It begins with a ball and a hoop. Many started out hoisting jumpers from their childhood driveway. Others shot around at the park down the street.
For all who play the game of basketball and aspire to someday be an NBA player, an extraordinary amount of talent and hard work is required. Possessing the ability to shoot certainly doesn’t hurt either.
But what exactly goes into being an elite shooter? Four members of the Bulls organization—one executive/former player, two veterans and one rookie—share their experiences, discussing the paths they took and what went into their respective journeys.
In the beginning...
Every player has his or her own story and memories surrounding their early encounters with the sport.
For John Paxson, the team’s executive vice president of business operations, that meant shooting at a hoop his father, Jim Paxson, Sr., constructed on the side of their home in western Ohio.
“My brothers and I spent so much time out there that it got to the point where paint was literally chipping off the side of the house,” Paxson recalls. “So my dad put a standing hoop off the driveway. That’s where I learned to play and to shoot.”
Basketball ran in Paxson’s family, as John’s father played collegiately at Dayton. He was then selected third overall in the 1956 NBA Draft by the Minneapolis Lakers, one spot behind the legendary Bill Russell. After two seasons in the NBA, however, Jim Sr. walked away from the game to provide for his family, taking over his father-in-law’s insurance company.
Though he wasn’t an overly hands on presence with his boys, Jim Sr. regularly observed them playing and working on their game and one day he took a ten-year old John across the state line to Richmond, Indiana. It was there he met with Dick Baumgartner, a well-known shooting coach who with over 50 years of experience still conducts camps to this day.
“It was one of the first times I can remember thinking about shooting as something more than just picking up the ball and putting your hands on it,” says Paxson. “It really triggered something in my mind, learning how my hands should be placed and why. That’s how it went for me.”
When asked about his early experiences, Bulls guard Aaron Brooks is quick to refer to one of his greatest assets as a player.
“I was always fast,” notes Brooks. “When I was younger, I just went by people. I remember my cousin, Marcus, was the best shooter on our team when I was in third or fourth grade. He made me want to get a little better and work on my shot.”
Eventually Brooks got bigger and stronger. He realized he was a pretty good shooter too.
“I remember when I first started shooting, my follow-through was crossed and I didn’t have enough strength to get to the rim,” Brooks says. “As I got older and stronger and I worked more on my jumper. I started to get a little more lift to my shot. Everything got better.”
Brooks regularly worked with his uncle, who also served as one of his AAU coaches. He advised Aaron to simply get the ball over the front of the rim.
“I had a little hot shot machine and that helped a little bit too,” Brooks says with a smile.
The paths for Doug McDermott and Mike Dunleavy were perhaps a little more predetermined. Both grew up with fathers who coached the game at a high level, McDermott’s in Division I and Dunleavy’s in the NBA.
Though he’s settled in nicely at Creighton in recent years, Greg McDermott held coaching positions with five different schools previously and that meant a lot of moving around for his family.
Doug was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota when Greg was an assistant for North Dakota. Head coaching jobs followed at Wayne State, North Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Iowa State. Along the way, he imparted his wisdom of the game on his son, including the fundamentals of shooting.
“I pretty much grew up with the game,” says Doug. “I was at my dad’s practices all the time watching. I remember watching the other kids try and jack up threes. They really threw their whole body into it but my dad would never let me do that. He wouldn’t let me move too far back until I could shoot it from waist up. I guess I’ve always had a knack for shooting. It’s something that came naturally as I grew.”
Whereas in later years Mike Dunleavy Sr. would coach for four NBA teams, when his son Mike Jr. was born in 1980, he was still in the middle of his playing career as a shooting guard for the Houston Rockets.
“I was fortunate growing up to have a dad who was an NBA player and coach,” says Mike Jr. “He was a successful shooter in the NBA and someone who could show me, teach me and really help me with the proper technique and form.
“I had an idea at an early age I could be pretty good,” adds Mike Jr. “Some of it was natural hand and eye coordination. Once I started to get the right technique and form down, I got pretty good at it.”
Like McDermott, Dunleavy was a regular at his father’s practices. And like most shooters, he spent a lot of time in the gym with the ball in his hands. While he appreciates his father’s teachings, Mike Sr. never pushed too hard. He let the game come to his son.
“He let me come and go as I pleased and fortunately, I fell in love with the game,” recalls Mike Jr. “He was so involved and he loved it, too, so basketball was something we shared. He would often suggest things or give me hints, but I never felt pressured to play basketball from my dad.”
One way or another, for Paxson, Brooks, McDermott and Dunleavy, the foundation was laid at an early age. With the fundamentals in place and a love of the game in their hearts, the next step was to take basketball more seriously.
Fine-tuning their shots by putting in the work
As they grew, they also became students of the game. Each learned in their own way, but all at times focused on players who they tried to emulate.
Paxson kept a close eye on Notre Dame’s Austin Carr and Purdue’s Rick Mount. Dunleavy studied Chris Mullin and Mark Price. Brooks paid attention to various West Coast players, Dunleavy included, and others from his hometown Seattle, such as Jamal Crawford. McDermott’s grandpa is a huge Celtics fan, so he loved old Larry Bird highlights, as well as Ray Allen.
Ultimately though, each player knew that if they were to have aspirations of taking their game to the level of those they admired, it meant putting in the work. And that meant shooting, followed by shooting, and then more shooting.
“I remember counting, but I focused more on makes as opposed to counting shots,” says Paxson. “I had to make a certain number. Back then, a lot of it was done by myself. I didn’t have someone there to rebound for me all the time so a lot of what I did was to shoot and then chase it down.”
Not everyone counts, however.
“I don’t put a specific number on it when I go to the gym,” says McDermott. “I go off feel and I usually have a pretty good idea where I’m at when I leave. I shot as much as I could in high school. You’d try to get up 500 or 1,000 shots. In college, it was more off of feel and that ended up working out really well so I continued that and brought it here.”
“You may count makes in a drill, but over the course of how long I work out, I don’t really count how many shots I take or make,” explains Dunleavy. “I’m worried about the quality. I can get in the gym for a half hour and shoot really quality shots, get a great workout in and improve as a shooter. It’s never really been about the number of shots for me; it’s about the quality of shots.”
Brooks doesn’t want to reveal the secrets of his success, at least as they pertain to his workouts, but he does admit they have changed drastically over the years. Whereas before, he was like so many others in putting up countless shots, he now focuses more on resting his legs in the offseason and places a greater emphasis on set shots rather than off the dribble movements.
Of course, no matter how many hours are spent in the gym, it’s impossible to simulate live game action. Still, as Paxson believes, with preparation comes success.
“There is nothing that beats being in the gym,” states Paxson. “It’s a mental thing and a confidence thing when you can draw on the fact that you’ve worked hard. If you know you’re working harder than the next guy, that’s going to put you in a position to succeed. Spending time shooting is something that transfers to the game and it gives you confidence when you know you’ve been working on it.”
“I think it comes down to having a feel for the ball,” explains Brooks. “Even if you’re not in a rhythm, if you shoot enough, mentally you get that distance down from the three-point line to the rim. So when you get in the game, you might jump a little higher, but the distance is the same.”
“It’s hard to envision, but that’s something you’ve got to do as a shooter,” says McDermott. “Spot up shooting when you’re getting a bunch of reps up, it’s almost not good for you because you aren’t used to that when it’s a game and you’re running to fire one up. With the length and athleticism of NBA defenders, it’s hard to envision and anticipate.”
“In a practice or workout setting, you can go out and shoot ten or twenty in a row and get in a rhythm and make shots,” notes Dunleavy. “In a game, you only get that one shot and if you’re lucky, you’ll shoot five or six in a quarter. So it’s a challenge. You sit on the bench, the coach calls your number, and you’ve got to come in and make a shot. Those things are hard to practice, but that’s where you rely on your form and technique.”
Preparing for the moment every shooter dreams about
Basketball, of course, is a team sport. As Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau likes to say, “It’s a five-man offense and a five-man defense.”
Individuals and the plays they make, however, are often remembered when team success is enjoyed as a result.
It’s a vision practically all players have at some point, but very few are fortunate enough to experience it. Paxson is among that select group.
“Anyone who shot around in their driveway when they were younger dreamed of the moment where they hit a shot to win a championship,” says Paxson.
A three-time NBA World Champion, it was Paxson who connected on a three as the Bulls finished off the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals. Shots simply don’t come any bigger than that one.
Though it was hardly the first time Paxson had made important baskets. The six-foot-two, 185 pound guard shot 65 percent as Chicago claimed its first title in 1991. In the series-clinching Game 5, Paxson connected on multiple jumpers down the stretch and finished with 20 points.
While it’s tough to compare with Paxson’s clutch shooting in the NBA Finals, Brooks, McDermott and Dunleavy have also had their moments.
As a senior at Oregon, Brooks knocked down a baseline jumper to give his team an upset win over top-ranked UCLA.
As a sophomore in 2001, Dunleavy tallied 18 of his team-high 21 points in the second half and drilled five-of-nine from behind the arc as his Duke Blue Devils knocked off Arizona for the NCAA Championship.
Most recently, in 2013, McDermott recorded his 3,000th point by nailing a three in a game played on Creighton’s senior night. That evening, McDermott finished with 45 points and passed Oscar Robertson on the all-time NCAA scoring list, where he would eventually finish fifth.
Key attributes to becoming a great shooter
Whether it’s a former player like Paxson, veterans like Brooks and Dunleavy, or a rookie like McDermott, all have experienced more on the basketball court than most of us could ever imagine.
While their natural talents and abilities were crucial in making some of their hoop dreams a reality, none of it would have been possible without hard work and a commitment to the sport.
Though their journeys, experiences and shooting styles may differ, when you ask each one about what it takes to become an elite shooter, you’ll hear a lot of the same rhetoric, words like confidence, repetition and consistency.
“You have to have great confidence in yourself. That’s a huge thing,” stresses Paxson. “You’ve got to believe that even if you miss a few, your next one is going in. Shooting really is very basic. You’ve got to have good fundamentals and a good base. You need good balance and your mechanics in terms of bringing the ball up and releasing it have to be fluid. I think the best shooters have the simplest shots.”
“I think it comes down to having good form and repetition,” says Brooks. “Some people are picky about how you should shoot, but everybody’s form is going to be different. As long as you’re consistent and have confidence in your shot, you’ll be OK.”
“To be a great shooter, first off, shot selection is important,” Dunleavy believes. “If you’re going to go out there and jack up bad shots, it’s going to be tough to shoot a good percentage. Consistency with your form and your shot is key. You’ve got to shoot the same way every time. If you repeatedly do that, it doesn’t matter. Reggie Miller had a funky form, but he did it consistently every time and it translated into a lot of makes.”
“It takes a lot of time and effort,” notes McDermott. “You’ve got to put a lot of work in and it’s not just on the floor. It’s studying other players and a lot of visualization. Putting the work in off the court can carryover too. Confidence is everything. Repetition and starting at a young age are both important. You don’t want to start too far away from the hoop though. Start out nice and easy and work your way out.”