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Playing organized basketball teaches middle school kids teamwork and improves fitness in a fun athletic environment. Fewer young players possess basketball specific skills, so it's important to observe skills like shooting and ball handling during tryouts. At any level of tryouts, it's also important to put players in game situations to observe their hustle, defensive skills and ability to make decisions on the fly.
Since most middle schoolers have limited basketball experience, it's particularly important to identify the few players who possess sufficient ball-handling skill for dribbling up the court and minimizing turnovers. Setting up a timed slalom course around cones is a good way to evaluate each player's ability to efficiently move with the ball. Running full-court dribbling drills with both hands will help you determine who can maintain control of his dribble without looking at the ball and who can dribble with both hands -- skills that are essential for players who aren't tall enough to stand in the post. Don't rule out the possibility of playing a tall, skilled player at point guard at this level; it may be the best choice for your team and also may benefit the player in the long run, since there's no guarantee that his size advantage will persist throughout his high school basketball career.
Since middle schoolers have to shoot the ball farther vertically than older players, most shots are likely to come from relatively close to the basket. Your shooting drills should focus on identifying players who are capable of making layups and shooting midrange jump shots from 10 to 15 feet away. Layup lines are a quick and easy way to observe form and results. One-on-one drills are particularly good for observing which players are capable of shooting well in game situations; you'll likely find that some players can only shoot when uncovered, while others shoot equivalently well uncovered and when moving away from a defender.
Defense and Conditioning
At any level of basketball, defensive aptitude is strongly related to a player's conditioning level and willingness to expend effort on the defensive end of the court. Running players through conditioning drills is great for evaluating each player's willingness to work hard when shooting the ball isn't an immediate concern. Defensive slide drills, in which the player practices lateral movement, are easy to learn and demonstrate each child's level of agility, while traditional sprinting drills help identify the players who are in the best shape and most likely to keep playing with energy throughout the game. Willingness to run hard throughout the game is of particular importance for middle school teams, since the players' overall skill level is low and pure effort has a relatively high effect on basketball at this age.
While skill mastery is an undeniably important component of being a good basketball, middle school coach and author Pat Anderson notes that the "next most important factor in selecting a player is attitude and coachability." Evaluating players in short three-on-three or four-on-four scrimmages is critical for determining how well players work with teammates, make on-court decisions and approach defense and coaching. Scrimmages help you observe a wide range of skill and effort variables that drills can't capture, including shot selection, ability to shoot against defenders, willingness to pass the ball, rebounding and defensive instincts, energy level and response to coaching suggestions. Three-on-two drills can also be effective for evaluating your players' offense and defensive decision-making processes and evaluating which players can make layups in game situations.