The Unorthodoxiness of the Lefty-Heavy Hornets

Being a left-handed basketball player isn’t nearly as pronounced a trait compared to other sports like baseball or football. Perhaps more a subtle abnormality than anything else, basketball action moves so quickly at times that most people don’t immediately recognize which hand a player is shooting with. 

Left-handers as a whole comprise about 10-12 percent of the world’s population and of the 538 NBA players who attempted at least one single shot last season, just 49 were lefties (9.1%), according to Stathead.com. If you filter that total to just players who logged 200+ minutes, that percentage rises slightly to roughly 9.6% (38-of-397).

The Hornets currently have four players on their 15-man roster who shoot the basketball with their left hand: Miles Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr., Vernon Carey Jr., and JT Thor. Only one other NBA team – the LA Clippers – appears to have more southpaw shooters, with Luke Kennard, Justise Winslow, Isaiah Hartenstein, Jay Scrubb and Amir Coffey (two-way player) all fitting the criteria.

It’s unlikely this was done intentionally by the Hornets, though, but perhaps, transpired simply by chance. But even so, what goes into being left-handed in basketball? Are their certain advantages and disadvantages like there are in other sports? And ultimately, do they matter?

“I’ve noticed that,” says Hornets Head Coach James Borrego, when asked about the topic. “We’ve got some lefties around here. They’re unorthodox, the lefties. The lefties I’ve coached are different. There have been some teams throughout the league that have had a lot. I think there was a Miami Heat team recently that had a lot of lefties. We don’t change a whole lot. I have to run some more stuff on that side of the ball. It’s a little bit stranger than dealing with the right-handers. Strange guys those lefties.”

The Heat squad Borrego references featured six lefties who appeared in 10+ games for the team during the 2014-15 season: Chris Bosh, Tyler Johnson, Goran Dragić, Michael Beasley, Zoran Dragić and Josh McRoberts. Since then, there’s been a steady stream of southpaws to South Beach including Beno Udrih (2015-16), Luke Babbitt (2016-18), Justise Winslow (2015-20), Derrick Jones Jr. (2017-20) and Kendrick Nunn (2019-21). There’s no definitive answer as to whether or not this has been a concerted effort for Miami, or purely coincidence. 

“We talk about left-handers all the time in our scouting report – a little more so which way guys like to drive,” Borrego explains. “Most lefties predominantly go left. I can’t say that for every lefty, but you have to account for that, especially on your closeouts. When you’re defending somebody, you have to know their tendencies. When you go into a scouting report, there’s a lot of right-handers that prefer to go left, as well. Every player is a little bit different. We do have a lot of lefties and a lot of them prefer certain directions.” 

Miles Bridges, whose 2,547 points through Nov. 8 ranks second on the franchise’s all-time left-handed scoring leaderboard behind only Anthony Mason (3,173), has a unique route to becoming a lefty shooter. “When I was little, I shot right-handed, but when I was six, I broke my right arm. That’s when I started shooting left-handed. It’s kind of been a blessing in disguise. I played baseball and threw with my right and in football, I threw with my right. I just never went back. I am ambidextrous. I can go right, I can go left. I can still shoot with my right hand a little bit, probably better than most people on the team,” he says jokingly. 

He also describes the subtle differences between defending right-handed players versus left-handed players. “With right-handed players, you want to get a left hand up and with left-handed players you want to get a right hand up. You have to remember that when you watch the scouting report and have to close out a certain way on me. Guys try not to foul me because I’m a left-handed shooter. So, yeah, I feel like lefties have an advantage.”

Technically, Bridges is considered cross-dominant or mixed-handedness, not ambidextrous. This means he favors one side for certain things (shooting) and the opposite side for other things (writing, eating, throwing, etc.). JT Thor is also a natural right-hander who shoots with his left. “It’s kind of confusing,” he says. “I like to use both hands. I don’t know how it really happened. Some days, I’ll start out working and see which hand is more comfortable. It’s kind of weird.”

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“That’s a tricky question because obviously, I’ve been left-handed my whole life,” adds Kelly Oubre Jr., when asked about the benefits of being left-handed. “I think it’s very unorthodox. All lefties are kind of unorthodox and we do things that don’t seem like they’re normal, but they work for us. I think it gives me an advantage by just being able to play on the opposite side of my defender. If he’s right-handed, I’m playing on a different side of his brain. That’s how I look at it. I actually kick with my right foot for kickball and stuff.”

As somebody who has been around the NBA for almost 20 years now, Borrego says more players today are capable of driving to the basket with either hand than in years past. “There used to be more dominance to one way or another and now, the skill level, skillsets and the player development has taken us to another level. Most guys, if they’re comfortable going right, the next season they come back going left. Our offseasons become so player-development driven that it’s tough to just sit on one guy’s tendencies.”

A May 2021 article by Ben Cohen in The Wall Street Journal identified LeBron James, Larry Bird, Russell Westbrook, Rudy Gobert, Gary Payton and Bill Walton as natural left-handers who shoot righty. A few years back, James spoke about how when he was growing up, he idolized right-handed shooters like Michael Jordan and Penny Hardaway and decided at some point to simply start emulating their shooting motions. 

James Harden is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer for lefties with over 22,000 career points, a record he snagged from David Robinson a couple seasons ago. Other active left-handed shooters include Mike Conley, Zion Williamson, Julius Randle, Ben Simmons, Joe Ingles, Domantas Sabonis, De’Aaron Fox, D’Angelo Russell and RJ Barrett. All-time, you’re looking at a list that features Chris Bosh, Manu Ginóbili, Toni Kukoč, Chris Mullin, Michael Redd, Zach Randolph, Isaiah Thomas and Bill Russell.

When it comes to other sports, hand dominance really does matter (or at the very least, is significantly impactful). Right now, there’s roughly 100 quarterbacks in the NFL and just one – Miami Dolphins starter Tua Tagovailoa – is left-handed. According to a Slate.com article by Nick Greene in Nov. 2020 which references ESPN, there have been just 33 left-handed quarterbacks in the league since 1950. Steve Young and Ken Stabler are the lone Hall-of-Famers and starting Super Bowl winners amongst this group.

There’s no clear-cut reason why this number has been so low in football, but there are some theories. Because the prevalence of lefties is so low in general, plays are generally designed for right-handed quarterbacks. Wide receivers also aren’t accustomed to catching passes thrown by left-handed quarterbacks, which spin in the opposite direction and sometimes come out at different angles based on what side of the field they’re being delivered from. 

Many of these lefty quarterbacks/throwers also gravitate towards baseball, which is statically safer and offers more pathways to playing time and future endeavors (see college scholarships and the professional ranks). Baseball managers like having a healthy balance of righty and lefty pitchers and in certain situations, steer towards using righty pitchers against righty batters and lefty pitchers against lefty batters. As a hitter, it’s harder to face somebody throwing from the same side because pitches are usually spinning away as opposed to coming towards the plate. 

According to a FiveThirtyEight.com article by Guy Molyneux and Phil Birnbaum from Aug. 2020, more than a quarter of MLB innings are thrown by left-handed pitchers, meaning lefty or switch hitters still have an advantage with the overall righty pitcher dominance (the left-handed batter’s box is also two feet closer to first base). So, with teams bringing more lefty hitters into the game to take advantage of this unbalance, pitching staffs have then retaliated by bringing on even more lefty pitchers. Call it a literal arms race, if you will. 

There’s a disproportionate number of southpaws in hockey too, with an estimated two-thirds of NHL players shooting from the left side, per PureHockey.com. This might be a cultural abnormality more than anything with how many Canadians and Europeans are in the league. One thought is that players in these regions dive into the sport at a much younger age than Americans and naturally, tend to first pick up the top of a hockey stick with their dominant (usually right) hand. Their left hand then becomes the one guiding the stick.

Now back to the hardwood. Per BasketballReference.com, lefty-shooters attempted 18,856 shots last season and connected on 9,080 of them for a field-goal percentage of 48.2%. Righties made 79,771 of 171,801 attempts, good for an efficiency of 46.4%. Across the NBA’s last five seasons from 2016-21, southpaws shot 46.5% from the field (44,754 for 96,184; 88 total players), while their counterparts clocked in at 46.0% (424,322 for 922,257; 865 players). 

Very rarely has an NBA player ever switched shooting hands after making it to the league. The most well-known example is now Sacramento Kings center Tristan Thompson, a former left-handed shooter who made the pivot in the 2013 offseason while playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thompson’s free-throw percentage actually rose from 60.1% to a still career-high 69.3% between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, although for the most part, jump shooting never became a major component of his game.

So, what conclusions can we draw on this topic, if any? There does seem to be a natural advantage to being a left-handed shooter in the NBA as it forces opposing defenders to closeout leading with the side they’re not usually accustomed to. Players who possess some level of cross-dominance probably have some advantage when it comes to ball-handling, driving and passing, as opposed to those who exclusively grew up favoring one side. 

Overall though, being a left-handed shooter seems to have less influence on game strategy than in football, baseball or maybe even hockey. But just like any sport, basketball games can come down to the narrowest of margins at times – inches, seconds, one possession, whatever – so even the slightest, tiniest of advantages can sometimes make all the difference.