Put The Big Rocks In First

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In over 35 years of coaching and teaching basketball, I have developed a habit of taking everything I see and hear and relating it to basketball. Whether I am walking up a street, flying an airplane or playing golf, anything that I learn gets related to basketball.


I heard a story the other day. The story went like this:

A company was advertising an opening for a job. Applicants had to come in, fill out some paperwork and take a test. The test was simple. They were given an empty jar, a handful of rocks and a bag of sand. To pass the test, the applicant had to, simply, put everything into the jar. They had an hour to complete the task.

Person after person would try and fail. The studied shapes, weight, measured the jar, stayed for the full hour, but no one could complete the task.

Then, a young boy asked if he could try. After their experiences, no one believed he could succeed. If they couldn’t do it, with all of their education and experience, how could a young boy do it?

The boy went into the testing room, came out in two minutes and announced, “I’m done!” Not only had he completed the task, but he had room left in the bottle and time to spare.

All the other people jumped up in amazement, screaming, “You must be a genius. How did you do it?”

The boy answered, simply, “I put the big rocks in first.”

By putting the big rocks in first, everything else found its place. Smaller rocks would settle in places where they would fit, and then he poured in the sand. The sand not only filled the jar, but it filled in all the openings, the little crevices, flowed around and even under the larger rocks. The sand filled every available space in the jar, such that there was room left on top.

When I heard that, I thought, the boy wasn’t a genius, he was simple. The answers to most of our problems are simple; we just complicate things by the way we look for the answers. So it is with basketball.

So, what does this have to do with basketball? Well, whether you are trying to become a better player or coaching and trying to get your team to be better, you have to determine, WHAT ARE YOUR BIG ROCKS?

As a player, your big rocks are your fundamental, shooting, passing, dribbling. Everything else is sand.

I watch, and continued to be amazed at what players, especially younger players, practice thinking that they are adding to their games and getting better.

As a player, are you really going to work on a step back 3-pointer when you can’t make a face up wide open 18 footer? Are you really going to work on a John Wall 360 degree lay-up when you can’t make a lay-up with your weak hand? Are you really going to try to beat someone with a Steph Curry same hand through-the-legs-dribble when you can’t dribble with your left hand (or right if you are left handed)?

As a coach, are you going to have your team press before you teach them to defend the basket? Are you going to run a “Dribble, Drive” offense before you teach your players to dribble? Are you going to double team the ball before you teach your team how to defend the weakside?



Here is a tale of two players.

The first player, 6’5”, undrafted free agent. Showed up every day to work. All we worked on was the big rocks. Face up jump shots, 1 and 2-dribble moves to get his shots. Anything extra we worked after we were sure the big rocks were in the jar first. He had a 13-year NBA career and finished as one of the 20 best 3-point shooters of all time. His big rocks went in first.

The second player, 6’10”, very long and athletic, the 14th pick in the NBA draft. He insisted on working on very ancillary aspects of his game, things that he might do once every 5 games or so, or things that really wouldn’t advance his game. I had a really tough time getting him to concentrate on just making basic shots, shots that he would get every game. He has played for 6 teams in 5 years and is not out of the league and playing overseas. I hope he gets another chance in the NBA but I know why he hasn’t been able to stick. He was all sand.

I have seen great players work out. I have worked with Joe Johnson. I have watched Kevin Durant, LeBron James work out. I have seen Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving work out. The have a lot of sand in their game. But only after they put the big rocks in first. Joe Johnson’s phrase during workouts is “Work First!” What allows them to work on the unique parts of their game is the fact that they get an enormous amount of work on the basic parts of their game.

Put your big rocks in first. Then, there’ll be plenty of room for sand.

Don Kelbick

Coach Don Kelbick has had 27 years of coaching experience, 25 at the college level including 14 years as a head coach and 10 years as a Division I assistant including stops at Hofstra University, Marist College, Keene State College, and Florida International University. In 2 years as a high school coach, his teams produced 6 Division I players and was ranked #1 in Florida 28 out of a possible 34 weeks. In addition to coaching he has scouted for NBA teams, including the Knicks and the Hawks, and served as a general manager in the USBL.