Warriors’ small-ball revolution continues to change recruiting game
Warriors’ small-ball revolution continues to change recruiting game
The No. 1 player in the basketball recruiting Class of 2017 stands 7 feet tall and is a balletic monster around the goal. The No. 2 player is 6-11 and has arms that seem to reach from sideline to sideline. The No. 3 player is a 6-10, 240-pounder who has bullied the best young big men in the world.
So, hold on a second here: Weren’t we supposed to be in the process of a small-ball revolution? Weren’t the Warriors changing the face of basketball from a low-post, inside-out, big man’s game into a game weighted more toward spacing, ball movement and, most discernably, jump shooting?
Well, we pretty much are. It just so happens the current senior class is blessed with an uncommon wealth of talented big guys. DeAndre Ayton of Phoenix, Mohamed Bamba of Westtown, Pa., and Wendell Carter of Atlanta are the top three, and fully half of Scout.com’s top 10 players are centers. But more players with significant size and power are working to assure they can excel away from the lane, smaller players are spending more hours to develop their jump shots, and coaches and scouts are evaluating players with a closer eye toward what they can contribute on offense.
“If a guy is not a very good shooter, he needs to be really, really good in other areas,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar told Sporting News. “He can really defend, or really rebound the ball. And even then you don’t want too many of those. You can’t have enough shooters.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s changed my evaluating philosophy drastically, but it’s definitely impacted what I’m doing,” said Evan Daniels, Scout.com’s director of basketball recruiting. “It would put us, as evaluators, behind the curve if we didn’t adjust to the way the highest level of basketball appears to be going.”
Last season the Warriors set a record for regular-season NBA victories largely by producing from 3-point range at a rate far in excess of what their competitors could manage. More than a third of their points were scored via the 3-point shot. They rung up 13.1 3-pointers per game; second-best was 10.7. They converted 41.6 percent of their attempts; no one else did better than 37.5 percent.
So it’s obviously not easy to do as Golden State did, but it is attractive. And, as is the case with any strategy that catches fire in any sport, there are elements of what the Warriors accomplished that are applicable to anyone in the game. And, as is the case with any team that combines extravagant success with enormous appeal, the Warriors’ approach is likely to influence a generation of younger players.
“I want to be able to do everything,” said Marvin Bagley, who, by the way, can. He will be a 6-11 junior at Sierra Canyon High in Chatsworth, Calif., and is ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 class.
“I don’t want to be stuck on the block, in the post. I want to be able to go inside and out. That’s something I’ve been working on all summer: inside post moves and also mid-range jumpers and things like that, so I can be able to do it all on the court.”
As perhaps the greatest shooter in college basketball history, and as the coach of the school with the greatest number of NCAA championships, UCLA’s Steve Alford is uniquely positioned to ponder the way the sport has changed in recent years.
He believes that, as difficult as it might have been to gather a team as gifted at shooting the ball as the Warriors, it’s even more impressive that they’ve all been convinced to share the basketball so eagerly.
“I love shooters, regardless of size and position,” he said. “It makes offense a lot easier if you’ve got guys who can make shots. Obviously, you want athleticism, and you want all kinds of different skills, but I still think the greatest skill in the game is the ability to make shots.”
Alford should know. As a senior at Indiana, he made 107 3-pointers and converted 53 percent of his attempts. And he did it in the biggest games as he led IU to the 1987 NCAA championship.
He is approaching his 22nd season as a college head coach, with nine NCAA Tournament appearances and five seasons of 25 or more victories. He has seen the game change over that time, in part because more coaches are asking — or allowing — their players to shoot more often from deep.
At the ’87 Final Four, the first in which the 3-pointer was in the rule book, Rick Pitino’s Providence Friars were the one team that fully embraced the shot. Teams now shoot more than twice as often from long distance as they did when Alford played.
The rise of statistical analysis is a significant reason for this. “Now you’ve got analytics in our business, and now everybody talks about, ‘Let’s take away the 3, let’s take away the low paint and make everything contested 2s.’ Over the last 10 years, that’s the one shot that doesn’t seem to hurt you as much,” Alford said.
The corollary to that, of course, is that coaches working on their offenses want either a layup or post isolation or an open 3. It’s not necessarily a recent invention. Mike Krzyzewski was taking a Golden State-style approach at Duke when he surrounded Carlos Boozer with Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy, Jay Williams and Chris Duhon — and rarely called a set play — and won the 2001 NCAA title.
Mike Brey has been doing it nearly as long at Notre Dame. Danny Miller, a 6-8 shooter, was a power forward for the Irish when they reached the Sweet 16 in 2003. Brey began to recruit to suit that approach more often, searching for shooting skill and basketball IQ as ND made eight NCAA appearances over the past 10 years in the Big East and ACC.
“You can give freedom to play if you recruit basketball IQ guys,” Brey said. “If you have guys that are limited with their feel for the game, just two of them, you almost have to be a bit of a pattern coach. But if you have five guys who can pass, catch — and four of them can make shots from outside the arc — you can let them play a little bit.”
The most important component of coaching shooters is to assure they never lose confidence. Brey wants his players never to look at the bench “when they take a semi-bad shot.” He’ll go so far with certain lineups as to insist his best players feel the freedom to fire.
“When I had Chris Quinn, he was the safest player. He was Mr. Fundamental,” Brey said. “But his senior year, I needed him to force some stuff. I came in one day and I said, ‘If you don’t take a bad shot in the first 10 minutes of 5-on-5, I’m throwing you out of practice. Chris looked at me like: What? It took him about five minutes to figure it out.”
When Trae Young has a good day, and he had five in five days of the Nike EYBL Peach Jam event, he is capable of doing himself the disservice of looking a little like Steph Curry on the floor.
He does not need those sorts of comparisons. No one does. But Young has had to deal with morphing from a high-scoring guard for his high school team into more of a playmaker as he enters high-level “AAU” competition and as he prepares to play at higher levels. And he still is capable of launching a 28-foot jumper that no one expects — and making it, as he did while helping MoKan Elite win the Peach Jam championship.
“As a point guard, you’ve got to know when to attack, when to get your teammates involved,” Young told SN. “That’s something I’ve had to develop over time. It definitely takes time. I think you have to learn how to manage that.”
Largely because of Curry’s success, however, Young does not face the same sort of repercussions if he fires a long-range jumper before bothering to initiate the offense with a pass. It has become more acceptable for point guards to concentrate on shooting the basketball when they are so moved, or when the defense allows it, or some combination of the two.
Being a point guard in 2016 means never having to say you’re sorry for shooting.
Unless you can’t shoot.
“Steph definitely changed the game as far a point guard being able to shoot, but also knowing when to pass and get everbody involved,” Young said. “You definitely have to have confidence in your shooting, or you’re not going to have a good percentage. Things are going to be off.”
The Warriors are providing inspiration for players at both ends of the spectrum. Isaiah Stokes is a 6-9, 250-pound power forward from Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis. His brother, Jarnell, played power forward for Tennessee’s Sweet 16 team in 2014. Isaiah knew from Jarnell’s experience that he probably would need more than his biceps to make it in basketball.
So Isaiah worked with a shooting coach to the point he was able to shoot better than 40 percent, albeit on a low number of attempts, in EYBL play. “To be honest, my size, if I’m fortunate enough to make it to the NBA, I’m a power forward or a small forward,” he said. “There’s people way bigger than me out there. You have to have a jump shot the way this game has evolved.”
Being a Draymond is not as simple as being too short to play the traditional center position and too strong for small forwards and having the ability to make jump shots. Green is also an elite defender and versatile ballhandler and passer. His career arc will not be easy to duplicate. But he gives players built like Stokes a target.
“Draymond Green changed the game,” Stokes said.
One of the reasons great shooters tended to be undervalued by scouts in previous years: “There has been a lack of shooters with legitimate high-major bodies and athleticism,” Daniels said. “It’s hard to find all three. When you find a player like that, his value goes up tremendously.”
Harrison Barnes fit that description, which is why he was the No. 1 player in the 2010 recruiting class. Because they are facing their first taste of high-level defense and their shooting skill is one of the most important items on the opposing scouting report, it can be difficult for elite players who specialize in shooting to make the same degree of immediate impact at the college level as a gifted big man or game-changing playmaker.
Barnes was considered a disappointment during his two seasons at North Carolina, averaging 17.1 points as a sophomore and shooting just 35.8 percent on 3-pointers. Sporting News named him a third-team All-American. Bradley Beal shot 33.9 percent from deep as a freshman at Florida. Eric Gordon was good for 33.7 percent at Indiana. They’ve been outstanding as pros.
It can take time to develop the sophistication to function as a perimeter scorer against serious defenses, so it’s understandable if some players who become significant are less well-regarded as they begin. This past season, Buddy Hield blossomed from a 35 percent career long-range shooter over three seasons into a can’t-miss National Player of the Year who made 45.7 percent of his 3-pointers as a senior.
That’s why Kentucky’s John Calipari says he’d rather not sign a player whose shot is “totally broke.” He believes it’s a skill that can be developed in college. UK will try this season with Isaiah Briscoe, a fine player who made only five 3-pointers in his first season.
“You don’t have to be a great shooter at first,” Calipari said. “These kids are all young. But mechanically, you’ve got to look at it and see there’s nothing wrong.”
Michael Gbinije was that sort of player when he entered college. He made only four 3s in limited playing time his freshman season at Duke. After transferring to Syracuse and sitting out a year, he made only 15 even though he was a regular sub. As a senior, though, he led the Orange to the Final Four with 91 3s and 39.2 percent accuracy.
“I think it’s a combination of fine-tuning and confidence,” said Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who credited colleague Gerry McNamara with doing the daily work on Gbinije’s jumper. “I always say: There’s a shooter, and there’s the mind of a shooter. Coaches have had to do better with building confidence instead of subtracting it.”