The angst around the reduction of midrange jump shots confuses me, but Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball provided an interesting look at the value of the midrange shot in the NBA, and specifically with the San Antonio Spurs.
Here is a summary:
Taylor is accurate in that shots are not attempted in a vacuum, and one must account for specific variables to evaluate a specific shot. Of course, ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry argued differently when Dame Lillard hit the three to end OKC’s season:
In a vacuum, a 40% shot is great offense in the half court, as Taylor’s video explained. However, on a game-winning shot with the game tied, is a 40% shot a good shot? If Lillard shoots 50% from midrange, isn’t that a better shot in that exact situation?
This is the difference between arguing about numbers (general, in a vacuum) and specifics. I lean toward 3>2, but there are times when any shot works or the highest percentage shot beats the highest efficiency shot.
Taylor’s argument about the midrange highlights good to great midrange shooters. This always had been my argument against long-range two-point jump shots.
A midrange jump shot is a more difficult, more complex shot than a catch-and-shoot three-pointer. Honestly, age and skill level is nearly irrelevant for me in this argument, except maybe at the NBA level.
Personally, I believe that anyone who has the coordination and skill to stop quickly and make a 15-foot shot has the coordination and skill to shoot successfully from 19’9. Once the college three-point line moves back to 22′, then there will be some separation between midrange only shooters and three-point shooters, but distance is a minimal factor to me.
I believe that the bigger factors in shooting are defense and decisions. A midrange shot moves a player closer to a defender. This requires a player to shoot quicker and possibly higher to avoid the defense. Secondly, the midrange shot, especially off the dribble, adds complexity to the decision, which impacts shooting percentages.
For my shooters at the three-point line, shooting is an if/then decision: “If I am open, then I shoot.” Nothing else matters; not distance, not a teammate being open, not the time on the shot clock, not the score, etc. (until the last two minutes, maybe). This reduces the decision-making.
When a player attacks, as in the drop coverage that Taylor described, there are more decisions. First, am I open? Second, is the roller open? Third, do I have a kick out to a shooter? Fourth, when do I stop and shoot? Can I ge to the rim? Fifth, do I shoot a jump shot or a floater? These decisions, and possibilities, absolutely affect shooting percentages. This is a major reason that players shoot 80& on this pull-up jump shot in drills as the designated shooter, but shoot 40% during games.
Therefore, the closer shot is more difficult and more complex. The three-point shot is further from the basket, which lowers percentages slightly for every foot further back, but players are compensated for this added difficulty with an extra point. There is no similar compensation for the added difficulty and complexity of the closer shot.
From the time that I coached u9s in 2001, this has been my thinking: If we have to shoot a jump shot instead of a layup, I want the shooter to catch facing the basket, and I want to shoot three-pointers because I feel that the added difficulty of the distance is easier to overcome than the difficulty and complexity of a midrange shot AND the added difficulty is rewarded with an extra point. With u9s, I believed that any jump shot was a low percentage shot regardless of distance; therefore, why not get an extra point for makes? If we shot 25% on 3s, and 30% on two-point jump shots, that is a big win for three-point shots despite poor shooting either way. That’s just math.
As an example, our offense last year scored .84 points per possession, which ranked as “excellent”. Our half-court offense scored .795 points per possession. We scored 1.018 PPP on three-point shots, and .707 PPP on midrange shots, and we had one of the best, smoothest midrange shooters in the country. Our defense gave up .698 PPP and .668 in half-court. Opponents scored .542 PPP on midrange shots, and .87 on three-point shots.
The debate, then, changes from “Are midrange bad shots?” (yes) to “Are midrange shots bad because of bad shooters or because players do not practice?” (?). I would argue that they are bad shots because the are more difficult and more complex than three-point shots because of proximity to defense and more possibilities.
As defenses work harder to take away the three-point shot, the midrange may increase in value because midrange shots move further from the defense. This, in a sense, is one of Taylor’s arguments (as well as arguing that Derozan’s midrange game has gravity that opens up better three-point shots for teammates). At lower levels, I do not believe that we have reached this point, except against a few specific defenses.
I do not outlaw the midrange shot, and we practice midrange shots (primarily because of practice variability and confidence from watching ball go through the basket). However, we hunt catch-and-shoot three point shots because they are better, easier shots that are worth more points. It is common sense to me, which is the reason that I do not understand the angst that many have, as they remote over the long lost midrange shot that is a low efficiency, more difficult, more complex shot. Is it useful on occasions? Yes. Can a great shooter succeed with his midrange game? If he is KD’s and Kawhi’s level, sure. But, as paradoxical as it seems to many, I believe that it is easier for a player to shoot 40% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers than 60% on midrange shots, and maybe we’re taking the easy out, but that seems like smart basketball to me.
Wired examined free-throw shooting with Steve Nash, but several conclusions are contentious.
On paper, the free throw could not be more straightforward. It’s a direct, unguarded shot at a hoop 18 inches across, 10 feet off the ground, and 15 feet away. Like a carefully controlled experiment, the conditions are exactly the same every single time.
This makes sense. The external conditions are the same on every free throw, which differs from other sports, where wind or field conditions or court surface may affect performance. However, all the conditions are not the same on every shot because the shooter is never the same: internal conditions differ. Fatigue, confidence, pressure, and more differ from shot to shot. When a player shoots two free throws, does the result of the first shot affect the second? How many players shoot the second shot more freely after a make than a miss? Is a shot in the first quarter the same as a shot in the last minute?
Larry Silverberg, a dynamicist at North Carolina State University, has used this fact to study the free throw in remarkable detail. “It’s the same for every single player, so you can actually look at the shot very scientifically,” he says.
Again, it is not the same for every player, but beyond internal conditions differing from shot to shot, conditions differ from shot to shot between players. A 4’6 4th grader shoots differently than a 7’0 professional. Despite the similarity in location, they are not the same shots.
To dispatch the ball the same way every time requires a player to commit to memory the smooth, coordinated movement of multiple limbs and joints, from their knees, elbows, and wrists to the tiny points of articulation in their fingers and toes.
Memory? In what way? I certainly do not remember in any kind of conscious way the manner in which my shoulder, elbow and wrist link together to propel the ball. If I attempted to find this memory when shooting the ball, I would fail.
The average free throw percentage across the NBA, WNBA, and NCAA could almost certainly increase, Silverberg says, but it probably won’t. Not unless coaches make it a priority by hiring personal trainers to work with all of their team members individually,
First, free throw percentages are improving almost year by year. Second, I imagine every professional player has a personal trainer already.
The problem with free-throw shooting is largely the practice design. Because we view the shot as being the same every time, we use constant block practice. However, during games, we do not shoot 100 free throws in a row. We shoot one or two free throws. Players must step to the line and make one free throw. Making 90/100 when shooting consecutively is impressive, but it is different than shooting one free throw, playing the game, shooting another free throw, etc.
My team shot 72.6% from the free-throw line this season, which was 9th in the nation, despite being led in attempts by a player who arrived last summer and said she was not a shooter. I obviously do not attend every team’s practices, but I doubt anyone practices free-throw shooting less than we do. Throughout the season, we never had a dedicated block of time for “free-throw shooting” at a single practice. We never shot free throws with a consequence of sprints during practice (our 90% free-throw shooters run when they miss a free throw during individual workouts). We never line up and watch a player shoot a free throw or end practice with someone having to make a free throw or any of the other things that I have seen at practices over the years. We shoot a lot at practice; just not a lot of free throws. Our free-throw practice occurs almost entirely during scrimmages.
Beyond practice design, everyone could improve his or her free-throw shooting by improving one’s routine. Using a routine is a start, and everyone should use a routine at the free-throw line, but there are ways to maximize the routine for better performance.
Closing the gap between training and competition, Beilock says, is a matter of practicing under conditions that simulate high-pressure scenarios: Training under a watchful eye, or competing against the clock.
I have argued this point with Dr. Beilock since she wrote her book Choke – through emails to her, in class presentations for sports psychology courses, on blogs, etc. She is a psychologist who sees things through the lens of pressure affecting performance; I see non-representative practice. In some ways, we are talking about the same thing.
However, in her book, she suggested running sprints for a miss to simulate the pressure of a game free throw. This is such a standard practice that bad free throw shooters mentally account for the running; it is something they expect, rather than something that adds pressure. Also, running a sprint cannot approximate the same pressure as a game-wining shot. To me, this is a token gesture, which is the reason that our good free-throw shooters run when they miss in an individual workout: it is to ensure that they concentrate on their free throws. Our bad free-throw shooters shoot more because the shooting practice, not the running, seems like the best way to improve one’s shooting.
This week, I texted with a current player about her former teammate who I am recruiting. I had heard that her teammate was a shooter, and I texted her to confirm. She responded that the teammate was the best shooter on her high school team, which prompted my question: “Better than you?” My player shoots over 40% from the three-point line on more than five three-point field goal attempts per game, has legitimate NBA range, and shoots over 90% from the free-throw line. I have rebounded for her as she shot over 150 three-pointers without missing two in a row. Her response:
Now, that is hard to believe. I remember walking into the gym on her first day at the college and watching her shoot. I knew that I had signed a good player, but she looked better than I thought. During her freshman season, though, she struggled down the stretch, and her three-point percentage dipped to 33% by year’s end. I had to look up her percentage, as I would have guessed that she shot 37-39% during her first year.
In our text exchange, I expressed my surprise, but looked at the positive, at least from my standpoint (recruiting! marketing!):
She can shoot. I have not taught her anything. I refused to allow my assistants last season to say a word about her shooting. We have worked to improve her balance. We practice shooting when tired. We try to shoot good shots.
As a coach or trainer, I have done nothing technical. I have never said a word to her about how she holds the ball, bends her knees, or follows through. I have not told her to turn or not to turn. I have not provided a single word of common shooting instruction.
I have several shooters on my team; as I write this, one leads the nation in three-point shooting percentage. When I have talked to her, and we have spent a considerable amount of quality time together recently due to some trips to the emergency room and follow-up doctor visits, she has told me that she never considered herself to be a shooter previously. She recommended a friend to me as a potential recruit, and called her friend a much better shooter. I have taken her out of two games for passing up open shots.
Another player arrived as a very good mid-range pull-up shooter, but was never much of a three-point shooter; she started her freshman season shooting 18% from the three-point line through the first 10 games. She’s closing in on 100 made three-point field goals in her two seasons and shooting over 36% on James Harden-like attempts. I have not said a word to her about her technique in two years, despite her constant questioning. I told her when she arrived that she had to be a three-point shooter. Despite working out with her more than anyone over the last two years, I have said almost nothing related to her shooting technique. Everything is focused on balance, footwork, and confidence.
As the player said in the text, my effect on their shooting is primarily confidence (wrote about this previously). I encourage three-point shots. We run plays to get three-point shots. I do not take out players for missing three-point shots. When players arrive, I explain that if they are not a three-point shooter now, they better become one. We have a player who told me in the summer that she was a non-shooter; she was sub-40% from the free-throw line last season before transferring. In our last game, she was 2/2 from the three-point line and 8/11 from the free-throw line. Confidence.
As I write this, we are 2nd nationally in 3-point field goals, 5th in 3-point field goal percentage, and 12th in free-throw percentage. Yes, I target players who I believe are shooters, but in several cases, it appears that I saw them as shooters before they did. I do not instruct a lot on shooting technique. We shoot a lot during practice (although we rarely shoot free throws), and we value shooting. We do not have a Dr. Dish in our gym. Players shoot together and rebound for each other.
The biggest factor in their development, I believe, is comfort and confidence. They know they can shoot and will not be punished. I challenge them to shoot from further out. I yell at them to shoot as soon as they cross the volleyball line. I take out players for not shooting open shots rather than taking out players for missing shots. We have a culture of shooting, I suppose, and the culture — from the type of practice, to the extra shots, to the comfort and confidence — is how we develop 40% three-point shooters.
Progression of string shooting drills to practice movement in relation to dribble penetration, shooting off the move, and passing off the dribble.
Pass one ahead on the near-side wing for a 45-degree three-pointer, then penetrate to the middle and pass to the opposite corner for a corner three-pointer.
Drag screen in transition; pass one for the layup and shoot the second off the dribble.
Make 35 shots from outside each block followed by 35 shots from each elbow. Then shoot three-pointers for the remainder of the time. Goal is to make 25 three-pointers. We run one sprint for every shot under 15.
Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter, 7.29
Game slippage generally refers to the impact of defense and pressure on one’s shooting (which implies the difference between practice shots — typically no defense or pressure — and game shots). Defense certainly affects shooting percentages. Kyle Korver is one of the NBA’s best shooters, and he “shot 38% from 3 when contested and 49% when open. When he was wide-open (no defender within 6 feet), Korver shot an outstanding 55%” (Shea, 2017).
I found only one report about Korver’s practice percentages, and Brian Scalabrine said that he watched Korver make 98/100 three-pointers. Of course that does not mean that Korver shoots 98% in practice, and it does not describe the practice, but it is probably safe to assume that Korver shoots >70% from the three-point line during practice. However, he shot 55% on wide open catch-and-shoot three-pointers, the closest shot to a practice shot.
These shots are wide open, which means defense is not a factor. What causes one of the best shooters in NBA history to drop >15% on the same shots (wide open) that are featured in most practice drills? More importantly, can we close this gap and increase one’s shooting percentage on wide-open shots?
Most discussions of shooting practice start with reps and reps and reps. The evolved coaches and players discuss made shots, not shots attempted, but awe is reserved for those who make large numbers of shots or who shoot obscene percentages, such as Korver. Many focus on game speed shots, or shoot when fatigued, which address some factors that affect game performances, but three rarely addressed factors are arousal, decision-making, and randomness.
Arousal is the most difficult aspect of shooting to replicate because no practice shot will match the arousal of a game shot. No amount of running punishment can simulate missing a shot in a game in front of fans, family, teammates, and more. The only practice environment that approximates game pressure is tryouts and potentially scrimmage shots for players competing for playing time. For teenagers, these shots may mimic the anxiety that they may feel during a game.
I imagine the arousal for most game shots is not the same as the intense pressure of a game-winning shot. Instead, the crowd, the scoreboards, the referees — the entire game environment increases arousal. Arousal also is not negative; it is one’s perception of the arousal that may lead to anxiety or decreased performance. Initially, arousal improves performance, as psychologists generally accept the inverted U: Low or under-arousal and high or over-arousal decrease performance, whereas moderate arousal enhances performance (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908).
Arousal is individual. Some players may need psyching up because they are under-aroused, whereas their teammates may need to calm down because they are over-aroused. People perceive the same situations and the same environments differently.
Why do many NBA players perform better against better teams or in more high-pressured games? In the average regular season game, LeBron James may be under-aroused, and may not play with the same concentration and focus. Shaq essentially used this as his excuse for poor free-throw shooting: “I make them when it matters.” Typically we focus on over-arousal and pressure when we discuss game slippage, but under-arousal may lead to some performance decrements for NBA players, especially superstars or playoff teams that manage their effort to peak in the playoffs.
In terms of improving the transfer of shooting practice to game performance, we must attempt to mimic the same arousal as games. Generally, we focus on calming down players in games because we tend to focus on the negative side of arousal, or the over-arousal. However, maybe we increase practice arousal.
This may be the value of shooting shots in a row and shooting competitions. When I trained shooters individually, we started workouts by making 9, 12, or 15 shots in a row (three in a row from 3, 4, or 5 spots). These shots were makable shots, starting close to the basket and moving away from the basket progressively until the older players made three-pointers. The test was not their ability to make undefended, stationary shots; many players shot 80% or better on these shots. The purpose was to concentrate and focus for the duration. As the player made each shot, the pressure increased a little; nothing like a game, but there was something on the line. We often end games in practice by making two free throws in a row to solidify the win because this is as close as I have come to matching the arousal of a late-game free throw.
Another factor in game slippage is decision-making. We ignore this factor, especially when considering wide open shots, but there is a distinct difference between a shooting drill with a designated shooter and one where the shooter has a choice.
We do the same basic shooting drill (String Shooting) in several ways. In the simple drill, a player drives and kicks to the designated shooter who catches and shoots. In the next step, one player drives and kicks, and the pass receiver has the option to shoot or pass to a third player (shown below). In the next step, the driver follows and closes out to the receiver, and the receiver decides whether to drive or shoot. When moving from step one (the shooter catches and shoots) to step two (shooter has a choice), percentages decrease. Deciding to shoot is a part of shooting, but most drills do not force the shooter to make a decision. This is a factor in game slippage, and one remedy is to include more decision-making into shooting drills.
Finally, game shooting is random. Last season, Korver averaged 24.5 minutes per game and roughly 8 shot attempts (including free throws). He shoots one shot every 3 minutes of game time, but in shooting drills, he often shoots more than 8 shots per minute. We use this method to increase repetitions, but what is the purpose? How game-like is a shot that is taken multiple times per minute when he shoots only one shot every 3 minutes in a game, and every 15 minutes of real time?
In a game, a player shoots. He sprints down court, plays defense, makes a few passes, rebounds, runs some more, and eventually shoots again. To add specificity to our shooting practice, we need more random practice. Rather than maximize our efficiency to make 300 shots in an hour, randomize practice. Shoot and make fewer shots, but add in different things between shots. Many team drills naturally align with this random practice approach, as a shooter goes to a different line, becomes a passer, maybe a defender, rebounds a shot, and eventually returns to the shooting line.
How does Korver practice? I don’t know. When I have watched NBA players and teams practice, they practiced differently.. They have an embarrassment of riches, much like NCAA D1 teams. They have people to do everything for the players to increase efficiency. Watch some Instagram videos of NBA guys shooting; they have four rebounders/passers. The shooter stands in a spot and shoots or maybe runs between two spots to shoot, and the rebounders chase balls. This increases practice efficiency and allows the players to make more shots in a given time frame, but is that the goal?
To reduce game slippage, we need to move beyond game spots and game speed, and focus on arousal, decision-making, and randomness in our practices.
Shea, S. (2017). Open shots attempts – What’s behind the numbers? ShotTracker.com, Summer.
Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit‐formation. Journal of comparative neurology, 18(5), 459-482.