clock menu more-arrow no yes
Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Filed under:

A Flick of the Wrist

In the NBA, the difference between winning and losing, and anonymity and stardom, can come down to shooting

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is How Basketball Works Week. We’ll be looking at the scouts, stats, coaches, and tactical developments that are shaping the game.

Ray Allen calls it "an insult" when his shooting is labeled a God-given talent. "God could care less whether I can shoot a jump shot," Allen told The Boston Globe in 2008. Shooters aren’t born; they’re made through relentless work. But the best shooters also have core mechanisms — physically and mentally — that lead to success.

All the natural talent in the world doesn’t matter if a player lacks the mechanics. Even Stephen Curry wouldn’t be where he is today without the right training. As a high school sophomore, his father, Dell, helped Steph rebuild his shooting motion to give him a chance in the NBA. Since then, Curry has gotten better and better, improving as a ball handler and shooter off the bounce.

Curry is the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-point percentage (minimum of 1,000 makes). Steve Nash, the player ranked third on that list, called Curry "an evolution" of his own game. "Through evolving he does things I never even knew or thought to do. Shooting from the depth, that deep, that quickly," Nash said on J.J. Redick’s The Vertical Podcast. "I think he had a different mentality and that mentality allowed him to push the boundaries."

There’s something alluring about shooting a basketball. The catch. The gather, with a defender breathing down the shooter’s neck. The graceful release. The harmonic sound of the swish of the net. The response — a cheer or a sigh — that spreads from the crowd in the arena to fans watching across the globe. Something so majestic deserves to be studied so that more young players can be nurtured, both mechanically and mentally, into the next great shooters.

We talk so much about basketball systems and philosophies — pace and space, the triangle, small ball, bully ball — but not technique. And maybe that’s because technique is boring to talk about at length, and a lot of the work that happens on technique takes place behind closed gym doors. But what happens in those sessions and in the film rooms can mean the difference between mid-first-rounder and All-NBA talent, it can make a bit player into a legit starter, and it can make or break a no. 1 draft pick’s career.

The Master

Kawhi Leonard’s predraft comps were Gerald Wallace, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Trevor Ariza, all of which seem ludicrous now. But it’s understandable considering Leonard was a clunker shooting the ball in college, hitting just 25 percent of his 3s in two years at San Diego State. It wasn’t until he arrived in San Antonio that everything changed.

Leonard ranks 16th in 3-point percentage since 2011, when he entered the NBA. The Spurs don’t lock their players in the gym to turn them into shooters, though. There are no magic elixirs, either. They have Chip Engelland, the professor of shooting. Engelland rebuilt the shots of Shane Battier, Grant Hill, Tony Parker, and Richard Jefferson, among others, before getting to Leonard. The changes to Leonard’s shot didn’t require a full teardown and rebuild. "He had a foundation we thought we could work with," Engelland told the San Antonio Express-News in 2012.

The video on the left shows Leonard’s shot prior to the draft (video via Draft Express), and the 3-pointer is from the 2014 NBA Finals. The change is subtle but significant. Leonard relocated his release point from the top of his head, where the ball nearly touched his hair, to in front of his face. After working with Engelland, Leonard’s shot became more compact, with very little motion in the elbow/wrist area. Notice how his elbow is aligned underneath his wrist. It looks as if Engelland took a protractor to Leonard’s elbow and adjusted it to a 90-degree angle.

The Apprentice

In 2014, Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, who had previously been an assistant with the Spurs, hired Ben Sullivan, who was then just a 30-year-old assistant video coordinator with San Antonio. "I learned from Chip Engelland, that’s who mentored and taught me," Sullivan tells me. "I owe him everything for what he’s done for me."

Some players owe Sullivan, too. Kent Bazemore had tears in his eyes at his press conference after signing a four-year, $70 million deal to return to the Hawks. He wondered aloud, "Why walk away from something so perfect?" A lot of what made Atlanta perfect had to do with Sullivan. Bazemore calls his shooting coach "a blessing in his life" and "a great friend" off the court. "His wife and my financée are really good friends, so we spend a lot of time together," Bazemore tells me. "It’s good we can have those kind of relationships. When we step on the floor it’s strictly business, all about making each other better." Entering their third season together, they’ve already made each other a lot better. The revisions Sullivan made to Bazemore’s shot are similar to what Engelland did with Leonard.

During his time with the Warriors and Lakers, Bazemore brought the ball behind his head before launching it like a catapult at the rim. "I used to shoot way behind my head. It was like the weirdest hitch ever, but that came from growing up, and no one taught you how to shoot if it went in," Bazemore says. Now, with the Hawks, Bazemore keeps the ball in front of his face with a cleaner motion, much like Leonard. "I would say you want elbow under your wrist as a basic thing. I’ve seen guys without it, but it’s core principle," says Sullivan. "If your elbow is outside your wrist, it’s flared out like a chicken wing, that’s gonna be a little bit harder to shoot that way."

Getty Images
Getty Images

Bazemore’s off-hand also hovered over the top of ball, but a basketball shouldn’t be cradled like a baby. Bazemore says his off-hand "was basically a second defender." If it didn’t come off at the right time, it’d put a quirky spin on the ball, which led to misses. "It was frustrating because shots would feel good but they just wouldn’t go in," he says.

"I came to Atlanta, and Ben was like, ‘We’re gonna change your jump shot.’ That’s like the first thing he said the first day I walked in the gym," Bazemore recalls. "Ben is a straightforward guy, so we sat down and watched a few clips, and he’s like, ‘Dude, I don’t know how you make shots with the way your shot looks.’"

Bazemore shot 32.7 percent on 3s prior to joining the Hawks, and he’s been shooting 35.9 percent since, on a higher volume, with a greater degree of difficulty. On catch-and-shoot 3s, he’s even better, at 38.2 percent, per SportVU. Bazemore says the next stage is improving his 3s off the dribble.

"Ben told me having a more compact jumper gives you a higher chance of making a shot," Bazemore says. "You’ll never be 100 percent, but you want to give yourself the best chance of making a shot every time you’ll shoot."

They worked on technique by taking baby steps, focusing on mechanical stuff like ball, hand, elbow, and hip positioning. "It was almost like working on a golf swing," Bazemore says. "He also showed me a lot of shots of people throughout the league, of people we liked. We just took a blend of player positioning and body types, athleticism, all these kind of things, and we just kind of meshed it and made it our own kind of thing. It was super technical."

It wasn’t an easy transition, though. There was a time he couldn’t even make 16 of 25 attempts around the perimeter in an open gym. "I used to get upset and he’d say, ‘It’s for the future. We start here, and you’ll see the progress,’" Bazemore says. "It turned my entire career around."

The Disciple

Not every team is lucky enough to have an Engelland or Sullivan. Some teams — like the Celtics — don’t even have a dedicated shooting coach. "I think some teams don’t because it’s such a new concept," says Philadelphia 76ers shooting coach John Townsend. "There was a time not every team had a strength and conditioning coach, and it’s just grown and now most teams have at least two. I think eventually it’ll continue to grow for shooting coaches. I try to get to know all the shooting coaches. You have to root for them. The more teams that have shooting coaches, the more likely it’ll be that it’ll continue to grow.

"In the past I’ve asked coaches and players how they plan to improve a player’s jump shot, and the response is ‘more reps,’" Townsend says. "Maybe they just don’t want to go into detail, but oftentimes that is what teams really think is necessary. But that mind-set discounts the necessary mechanical changes a player may need to undergo."

Those changes can occur at a grassroots level, though, well before players hit the NBA. Like anything else in this world, they can even learn it on the internet. A simple search of "how to shoot a basketball" finds many YouTube tutorials. Some lessons take a page from the successful methods used in the NBA.

Collin Castellaw is a 30-year-old Idaho native. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from Washington State, and from Lewis-Clark State with a teaching certificate. He then returned to Idaho, where he taught art and coached basketball at Notus High School, a tiny school with 16 faculty members and under 200 students. Castellaw saw that his shooting guidance helped his players improve, and he wanted to spread his knowledge beyond the high school gym. So he created Shot Mechanics, a company that provides personalized basketball coaching to players all the way from elementary school to the NBA. Castellaw has over 300,000 YouTube subscribers, which makes Shot Mechanics one of the most popular basketball education channels on the web. He has consulted for NBA players Donald Sloan and John Jenkins.

"One tweak can affect all the mechanics," Castellaw tells me. "I try to think of the jump shot as a living, breathing organism. It’s almost like the human body. If the kidneys start going bad, the rest of the body goes pretty quickly. That’s the way a jump shot feels." Take Sullivan’s example of a "chicken wing" shooting motion. That’s what happens when the elbow isn’t aligned with the wrist, causing the elbow to protrude outward, like Rajon Rondo’s free throw motion.

Castellaw says he’s seen people try to fix the "chicken wing" by using straps, apparatuses, or even by stretching their shoulders. Those methods don’t work, and the whole reason they’re even used in the first place is the still-perpetuated old adage of "keeping all 10 toes to the rim." In reality, most of the league’s great shooters tilt their feet at a slight angle, which brings the elbow in, aligned with the hip, wrist, and rim.

Here’s Castellaw’s detailed explanation of that type of footwork:

There’s a lot of reverse engineering being done by players and shooting coaches to replicate what some of the NBA’s most successful shooters do. All the coaches discussed in this piece practice it in one way or another. When reforming Leonard’s shot, the Spurs used Kobe Bryant’s mechanics as a model. Bazemore says he and Sullivan blended player positioning, body types, and athleticism to develop his new mechanics. "You’re always testing your philosophy against the best shooters," Townsend says. In the video above, Castellaw follows the same formula by replicating a technique used by Curry, which may work for some players, though not for everyone.

"Everybody has different mechanics, and sometimes you don’t get as detailed because the great coaches understand the uniqueness of every individual," says Celtics president and general manager Danny Ainge, a 37.8 percent 3-point shooter in his career. "There’s not one way that everybody shoots. Everybody has a little bit of a different body, shoulder rotation, or getting your elbow, wrist, and follow-through under the ball. Everybody’s bodies are unique. Even hand position, some guys can’t spread their thumbs wide."

Uniqueness is something Castellaw emphasizes. "What you see at a lot of levels with shooting coaches is they get their set of rules in mind," he says, "and even if you’re getting good results outside of those rules, they still want you to bend to their rules because they think that’ll make you better." This might be the issue for some players, who, no matter how much effort they put into their shots, are unable to make strides.

"With what we know now about shooting technique, it’s unbelievable Hack-a-Shaq is still an issue," Castellaw says. "Nobody has the physical limitations in the NBA to not make free throws." DeAndre Jordan is a career 42.1 percent free throw shooter, the second worst all-time of players with a minimum of 2,000 attempts (only Ben Wallace was worse). But Castellaw thinks Jordan’s stroke can be fixed since he tends to miss "long or short," and not to the left or right of the rim, which would suggest a deeper issue. "That’s a sign of somebody who’s a pretty good shooter," Castellaw says. "It’s smooth. His mechanics for the most part look really good."

Castellaw believes shooting needs to be thought of not as right or wrong, but as problem-solving.

So what are Jordan’s problems? First, he tends to point 10 toes to the rim, which can create tension in the shooting shoulder and cause the elbow to flare out. Second, he has a very high release point, which makes it harder to control the basketball. It’s possible coaches have attempted to install these techniques and Jordan hasn’t turned them into habits.

The Wrong Hand

Jordan’s Clippers teammate J.J. Redick has another theory regarding the center’s free throw shooting. "I’ve tried for the last two years to convince him to shoot free throws right-handed," Redick told the Orange County Register last season. "He jumps off his left foot, which is how most right-handed people jump. Their left foot is their dominant foot. He shoots every single jump hook … with his right hand. He finishes around the basket with his right hand." Jordan was a guest on The Vertical Podcast later that week, and Redick explained that Jordan swings a golf club righty, bowls righty, and throws passes righty. That got me curious, so I watched and tracked the handedness of all 227 of Jordan’s dunks in this video. There are 153 two-handed dunks, usually from lobs or putbacks, and 65 were right-handed to only nine left-handed. That means a mere 4 percent of his dunks came off his left hand, the hand he’s shooting with and the hand he claims is his natural hand. Most of Jordan’s left-handed dunks weren’t even power flushes, which suggests to me that he’s more comfortable controlling the ball with his right hand. This doesn’t mean Jordan should shoot righty, but if mechanical changes don’t work, it’s something that should be considered.

The no. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft has a similar problem. Before he suffered a broken right foot, Ben Simmons’s greatest problem was his jump shot, which he shoots with his left hand. But Simmons does nearly everything else with his right hand, a disparity he recognized in a New York Daily News interview earlier this year. "I think I was supposed to be right-handed," he said, but "it’s all natural now."

It sure doesn’t look natural. For all the dazzling passes that made him an elite prospect, Simmons is a poor shooter; he hit just 13 of his 40 jump shots at LSU, and only five of 23 in the summer league. Those numbers come from me. I’ve been tracking all of his shots going back to LSU, and will continue to once he returns to the floor in the NBA. Why? For one, because I am obsessed with weird stats like this, but there’s a deeper method to my madness: I believe Ben Simmons is shooting with the wrong hand, and I’ve never been more sure of anything in my entire life.

Simmons shot 346 non-jumpers last season, including layups, tip-ins, dunks, floaters, and post-ups. Of those, about 75 percent of his at-rim shots came off his right hand, 94 percent of his floaters were righty, and 98 percent of his post-ups were finished righty. That means 82 percent of his non–jump shots were attempted with his right hand. He pretty much replicated those results in the Las Vegas and Utah summer leagues, with 31 of Simmons’s 38 non–jump shots coming off his right hand. Is this normal for lefties? No. I also watched 150 non-jumpers taken by left-handed NBA players, and the results were nearly flipped. Lefties instinctively use their left hand; righties instinctively use their right hand. Simmons is a "lefty" that instinctively uses his right hand. The statistics suggest that Simmons prefers his right, the hand even he admits he thinks he was "supposed to" use.

The film only supports that theory. Notice below how Simmons instinctively goes to his right hand on dunks and layups.

Simmons usually leaps off his right foot, typical for a lefty, but here he instead uses his right hand, even when he shouldn’t. This led to a number of his shots being altered in college, an issue that became more pronounced in summer league against NBA-level defenders.

The left hand/right hand confusion is also apparent on his floaters.

Simmons uses his right hand on 94 percent of his floaters. Of those right-handed floaters, he shot 46.5 percent, a solid mark for any player, especially one who shoots below 30 percent on jumpers with his left hand. This happens on the post, too.

Even when Simmons is in a perfect position to go up with a lefty jump hook, he opts for an awkward-looking righty push shot. Simmons could be a low-post problem for opponents regardless of which hand he uses, but that doesn’t mean it’ll always translate against quality defenders. You can’t be that predictable. Only one of his 56 shots finished using a post move came off his left hand.

According to Townsend, the Sixers shooting coach, Simmons can help himself by keeping the ball on the left side of his body. At LSU, Simmons brought the ball up the right side of his body, a form you’d expect from a righty. Townsend also cites Simmons’s elbow motion as a key to his progress. "If he can keep the ball a little bit out in front of his head, that will help with that elbow popping up," he says. "That way he’ll shoot it out and over the top of the rim as opposed to at the front of the rim. The basket will get a little bit bigger for him. … Especially right now, the key is knocking down free throws."

After a Sixers training camp practice at Stockton University last month, I watched Simmons practice with Townsend. It was clear they’d been hard at work on these changes. His mechanics were smoother in the way Townsend described above, though they still weren’t perfect. But Simmons shot 66.6 percent from the free throw in college and summer league combined, so it’s not like he’s DeAndre-level. Plus, free throws are one thing; jumpers are another.

One tool Townsend uses to help his shooters is a software program called Coach’s Eye. "With this age group we’re working with, there’s a lot of visual learners. Not everybody wants to see themselves shoot, but you want to show it to them so they can see what you’re talking about," Townsend says as he pulls out his phone to find the app. Townsend then showed me a clip of Jerami Grant in which his elbow protruded out, a mechanic that needs fixing. "You can use this as a teaching tool to show them exactly what needs to change."

With Simmons out at least three months after foot surgery, Townsend and the Sixers will be afforded the time to reform his jumper. "There might be an opportunity where we sit him in a chair and re-make his shot," Brown told reporters. If the fixes to Simmons’s lefty stroke don’t work, it’ll be up to him if he wants to make a switch, as fellow Rich Paul client Tristan Thompson did.

Psychology of Shooting

"There are two aspects to shooting in player development. One of them is the physical or mechanical component — the fundamentals of how you do things. The other is the mental aspect," says Ben Sullivan. "Mental shooting is also equally, if not more, important than the physical."

The mental component was Karl Malone’s issue early in his career. He shot 48.1 percent from the line in 1986, 59.8 percent in 1987, and then 75.7 percent for the rest of his Hall of Fame career. What changed? Malone overthought while at the line, so he went to a sports psychologist after the 1986 season, where he was introduced to the concept of "trigger words," which you can say to yourself to induce a state of mind. That’s why Malone whispered to himself at the line to help remain calm and confident.

Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon had similar issues as a freshman at Arizona, where he shot a Ben Wallace–like 42.2 percent from the charity stripe, and often appeared frustrated after his misses. "My weaknesses are getting down on myself. I let mistakes compound and I’m getting better at that," Gordon told Draft Express. "What I’m doing with that is having a ‘next play mentality.’ If I miss a shot, I’m going right onto the next shot." Gordon has since improved to 68.1 percent from the line in the NBA. He’s revised his mechanics, but he’s also worked to have a clear head at the line, thanks to the teachings of Graham Betchart, the director of Lucid, an organization that focuses on mental skills training for athletes.

Betchart first met Gordon while teaching a basketball camp in the Bay Area when Gordon was just 11 years old; fate connected them again when Gordon was a freshman at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California. "I did a mental training workshop, and I asked the kids if they had any questions. Aaron’s hand shot up like a rocket," Betchart recalls. "With so much confidence, he said, ‘You need to explain that again because I need to understand this.’ I knew right away he was different with his confidence, explaining how he didn’t know what I was talking about. Most people are afraid of being vulnerable, but he knew he needed it."

The concept of "next play mentality" is defined by Betchart as how fast you can fail and move forward. "You have to believe in yourself and know you’re good, but I’m finding if we can build up compassion, and we can build up the ability to deal with things when they aren’t going your way, players keep putting their skills on the line. The present moment is easy when it feels good. It’s challenging when it’s uncomfortable. If you shift your focus to what you can control, I’ve found that’s what separates good and great players."

This is true for Gordon, but also veterans like J.J. Redick and Kyle Korver. As a guest on Redick’s The Vertical Podcast, Korver said, "The mental side of shooting is everything. … There is such mental preparation for every game if you want to be a great shooter to visualize how you want to shoot the ball, visualize your shots where you’re gonna get it, block out any outside noise, it is a daily challenge." Redick responded, "I started doing that even in high school and have done really my whole career. I visualize coming off a pin-down screen, or running in transition. When I’m doing these exercises I’m thinking about the mechanics of it, the footwork, how I’m catching the ball, how I’m generating force to elevate, where my release point is, how the ball comes out of my hand. … It’s a conscious stream of thought prior to games."

Think about where some of these players might be if it weren’t for the shooting instruction they received at one time or another in their life. Every pro golfer has a swing coach; every baseball team has a hitting coach and a pitching coach. But not every basketball team has a coach who specializes in shooting mechanics, despite it being the most important asset in the sport.

Shooting could lead to the new NBA arms race. As offenses continue to evolve, a higher level of shooting will be expected from more and more players at each position. If a team can turn bad shooters into good shooters, and good shooters into great shooters, it could be the difference between playing in May and playing in June. Just ask Gregg Popovich.

The Mismatch

Ten Questions About the Upcoming Season, Plus Zion Williamson’s Health and Kyrie Irving’s Instagram Live

The Answer

What Makes a Mid-market Team Desirable?

Higher Learning

The Democratic Honeymoon Is Over and Prayers for Jelani Day

View all stories in NBA