Spring is here (no really, it began two weeks ago), which means summer is coming. For the Wolves, as is often the case, it also means the off-season is coming. Most off-season discussion, here and elsewhere, will focus on free agency and the draft. But what about the players we already have? What will they be doing? More importantly, will any of them improve at playing professional basketball?
During next training camp, there will inevitably be pieces written in the local press about the amazing dedication that Timberwolf X/Y/Z showed in his off-season workout regimen. We’ll read about how he improved his diet and is working with a trainer and nutritionist. We’ll read about what famous veteran players he played daily pickup ball with in Los Angeles, or another major coastal metropolis that is nowhere near Target Center. We’ll read a few puffy quotes from the coaching staff — likely answering the most leading of questions — about how the player looks improved, how the team really needs him and how everybody is expecting big things. I’m a sucker for those pieces and I already know that I’ll be GUZZLING that Kool-Aid.
But will any of it actually matter? Will it make a bit of difference, relative to the work that every NBA player does in 2013? Every NBA player, these days, works out hard. Most of them eat pretty well. Some party hard, but they’re young enough to combine late [summer] nights with elite conditioning and professional dedication to their craft. The thing I wonder — not working or having worked with a pro team — is how much of that off-season work is devoted to basic skill development. I know that I saw video of Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose working on their jumpers. It looked intense and productive and — it seems to me, anyway — it helped each guy become a greater shooting threat and all-around player. I’m sure other players work with trainers and coaches in similar fashion to remove weaknesses and improve as players.
I’m almost done with Breaks of the Game and I have to share parts of the Kermit Washington story. Washington was a bench player on his high school team, miraculously convinced a scout at an all-star showcase (that he wasn’t actually invited to) to offer him a scholarship (based entirely on his incredible hustle for rebounds and loose balls), and befriended a former military friend at American University to help train him into becoming a beastly specimen and outstanding college player that was drafted to the NBA.
But Washington struggled like hell in his first NBA seasons, lacking the skill polish required to play forward at a professional level. As in his high school and college careers before, Washington needed to outwork his peers, and he needed to do it in the off-season.
Halberstam described how the NBA schedule did Washington no favors:
What made [it] difficult was the fact that there is virtually no individual coaching and teaching in the NBA; the schedule is too difficult, the pressure to win consistently too great. There is an assumption that a player arrives in the league in full possession of all the basic skills. Either that, or he sinks.
It was after his third season of struggling to improve that Washington sought expert help; no less than the legendary Pete Newell.
By the end of the third year he was desperate. It was not the money that was at stake, his contract was good; it was his sense of self, so laboriously put together and, he realized, so precarious. He waited until the season ended and then, in desperation, he had gone to Pete Newell, a former college and professional coach, then with the Lakers in a peripheral capacity, and asked if Newell would teach him to play forward. He was terrified about asking, he barely knew Newell, but he had always heard what a great coach he was. He was afraid that Newell would mistake his request, think that he was trying to gain points in the organization or get a better contract, or simply that he was too pushy. But the alternative was too grim–it was failure and a return to what he had been. Newell in turn was astonished. In recent experience, no player in the league seemed willing to admit that he still had something to learn. Washington had picked the right time to approach Newell. He had left college coaching (where his teams, with less material, had regularly beaten John Wooden’s UCLA teams) because he did not like the direction the game was taking–too much emphasis on recruiting, too little on coaching, too much on selling the school to the young men, and too little on the young men selling themselves to the school. He did not like his job at the Lakers; when he talked baksetball to Jack Kent Cookie, the owner, he was always being challenged by one of Cookie’s cronies who knew nothing about basketball. Bill Sharman had just been fired and so Newell felt less inhibited about working with a player. “Why do you want to take lessons?” he had asked Washington. “Because I want to play like Paul Silas,” Washington had answered, which was good enough; Paul Silas was an example of the best of the NBA players, a triumph of character and intelligence over pure athletic skill.
So Newell was intrigued by the request, and he had said, Yes, they would meet, at 7 a.m. He was sure the hour would put Washington off. It did not. The first few weeks were terrible. Pete Newell was, in most human situations, an absolute gentleman, intelligent, soft-spoken, his clothes and manner more that of an Ivy League professor than of a basketball coach; but in the privacy of the gym, he was radically different, tough, demanding, the coach as drill sergeant. He was even tougher than usual with Kermit Washington; if he was going to take on a charity project he wanted to be absolutely sure that the project was worth accepting, and he was going to find out whether there was a real person inside there or not. He did not much care about Washington’s time. They went at it for a terrible first two weeks, relentless, demanding drills, three hours of them, repeated, and repeated until Washington did not know which was more ready to collapse, his brain or his body. Each day when he came home he was unable to walk for two or three hours. At the end of those two weeks Pete Newell decided that Kermit Washington had a chance to be an even better player than Paul Silas. He was a slightly better jumper, and he was quicker. So they began special tutorials for a professional player making $100,000 a year. These were the kind of drills Newell usually gave to seventeen-year-old college freshman, on footwork, on balance, on moving the feet, keeping the hands in the air. Sensing when Washington was tired, and no longer wanted to bend his body, Newell would yell at him, “Low! Low! Get down low! Bend! Bend!”
They were an odd couple, just the two of them in the Loyola gym, the old gray-haired man pushing the young black player. Newell told Washington to study the book on Paul Silas, take film clips of his games home and memorize them. All that summer they worked long sessions together two and three times a week, and in the end Pete Newell thought he had a player. He began to tell Washington to take jump shots, not because he was a particularly good shooter, but because he needed to be able to score and, even more important, he had to believe that he could. Forwards have to have small jump shots. Not great ones. But acceptable ones. In the beginning Kermit Washington was terrible. Gradually he became a competent shot. He still hated to shoot from more than six feet away, as if he regarded shooting as uncharitable and thus something he shouldn’t do very often.
Washington improved a great deal after that summer with Newell. Halberstam goes on to tell of that improvement and — more memorably — the unfortunate and ugly turns that his career took after the infamous punch that nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich. (Halberstam tells all of Washington’s life story beautifully, and it’s my favorite part of the entire book. It’s a damn shame that so many only know Kermit for “the punch”–which was largely an accident, at least in terms of its consequence.) The improvement in Kermit’s game after that summer with Newell was immediate and undeniable. His points per 36 minutes jumped from 9.0 to 13.8. His field goal percentage from .433 to .503. His PER increased nearly 50 percent and his win shares per 48 nearly doubled. Clearly, a hard summer of work paid dividends; dividends well above and beyond the expected development of a fourth-year, 25-year old professional.
What Wolves could stand to improve on their weaknesses this summer (besides “all of them”)? Derrick Williams needs all-around work and would do well to commit entirely to one of the forward positions. If that’s the three — and I don’t think it is — become as reliable from every three-point spot as he is right now from the left wing. If that’s the four — and I think it is — that means getting physically [much] stronger so that he can hold his own in post defense, and fine tune a mid-range, square up game. Nikola Pekovic, assuming he is re-signed, should continue developing that right-hand hook. Defenders smart enough to implement scouting reports take away his lethal drop step which means the righty hook is the shot.
The best candidate for a PETE NEWELL CAMP off-season is, ironically, the team’s best [active] player: Ricky Rubio. Ricky shoots at a sub-professional level from the perimeter, he does not have a true jump shot and his overall impact on games could be DEVASTATING if he made strides in that department the way Washington did after those early mornings with an old coach. Shooting is the most important skill in basketball and Ricky somehow manages to be good without it. The things that Ricky is already good at would be made significantly easier for him if he were a shooting threat. He’s the best passer in the NBA not-named LeBron James. There probably aren’t five better point-guard defenders in the league. (Jrue Holiday, Paul George and Tony Allen are the only ones I’d say are clearly superior at defending the point.) If Ricky learns to catch and shoot at a functional level, he will be a perennial All-Star. If he learns to catch and shoot at a good professional level? He’ll be on the short list of MVP candidates.
Learning to shoot jump shots is not easy for everybody. I remember struggling mightily with it as a high school senior, seeing my three-point percentage free-fall from the year before when I set-shot my way to a (then) school record. It wasn’t until college and the endless practices and shooting drills that the form felt natural.
The best pure shooter in the NBA is Steph Curry. Chris Ballard just wrote an excellent feature about Curry and, specifically, his shooting greatness. Curry talked about going from set shot to jumper midway through high school. He took lessons from his historically-great shooting father, Dell:
His release wasn’t quite as peculiar — Marion can look like he’s trying to play two-hand bocce with a basketball — but it originated from the same navel-high location. This was during Curry’s sophomore year in high school and, while effective, his flip shot was unsustainable: too easy to block, too methodical. Or so Dell Curry decided. Father forced son to remake his jumper during the core of his high school career, bringing the ball up over his head. It was a risky move. The result, as Steph says, was “the most frustrating summer for me.” For a period of months, the kid who’d always been a deadeye shooter was stripped of his greatest skill.
“I really couldn’t shoot outside the paint for like the first three weeks,” Curry says. “All summer when I was at camps people were like, ‘Who are you, why are you playing basketball?’ I was really that bad for a month and a half [before] I finally figured it out.”
Once the transformation was complete, however, the end product was, and remains, beautiful.
Is there some reason that a 22-year old cannot overhaul his shooting mechanics? If Ricky underwent basic training like third-year pro Washington did, or teenage Curry did, could he learn how to shoot?
If I were betting, it would be that Ricky’s shot mechanics will remain largely unchanged. He’ll continue to practice and make slight improvements in accuracy through sheer repetition and experience, but nothing significant. I don’t say this because I doubt Ricky’s level of dedication; far from it. I just think that Washington’s story of a famous pro seeking out counsel on the basics is BY FAR the exception and not the rule. In the NBA today, it’s cool for guards to trick out their repertoire with Hakeem Olajuwon post moves. Lessons on basic shooting form? I’m not so sure.
But I’m not betting on this; just hoping. Hoping that next October Ricky catches a kickout pass from Shved and brings that ball up high as he pops straight up to fire, and releases it confidently and high in the air. I don’t even care if it goes in — it might take a season or two — but I want it to look different. That’d be a clear sign of REAL improvement.