I was watching the NBA three point contest during all-star weekend and it got me thinking. What is the 'secret’ to being a great shooter? Is it the follow-through? Is it having the ball on your fingertips? Is it having perfect alignment of your shoulders, elbow or wrists? Is it having the ‘perfect’ 45 degree arc to your shot? Is it the newest shooting development tool? Any ‘shooting coach’ or ‘professional basketball skills trainer’ will have you get lost in the minutiae of shooting.
However, Kenny ‘the Jet’ Smith infused some timeless wisdom during his hilarious broadcast of the competition filled with relentless trash talking and playful banter. He was explaining why him and Shaq predicted that Nick Young, aka Swaggy P, would come last in the three point competition. He said (I am paraphrasing based off my memory), “Nick young is a scorer and mainly hits three’s off the dribble and on the move in games. He has too much movement and variability”. Later on when commenting on Klay Thompson’s legendary shooting performance, he mentioned, “The key to great shooting is consistency. Thompson is so on balance and there is little extra movement”.
Let me repeat that again, CONSISTENCY is the key to being a great shooter. Do not get me wrong, optimizing your shooting mechanics will most definitely give you the best possible chance to be the best shooter you can be. However, if you are not consistently shooting in a particular way, it does not matter how ‘perfect’ your mechanics are! The reason focusing on mechanics is so important is because it limits the amount of extraneous movements, and therefore gives you the best chance of having a consistent shooting stroke.
Even though the mechanics and form of shooting is important, the current obsession on shooting mechanics tends to be to the detriment of many athletes. Even world class shooters like Steve Nash, Klay Thompson, and Stephen Curry will have shooting flaws according to ‘shooting coaches’. No one mentions the shooters whose shooting form may look quite great, but they are poor shooters.
This obsession on optimizing shooting mechanics and markers of shooting excellence (eg. angle of shot) tends to be especially detrimental to older and more experienced athletes. As long as you are consistent, you can still be a great shooter even if you have glaring flaws in your form (look at Reggie Miller’s shooting stroke!). Further, remaking your form at a latter stage in your career can be an extensive and frustrating process that many more experienced athletes will not be able to successfully make.
I know first hand because when I was in grade 9, despite having good feel and being quite a good player relative to my peers, my jump shoot was quite poor. In retrospect, it was more likely due to mental blocks and me not putting up enough shots, but I did have flaws in my shooting stroke.
While the results of my transformation have been extremely rewarding (see proof here), the process was quite frustrating. Paradoxically, at first you become worse at shooting because you need to develop new neural networks to get this technique to feel natural. The old adage, “it gets worse before it gets better,” is absolutely true. However, I can tell you this is an extremely difficult transition to go through. Only the most disciplined and dedicated athletes can successfully change their shooting form. This is because it is too easy to ‘cheat’ and revert to a previous form to get short term gains (ex. Winning a game of pick-up or a shooting contest) in deference to long term gains. This breaks the cardinal rule of excellent shooting, consistency. If you are constantly waffling between different variations of your shooting form, at very best, you will be a streaky shooter.
Right on que, during the contest, Nick Young perfectly displayed why he is such a streaky shooter, and why Shaq and Kenny had predicted him to come last. His follow-through seemed to change dramatically throughout his 25 shots. The problem is NOT a ‘flaw’ in his shooting mechanics, but inconsistency in his shooting. Nick Young has tremendous talent and a great shooting touch, so he is able to compensate for his inconsistency and can be a lethal offensive weapon when he is ‘feeling it.’ However, due to the inconsistencies in his shot, he will never be a dead-eye shooter like Klay or Steph.
This whole discussion reminds me of an interesting story about an amazing basketball player I got the opportunity to compete at many times during my high school career, Phil Scrubb. Phil Scrubb was not the most heralded player from my class (2010), but despite that he did receive some tepid interest from some NCAA D1 schools. Most notably a UCLA scout made an appearance at Argyle Secondary school during a local basketball tournament. Supposedly, UCLA quickly lost interest because of Phil's unorthodox shooting stroke and his unwillingness to change it.
Was this a good move by UCLA? In my opinion it was pure stupidity as I am 100% confident that Phil would have been a much bigger help to UCLA basketball than Steve Alford’s son. Phil had a legendary career at Carleton University and parlayed that into a promising career on Canada’s Sr. National team and playing professionally in Europe. However, this story epitomizes our obsession over shooting form. Funnily enough, Lonzo Ball, the current face of UCLA basketball, has an extremely unique shooting form. Yet, despite him being a seemingly can’t miss prospect, his shooting form is one of the first topics of discussion when scouts are predicting how well he will transition to the next level.
So if having the ‘perfect’ form is not the key to shooting success then what is? Repetition is, but there is an important caveat. You can’t just lazily go to the park and just ‘shoot around.’ When you are refining your shooting, you must be locked in and focused.
This is known as deliberate practice. If you are mindlessly shooting, you need to stop. One of the best shooters that coached me, Kevin Shaw, always reinforced that when he was working out and focusing on his skills he would never spend more than 45 minutes. He needed high intensity and focus to refine him taking game shots at game speed, and so that he could take the same shot every time. His ability to maintain the focus needed to be great was not sustainable for hours on hours. Simply, if you want to be a great shooter, you need to put the time and energy to mastering your craft.
Listen to what NBA 2017 3 Pt-Champion Eric Gordon has to say about shooting:
If you can’t sustain it, it’s not worth it.
I am a medical student who is obsessed with the Be Activated Muscle Activation Technique, mastering movement and understanding what makes humans thrive.