Mastering his craft: Even after 16 years in the NBA, Kyle Korver is still in search of the perfect shot

by Aaron Falk

There are 30 miles of open ocean between Channel Islands National Park and the coast of Santa Barbara. It felt impossibly far to him. To get there, he would have to overcome the distance and fatigue, the crashing waves, and his own inexperience. Kyle Korver had only been on a paddleboard three times before.

But that—all of that—was the point.

Misogi is an ancient Japanese ritual that, in its modern form, has become a quest to push the mind or body to extreme limits, and each offseason Korver undertakes a new challenge.

The paddleboard voyage was his first.

“You don’t think you’re going to make it,” Korver said.

But then, as he does, Korver got lost in the details. He thought about how he was holding the paddle. He thought about the position of his feet, how if he turned them out a bit more he would balance better. He thought how best to engage his core, the placement of the paddle in the water.

“You just become so focused on trying to create this perfect stroke that you forget about the land you’re trying to get to,” he said. “It’s so far away that if you focus on it, it’s this daunting task. But if you get lost in trying to make this perfect stroke, before you know it you’re actually getting somewhere.”

Korver now takes that same meticulous approach to perfecting one of basketball’s best shots.

“I’ve really tried to break down all of the details,” he said. “What are my fingertips doing? How am I catching the ball? What am I doing after I catch it? All these things that I never really thought about before, I put that [misogi] into practice and it’s created a lot of tinkering with my shot. I think it’s made me better. It’s definitely kept me engaged.”

So even now, after 16 seasons in the NBA, the Utah Jazz’s sharpest shooter is still striving for perfection.

The 10-Year Challenge 

Korver settles into one of the chairs in the film room at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus. When Korver first arrived in Salt Lake City a decade ago, the film room was very different—larger and more impersonal, home to a number of VCRs that Jerry Sloan and his staff tended to use only seldom.

Korver’s hairstyle and fashion sense were different.

“Look at those terrible shoes,” the 37-year-old says and chuckles as a highlight of his 27-year-old self plays on the screen.

Korver’s shooting form has changed, too.

“Most of the changes I’ve made over the years, the average fan would probably think my shot is pretty much the same,” he said. “For me, it feels like quite a bit different shot. Every year you just try to make your shot a little simpler. Just try to be as compact and strong as possible.”

Last week, Korver sat down to dissect some of the changes he has made over the past decade, his eyes darting around the screen, each highlight revealing a subtle difference that has allowed him to remain one of the game’s most effective shooting threats.

Korver’s release point used to be higher, he says, but it was also farther back. A decade ago, he would bring the ball almost past his head. He felt it robbed him of power and precision, so he dedicated himself to moving that release point forward, almost never taking the ball past his nose.

“I’ve been working on getting my weight going forward more and getting the ball going forward,” Korver said. “Now I try to keep the ball out in front.”

Another clip plays, and Korver spots something else.

“I hopped into that shot,” he said. “I never do that anymore.”

An old injury, one he suffered during his first stint with the Jazz, forced Korver to changed his lift on his jumper. Korver once only felt comfortable to load on his left leg. The knee injury, however, made it too painful to do that, and he had to get used to loading on his right leg. Now he feels comfortable loading on whichever pivot foot is inside.

Another clip. This time Korver asks to see it again. He groans.

“Look at that right knee,” he says. “Ugh. That’s a broken knee. That’s a bad, bad, bad motion right there.”

A decade ago, Korver’s right knee would sink in toward his left, his right leg jutting out a 45-degree angle.

“That causes a lot of knee problems,” he said. “If you shoot with mechanics where you’ve got your knees bending in all the way, you’re not using your hips properly, you get all of this tendinitis and knee pain.”

Training himself out of that motion, with long hours in the weight room, has been one of his biggest points emphasis over the years.

“You’re trying to retrain your brain to want to sink back into your hips,” he said. “It’s not something you can just do. Honestly, it took several years for me to really change that pattern. But you’ve got to be mindful every single time you shoot the ball and, over time, you can kind of develop new patterns and habits.”

Doing the Work

 Vince Legarza’s old players would roll their eyes if they heard him talk now because they’ve heard the same thing so many times before.

“They were always tired of me talking about Kyle as an example,” the Utah Jazz assistant coach says. “Not even just for his shooting, but for his approach to constantly getting better, constantly trying to learn.”

Legarza previously worked with Korver in Atlanta, and he sees subtle changes in the forward’s deadeye jumper. But it’s the things that haven’t changed that impress him most.

“Really, shooting is a very small part of it,” Legarza says. “The bigger part is the daily approach to being as good as can you can be at your craft.”

Jazz head coach Quin Snyder agrees.

“He’s always trying to get better,” Snyder said. “It’s like he’s 21 years old, trying to improve his game, any incremental gain.”

And that work ethic has had an effect on his teammates.

“Kyle and Royce [O’Neale] will shoot around on gamedays,” Legarza said. “The first couple of days Royce was so focused on the little things that Kyle does. The biggest thing guys are able to pick up is just the level at which Kyle works, the quality of each rep, things that any guy can do no matter what.”

Added Snyder, “He doesn’t have to say anything; guys just see him working. But he’s really open to sharing. I think he’s made everybody a little better.”

Locking In

Ninety minutes before tipoff, there’s can’t-miss action on the court. That is to say, if you watch Korver warm up, you won’t see many misses.

“He’s such a pro and he’s got such a professional, workmanlike mindset,” Snyder says. “His preparation is impeccable. There are certain guys in the league, you watch them warm up and you’re not surprised they’re as good at their craft as they are.”

Korver’s routine changes. He does not worry about counting attempts or makes. Instead, he locks in on the details.

“Before the game, I’ll try to find one or two things where I feel like if I’m really locked in on this certain mechanic, I feel confident about making it during the game,” he said.

It might be something he’s seen from one of the NBA stars he loves to watch: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Damian Lillard, to name a few.

“But I feel like you can take stuff from almost anybody,” Korver said. “I’ll see some random guy and really like how he’s locking his wrist when he’s shooting, or how a guy is catching the ball. It can be a little reminder that that’s something I have to think about today.”

Korver thinks about where he’s catching the ball, his release point, landing in front of the line, getting his shoulders square.

“If I try to find one little thing and focus on that, it helps give me confidence,” Korver said. “You miss a couple and I go back to that thought I had before the game that if I do this, it felt good earlier. It gives you that little boost mentally.”

Making History 

The NBA record book for most 3-pointers made looks like this:

  1. Ray Allen — 2,973
  2. Reggie Miller — 2,560
  3. Stephen Curry — 2,398
  4. Kyle Korver — 2,325

If he lets himself look back, Korver will smile thinking about how much things have changed over the past decade, and how he played a role in that 3-point revolution.

“When I was [with the Jazz the first time] the ball had to go inside first,” he said. “If you shot the ball on the break and you missed you were out of the game. When I first came into the NBA, they’d say, ‘How do we get you an easy one first? Get a layup, a mid-range shot. Then go shoot a three.’”

Ten years later, the entire league has a green light.

“There are a few of us that have gotten to be part of that story, as far as the 3-point shooting philosophies and strategies,” he said. “It feels good to feel like you’ve played maybe a little role in that. There have been a lot of guys. It’s really fun to watch. I think the game is a much more fun state than when I first came into the NBA, and 3-point shooting has been a big part of that.”

But, for now, Korver would prefer to focus more on the rim than his place in history.

“I’ll probably reflect on it more later on,” he said. “Right now, I don’t do as good a job as I should of just enjoying the moments. It’s how I’m wired. Keep thinking about the next practice, the next game.”

And the next shot.