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.