The Truth About Becoming a Great NBA Shooter over the Offseason

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist ISeptember 5, 2019

Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons in action during an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings, Friday, March 15, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Before Aron Baynes made his way to the NBA in 2012, he was in a scrimmage with the Australian national team and took an elbow jumper. Brett Brown, head coach of the Boomers at the time, immediately stopped the action and told him he wasn't allowed to take that shot unless he could make seven out of 10 them. 

Baynes responded to Brown's challenge right there, sinking eight out of 10 elbow jumpers. From then on, he had free rein to take that shot whenever it was open. That was in 2010. Still, he shot 14.3 percent from deep during his first six years in the NBA. 

Fast-forward to last season, and Baynes shot 34.4 percent from three. He put in the work to extend his range. 

Every offseason, word trickles through the NBA grapevine that player X is working on his three-point shot. Fanbases get excited over the thought that this will carry into the next season—without understanding everything that goes into it. It is a long road to go from a non-shooter to a good one. 

Still, shooting is one of the few improvable skills. Countless players have enhanced their shot, including De'Aaron Fox, Aaron Gordon and Blake Griffin, to name a few.

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With how the game is played now, players must be a threat from three to spread out the defense, which opens up the court.

There are several angles to look at when an NBA player is working on his shot: the physical and mental sides, which entail focusing on technique and gaining confidence to use the improvements in games.

                           

The Physical 

A player doesn't magically become a better shooter overnight. "You are developing new habits, and that takes time," says shooting coach Dave Love, who has worked with the Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns and consults with players around the league. 

When most kids start playing, they are not strong enough to shoot, Coach Love notes. "Our bodies are completely out of position to shoot the ball consistently because our biggest concern is generating enough power to the rim. They don't have room to be concerned about accuracy," he said. This leads to bad shooting habits. 

The hope is this: As a kid grows up, the shot changes as strength is added. But some players are so good, big and athletic as children that they never feel the need to tweak their mechanics. 

Changing the shot is changing muscle memory. "We have to teach that muscle to fire in the correct way and correct time and correct dosage compared to other muscles," Love said.

Richard Jefferson, a 17-year NBA veteran and league champion, shot below 30 percent from three during his first two seasons in the Association but ended as 37.6 percent three-point shooter. "You are fighting your body because your body has always done things a certain way, and so you're having to re-train your body," he said. 

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Love worked with Aaron Gordon in Orlando and focused on his hand placement and grip on the ball. Gordon told Bleacher Report: "He basically moved my thumb in a little bit closer to my index finger. It was a huge help, instead of gripping the ball and palming the ball, it turned more into a shot." 

Gordon has improved as a shooter. After hitting 28.9 percent from three his first three seasons, he's shot 34.3 percent over the last two years. 

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It's hard work to change a habit. Love likes to get started immediately with players to "change and solidify. Change old habits and solidify new habits." The timing is also important to Love, who wants to do it "before the player is being judged or measuring themselves against anything."

In his rookie year, Gordon broken his fifth metatarsal in his left foot but still worked on his shot despite being in a boot. Gordon said, "I spent a lot of time in a chair, shooting against the wall and putting the ball in the basket, and I really changed how I release the ball."

Many poor shooters have an inconsistent form or technique, so creating replicable mechanics is the goal. That requires hours and hours of practice. Once a player and coach agree on a proper form for that player, it becomes a game of repetition.

But shooting a high percentage is more important than having the perfect form. Not everyone's shot will look as pretty as Ray Allen's, but 40 percent is 40 percent. Case in point: Reggie Miller had an unorthodox release but was a career 39.5 percent three-point shooter. A perfect shot is one that goes in the hoop.

Kevin Martin is another example of an ugly-form, great-results guy. He was a career 38.4 percent three-point shooter. Watch his release on the free throw below. That is hardly picturesque. But he shot 87 percent from the line over 12 seasons.

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The Mental 

Changing shooting habits is not just a physical challenge. "Fighting your body," as Jefferson put it, provides a whole set of obstacles: getting your body to adjust to a new form, holding the ball a different way, changing the release point or understanding how to follow through all come with a mental aspect.

Coach Love makes an important point: Whether it's a small tweak or the full redevelopment of a shot, "It probably feels major to the player." The player is being asked to change one or multiple things in their shot mechanics, which feels uncomfortable in the beginning.

In this process, a player will start by missing a ton of shots. Players have to battle the frustration that comes with seeing so many misses. It is human nature to feel as if no progress is being made. So much is asked of the player's body in adjusting to a new form that it will take time for it to feel right and become muscle memory.

"As much as it sucks and doesn't feel good, in the long run it is a good thing for us," Coach Love tells frustrated players. The road to becoming a good shooter is paved with these misses. Getting a player to understand that these types of days are still good is important to keep them engaged.

Brook Lopez of the Milwaukee Bucks looks at these tough shooting days as part of the psychological battle. "It's mental ... You know you got to stick with it because all of those shots, whether makes or misses, you know, I believe they just accumulate, and they'll make you become a better shooter regardless."

Love looks at those days the way an investor may look at a down stock market: "A wise investor actually buys a stock when it goes down." Days like these are good in the long run because they show where the player stands and are an opportunity to practice slump-breaking.

"Sometimes it happens when the player isn't aware, like they aren't even conscious of the light bulb coming on," Love said. That is when things get exciting.

For Gordon, once he shifted his focus from being results-oriented, he began to see improvement. "I started to worry less about results and more [about] the action that I took. So I'm happy with just shooting the ball correctly." He later added, "Sometimes the ball don't go in, but as long as you shoot it right, that's success for me." 

        

Trust the Process

The payoff from all the offseason work can take a long time to reveal itself on the court. Players work with coaches on their shot in a controlled environment, but there's no substitution for game reps, which is the final step.

Shaquille O'Neal touched upon his inability to replicate his success with hitting practice free throws in games in a 2017 interview with USA Today: "When I'm by myself, I shoot like Steve Kerr. But it's just something about when I'm in a game, there's pressure, I just tighten up." He finished his career as a 52.7 percent free-throw shooter.

Ben Simmons shoots threes in practice, but he's only attempted 17 of them in his first two NBA seasons. He's even popped up in a few videos that show him taking pickup-game jumpers this summer. The real question is: Can he bring that work to the court, or will his game invoke memories of Shaq and his free throws? 

There is a big difference between shooting in the gym or in a meaningless pickup game and doing so in an NBA contest. Gordon says, "You can sit in an empty gym and make threes all day, but now you got somebody 6'7" or 6'8" with a 6'11" wingspan trying to get you to shoot a shot you're not used to shooting."

It took Jefferson two full seasons before he felt comfortable using his shot in a game. Coach Love takes an appropriately long view of player development. "After the summer they make major changes, they almost need the season to practice these new skills before they get good," he said.


Confidence 

Development is not linear. Sometimes it's a slow climb that can go unnoticed, and other times it is a major leap.

Jefferson spent his first two years as a below-30 percent three-point shooter. After taking 56 threes in his first season, he dropped his attempts to 24. "My next year, I shot less threes, because I was like, 'F--k this, I'm going to drive every time,'" he said. 

Still, he was working on his shot daily in the gym. He just wasn't ready to bring what he worked on to actual games.

In Jefferson's third season, New Jersey Nets assistant coach Larry Drew encouraged him to introduce his new-look shot in games. "It was Larry Drew saying, 'You gotta shoot one a game, Richard. You put in too much work,'" Jefferson said. 

He averaged 1.5 three-point attempts per game and shot 36.4 percent on them that season.

Lopez has only begun to shoot in-game threes over the last three seasons. In his first eight years in the NBA, he only attempted 31 threes. In the last three years, he has shot 1,224, connecting on 35.4 percent. 

When Kenny Atkinson took over as head coach of the Nets in 2016, he wanted to play a five-out system, and that required getting Lopez ready to fire. Similar to Jefferson, it took a coach to give him the green light. "Kenny gave me the opportunity, you know; he gave me all the confidence to go out there and just shoot the ball," Lopez said.

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Coaches aren't the only ones giving confidence to players who are working on their shots. Other players see the work their teammate is doing in the gym and provide in-game support. 

Jefferson says after he missed a couple of shots in a game, his teammates in a timeout might say: "'Hey, that's your shot. Knock it down, right. I see you working on that.' That goes a long way to build confidence for a player, knowing that their teammates and coaches believe in them."

Having a reliable jumper is important with how the game is played and can add years to a player's career. After his first few seasons, Jefferson added the three-point shot, and then after his first year in San Antonio (2009-10), he tweaked it. 

Before the change, Jefferson was used to shooting while coming off screens like he did in Milwaukee, not the catch-and-shoot way the Spurs were asking. 

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After his first season in San Antonio (2009-10), he worked all summer to become a better catch-and-shoot marksman. It required him to be low upon the catch so he could get his shot off quicker. That season, he connected on 44 percent of his attempts from deep, a massive improvement from the 31.6 percent he shot the previous year.

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Jefferson credited the tweak for adding years to his career: "That summer alone helped prolong my career by another three or four years. ... I'm 36 years old and shooting 40 percent, now you're like, 'God, had I not made this change at 31, I couldn't be in this league shooting, you know, 31 percent from three.'"

Gordon has seen how improving his shot has opened up the court for him. He sees defenses focused on running him off the line after he makes a couple of threes in a game. "I make two or three threes; now people don't want me to get the shot—now I get to make plays," he said.

Gordon believes there is only one way to fail, and that is not shooting your shot: "The only failure is going to be if you miss a shot and you stop shooting. That's the only failure."  

Being able to shoot regardless of position has never been more important than it is now. But as we've seen, it's one of the few skills that can be improved upon. Several players have entered the league without a good jump shot, but those who have worked on it can see years added to their careers. 

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