Andre Drummond finds outside-the-box path to help become a better foul shooter

Andre Drummond has turned to virtual reality technology to assist his quest to become a better free-throw shooter.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Technology once so exclusively pricey it was largely available only to the United States military might play a critical role in the success of the 2016-17 Detroit Pistons.

And if you had any doubts about whether Stan Van Gundy was a hidebound basketball traditionalist or embracing of every new idea possible to advance the franchise’s progress, this story ought to settle the debate.

The avenue Van Gundy and Andre Drummond chose to remedy the free-throw woes that saw Drummond shoot 35 percent last season and limit Van Gundy’s ability to use him late in closely contested games – exactly the type the Pistons expect to be playing more often as they solidify themselves as an upper-echelon NBA team – is … drum roll … virtual reality.

“I’ve been doing it three times every week. I have a system (at the team’s Auburn Hills practice facility) and I have one at my house, too,” Drummond said. “So every day after practice, I’ll go home or watch it here.”

Drummond puts on a headset and watches himself making free throws. He can choose a first-person view, where he hears the basketball hitting the court as he dribbles, then sees the ball go over his head, up and into the hoop. Or he can choose third-person perspectives and watch his technique from various angles.

“They’re all makes, obviously, so it’s constantly watching myself shoot the same shot, over and over again, and now while I’m out there it’s second nature. I know I’m not going to be able to make every shot and that’s one thing I really had to tell myself. But the more I shoot the same shot, the better chance of making it.”

Van Gundy said after last season that he, along with his front-office staff, would explore multiple possible methods of dealing with Drummond’s free-throw issues that led opposing coaches to the use of intentional fouling tactics. In the most extreme case, Houston interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff last season had little-used K.J. McDaniels foul Drummond five times in the first nine seconds of the third quarter.

The NBA did relatively little to address the issue over the off-season despite commissioner Adam Silver’s stated intentions to help scrub the practice from the game. The most consequential step taken was extending the practice of awarding one shot and possession for fouls off the ball from the last two minutes of the fourth quarter to all four quarters.

Drummond admits he had to cross a mental barrier to become open to the idea that something as outside the box as virtual reality could be the answer to his issues at the line. He often worked out under the supervision of assistant coaches Malik Allen and Aaron Gray in California as he struggled to become comfortable with the foreign technology.

“You can ask Malik or Aaron. The first couple of days or weeks, it was hell for me,” Drummond grinned. “It was hard. I was doing something new. I’ve never done virtual reality in my life and to really accept the fact that I needed help with that part of my game was tough just to give in. When I finally gave in to training my brain to focus on one thing, it kind of worked out for me.”

The company whose technology the Pistons and Drummond discovered is STRIVR, co-founded by a former Stanford placekicker, Derek Belch. While a Stanford undergrad, he took a course in virtual reality taught by one of the world’s foremost authorities, Jeremy Bailenson.

When Belch asked his professor about potential sports applications, he learned the technology was far too expensive for such uses at the time. A decade later, after Belch had earned a master’s degree, he renewed his appeal to Bailenson. Technology having evolved to the point it could be made more widely available, a company – and perhaps a movement – was launched.

Stanford’s football program has already benefited. Place-kicker Conrad Ukropina, after struggling early in his career, became a devotee last season and wound up a finalist for the Lou Groza Award given to the nation’s top kicker. He hit a 45-yarder to beat Notre Dame in last year’s season finale.

STRIVR’s website lists five NFL teams and nine college programs as clients. It’s unclear if any other NBA teams are currently using STRIVR technology. If Drummond shows progress at the free-throw line this season, you can bet other NBA teams will follow suit.

And Drummond is confident he’ll show progress. It’s not likely he’s going to become a 70 percent foul shooter overnight, or even a 50 percent shooter, necessarily. But he’s already seen enough progress that he’s a believer in the technology’s potential and will continue to apply it throughout the season.

“I’ve found something that keeps me calm,” he said. “Even if I do miss a shot, I found something to keep me calm and not get myself rattled. Once I missed one, I’d tense up and I’d miss the next one, too. So I found a peace within myself. Even if I do miss a shot, I’m going to be comfortable to get back up there and shoot the same shot again. Make or miss, I’m not going to be frustrated but move on to the next play.”