Development, drive make Raptors a top-tier three-point team

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Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby (3) celebrates after scoring a three-point shot. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO — When Nick Nurse was 14, maybe 15-years-old, he had a high school basketball coach by the name of Wayne Chandlee. The guy sounds like he walked off a film screen. Gruff and no-nonsense, Chandlee preached fundamentals endlessly, drilling his players for hours on the finer aspects of form shooting.

“It used to drive us bonkers,” Nurse says today. “We didn’t understand why we had to do it every day. We wanted to get up and down and bomb threes and all that stuff. And instead we were shooting off the wall with no basket.”

But perspective’s a funny thing. When Nurse first became a coach himself in his early 20’s, he leaned on Chandlee’s methodology and approach, studying schemes and practice plans his old mentor passed along. He kept in touch throughout his journey overseas to coach in the British Basketball League and his return to North America to helm D-League franchises. And when Nurse finally got a head coaching gig at the highest level last year, he brought Chandlee out to Victoria, B.C. to watch an NBA training camp up close.

The shooting drills Chandlee saw the Toronto Raptors working on before and after practices wouldn’t have been all that different from what he had put a teenaged Nurse through 35 years earlier. Hours spent honing form, mechanics, consistency — programming muscles and minds to execute refined shooting quickly and reliably under immense pressure.

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“I always tried to carry on with that,” Nurse says. “I always think that the more you teach something, the better you learn it.”

These days, it’s a prerequisite for young NBA athletes to have a long-range shot in their arsenal. The NBA’s three-point boom is in its final reverberations, as this season all 30 teams are attempting at least 25 threes per game. Five years ago, only 10 clubs shot that often from distance. Three years before that, only one did. Three-pointers are no longer a feature of some teams’ offences — three-pointers are some teams’ offences.

Facilitators shoot threes. One-on-one ball-handlers shoot threes. Seven-footers shoot threes. And the Toronto Raptors aren’t only shooting threes better than anyone — they’re teaching young players to improve their long-range accuracy as well as anyone, too.

“That’s something that we really focus on,” says Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “Nurse is obviously a big proponent of shooting, studying shooting, and everything that entails. And he implements that to his staff.”

Through 13 games, the Raptors are tied with the Detroit Pistons for the league lead in three-point shooting at 40.5 per cent. Six Raptors — VanVleet, Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry, Terence Davis, OG Anunoby, and Matt Thomas — are shooting 39.5 per cent or better, putting them in the top-100 of a league in which more than 350 players are averaging 10 minutes or more per game. And among the 229 NBA players who’ve played at least five games and averaged two or more three-point attempts per night, Thomas (56.5 per cent) and Anunoby (53.2 per cent) are first and second in three-point percentage.

It’s still early, of course. These numbers will fluctuate as we get deeper into the season. Before Monday night’s win over the Charlotte Hornets, Nurse estimated that it takes about 25 games for NBA-wide data to normalize. But even if Toronto’s statistics return closer to earth, we’re still talking about one of the better three-point point shooting teams in the league.

How much of that is a credit to the Raptors identifying and adding strong shooters to their roster? Some of it. How much of it is due to a developmental approach that stresses constant improvement and is designed to help each individual player unlock their maximum potential as shooters? A lot more.

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Consider that VanVleet’s field goal percentage increased in each of his first three professional seasons, and that he’s shot 39.4 per cent from deep in the NBA after averaging 36 and 38 per cent in his final two seasons at Wichita State. Or how Pascal Siakam went from not having a three-point shot in college to averaging more than six attempts per game this season, hitting on 36.1 per cent of them. Then there’s Norman Powell, who turned a 31.4 per cent three-point rate in four years at UCLA into a 34.5 per cent rate over his first four NBA seasons.

“I think there are certainly mechanics that are beneficial. Learning how to shoot properly is one thing,” Nurse says. “And then it immediately shifts to the second thing, which is work. Training your body and training your muscles to deliver the ball every time. And then that leads to the ball going in a little more often. And then that leads to confidence. It’s a process.”

Part of that process for the Raptors is using data and video analysis to help players improve. The franchise utilizes the Noah shooting system, which uses sensors measuring shot arc and depth in real time, to give players instant feedback on how optimal their shot trajectories are. Toronto’s coaches also evaluate video after each game, looking for any shot path tendencies they may want to correct with a player.

Perhaps no Raptor has benefitted as much as Anunoby, who shot seldomly and inconsistently from three-point range as a college player, but so far this season — his third as a professional — has hit 25 of 47 attempts over his first 12 games.

“I always say you’ve got to have your feet ready, your hands ready, and in between your ears ready to shoot. And he’s worked on all of that,” Nurse said after Anunoby went 4-of-7 from distance Monday night against Charlotte. “I think all the guys that have been here for a little while — from Norman to Fred to Pascal to OG — have really improved as shooters. And when they vault up to shoot, I’m pretty confident that they’re going in. Credit to them for putting the work in.”

For Anunoby, the process started years ago in Bloomington, Indiana where he spent long, tedious days working on his shooting form with Indiana Hoosiers staff, simplifying his mechanics and eliminating a tendency to fade away on jumpers.

That work continued when he joined the Raptors in the summer and fall of 2017, at a time that he was still recovering from a torn ACL that submarined his draft stock and allowed Toronto to scoop him up late in the first round.

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The injury meant Anunoby couldn’t participate in much on-court activity with his new team, but he could continue refining his form. VanVleet remembers seeing Anunoby sequestered on a side court at the Raptors’ practice facility on a daily basis, taking shot after shot after shot.

“To see him go from there to now where he shoots it, and he’s shooting side-steps and pump-fake threes, and to see a game like [Monday] night where he got hot, it’s really good to see,” VanVleet says. “The most impressive thing I’ve seen from him this year is that he continues to put the work in each day, and you can see it pay off. That’s one of the few things in this where if you work on it, you can see direct results — fast.”

The results can come quickly, but not without the work. As with any motor skill, an individual won’t improve without training the movement pattern repeatedly over time. And to that end, self-motivation is crucial. Diligent coaching can only get an athlete so far — it’s inherent on players to be driven to advance themselves and commit to building that muscle memory.

“That’s one thing — if you don’t do anything else when you come in, if it’s a treatment day, or you don’t want to go hard on the court, you find time to shoot,” VanVleet says. “The players got to want to do it first. You’ve got to want to be better, you’ve got to want to be a better shooter, you’ve got to be coachable.”

And, of course, a jump shot is never a finished product. Just because players like VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, and Powell have come as far as they have doesn’t mean it’s over. There’s always a refinement to be found, a tweak to be made. As good as they are now, Nurse figures all of them will be even better by the time they’re established NBA veterans. He didn’t understand it when he was 15 and being forced to drill his shooting form off the wall of an Iowa high school gym. But he understands it now.

“Pascal, he shoots the ball pretty well. But he’s still probably 18 months or 24 months away from being really good,” Nurse says. “I think there are just some years that go into it in this league. We’ve seen a lot of guys come into this league, and then they’re 30 years old, and they’re unbelievable. They just keep getting better and better year after year because of the volume of reps and all those things that their bodies get used to.”

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