Alexander: Take Young Players Out Of Their Comfort Zone
Many coaches will tell you that failure is the best motivator. Former NBA player Cory Alexander, who now coaches an AAU team in the Washington, D.C., area and has been involved with USA Basketball as both a player and coach, learned this lesson first-hand.
“When I played on the USA Basketball team (1993 USA U21 World Championship and 1993 USA U20 Championship teams), that was one of those very few times I was not the best basketball player on my team,” said Alexander, who was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 1995 and played seven seasons in the NBA. “And I didn’t get to play the way I necessarily wanted to play.”
Alexander had just finished his sophomore year at the University of Virginia when he made USA Basketball’s 1993 U21 World Championship Team, and at just 19 years old, he was one of the youngest team members.
“We won gold and I played, but I didn’t play as much as I wanted to,” said Alexander. “Even still it was a great experience.”
In addition to coaching his AAU team, Team Takeover, Alexander also runs the Cory Alexander Basketball School, where he works with kids from April through early November.
His most recent involvement with USA Basketball was as a court coach during the 2014 Junior National Team mini-camp in October. He was also a court coach this past summer for the 2014 USA Basketball Men's U17 World Championship Team training camp. In April, he served as an assistant coach for the 2014 USA Basketball Men’s Junior National Select Team that defeated the World Select Team to win the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit.
At his basketball school, Alexander works mostly with kids 10 years old through high school and sometimes college.
“The biggest thing with basketball players and what you can do with them on an individual basis is to try to help them develop skill,” said Alexander. “You can’t make anyone a better athlete. Skill is something they can work on; athletic ability is not something they really can develop.”
Alexander said the best coaching advice he’s received is to take players out of their comfort zone. Again, it’s something he learned from his own playing days.
“One thing I hated when I played was when people made me give the ball up, when they made me get the ball out of my hands. So as a coach, I pressure a lot in order to make sure, if I play against guys like me who were ball-dominant point guards who wanted to have the ball in their hands at all times, I make it difficult for them to do that.”
That approach has helped Alexander espouse the pressure-defense style, which, he says, fits right in with what is practiced at USA Basketball. Working with head coach Mike Jones, it was successfully employed at the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit.
“It’s something Don Showalter is successful with each year as he coaches the (USA) under 16 and under 17 teams,” Alexander added. “So that’s the way that I coach. A lot of it had to do with the fact that I hated having to play against it as a player.”
In the past, Alexander has been reluctant to work with kids below the middle school level. “I try to explain to parents that my workouts are a little more intense,” he said. “The workouts are also thinking-involved. Therefore at a younger age they’re not able to handle it as much.”
That said, Alexander is starting to develop programs for younger kids in 2015.
“There are a lot of younger kids out there who really love basketball, and I think in the stages of what I’m not teaching right now, I think a lot of bad habits can be formed. So we’re going to gear more towards starting to develop younger players, from the fifth grade down, and just helping them build good habits in comparison to watching them try to do stuff that they see NBA players do on TV when they don’t have the depth in between to be able to pull that off.”
Alexander watched plenty of NBA when he was a kid, but he watched more college basketball. As much as he might have learned from watching the games, he learned even more listening, to coaches-turned-broadcasters such as Bill Raftery and Billy Packer.
“Those guys taught me how to play basketball through saying what was a good decision or a bad decision,” said Alexander. It’s a style Alexander tries to employ now that he is working as a college basketball analyst for Raycom Sports and ESPN. And while he strives to educate viewers about the game, he also gets to hone his coaching skills by interacting with the college coaches he’s covering.
“I get the opportunity to watch so many coaches up close and personal, in practices and games. I always walk away with something that I can use to help me coach, whether it’s AAU or USA Basketball, or even in my training.”
Alexander looks anywhere he can for ways to improve his ability as a coach. And he’s quick to point out that you never stop learning.
“One thing about basketball is that you never know it all,” he said. “I’ve always been a pressure coach, but this summer at the U17 trials, Don Showalter showed me something that I’ve never seen before. And I told him then, ‘I’m taking this and I’m going to use it.’
“Basketball is a copycat sport. Very few people are inventing things that haven’t happened before. So it’s about how you get your players to use it. And more importantly, how you teach them how to use it, and how they can be successful with it.”