Skill over Size: How Positionless Basketball & Creativity Powered SMU's Standout Season

Tim Jankovich ditched traditional positions last season, a move that propelled the Mustangs to a conference title.

The concept of positionless basketball had long intrigued Tim Jankovich. The thought of playing five similarly-sized individuals without traditional position designations piqued his interest, but he never quite had the right roster to pull it off.

But as Jankovich prepared for his first full season as Southern Methodist’s coach last fall, he knew the time to experiment had arrived. Point guard Nic Moore graduated, leaving the team without a true floor general. Harry Froling was the team’s one traditional post player, and he ended up leaving the program in December anyway. SMU’s roster consisted of 10 players between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-9, allowing Jankovich to finally unleash the ideas brewing in his mind.

“We looked at our team and felt like this was the direction we were going to go,” Jankovich said. “As the season went, we just embraced it more and more and become a team of completely interchangeable parts. The guy you’d consider our 5 would be the point guard sometimes. Sometimes our point guard would be posting up. It was as equal-opportunity as I’ve ever been around and I loved it.”

The Mustangs rode the innovation to a 30-5 record and both regular season and tournament American Athletic Conference titles. The five starters, led by Sterling Brown and Semi Ojeleye, all measured between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8. The players shared duties traditionally doled out to certain positions, as four of the five starters averaged at least 5.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game.

But it was defense that was at the core of Jankovich’s innovation. His roster had the ability to switch almost any matchups it pleased, and its length created major issues. The Mustangs allowed just 60.0 points per game, the third-lowest mark in Division I.

“We didn’t switch all the time, but it gave us the ability to do that,” Jankovich said. “We had good length. We didn’t have big guys, but we didn’t have small guys either. We had length at every position and I think that really helped us defensively.”

Maybe the rest of the basketball world isn’t quite as deep into positionless basketball as SMU is, but it’s certainly trending in that direction. The 2017 NBA Finals featured long stretches of lineups with Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and LeBron James as the nominal center.

But Jankovich adds that it all starts with the personnel. SMU had skilled players across the board, allowing them to fill several roles. Asking this of a traditionally-built roster could be disastrous.

But coaches can start preparing their teams to develop in this direction. Jankovich said the style isn’t about size—it’s about skill. He teaches his players to perform tasks they might not have five years ago, such as having bigs practice their ball handling and guards work on post ups.

“I’ve always believed that basketball is a skill game for athletes,” Jankovich said. “That’s what’s happening. Skill is getting rewarded more than any time in my lifetime. It’s not just size. Now, if you have great size and skill, you’re LeBron and Durant.

“But there are an awful lot of really good basketball players that aren’t blessed with 6-9 or 6-10 height. To me, it’s not just how tall they are. We’ve really embraced training, no matter how tall you are, as a skill player. Our biggest guys this year, we’re training them like guards. It only gives them a chance to open up their offensive game.”

Coaches who want to try their hand at positionless basketball should examine last year’s video to determine if their players have the skills necessary to branch out and take on new roles. Looking at stats such as lineup data can help provide insight into which groups of athletes excel together.

Jankovich didn’t allow traditional thinking to rule his team and SMU reaped the benefits. Sometimes the best moves are made when you think outside the box and zig when the rest of the league zags.

“One of the most fun things about being a basketball coach is being creative and trying to find ways to make the group of guys you have maximize what they have,” Jankovich said. “If you just say, ‘This is our system and you guys need to figure it out,’ that’s not as exciting to me. Each and every year there’s a challenge as the season starts and as it moves along to tweak and change and refine the style you want to play and maximize your chances to win.”