Not only is Josh being taught to shoot more, people are encouraging it. Bonus: Josh's motivation is making an All-Star team.
This story appears in the Feb. 7, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The term "extreme makeovers" is supposed to be reserved for decrepit houses and people suffering from midlife crises. Rarely does it apply to seasoned NBA vets like Josh Smith, Al Jefferson and Richard Jefferson. Smith and Al Jefferson are both in their seventh seasons; Richard Jefferson is in his 10th. After that many years, conventional NBA wisdom says there are no surprises about what players can do or how well they do it. Yet all three are posting double-digit percentage increases in a key facet of their games.
Nowhere is the surge more surprising than in Atlanta. Smith, the same J-Smoove who abandoned the three ball last season when he attempted -- and missed -- just seven shots, is now among the best three-point shooting power forwards in the Eastern Conference. Making 36.9 percent of his treys, Smith is shooting better than such feared marksmen as Danilo Gallinari and Rashard Lewis. Meanwhile, Al Jefferson was traded from lowly Minnesota to Utah last summer, and the career 70 percent free throw shooter is suddenly up 10 percent.
Then there's the Spurs' Jefferson, whose remodeling job is more subtle but actually more profound. For his first nine pro seasons, Jefferson was an off-the-dribble slashing wing, athletic and skilled enough to be a regular contributor on two Nets teams that went to the NBA Finals.
But none of that mattered when San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich sat Jefferson down after last season for what other Spurs call "The Big Talk." This is when Coach gets real about how a player's game needs to improve to really help the Spurs. Pop told RJ he had to trash his habit of setting up his shot with ballhandling. The offense runs through Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker or Tim Duncan, leaving little time for him to be creative. If Jefferson was going to score, it had to be as soon as the ball hit his hands or off one quick pivot. That meant everything from the release point on his shot to the way he moved around the court had to change.
First, shooting coach Chip Engelland shifted Jefferson's release from above his head to out in front. Then Popovich and assistant coach Chad Forcier drilled the following into him: stay low, knees bent at all times, always be ready to fire.
"Yeah, I had my concerns," says Jefferson. "My old way was 10 years in the making. What they were asking was simple but something I'd never done. But my competitiveness took over."
Synergy Sports Technology, a company that provides analytics to NBA teams, says Jefferson's efficiency rating for no-dribble catch-and-shoot scoring has gone from "average" to "excellent": 76.3 percent of his points scored, compared with 63.9 percent last season.
For the Jazz's Jefferson, it wasn't about changing his form, it was about letting it take over. Last summer, before the Timberwolves traded him, assistant coach Dave Wohl, who also had been with Jefferson in Boston, finally unlocked the mystery of why a player with such solid free throw shooting form, a kid who shot 90 percent in high school, was so bad from the line. The answer: He needed to stop thinking.
As a 2004 prep-to-pro draftee Jefferson's learning curve was steep. And big things were expected of him from undermanned teams, first in Boston and then in Minnesota. Rather than let things flow at the line, his mind drifted to all of his postrelease responsibilities. His percentage suffered.
Wohl and Jefferson developed a remedy. Count to eight on every shot attempt to focus on the task at hand. Five dribbles, five seconds. At six the ball is rising, at eight he's letting it go. Jefferson made 36 in a row in a workout the first day and 35 in a row the second. With his mind clear and his burden shared, his top fear now is complacency. "When you hit so many in a row, you get cocky and start backsliding," Jefferson says. "I have to be consistent with it."
For Smith, the transformation required both a technical and mental shift. He thought abandoning the three to focus on shotblocking and rebounding would be his ticket to the 2010 All-Star Game. Instead, all he got was runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year and an uneven game. Enter Idan Ravin, the personal trainer known as the Hoops Whisperer for his unorthodox drills and positive reinforcement. In a two-week session prior to the season, Ravin, who has worked with Chris Paul and Elton Brand, straightened out Smith's lefty stroke so that the ball rises in a perfect vertical line instead of being brought over from the right side of his body. He also patched the hole in Smith's psyche with texts containing affirmations such as "You don't need their approval, so stop looking in their direction."
"Instant results," Smith says. "More than anything, he gave me confidence in myself." He needs it. Even now, Hawks' fans groan when he readies a three. Which is understandable. Such transformations aren't supposed to happen.