Scouting the Opposition

“There’s no rocket science around scouting,” explains Russ Thompson. An advance scout for the New York Liberty, Thompson travels to different arenas in order to evaluate future opponents. Though his situation is somewhat unique – most WNBA assistant coaches handle scouting duties and rarely have the time to see opponents live – he shares their purpose: by careful study, give his team any advantage he can.

“My job is to try and get [an opponent’s] play calls, the actual sets, and the movement of the plays,” says Thompson. He then presents his assessment to the assistant coaches who, in turn, decipher and interpret the data. Collaborating with the head coach, they design a game plan of how to best attack and defend their next opponent.

Assistant coaches gather most of their information by doing a detailed analysis of opponent’s game. Often, someone on staff does the preliminary – and time consuming – break down of the tape down into offensive plays – transition and half court, special situations such as free throws, sideline and baseline out of bounds, and defensive looks.

The assistants then make a second, condensed edit highlighting what players need to know about their upcoming opponents. Countless hours go into the sifting process, during which coaches glean an enormous amount of information. The trick is not to overwhelm player with too much information.

“You have to have a good grasp for your team’s tolerance level for it,” explains Minnesota head coach Heidi Vanderveer. “Sometimes if you’re a little older team – Utah, for example – they maybe have a longer attention span and they can concentrate a little more.”

As an assistant, Vandeveer would occasionally focus on an individual player, making a highlight reel of their favorite moves. More often, though, she’d concentrate on opponent’s overall tendencies: what they’re doing coming out of a time outs, their sideline plays, what are they trying to do offensively after a made basket. What plays are they running most often, are they scoring points in the paint or from beyond the arc? When she was finished, four or five games were condensed into a mere 5-7 minutes of tape, often shown the day of a game as a refresher/primer of what to expect.

Understanding their own team’s talent and system also influences what’s shared. “Some things I watch and I say, ‘that’s not going to hurt us,'” says Indiana assistant Julie Plank, “so that’s not important to show.” For example, Indiana doesn’t often play zone defense, so they don’t spend a lot of time on what offenses opponents run against the zone. Conversely, with their fast posts, the Fever has an ability to press, so Plank looks for examples of how an opponent breaks the press.

Players also receive a written report on all the individuals on an opposing team, their tendencies, and what to look for. Of course, coaches admit somewhat ruefully, some players are more thorough than others about reviewing scouting material. Seattle used an innovative way to inspire their team’s diligence, reveals Seattle assistant Gary Kloppenberg. “We have some fun with it. We’d always put some goofy thing in the middle of the report and whoever found it got five bucks.”

No such incentive is needed for Indiana’s Tamika Catchings, who Plank calls a real student of the game. “She’ll study that thing from front to back. She plays a number of positions, and she’s guarding a number of different people, so she’s got to know more, maybe, than our point guard does.”

It is also up to the coaches to design a game plan that, in Kloppenberg’s words, “disrupts the flow and comfort zone of the team you’re going to play.” More often than not, that strategy is outlined during a 45-minute walk through before a game. For instance, studying the Los Angeles Sparks, it was obvious that after a missed shot they wanted to get the ball up the court quickly. “We tried to counter,” says Kloppenberg, “to try and jam the rebound – just to hold them up for a second or two, and that helped us get them in a half court game so they didn’t get a lot of easy baskets.”

The tight WNBA schedule often makes preparing challenging — a walk thru before a game, a quick review of tape on a flight, notes scribbled on a board in the locker room. But, says, Kloppenger, “players at this level are so talented, and have seen so much, they can make adjustments fairly quickly. If you have time, you can prepare for every of the main plays you’re going to see. Now, whether you’re going to stop them,” he adds with a smile, “that’s another thing.”

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