As the game of basketball continues to evolve into a free-flowing contest, we are seeing an increase in one-on-one matchups. Teams are spreading the floor and using screens in an attempt to get to the basket and get into the lane area for an easy shot or an easy kickout to a shooter on the wing. As a result, many ballhandlers are starting to initiate contact with their defenders trying to create space in order to gain an advantage and score. While initiating this contact, many offensive players try to fool the officials into calling defensive fouls by snapping their head and shoulders back or flailing their arms at the slightest bit of contact. While this behavior may or may not be coached, it certainly is rampant in our game and therefore we need to be prepared to officiate it.
Officials need to have an awareness of the offense
While the old adage of “advantage vs. disadvantage” has become a taboo philosophy in our game, the rules do state that contact which prevents normal offensive or defensive movement is a foul. Referees at every level know that we are supposed to referee the defense. However, that is only one half of the equation; we also need to have an awareness of the offense. If a defender has obtained legal guarding position with two feet on the court facing the opponent and beats the dribbler to a spot on the court, that is a legal position. When a defender is legal and contact occurs, we then have two choices: incidental contact (i.e. no-call) or player-control foul.
Next, we need to determine how we differentiate between incidental contact and illegal contact. The obvious illegal contact occurs when an offensive player initiates contact with a defender which results in the inability to continue playing defense. This contact involves a player being displaced or knocked to the floor. These plays are obvious and should be deemed illegal; but what about when an offensive player ever so slightly pushes off or leans into a defender? What guidelines can we use to help?
One helpful guideline is to know if the wrist of the offensive player extends past his elbow when contact is initiated by the dribbler. In many cases, when you make contact with your hand and extend your wrist past your elbow, you have created space and prevented normal defensive movement. If you see this and normal defensive movement is affected, call a foul.
The next thing to consider is the aforementioned offensive player flailing arms or snapping head back at the slightest sign of contact. In order to correctly rule on that play, you must know if the defender is legal. Nothing creates a flashpoint with a coach like calling a foul on a player who is legal because we get fooled. If the defender is legal, we cannot have a defensive foul. If the defender is legal and the flail impedes or displaces the defender, the contact should be deemed illegal and a player-control foul would be the appropriate decision.
Once you identify a player who tries to utilize these tactics, it is best to approach him or her or the coach and advise against such actions designed to fool you. Many times, they understand and the behavior decreases.
As the rules continue to be modified in an attempt to increase freedom of movement, offensive players are getting more crafty. In order to keep up with them, it is imperative that you think about the methods they are using to try and gain an advantage. Seeing these plays and thinking about how to handle them will help ensure that you are not surprised in your game. We need to practice and study our craft just like the players are doing. After all, failure to prepare is preparing to fail.
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