the game, the Lakers run a play for Kobe Bryant that results in an immediate three-pointer.
So even if the Raptors use the entire 24-second clock on their next possession, the Lakers will get the basketball back with a chance to tie or take the lead with 5 seconds remaining.
7. Making the Extra Pass For a Better Shot
Coaches love players who will turn down their ‘good’ shot for a ‘great’ shot by a teammate.
This requires players to know:
(a) The strengths of their teammates (who can shoot)
(b) Read how the defense is closing out
(c) Be aware of where their teammates are
The San Antonio Spurs have made the ‘extra pass’ part of their championship DNA.
Check this out:
8. Dribbling Into the Opposition Coach
This isn’t something I’d recommend you do, but it’s definitely a high IQ play.
Knowing that if a coach makes contact with an opposition player it’s an automatic technical foul, Jason Kidd dribbled into Mike Woodson who was coaching the Hawks.
Coach Woodson, who was a step on the court directing his players on defense, attempted to get out of the way; but Jason Kidd stuck out his forearm and made contact.
A technical foul on the Atlanta Hawks.
According to this article, Jason Terry called it the smartest play he’d ever seen.
9. Intentionally Spill a Drink for a Free Timeout
Another veteran Jason Kidd stunt.
Down by 2 points with 8 seconds left on the clock and no timeouts remaining, Jason Kidd told one of his players to “hit me” as he was holding a drink.
When contact was made, Kidd intentionally spilled his drink on the court.
This basically gave the Brooklyn Nets a “free timeout” as Kidd was able to draw up a play for the team to run while the liquid was being cleaned up.
10. Hiding Behind a Coach for an Easy Steal
Back in the 2016 NBA season, Marcelo Huertas (Lakers player) hid behind Erik Spolestra (Heat’s coach) after a stoppage for free throws.
Then, as the opposition point guard advanced the ball up the court, Huertas appeared from his hiding spot to tap the basketball from behind straight to a teammate.
11. Allowing the Clock Run Out
With a decent lead towards the end of the 4th quarter, Ty Lawson found an intelligent way to wipe some time off the scoreboard and prevent any chance of a comeback.
Knowing that the 24-second clock doesn’t start until a player inside the court take possession, Ty Lawson allows the basketball to slowly roll up the court.
This winds down the game’s main clock, but doesn’t take any time from the shot clock.
He waits until an opposition player steps up to challenge before taking possession.
12. Inbounding the Ball Off the Opponent’s Back
This is one of the more common “trick” plays.
Every player has attempted this once or twice during a pick-up game, and some players even have the confidence to do it during real games when the coach and crowd are watching on.
When the opponent turns their back on the player inbounding the ball, gently pass the ball off their back, step onto the court, grab the ball, and look to score.
This is most commonly done when the basketball is on the baseline, but can be done anywhere on the court if the defender presents you with the opportunity.
For example, Ben Simmons:
13. Not Allowing the Opponent to Take a Game-Tying 3-Pointer
You’ve probably heard coaches talk about whether to “foul or defend” in a close game.
When your team is leading by 3 points with only a few seconds on the clock, is it better to:
a. Foul the opponent and send them to the line for two free throws.
b. Defend and hope they don’t make the three-point shot.
(I believe the answer to this question depends on the level you’re coaching)
In the best competitions featuring the world’s best three-point shooters, it’s a high basketball IQ play to recognize this during a game and be willing to take the foul.
For example, Rajon Rondo:
14. Only Guarding the Three-Point Shot
Let’s look at Rondo’s insanely high basketball IQ again…
The Hawks had possession on the sideline trailing the Kings (who Rondo played for) by 3 points with only 1.9 seconds remaining on the clock.
Knowing their only chance to win was to make a three-pointer, Rondo directed his teammates to only guard the three-point line on the final possession.
If the Hawks wanted to pass inside and make an open layup, go for it.
That would ensure a Kings victory.
There’s no shortage of dedicated players who are willing to dedicate 1,000’s of hours in the gym by themselves working on their shooting and ball-handling.
And while that will definitely help them improve…
There aren’t enough players who are dedicating time to improving their basketball IQ, which is equally important (if not more important) in determining a player’s long-term success.
But there’s still hope...
In my opinion, the lack of time spent improving basketball IQ by players has more to do with not knowing where to get started than a lack of interest or desire.
Share this blog post with your players to help them get started.
- Coach Mac