I was hired by a particular NBA team just after the draft of 2014. The team had just drafted a huge “project” player with the #4 pick in the draft. A player that was loaded with potential and athleticism but not a refined basketball player yet, as most players aren’t at the age of 18. This player had just completed one year in college, but had shot 42% from the free throw line during that season. Needless to say, this player was not viewed as a shooter.
As I was going through the hiring process, I was researching the player was much as I could by video. Video is tough to really get an opinion on players, especially the angles you get on TV. I had seen a fair amount of video, but hadn’t yet discovered the reason this player struggled so much. His balance wasn’t great, as is true of most young players, but his form seemed to be decent.
I talked to a few people that knew the player, and they all agreed there was nothing wrong with his form. I heard things like “He just isn’t fluid” and “he has to learn to shoot the same shot every time”. I’ve discovered these are the things that non-shooting coaches say when they don’t know what is wrong with a shot. I knew his mistake had to be something small, that wasn’t easy to see on video.
A week later I was finally in a gym with the player for the first time. We were surrounded by coaching staff and front office staff, everyone excited (and probably nervous) to see how this new shooting coach would help this guy that was so raw. I asked the player what he thought of his own shot. “I think my mechanics are pretty decent, but I just can’t shoot the same shot every time and I don’t know why”. I agreed that the big parts of his mechanics seemed good. I asked him to start shooting free throws.
It took me about 5 shots to see the ball wasn’t spinning purely, and about another 5 shots to figure out why. This is the kind of expertise you gain when you’ve worked with thousands of players. I explained how he was gripping the ball and how it was holding him back. I explained how the grip should work, and how we were going to learn to make that a habit. Then we went to work.
This is the first detail that sets apart a good shooting coach. In 10 shots I had identified a little detail that most head coaches and most assistant coaches miss because they are looking at the game as a whole. As a shooting coach, I’m looking at the details within the SHOT. (Which is the reason I would make a terrible head or assistant coach). Even some lesser experienced shooting coaches that I spoke to didn’t even look for that little skill of how he held the ball.
The second detail that sets a good shooting coach apart is the fact that I didn’t rush the process. I understood that the player had a bad HABIT, and to improve we needed to improve that habit. Habits are hard to break. I was patient enough to let him learn to do simple things again so that he could unlock the potential of a new shooting form.
We shot form shots for several weeks. We had a part of his shot which was our indicator of progress, and it took a while before we started to see progress. Most would have given up, but I knew he could do it, he just needed time and practice. Then about 6 weeks into the process he made a significant jump. Our goal was free throws. We talked over and over about how we can’t be trusted as a rookie in the NBA to make jump shots in games if we can’t make free throws consistently. So to earn the trust of the head coach, we had to make free throws consistently.
Early in the season he was making about 62% of free throws, which is 20% better than college. The team was thrilled as they were starting to see his potential. Then the player got hurt. He sat out a month in the middle of year, but we made great use of the time by refining a little detail within his shot. He returned from injury and finished the season making 84% of his free throws. I don’t need to look that number up. Why? I remember it was double what he made in college.
Details matter. Expertise matter. Hard work matters. If you can put a motivated player together with a knowledgable shooting coach, anything is possible.