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The Kawhi Leonard Effect

Justise Winslow and Andrew Wiggins were drafted for their athletic gifts, but their careers will be made or broken on the strength of their jumpers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There are always guard and wing prospects in the NBA draft who are picked even though they have issues with their jump shots. And ever since the Spurs traded George Hill for Kawhi Leonard in 2011 and turned that San Diego State spark plug into a flamethrower, the Kawhi Effect has taken over. A nonshooter with other eye-catching traits can seduce front-office observers into thinking he is the next Kawhi. Shooting is a teachable skill, after all, so the possibility of development in that department is always there. But every pupil is different, and every player’s progress happens on his own timeline. For every Kawhi there’s a Tyreke Evans or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who never finds his stroke. You can be an athletic dynamo, a high-flying dunker, or a lockdown defender, but the jump shot is often the determining factor between a player being good or great.

A few weeks back, I spoke with multiple shot doctors about the keys to shooting success. One of the most common insights I heard is that it’s never too late for a player to improve his shot. The skill requires individualized instruction and long hours working on mechanics, but unlike a physical attribute like height or vertical jump, it’s something that can be remade.

This process happened rapidly for Leonard, who learned from Chip Engelland — widely regarded as the greatest shooting coach on the planet. To expect Leonard’s level of improvement from just any player is unfair. Leonard is the exception. Honing a jumper can be an arduous process. In recent years there have been a number of lottery picks who have lacked pre-packaged knockdown jumpers. This season, three in particular — Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart, and Justise Winslow — are seeing their careers either blossom or stagnate, all with the flick of the wrist.

Andrew Wiggins Has Taken His Game to the Next Level

Wiggins shot only 30.4 percent from 3 during his first two NBA seasons, but he has always had the potential to be a knockdown shooter. He has had a smooth stroke and natural touch going back to his time at Kansas. The flaws — inconsistent footwork and follow-through, especially off the dribble — were subtle but meaningful enough to chip away at his percentages.

That’s changed this season: Wiggins is off to a scorching start, shooting an unsustainable 54.1 percent from 3. Even if his numbers dip, the improvement is real. Film reveals that he’s corrected the minor mechanical flaws that plagued him over the past three years.

He’s staying balanced and locking his follow-through. Wiggins’s trainer, Drew Hanlen, recently told The Twin Cities Pioneer Press that these were two of his areas of focus this offseason. “Everything he worked on has translated so far,” Hanlen said. “He has to stay locked in on his mechanics throughout the season.”

We’re now getting a taste of the superstar Wiggins could become: The Wolves are off to a rocky start at 3–7, but they are third in the league in points per 100 possessions behind Wiggins’s team-leading 26.6 points per game. As Hanlen suggested, the key now is to avoid falling into old habits. Easier said than done, whether you’re revising your shooting mechanics or quitting coffee. The next stage of his development should focus on becoming more dynamic off the dribble as a passer and scorer.

Justise Winslow’s Shot Is Holding Him Back

The second-year Heat swingman has just about everything you look for in a player: defensive versatility, ballhandling, playmaking, rebounding, beautiful hair, leadership, and toughness. But he’s missing something very, very important: a shot. That was fine in his rookie season, when he just filled the “energy guy” role, but now he’s being considered one of Miami’s centerpieces, racking up the fourth-highest usage rate on the roster. Winslow has hit a dismal 26.4 percent of his 3s and only 33 percent of his midrange jumpers so far in his NBA career, per SportVU, and the shot looks worse than the numbers sound.

Collin Castellaw, a shooting instructor and consultant, tells me there are two primary issues with Winslow’s shot — both of which are observable in the video above. The first is his “set point.” Winslow brings the ball above his head before he’s ready to leave his feet, which “kills his upward momentum.” The lack of thrust leading into the release could be the cause of his front-rim misses. Then there’s his “shot line,” which Castellaw describes as the moment Winslow “brings the ball up the right side of his body, causing his shooting elbow to flare out.” This arm angle can cause the ball to roll off his ring finger (instead of the index or middle finger), which can lead to an awkward spin on the ball.

Winslow has the tools to become a good shooter with soft touch and solid footwork, Castellaw says. If Winslow does develop a jumper that can at least stretch the defense, he has potential to fill a role like Draymond Green — a superstar “glue guy” who can take on a variety of responsibilities on the Heat. He could be the cornerstone of the post-Wade era, but that jumper needs to come along.

Marcus Smart Shows Signs of Progress

In his two years at Oklahoma State, Smart shot 29.5 percent from 3; so far through his third season in the NBA, he’s nearly matched that efficiency at 30 percent. As I’m sure you know: 30 percent from 3 is not good, especially when a player unloads triples at the volume Smart does. Only 174 players have attempted at least 500 3s through the first three years of their career, and Smart ranks 172nd in 3-point percentage among that group, according to Basketball-Reference. It’s unusual for a shot-happy player to produce so poorly, but that only makes the progress of Smart’s jumper that much more important to his success as a pro.

Smart recently spoke with Celtics.com’s Marc D’Amico and broke down one of the subtle changes he has made to his stroke.

Through seven games this season, Smart has knocked down 35 percent of his 3s on 5.7 attempts per game. He told D’Amico that he’d worked on not dropping the ball below his hips and not dipping so low, so that he can get his shot off quicker. The mechanical revision is subtle, but even a millisecond can be the difference between an open or contested shot with fast, long, athletic defenders hungry to block shots. This change was necessary for Smart to become an efficient shooter, but it’s not all he did. It’s clear watching Smart that by altering his dip, he’s also shooting more from an upright stance. Notice in the images below, from Oklahoma State and his rookie year with the Celtics, how he coiled his body like a spring as he prepared his shot.

Smart still crouches slightly, but it’s not nearly as pronounced as it was in college or early in his pro career. By removing that wasted motion, he has better balance and elevation, releasing his shot more quickly. As is the case with Wiggins, Smart will need to maintain these new habits for the rest of this season and beyond, but so far there are positive indicators that he’s made real progress.