Editor’s note: This column was updated on Monday morning at 10:30 a.m. ET.
TORONTO — When it comes to representing his country, Tristan Thompson is determined to do things the right way.
The burgeoning Canadian NBA star, a left-handed shooter for his entire basketball career, has decided to use his right hand to shoot jump shots and free throws.
The unusual – perhaps historic – switch has been months in the planning but had its competitive debut this past weekend in a pair of Canadian wins over Jamaica in exhibition play in advance of the 2013 FIBA Americas tournament Aug. 30th – Sept. 11th in Caracas Venezuela.
So far, so good. After a less-than-ideal start in the win Thursday night – Thompson was just 2-of-9 from the floor and missed both of his free throws – on Saturday night things couldn’t have gone much better.
He hit his opening shot of the game – a pull-up jumper driving right into the lane – and knocked down all four of his free throws, including a pressure pair in the final two minutes as Canada rallied back from a 17-point hole to win 77-72.
Thompson was player of the game as he finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds on 6-of-11 shooting.
“I think it’s the first time ever in NBA history,” Thompson said of the change, and he may be right.
Jerry Colangelo, executive director of USA Basketball has been affiliated with the NBA since the mid-1960s and has seen everything the modern game has to offer, seemingly. Does he know of an NBA player switching his shooting hand mid-career?
“No,” he said flatly when I asked him. “There are a lot of players who work hard so they can finish equally well with both hands, but as far as changing the hands they shoot with? I’ve never heard of that. That’s 1-in-1000 right there.”
He’s naturally almost perfectly “multi-handed” if not purely ambidextrous. He grew up shooting with his left-hand and driving the ball predominantly to his left, but he throws a baseball with his right hand. He writes left-handed but brushes his teeth with his right hand.
“I’m all messed up,” Thompson joked. “I’m still trying to figure myself out.”
About 90 per cent of the population is predominantly right-handed and about 10 per cent identify as left-handed, but there are a small sliver of people who are “multi-handed,” while only about one per cent of the population is considered ambidextrous – able to use either hand equally well.
For Thompson, the decision to switch reflects his commitment to improvement. The 6-foot-9 forward had a breakout second season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, averaging 11.7 points and 9.4 rebounds and finishing 16th in the NBA in double-doubles and seventh among power forwards, but being able to shoot from the perimeter more efficiently combined with his quickness and ball-handling would bring an entirely new dimension to his game.
“I know I could keep doing what I’m doing (shooting left-handed) and have a good career and make a lot of money,” he said. “But I don’t want to be good, I want to be great.”
He converted 49 per cent of his 799 shot attempts last season, 13th among power forwards, but for Thompson the measuring stick is not the shots he made but rather the shots he never took.
More than 70 per cent of his attempts were inside 10 feet, where he converted a rate of 56 per cent on tip-ins, dunks, put-backs and a variety of other shots. The issue for Thompson is that he only took 84 shots from outside 10 feet and just 51 from outside 16 feet.
In other words, once Thompson was anywhere on the floor just outside the distance of the free throw line, he basically wouldn’t shoot, allowing defenders the luxury of sagging back to the paint and mitigating his ability to drive the basket – one of his strengths — or leaving him to double-team the ball, bogging down the Cavaliers attack.
Thompson decided it was time to do something about it. He’d always been effective around the basket finishing with both hands and had even shot a few jumpers right-handed, if unconsciously. And while he’d put a lot of time into developing his left-handed jumper – one measure is his free-throw shooting, which improved from 42 per cent in his last year of college to a verging on respectable 60 per cent last season – but wasn’t happy with the results or the feel.
“I was in Phoenix (last November) and I just started shooting right-handed and got a lot of compliments on it,” Thompson said this week while in training camp with the Canadian national team.
“A week later when we got back to Cleveland and got one of the ball-boys to record me and I shot 100 jumpers with my left and 100 with my right and it was significantly better with my right-hand. There was just a better flow to it with my right, it looked smoother.”
It took him a while to make up his mind to make the leap.
“At first I didn’t want to do it. I got to the NBA shooting right-handed, but then I thought about it and at the end of the day I want to be the best player I can be for the Cavaliers and the best player I can be for myself and if that takes me making an adjustment in my jump shot or anything else, why not make that switch?”
The Cavaliers are behind him whole-heartedly and have helped implement a formal plan that is about four months in.
“Those decisions lie with the player, but during the season last year, pretty much all of his shots were right-handed, particularly in the paint, but even further out, and he had a tremendous amount of success,” Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant said.
“But this summer he’s made a decision and we support him 100 per cent to make the switch and shoot right-handed on a regular basis and he’s had success.”
The Cavaliers have hired Dave Love, a shooting coach from Calgary who learned from the highly-respected Chip Engelland. Love was a ballboy with the Calgary 88s when Engelland was a player and eventually followed him into the trade. Engelland is currently an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs and widely credited with successfully revamping Spurs star Tony Parker’s shot.
Love and Thompson have been working together daily to master his new shot. Love has been in Toronto during the national team camp and working with Thompson in the afternoons after practices that have often run three hours.
“Tristan’s the kind of guy that will have success because his work ethic is off the charts,” Grant said. “He’s very, very diligent about it. From our standpoint we believe in him so much as a person — he’s exactly what we want our team to be about — it was a pretty easy decision. He came to us and said he wanted to do this and we helped him lay out a plan to make it happen. We laid out benchmarks for him and he surpassed them very quickly.”
Which doesn’t mean success will come easily. In his first ‘right-handed’ game Thompson was his typical active self, leading both teams with eight rebounds in his 24 minutes, while adding a pair of assists, a pair of steals and a pair of blocks. But both his baskets were at the rim; he missed seven other shots including a few open jumpers in the 10-to-16 foot range – exactly the area he’s targeting to improve.
He’s been shooting the ball effectively in scrimmages – he has a nice, strong move to the middle with his right hand that ends in a slightly fading pull-up that long-armed Joel Anthony of the Miami Heat hasn’t been able to get to – the next step will be transferring that confidence into competition. He showed signs on Saturday night and is determined to stick with it.
“The first month was all 10-feet and in – footwork, balance, making sure the ball comes out right – I only started game shots and pick and pops recently. We still have a long way to go but the process is going good,” Thompson said.
“But (in games) if I’m open I’ll shoot it. I don’t want to do too much and take shots I’m not ready to take – so you won’t see a between-the-legs pull up from me — but if I’m open in the corner, open at the elbow I’m going to take it.”
After all, Tristan Thompson likes to do things the right way.