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Rediscovering the Lost Art of the Outlet Pass

A long outlet pass can quickly turn a rebound into an easy basket. Yet it’s an overlooked skill, as outmoded and old school as a wooden backboard. In today’s game, nearly every player is skilled at handling the ball and initiating the break off a dribble. Still, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line — and a snappy outlet pass gets there in a blink.

“It’s a skill that’s under-appreciated,” said Colorado College assistant coach Brian Gustafson. “We’re increasing our emphasis on it this year at Colorado College because we want to run more and reduce turnovers as well.

“We emphasize deep outlets. We want our point guard out there. We want the defense to space out a little farther. Your outlet determines whether you’re going to get a good early shot or face trouble early and risk a turnover.”

Throwing an outlet pass requires above-average court vision, basketball IQ, and precision, but big men can morph into passable quarterbacks with enough practice.

For young players, Gustafson recommends starting without defenders.

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“The player throws the ball off the glass, and goes up for the rebound with two hands above his shoulders,” Gustafson said. “When he lands on his feet, we want him to chin it — the ball is no lower than his chin. He then pivots to the outside and fires the outlet.”

Of course, adding a defender complicates matters. If pressured, the rebounder uses a burst dribble and moves outside the paint to fire a pass.

Repetition is key, which is why CC works on outlet passes, even in offensive drills.

“We have to successfully complete an outlet before the drill ends,” Gustafson said.

In CC’s scheme, the point guard, and only the point guard, receives the pass.

“Our point guard has to get to the half of the floor where the rebound happens,” Gustafson said.

“Picture a rebounder on the left low post. That rebounder pivots out, and as he looks up the floor, his point guard should be getting on the same half of the floor. He should be near the old hash mark.

“His butt should be facing the sideline so when he receives the pass he sees the whole floor. The way the defense is transitioning will determine whether he passes ahead or whether he dribbles the ball through the logos, so to speak, at the center of the floor.

“We try not to run a lot of half court, controlled set offense in transition. We’ll run more set plays after the opponent makes a basket. When the opponent misses a shot or turns it over, we want to attack with early offense.”

No one will ever replicate Wes Unseld, who in his prime in the 1970s triggered the Baltimore and Washington Bullets’ break with laser-beam outlet passes. On the other hand, the outlet doesn’t have to be an out-of-the ordinary skill. 

“It’s not a trick,” Unseld said years ago. “It’s a learned skill of just anticipating and having a little imagination when and where you throw it. You also have to develop some skill to get the ball to where you want it to be.”

From GameChanger and Clay Latimer.

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