Shooting the Three
Most analysts agree the three-point shot changed the game more than anything other than the shot clock’s invention. Its relative ease at nineteen feet-nine inches from the basket has leveled the college playing field, causing widespread parity and March Madness upsets. Teams like Butler, Creighton and Gonzaga use the three-point shot to overcome perceived disadvantages playing against “elite” or “high-major” programs.
Consequently, everyone, not just the little guys, wants to shoot the three-pointer. Arguably, the NBA’s two best three-point shooters are 6-foot-10 Peja Stojakovic and 7-foot Dirk Nowitski. Every player and team strives to shoot better and more consistently, which requires instruction, time and effort working on the proper shooting fundamentals. However, there is an easier way to shoot a higher percentage; shoot better shots.
My basic philosophy governing players is a good shot is an open shot within the player’s range. I try not to discourage shots, as great shooters are confident and nobody is completely confident if they have to look over their shoulder every time they miss to see if they are coming out of the game. However, as the season progresses, players learn the difference between a good shot and a great shot, and the times when the team needs a great shot, not just a good shot.
Shooting better shots is easy. First, players should look to shoot open shots. That generally means shooting as soon as they receive the pass, as players are most open when they first get the ball, or after one or two dribbles if they make a shot fake and go past a defender closing out off-balance. If a player needs three or more dribbles to create a shot, it probably isn’t open, and it is likely a low percentage shot.
In studying shooters, most catch-and-shoot shots are taken in one of these four instances:
1. Player standing still waiting for a pass (post kick-out or dribble penetrate and kick).
2. Player catching and shooting in transition.
3. Player flaring off a screen for a shot.
4. Player curling off a screen for a shot.
Of these four instances, the first three apply most to three-point shooting, as it is harder to curl out to the three-point line because it gives the defense more time to recover.
The common thread among the three is players receive the ball already facing the basket in good position to shoot the ball; there is no squaring to the basket, or dribbling, or extra movement. The player is locked in on the target and ready to shoot, already in good balance. There is little to throw off the shooter, as he is open, his feet are set and he is squared o the basket. It is a matter of simply catching and shooting, just like in the driveway.
The opportune time to find good three-point shooting opportunities is in transition and after an offensive rebound. Louisville University Head Coach Rick Pitino believes “the best time to shoot a three is after an offensive rebound,” while NBA Analyst Steve Kerr says, “Players love to step-in to their shots in transition.” These instances have three common traits which are key: First, in each situation, the defense is scrambling, giving the offense a great opportunity to find an open shooter facing the basket. Second, the shooter is already squared and ready to shoot, able to step-in comfortably and on-balance. Finally, the offense has an offensive rebounding advantage if the shooter misses because the defense is scrambling.
Currently, the University of Oregon leads NCAA Men’s Basketball in three-point shooting accuracy, shooting 43.7% from beyond the arc. The Ducks are a transition team and are unafraid of the quick shot in transition. They also get numerous looks off dribble penetration by Luke Jackson and a pass out to a stand-still shooter spotting up. UConn is sixth in the nation at 41.7% and they get many open looks in transition, and benefit from Ben Gordon’s penetration and the inside presence of Emeka Okafur, both for offensive rebounds and to draw double-teams that open shooters.
Gonzaga University is ninth nationally, shooting just over 41% from three-point range. The Zags are good in transition, but they are also a great inside-outside team, using Cory Violette and Ronny Turiaf inside to draw double-teams, leaving Blake Stepp and Kyle Bankhead open on the perimeter. Again, many of their three-point attempts occur when the shooter catches already facing the basket and simply has to catch and shoot. The pass out from a post player gives a shooter a great opportunity to step-in (either with a one-two step or quick stop) to the shot with “his puppies set,” as Bill Rafferty says.
The University of Utah is fifth in the nation at 41.7%, yet they get almost all their shots in their half-court sets. The Utes are as good in their motion offense as any team in the country, and they set great picks to free shooters. Adam Jacobsen is a great shooter, as are others, but their success shooting the ball is enhanced by their ability to read and use a screen. They get many shots off flare cuts, where their hips are already open to the basket when they receive the pass. They rely more on their offensive sets to free shooters than any of the other top ten shooting teams.
The Sacramento Kings lead the NBA in three-point proficiency at 40% and are much like the Utes, getting many open looks because of their half court offense. Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic are lethal shooters, but their ability is enhanced by their offense, as the Kings are the best half-court offensive team in the Association.
The Kings, surprisingly, are not a great transition team as the guards do not do a good job finding Peja in transition the way Steve Nash sets up Dirk Nowitski and Michael Finley for easy three-pointers for the Dallas Mavericks. However, Doug Christie is finally doing a better job trying to find Peja for open looks in transition, similar to Nash.
The Kings run an offense of which most of their open looks originate from flare cuts. Even when running the Triangle action and scissors’ cut off Brad Miller or Vlade Divac, Peja or Bibby pop away from the screener with the ball so they catch with shoulders already squared. The other option, used by Bibby, is to take the hand-off and use one-dribble to curl into the shot, but that leaves Bibby about a seventeen-footer, not a three-pointer.
Other NBA teams make it more difficult on their shooters. Teams like the 76ers run lots of baseline screens, meaning their shooter has to run full speed away from the basket, catch, turn-and-face and shoot with a defender chasing. These are very tough, low percentage shots, and these offensive sets lead to players creating shots off the dribble, making a move as soon as they receive the ball to beat the quickly closing defender. The New York Knicks’ Allan Houston and Seattle Supersonics’ Ray Allen and Ronald Murray create shots in this manner, sprinting hard off screens and using one dribble to create the shot.
The Houston Rockets are the second best three-point shooting team, at 37.7%, and they benefit from Yao Ming and his passing ability. The Seattle Supersonics are third at 37.4% and they get many open looks for Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic in transition, and dribble penetration and kick outs create a number of stand-still opportunities for Lewis, Radmanovic and Brent Barry. Allen really has to earn his points and shots, but the others, for the most part, benefit from shooting shots where they are already squared and facing the basket, either running into their shot in transition or receiving the kick-out off dribble penetration.
The players mentioned-from Blake Stepp to Ray Allen-are all phenomenal shooters with great mechanics. However, the manner in which they get their shots leads to their high shooting percentages. For the most part, they shoot open shots and they shoot off the catch, or off one to two dribbles. They get many of their shots in situations and positions where their feet are set and they can step-in and shoot the ball comfortably, which leads to a high rate of success.
To be a great shooter, having good mechanics is essential. However, so too is shooting good shots.
McCormick, the author of The Art of Ball Handling; Getting a Handle on Your Game, has coached college basketball and professionally in Europe and now runs High Five Hoop School. For more information on his Fundamental Training Academies in Sacramento and Santa Rosa, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 916.792-6716.