My series of looking at how our core players can improve their games continues today with a look at the Pacers veteran big man, Jeff Foster. This is the third of this series, with the first two looking at T.J. Ford and Mike Dunleavy, Jr.
Jeff Foster is one of the Pacers front office favorites, really ever since being drafted by Donnie Walsh all those years ago. Because of his ever present hustle, good attitude, his consistency, his class, and his hard work, I sometimes feel that Foster's many strengths are praised too much, while his weaknesses are too often overlooked or glossed over. This is in no way meant to criticize a very key member of our franchise, and one who has represented us as fans for all these years with dignity, class, and honor.....I just see it as a fact of life.
With too many fans I talk to, and in discussions even with fellow coaches about other players, it is too easy I feel to let a player we all like and respect off the hook, by using some phrase like "he is how he is, and he won't ever be any better." Prior to last season, I felt like that is how the Pacers previous coaching staffs had thought of Foster, never asking/demanding that he expand his game, even just a little bit.
It is then in my view forever to his credit that Jim O'Brien didn't fall into this limited worldview of Jeff Foster. Perhaps owing to the concept that necessity is the mother of all invention, Coach O'Brien last season really for the first time in Foster's career asked him to sincerely be a part of our team's offensive structure. Jeff was used often by the Pacers to recieve the ball at the high post, and to feed the ball to cutters slashing by him, with little clever handoffs or interior passes in traffic. Occasionally, Foster was even asked to make the open perimeter jump shot, which every so often he was able to do.
Foster was also asked to play defensively with more responsibility. With JO again out the majority of the season, it was Foster who was asked most nights to both defend the opponents best big man, but to also be the "communicator" in charge of the rest of the players on the floor defensively. While I didn't consider him to be particularly good at either of these tasks, it at least in the future bodes well for Foster's understanding in year 2 of the overall system Jim O'Brien wants to install and utilize.
With all of that said, for the Pacers to be a playoff level team, and to justify playing Foster the minutes he is likely to get, Jeff simply HAS to improve in several key areas of play. This thread will discuss my views on what those things are, how our coaching staff can make that happen, and what the consequences are of the failure of this to occur.
Let's talk defense first.
On this end, I think it is likely that Foster will in fact NOT be asked as often to defend the opponents biggest player all that often. Assuming he is still here, I believe Rasho Nesterovic will get that assignment, and when he isn't playing I expect Roy Hibbert to inherit it. In fact, I believe Roy Hibbert was drafted for a few different specific purposes, most of which were to cover for all the weaknesses that Jeff Foster seems to have.
When the Pacers defense really began to stink last year, many times it was our perimeter players who let us down. Flat out gettign beat off the dribble, not closing out on shooters, not rotating correctly.....these were all things our perimeter defenders struggled with mightily. This is really undeniable.
However, in any defensive system as complex as the Pacers play, the backline interior defenders have got to be able to "captain" the defense. What I mean by that is that they need to be able to verbally communicate what they see, they have to be able to talk to the rest of the defense during game action and work as the defensive "foreman", if you will.
I just felt like that Jeff Foster didn't do this well at all. In fact, I felt like the Pacers communicated with one another worse on the defensive end of the floor than any team in the league, and I felt that among the many giant defensive problems we had, that that was the biggest. I think one of the problems Jeff had was that he was always caught wrestling inside with someone who was bigger and better than he was, and he felt like he had all he could handle just trying to do his own job, let alone helping the others with their own.
I think our new "big" acquisitions may potentially solve that problem, and may have a shot at solving our other big inside weakness, which is a lack of physical presence....a lack of force and strength. I already know Rasho is somewhat soft, so I'm banking on Roy Hibbert to develop into the "sheriff" inside.....no crime unpunished, no dunks, no one wants to drive unless they are willing to be punished for it. Let's face it, Jeff Foster doesnt physically intimidate anyone who blows by our porous perimeter defense. Perhaps Roy Hibbert develops into that.....let's hope so.
So, Jeff will be asked to instead to mostly defend different people. He will need to roam, need to be able to play on the perimeter occasionally, and he will be used as a "trapper/doubler" way more often, instead of the guy who needs someone else to help HIM. Foster has the intelligence, speed, savvy, and athleticism to be able to do this well I think, so in many ways the effectiveness of Foster defensively will somewhat be reliant on how much and how well Roy Hibbert can play for us.
Foster has very very good rebounding stats, there is no question of that. He needs to be able to continue his defensive prowess, but because of where he will be positioned on the floor defensively, it will be even more key for him to be able to improve in 2 key areas as far as rebounding is concerned.
First, it will not be enough for Foster to just get the same rebounds he has always gotten. We now will need him to get the "supertough" rebounds....in traffic, surrounded by tough guys who are all younger and jump higher than he does. Many times, Jeff gets his rebounds because he is the only pursuer of the basketball. That is admirable and I dont want him to change from that, but we will need him to rebound in a more physical way than he ever has in his career. It is time for Jeff to show more strength and toughness....to throw some elbows, bloody some noses, and to become a player with a harder edge to him, so in crucila spots guys are hesitant to even battle him for the ball at all.
This is key for one simple reason: Roy Hibbert (whom I expect to play quite a bit with Foster) is more of a "rebound preventer, block out" type of guy. What I mean by that is that Hibbert will keep the opponent from getting the ball most times, but he may lack the explosiveness and quickness to rebound the ball himself unless it bounces right to him. Jeff will need to be able to fight the others Hibbert cannot blockout to get the ball....so Foster will need to be in the very best condition of his entire life.
Secondly where defensive rebounding is concerned, Foster simply must learn to be able to make the 2 handed, overhead outlet pass to start our fast break. T.J. Ford may be one of the top 3 or 4 fastest point guards in the league, and the Pacers want to run as much as possible. If Foster just rebounds the ball and then holds it, much of Ford's value is wasted. Foster needs to learn to hold the ball up high, pivot, look up the floor, and then be able to make an accurate hard pass to T.J. to start the break.
This skill has not come naturally to Jeff Foster in the past, but previous regimes prior to O'Brien didnt want to push the ball anyway. Jeff can really help us win if he can master that skill. In fact, if I were the Pacers staff I'd have been drilling with Jeff that very skill every day since we acquired Ford. I look for Foster's rebounding to increase even higher this season, so it is vital for our transition game that Foster learn how to do this. This is a skill that I believe can be "coached up".....the ability to make the two handed, overhead outlet pass. He will need to learn to throw it about 30-40 feet or so, on a line accurately. If he can do it (I already believe Hibbert will be able to) then the Pacers suddenly become one of the league's more exciting transition teams. If not, the T.J. Ford will have to retreat, come back to Jeff to get the outlet pass/handoff, and the opponent will have dodged a big bullet from our weaponry before a possession even begins.
I wrote this next part last season, and I am writing it again now: Jeff Foster is a terrible screen setter. He is so bad in fact that I believe that it seriously inhibits the type of offense in the half court a coach can install. Now, with our new acquisitions, our entire roster is set up to run cutters off multiple baseline screens in the half court.....OTHER THAN FOSTER that is. I have to believe that being so excited, as the Pacers brass seemingly was, to bring in guys like Hibbert (excellent screener), Brandon Rush (excellent cutter away from the ball, maybe the best in college basketball last year in my opinion), and T.J. Ford (point guard capable of taking the ball to any side of the floor a cutter may be getting free) is not a coincidence. The Pacers are showing their hand in this regard....they are going to run alot of old school, "single/double" baseline screens for cutters I believe this season.....at least it sure seems that way to me!
That being said, Jeff Foster either needs to be a much better screener or he won't be playing apparently. To improve, Jeff needs to get better at many of the screening fundamentals. He needs to fake before he screens, get a huge amount better at getting the proper screen angle, he needs to get lower and wider at his base (to make himself wider so the defender has to go further to go around him), and he needs to be more physical, leading with his front foot to drive his power into the defender instead of the opposite happening. Lastly, he needs to stay STILL, and quit getting ignorant offensive fouls trying to screen twice a game.
I would like, very very much, for the Pacers to try and create a post up game to be able to score inside. There is another thread about this already, so I wont bore you with my full ideas about that any more than you already are by reading this entire post. But I will tell you that one really solid coaching idea for a solution to the problem is for the Pacers to use a huge amount of "big on big" crossscreens on the interior, one side of the lane to the other. None of the Pacers bigs are really effective back to the basket players as far as posting up by themselves, but I think Coach O'Brien can create some inside scoring by having our bigs screen across for each other, then having the screener "roll back and flash" to the high post, Then, off that, the high post player (if he gets the ball) can make that little face up elbow jumper or can play a "high low" game with our other post player, who may have gained an advantage by virtue of being screened for.
Another effective derivitive of that that Rick Carlise would use is to screen across inside, but instead of trying to have the cutter post up, just have him continue to the wing to set a ball screen for whomever has the ball, and play a wing "screen/roll" 2 man game. I found this little quirk hard enough to guard that I installed it as a half court "special" play the last school I coached for. The Pacers can use this alot, and it can even be more effective if this big player can, instead of rolling to the bucket, can face up and make the open 12 foot jump shot. Jeff needs to contine to be able to do that.
Even though he was no threat to score really, I really liked Coach OBrien's use of Foster last year as a recipient of a post pass at the elbow, and flashing cutters past him. I think we should continue to use that. It would be recommended by me that on that play, that Jeff needs to learn the skill of letting the cutters both go by him, facing up to the rim, and being able to drive the ball past his slower defender. That is an area of the floor where a "2 dribble" move is all you need to score, and I think Jeff can learn that, in a limited way.
Lastly, I want Jeff to find just ONE SPOT on the floor to become a dead eye 15 ft jump shooter. Instead of having him take shots from all over, if I were in charge of the Pacers I'd sit down with the coached, analyize where Jeff is most often going to recieve the basketball, and just drill him over and over in making that open shot from that one spot. In his case, I'd probably recommend the little short corner, baseline 15ft jumper, assuming like I do that T.J. Ford will often drive and create space for Jeff to get that shot off at least once a quarter. I would want Foster to become a deadeye set shooter from each baseline to the medium depth corner.
For the first time in a while, I think the Pacers are likely to have predominantly healthy players in the front court for the entire season. For this reason, Jeff Foster for the first time in a long time actually has some pressure on him to perform well if he expects to get regular minutes throughout the season. Murphy, Hibbert, Nesterovic (if he is here), and even Maceo Baston are legitimate options for playing time if Jeff can't get the job done, and improve in the areas we need him to improve.
I for one do not believe in the concept that a player cannot improve himself and his game, no matter how old he his. Jeff Foster has not always been pushed to get better by our franchise and its coaches, something that is to their eternal discredit. Last years staff looked at it differently, and rightly so in my view. It is now time for Foster to really become the leader and more effective player that his intelligence and skill set says he can potentially be....if he can do this, he can produce and be an even more helpful player than he has ever been to do things that arent flashy, but can help us be winners.
And to close, lets state the obvious: Jeff Foster, if nothing else, has got to go up strong and finish offensive putbacks when he gets the opportunity, otherwise his offensive rebounds become near empty in their usefulness. I know that is the one gripe most have about Foster, so I wanted to mention it so all of you know I hadnt forgotten it. I think this is a matter of concentration and mental toughness....and frankly a matter of "coaching him up" to get the job done. Sometimes I wonder if some coaches are just too accepting of players faults, instead of demanding and expecting more. Its too easy perhaps to applaud the effort, instead of demanding the effort lead to the next step.........basically what I am saying in this entire thread is this: Jeff Foster can be a better player, and much better in some cases, than he in fact has been in the past. It is up to him and the staff to expect and demand that this happen, because our Pacers are going to either have to have him be the best he has ever been, or it will be time to look to a future that doesnt include our long time big man.
As always, the above is just my opinion.