CHICAGO – There were times, Dallas Mavericks center DeAndre Jordan admits, when he would get fouled as he shot or attacked the rim and pray that the ball dropped through.
Not for the points as much as to avoid embarrassment.
“At times,” Jordan said Monday of what understandably became an aversion to shooting free throws, “I would try to make sure I made the [basket for an] ‘and-one’ so I would only have to shoot one free throw.”
The fewer the better for a player who shot a miserable 44.6 percent from the line over his first 10 seasons.
Now, though, Jordan is cavorting through the league with the swagger of converting at 81.3 percent. That represents an 83 percent increase in his accuracy, this year over career. It’s more of a breakthrough than an improvement, the sort of new trick old dogs aren’t supposed to learn. But there it is: 39 of 48, Dallas’ team leader in free throw percentage.
“I’m not afraid of going there,” Jordan said. “Yeah, I don’t shy away from the line anymore.”
Nor should he. Jordan, through the Mavericks’ first 13 games, looks to be cancelling his membership in the exclusive NBA club of elite big men who have struggled at the line. From Wilt Chamberlain in the 1960s and ‘70s to Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard, some of the most physically imposing players in league annals have been bedeviled when everything is still, no one is guarding them and the rim is staring back from 15 feet away.
Generally, those giant talents were consistent in their misfires. O’Neal, for instance, shot 52.7 percent from the line in his career and never better in a single season than 62.2. For Howard, the respective numbers are 56.6 and 67.1. That level of reliable unreliability was what emboldened rival coaches to deploy their “hack-a-(take your pick),” catch-up strategies, grinding games to a halt by intentionally sending deficient bigs to the line.
Jordan’s leap from 44.6 for his career to 81.3 in 2018-19 belongs to a special category. Not just mathematically but historically.
“A lot of people would never have believed it would be possible for him to make this kind of turnaround,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in the NBA in my 34 years.”
I’m not afraid of going there. Yeah, I don’t shy away from the line anymore.”
Said Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg: “We’ve used that strategy in the past, but the way he’s shooting the ball, he’s one of the better free-throw shooters. It looks pretty good leaving his hand right now.”
Given how well Jordan has shot them this season, his 0-for-2 night against the Bulls Monday qualified as man-bites-dog news. And Dallas assistant Jamahl Mosley was quick to defend his team’s center, saying he saw no backslide at all in Jordan’s form.
Mosley should know. He’s the coach who spend the most time with Jordan in and after practices, and before games, grooving his lefthanded free-throw stroke through repetition and drills. Carlisle had a few suggestions for Jordan’s mechanics over the summer and Dallas has a new shooting coach in Peter Patton. But interestingly, it’s the club’s defensive coordinator who has polished and sharpened this particular offensive threat.
Mosley, who worked with Denver and Cleveland before landing with the Mavs in 2014, had known Jordan for years. So when the free agent signed a one-year, $22.9 million deal in July, Mosley was the one who took him on as a pet project.
“The way his form is, the way he shoots it, the way he structures it, the way Rick has talked to him about some things, I think it’s the process of it,” Mosley said. “It’s literally focusing on that every single step.
“We keep reiterating what we know he is: He’s a good free throw shooter. In his mind and my mind and [Carlisle’s] mind, he’s a good free throw shooter. The more you reiterate that, the better vs. the other [negative] side of it.”
When the Mavericks’ shootaround opened to the media Monday morning at United Center, Jordan was at the foul line on the arena’s east end. He drained five in a row. Then he worked his way to the west end, waiting momentarily as backup center Salah Mejri – who made 58.4 percent (101 of 173) in his first three seasons but has yet to shoot a free throw this season – finished up.
Jordan gave Mejri a smack on the rump as encouragement, then took his place. One make, one miss, one make … and then, as if synchronized to Jordan’s fourth shot, a flurry of a half-dozen basketballs from various shooters crashed down on the rim at once, each blocking the next. Jordan looked peeved, holding his arms out in a “What the (expletive)” gesture.
“It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in the NBA in my 34 years.”
A maestro whose work was interrupted. He sank his next four.
“He’s always had a good touch,” Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki said. “It was never completely broke. I don't know, a lot of this league is confidence. I don’t see anything different. He still keeps the ball really high. Now he’s putting it all together. Maybe a change of scenery?”
Jordan is delighted to be in Dallas -- three years after he accepted, waffled and bailed on the Mavericks in a free-agency dry run. And the Mavs feel the same about him. “He’s a charismatic guy who’s doing everything possible to try to bring our team together,” Carlisle said.
Jordan’s presence in the paint and at the rim has cleaned up problems for Dallas near the basket. He is averaging 13.7 rebounds, while Dallas ranks fourth both in defensive rebound percentage (75.4) and fewest paint-points allowed (43.8).
That makes his foul shooting a happy bonus.
“A lot of it’s muscle memory,” Jordan explained at the morning shootaround. Frequently, he as tried to avoid the topic in interviews, lest he jinx the work he’s done or stop doing it. But he shared a bit Monday.
“I got a lot of reps up this summer,” he said. “I’ve got a routine that I love and that I’m comfortable with. But I also think it’s mental because a guy can come out here and shoot 85, 90 percent in practice. But then in a game, it’s a different situation, different pressure. To shoot that way, it confuses people.”
That’s the legend of O’Neal, who was said to excel from the line in an empty practice gym, then sputter when he the smelled popcorn on game night.
“Right. It’s a different energy, man,” Jordan said. “It’s pressure -- we all love that pressure, but it is a little pressure. It’s fatigue. It’s 20,000 people in the stands, too. So I think it’s more so mental. You get into your own head about it.”
Jordan took a moment to defend the Diesel, by the way. “Shaq made ‘em in clutch moments,” he said. “I guess, in clutch moments, your mind kind of locks back in and you fall back into your mechanics and the basics. But I know I got a lot of reps in this summer.”
Curiously, Jordan’s field-goal proficiency is at the other end of the spectrum. By virtue of ranking among the NBA’s top three in dunks in each of the past eight seasons, his 67.2 career shooting percentage is the best in NBA history. (He led the league for five straight seasons, including three in a row above 70 percent.)
Throwing down dunks, though, is different from draining free throws. Jordan seems to have his feet better aligned at the line, his left toe a few inches ahead of his right. He makes sure to release the ball high and drills for that in warm-ups, launching it almost straight up and only a few feet in front of him, just to focus on his arc.
There’s a little trigger mechanism he’s been using, too, verbally checking his rebounders along the lane. Then he dribbles twice and only twice, before firing.
“Where his percentage is right now, I think that’s what he is,” Mosley said.
Then who was that guy from even one year ago?
“That was more a case of looking at not the process but the end result,” Mosley said. “When you start to focus on the end result, good, bad or indifferent, you can start thinking, ‘Oh, if I miss…’ Or ‘If I make…’ versus doing the exact same thing, every single time.”
For Jordan – a one-time All-Star, two-time all-defense selection and three-time all-NBA pick at center – there’s a new satisfaction to seeing the looks he gets now from opponents lined along the lane. “Hey, what’s going on?” more than a few have said to him, as his free throws swished.
“Everything takes time,” Jordan said. “Which I’m fine with. It’s something where you never want to be content with or be complacent, you always want to get better.”
This hasn’t been incremental, though, a mild dialing-up. This has been a bust-out.
“That’s the nature of the beast,” Jordan said. “You want a breakthrough, but then you want to keep going. We’re never satisfied with where we are as players.”
Hard to argue, since Jordan never has quite been here before.
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