Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge is currently playing through a ligament tear in his left thumb, but that's far from his toughest challenge yet. His strong will—in this case, delaying surgery—was first unleashed in a life or death situation out of the womb.
In an American Express campaign to celebrate Aldridge's fourth All-Star selection, the power forward recalls his difficult journey to NBA stardom. His story starts when he was clinically dead at birth. The umbilical cord had wrapped around Aldridge's neck, cutting off his oxygen supply. He was also born with a heart condition—which he's overcame to get to the NBA and while he's been in the league—and he struggled in his younger years with being an outsider on the basketball court.
"I've had to fight through a lot of adversity, but I just kept fighting," the Blazers veteran said. "I would be standing there not picked [for games]. I was really, really clumsy and really had an ugly form. Not being picked drove me to work harder."
And work harder he did, becoming the second overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft and developing into the top power forward in the league entering this season, according to general managers. His mid-range game has been a big reason for those accomplishments. It features his trademark fadeaway, which has made Aldridge the league leader in makes and attempts from mid-range since 2012, per NBA.com.
Speaking with Bleacher Report this week, Aldridge opened up about his mid-range tactics, tricks and overall evolution. Below are 12 takeaways gleaned from the conversation, presented here in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.
1. The mindset to dominant the mid-range started in college.
My college coach, Rick Barnes, said that every big-time player has to have a go-to move and a counter move. So my go-to move was my jump hook in college, and then I started to use my turnaround jump shot.
Rick and I watched film on Rasheed Wallace. We saw how high he had the ball over his head, so we would start doing drills where I would stand near the basket with the ball—high release, way over my head—and I would take shots. I also watched Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett. As I got comfortable, I would use the turnaround jump shot more and more in games.
2. The mid-range progression to the NBA came without much of a hitch.
When I got to the NBA, picking and popping came so natural for me. I just knew right away the mid-range would be the staple of my career. I wasn't as strong to overpower guys like I did in college—I came in weighing about 245, and I'm 270 now—so my secondary move, the fadeaway, became my main move.
I felt like it didn't matter if I was strong enough. If I got to my spot, I could shoot over any guy because my shot was up so high. Now, my turnaround shot isn't just a turnaround jump shot; it's a turnaround, high-release jump shot. I've worked on it every summer on my own—no shooting coach. Rick taught me the basics. Now, it's just like second nature as I've built that muscle memory and shoulder strength.
3. Most teams feel like the mid-range is a bad shot, but …
Because they want you to shoot that, it's like why not master the shot they want to give up? That's what I've done.
Our philosophy on our team is don't give up any threes and any rim shots, so we give up mid-range shots. So it's like a bad shot, but it's not to me. I feel like the coaches that I've had have done a really good job of working around my skill set and letting me shoot that shot. Every summer getting up reps, fine-tuning my shot and just getting more comfortable with it has made it better every year.
4. Terry Stotts, who was an assistant coach in Dallas from 2008-2012 and won a championship in 2011, has been a helpful hand.
All the practice that he had with Dirk has definitely helped me, and Terry has been great at getting me open in the mid-range. He knows how to make certain players guard in certain ways, so he knows that if I do a dribble handoff, I can get open. We'll do a dribble hand-off with the 5-man, and he'll roll, and then I'll follow with a side pick-and-roll because my man has to help.
I do dribble handoffs with different guys on my team because I feel like, for one, if the guard comes off the handoff hard, then my guy has to help. Then I'm going to get that mid-range shot that I love to take.
And two, if I make three or four mid-range shots, my guy is not going to leave me to help, and that's when the guard coming off the dribble handoff can get all the way to rim. So having different ways to get into the mid-range shot has definitely made my team better.
5. Big men can learn a lot from Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan.
I look forward to playing against Dirk and Tim the most because they're both going to be Hall of Famers. They're both really smart, don't waste steps and they're pretty efficient. When I play against those two guys, I'm always trying to see how far I've come and what I'm doing now.
Dirk has a great shoulder-bump move backing down his guy to create space. If you don't bump a guy, then I feel like a very athletic guy can jump really high and have a chance of blocking your shot.
But when you put that little bump in there—when you put your shoulder in his chest—you bump him off balance. Then it makes it where he can't get to your shot, and it just makes your shot easier. But you need to be careful. While a bigger guy can take more of a hit, a smaller guy might flop on you.
With Tim, I learned to play at a slower, yet effective, pace. When I first came into the league, I was playing with all this energy, and I would just overwork myself. And then I watched film on Tim and played against him, and he was so methodical.
It just felt like the game slowed down for him, and he could make reads out of double-teams. He just tried to get to his spot and not rush. He actually showed me that it's really not about playing crazy. It's about being smart, patient and taking your time.
6. Stretch 4s can even incorporate a key move from Kobe Bryant.
I've definitely seen him do the shoulder fake out of the post a lot, but I've never just practiced it. I did it subconsciously in the game. I didn't know I was using it until I did it in a game two years ago against the Los Angeles Lakers.
He came up to me on the court and told me. Then he went down on the other end, and he did it the next play, so that was kind of funny. Even today, he jokes about it. He's like, "That's my move! You stole it from me!" Those are the moments you cherish with certain guys. He's a legend, a Hall of Famer.
7. The quick release can be a blessing or a curse sometimes.
When I think about it, it's kind of weird, but I do take shots without looking at the rim sometimes. But I think it's just about muscle memory and knowing where I am on the floor.
When I get comfortable and I know I'm at my sweet spot on the floor, then I just take the shot. But I've definitely done that in the game, and my team has been like, "Yo, you need to look at the rim." But in the flow of the game, I'm just reading the defense.
8. Hand injuries don't necessarily affect shooting.
My shot feels fine because we tape back my thumb, where it's kind of not moving. So it actually helps my form because my thumb can't get in the rotation of the ball. It's tough, though, because I had become good at rebounding with either hand, but now I really can't rebound with my left hand. I can't really grab the ball because my thumb is locked into a position where I really can't grip.
9. Passing out of the mid-range is harder than the low post, where you can kick the ball out more easily to the three-point shooter or dish it inside to the cutting player.
I'm actually a better passer out of the post than I am in pick-and-rolls. I've definitely watched film on it over the years because in the mid-range, it's like being the point guard. I'm setting up plays for my teammates, and I've gotten better at it. I've learned how to make reads.
If a guy's overplaying me, it's knowing how to hit the guy in the corner, reading it if I should drive it, reading if the other big is rotating to me. It was more difficult in the beginning, but I've gotten better at knowing how to make guys better.
10. Having a personal postgame checklist is crucial.
I critique my game by first defense—how I played in the pick-and-roll and how I guarded the guy I'm supposed to be guarding. Then I look to see if I shot 50 percent, and then I go to rebounding. If I guard my guy well, if I do my job in the pick-and-roll, if I rebound at a really high rate and I shoot 50 percent, then we shouldn't lose that game.
11. The three-point shot is part of the mid-range evolution.
I think it's come with me taking one or two steps back every year and getting comfortable with that. Now the three feels more comfortable, and my coach doesn't mind if I take it. I could've shot more threes last year, but I'm a type of guy if I don't feel comfortable with it, I'm not going to do it.
Last summer was my first summer of really drilling threes, and this is my first year where I feel really natural taking them. I've already made more than my previous eight seasons.
But I don't yet mess with my teammates such as Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews in three-point shootouts. They're on the next level right now. I'm just walking in the door right now. So give me about two or three years, then I can get those guys probably.
12. Up next: low-post development.
I feel like my right hand is pretty good in getting to the middle, making plays and doing up-and-unders. But I feel like if I can have a consistent left-hand jump hook or left-hand drive, that's going to take my game to the next level. Other than that, I'm not really working on too much because I feel like I have a pretty good feel down there.
But I do feel if I add my left hand more consistently, which is hard to do right now with my injury, I think that's going to make teams have a harder time guarding me.