Does a shot clock in high school basketball really make a difference?


Virginia public schools do not use a shot clock, much to the chagrin of some coaches. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

About this time each year, when teams with contrasting styles face off with championships on the line in the Maryland boys’ basketball playoffs, the shot clock debate reemerges.

While Maryland girls play with the shot clock, the boys do not. D.C. and Virginia boys and girls play with no shot clock, while some private school leagues, including the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, do.

The consensus is that a shot clock increases scoring by speeding up play, forcing teams away from slow-moving games of keep-away and into more shots and more scoring. More scoring, some coaches argue, makes for better games and more intense competition.

In reality, the effect of the shot clock on scoring is less than drastic.

The WCAC implemented its shot clock before the 2010-11 season, and in the three seasons since, WCAC boys’ teams have averaged fewer than three more points per game than they did in the three years before the arrival of the shot clock. On the girls’ side, scoring is up fewer than two points per game.

The relatively minor bump mirrors what WCAC Commissioner Jim Leary described as an ambivalence within the league about implementing the clock in the first place. Leary said the decision was made after months of discussions. Concerns included whether officials and school staffers would be comfortable using and running the clock, and the cost of installation.

Ultimately, Leary said the league decided to make the move to more closely match the next level of basketball.

“We are a college preparatory school league,” Leary said. “That’s why kids are in our schools, to go on to the next level academically. So if they move on athletically, too, this would help prepare them for college ball.”

DeMatha Coach Mike Jones played and coached in the WCAC before the shot clock and said the implementation has increased the number of possessions per game and led to better quality defense.

“Teams can play whatever defense they want because they know they have to do it 35 seconds at the most,” said Jones, who said his team had its best defensive year in his 12 years this season. “I think the shot clock had a huge impact on defense because it allows teams to play the way they want to.”

A comparison between scoring among Maryland girls’ teams, which use a shot clock, and Virginia girls’ teams, which do not, reveals a similarly minimal bump in scoring from the 30-second limit. Since the 2007-08 season, public school teams in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have averaged just 1.54 more points per game than their counterparts in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun Counties.

Eleanor Roosevelt girls’ Coach Delton Fuller, whose unbeaten Raiders often find themselves in high-scoring blowouts, said the shot clock usually only becomes a factor with stoppages of play when the clock has dwindled.

Oakton girls’ Coach Fred Priester, who finished his 30th year as a head coach this season, says that while the shot clock may not impact scoring, it does limit a team’s options for style of play: a team better fit for long half-court sets spent waiting for the perfect shot stands little chance against up-tempo, loaded rosters when disciplined offense and defense are rushed by a 35-second shot clock like the one in the Maryland girls’ game.

“The part of coaching I like best is figuring out what you do best with each specific team each year and trying to do that,” Priester said. “I think that would be the biggest loss by forcing everybody into a shot clock, because I think it’s forcing people into a style of play they may not have the personnel to do.”

Whitman, which plays Annapolis in the Thursday’s 4A state semifinals, builds its success off a deliberate offensive style that cycles through lengthy, pass-heavy possessions. Far from stalling, that offensive approach — tailored to the Vikings’ sharp-shooting, disciplined lineup — would be hindered by the shot clock.

But teams like Whitman don’t ignite the shot clock debate as much as Baltimore-area teams, which have earned a reputation in Prince George’s and Montgomery County as stall-ball specialists, willing to keep the ball near the half-court line in the hands of motionless guards while time ticks away.

Baltimore’s Edmondson-Westside used holding to a particularly egregious extent to stall Oakdale in double-overtime in last year’s Maryland 2A state semifinal . Tactics like that, coaches argue, destroy the integrity of the competition at the time of year when it means most.

Central boys’ Coach Lawrence Pugh, whose Falcons beat Baltimore area power New Town in the 1A North region final Saturday, said he’d “love” to have a shot clock, but that it would “only come into play when we play those Baltimore County teams.”

“Down here, we don’t really need them,” Pugh said. “We try to use good sets, get good shots, and get up and down the floor. But some coaches will use [no shot clock] to their advantage, they’re going to stall the ball. So for me, I think we need a shot clock, especially at certain times of the season.”

Eleanor Roosevelt guard Andre Fox, whose Raiders fell to upstart Suitland in a first-round upset last week wouldn’t blame Suitland’s willingness to hold the ball late for his team’s loss, but he acknowledged it can be frustrating to watch teams stall much-needed possessions away.

“You can play 20 seconds of good ‘D’ and the other team can still hold it for the last 30 seconds to get that last shot,” Fox said. “It kills you.”

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