David Thorpe Dishes on What Makes Kevin Martin Great

Wednesday March 3, 2010 9:26 AM

What Makes Kevin Martin So Good?

David Thorpe sheds insight into the unique skill set of Houston's dynamic new two-guard

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

HOUSTON - Few people, if any, are more familiar with Kevin Martin’s basketball prowess than ESPN.com NBA analyst and Executive Director of The Pro Training Center, David Thorpe. Martin and Thorpe first began working together more than eight years ago, back when Martin was a largely unknown shooting guard for Western Carolina. Since that time, the two men have developed a strong bond, frequently communicating after games (Thorpe says he watches nearly all of Martin’s contests live) and reuniting every summer at Thorpe’s training facility in Clearwater, Florida to continue building upon the hoops foundation which has made Martin one of the more prolific scorers in the NBA today.

Fans who might have found themselves somewhat unaware of Martin’s unique skill set during his stint in Sacramento have certainly received a rather revealing glimpse into his abilities recently; the 6th year guard is averaging 31 points per game and 51 percent shooting during his last three contests. But there’s still much more to learn of course, so in order to gain additional insight into Houston’s new starting two-guard, Rockets.com spent more than an hour chatting with Mr. Thorpe about his prized pupil.

JCF: When did you and Kevin begin working together and how did that partnership come about?

DT: His college coach, Steve Shurina, was telling me about this really skinny, fast shooting guard he had that scored 22 points a game as a freshman but really all he did was shoot threes. He said teams started really crowding him with little guys and he couldn’t do anything because he really couldn’t dribble. And he played with four seniors the year before who were going to be graduating and he had nothing really coming back to help him so he thought Kevin was going to have a really tough time scoring if couldn’t create his own shot and make opportunities for himself.

He also said he thought Kevin didn’t really love getting hit or enjoy taking contact and thought maybe we could help him get used to that because he knew Kevin would face much more of that the next year since he would be his team’s only real threat on offense. So Kevin drove down from Ohio to my place in Clearwater that summer before he was to begin his sophomore year in college.

JCF: It’s fascinating to hear he showed signs of not embracing contact given that he’s become one of the truly elite foul-drawers in the NBA. How, then, did you help him go about the process of integrating that into his game?

DT: I don’t know if we did it intentionally, originally, to tell you the truth. Originally, what we were hoping to do was just get him to play a more complete game instead of just being a shooter, which is what he was at the time. Even though he had a funky shot, he hit 38 percent of his 3s as a freshman – that was what he was best at. And, believe it or not, his shot was very different than it is now.

So the approach we took, we had guys at camp like Josh Powell and Udonis Haslem, who at that point were not yet in the NBA but were hoping to make it. We also had some guys from overseas in Europe who were very successful players. So we had all these hungry guys. I wanted to push Kevin to see how he handled things and I could tell that he was way out of his comfort zone. And literally at the end of every workout I would say, “Wave goodbye to Kevin because we’ll never see him again, he’s going to drive back to Ohio right now.”

After three or four days I really thought that would happen every day. But he kept coming back and he kind of evolved into somebody who I could tell that he liked it; he liked being pushed beyond his limits and being challenged. Back then I used to do more scrimmaging than I do now, so he would get hammered by Udonis and Powell, two very strong dudes, in addition to those other guys from Europe who were mean and tough. They didn’t care who Kevin was. All these guys had played on ACC and SEC type schools and Kevin was just a nobody from Western Carolina, so they didn’t really respect him, either.

Then one day, Casey Sanders – an athletic shot-blocking center who had just come off winning a national championship as Duke’s starting center – dunked on Kevin really hard and let him know about it. But literally on the very next possession Kevin went down and dunked on Casey – explosively. And that was the moment I realized that there was a real competitive drive to Kevin that goes far beyond what he looked like. Because at that time he was maybe not even 160 pounds back then. He was really skinny.

That was the first time I thought that this guy was going to be an NBA player. And there’s really nothing he won’t do if you ask him to do it. You just have to ask him. He’s not one of those self-starters that will drive himself all day long on his own. He needs to be pushed and challenged – really like most people. He’s not really different from most people on the planet. There are just so few guys like Kobe and LeBron – or someone like Michael Jordan, who basically lied to himself as if people really doubted him just so he could use it as motivation. Kevin doesn’t do that; he was just settling for whatever was expected of him. So if you expected more from him, he would give you more.

So that was the lesson I learned that week and I called his college coach and told him Kevin was going to be an NBA player and probably a first round pick in a couple of years. He kind of laughed about it at the time and I called some agents I knew and told them the same thing and they laughed about it, too – then they saw him shoot the ball and they really laughed. They said there’s no way a 160 pound kid from Western Carolina is going to be an NBA player, much less a first round pick. But I said it was not his fault that nobody recruited him. He should have been a very high level player who could have played at Florida, Ohio State or Arizona in a heartbeat, they just didn’t know how to find him because he was so skinny.

So his first game as a sophomore he scored 46 points – and he didn’t do it on a whole bunch of shots – and I think that was a sign to Kevin that what we worked on really was going to help him. Without those four seniors, he really had to do so much himself and he learned how to attack and developed this incredible knack for drawing fouls and showed a willingness to take a beating. I think I just kind of helped him value that because it’s such an important lesson to have, especially in the NBA.

Then he came back the next summer and we worked to develop an even more well-rounded inside-outside game and his first game his junior year he scored 44 points at Georgia – a lot of them directly on Damien Wilkins, who’s a fine player. Then the area scouts started realizing they needed to watch this guy a little bit. He finished second in the country in scoring that season, showed off a more well-rounded game and when he started working out for teams I think that’s when people started realizing that they shouldn’t evaluate whether or not he’s a first round pick based on how successful college scouts were at evaluating him. Because if the kid went to Arizona he probably would have been a top-10 pick.

JCF: Were you ever tempted to change his shooting mechanics at all?

DT: Not when he was in college because it wasn’t my place to do that. I wasn’t his head coach so I would never think about doing that for someone else’s player. But the NBA is a different story since each player is his own individual business in a sense and you have to do what you have to do. So my plan was not to do anything before his rookie year because I thought there would be enough adjustments to be made anyway so I hoped to work on it before his second season.

But during his rookie year in Sacramento (Kings Assistant Coach) Pete Carril decided to work with Kevin everyday at practice to change his shot. Kevin used to bring the ball across his face – he would shoot it by his left eye, that’s how it started with his thumb under the ball. So Pete had him put the ball down into his right hip as sort of a trigger point to help him keep the ball more on the right side of his body.

When he came to me that summer I wasn’t going to cross up what the Kings were doing, I just wanted to try to build on it. We worked on using shot fakes a ton because, setting the ball up the way he does by his hip, it really signals that he’s going to shoot the ball and serves as a sign to the defensive player that “here comes the shot.” But what Kevin has done is really use that to his advantage by faking, which is why we do hundreds of fakes every day in our workouts and it really helps him more than a lot of other players because of the way he shoots it and the fact that he’s so quick, if he just raises the ball a little bit, defenders will bite so he can blow by them.

So since then all we’ve done is really tweaked his shot. In fact, just recently, he had really not been shooting well, especially after he broke his wrist because Kevin used to have his left wrist involved in his shot and it’s a habit I didn’t want to break because he’s really good at it. When the guy is shooting is 40 percent from 3 two years in a row, why would you change up the fact that his left hand is a little too involved in the shot? But when he broke his wrist that changed things because, now, his left wrist didn’t have the same strength or range of motion as it did before, which obviously impacted the way he shot the ball.

So I asked him recently. “Which finger is the ball coming off of?” and he said it was releasing off his middle finger and really when he’s at his best it’s coming off the index finger of his right hand. We literally just talked about this after the San Antonio game. So he concentrated on it when he got to Utah and focused on making sure it came off the right finger. It’s only been two games so I’m not going to call it a success yet but so far, so good.

So even though his general form has always stayed the same, there are always little tweaks you can do, no different than a golfer who isn’t usually going to make wholesale changes to his swing but is always going to make little tweaks along the way as your body changes. You get stronger, injuries occur, muscles get tight so you’ve got to constantly as your body changes.

JCF: Kevin is such an efficient offensive player. Was the mental aspect of that part of the game something you worked on in terms of him making the most of his shots and his opportunities, or do you find that’s just an innate gift he has?

DT: I think it’s probably both. I mean, without the innate ability it really doesn’t matter what I stress. You have to have the talent. But I really credit the position he had coming off the bench for Coach Adelman during his second season in Sacramento. They had a bunch of good players on that team, so in order for Kevin to be an effective player on that team he had to be efficient. We talked about making 3s, we talked about attacking the rim, we talked about being involved in transition and we talked about never taking a contested shot. He wasn’t the primary scorer on that team. We didn’t feel like he needed to be someone who forced anything. It was a great experience for him.

To be honest with you, I find it funny sometimes that during his last few months in Sacramento people talked about how he can’t play unless he’s the star of the team. Kevin and I would just laugh about it because he remembers very fondly playing with all those talented players during his second season and how fun it was to only take wide-open shots. If he wasn’t wide-open, I would tell him to pass it because he had such good teammates.

We would talk all the time back then about never having three games in a row where he made less than 50 percent of his shots because you can really play that way when you’re the fourth or fifth best offensive player on the team. It’s much harder to do that when you have the ball in your hands a lot more. When he later became their No. 1 guy, it became all about true shooting percentage. We had to focus a lot more on being super productive and efficient without really worrying about what his 2-point field goal percentage was because he’d have to take a lot of tough, contested shots when the clock is about to expire.

So he’s got the innate ability to be very efficient but I still preach to him all the time about being smart about shot selection. I don’t like heat checks, which he still does once in awhile. I don’t like contested jumpers from 18-feet with 10 seconds on the clock; you’ll rarely see Kevin do that. I like when he tries to make a play and, if it’s not there, he’ll throw the ball to someone else and let them have a touch; if you’re Steve Nash or Chris Paul maybe you keep the ball in your hands but he’s not either of those guys. He needs to make sure the ball keeps moving and not be a guy who has the ball in his hands all the time.

JCF: Do you somewhat sense that this is a perfect marriage of sorts given the value this franchise and front office places on efficiency?

DT: I have a lot of respect for the Rockets organization and a lot of respect for Daryl Morey and it seems to me that all the algorithms they’ve run and scouting they’ve done have probably told them that Kevin is a really good fit for what they do.

From Kevin’s perspective, within the last 15 months we’ve talked about how the numbers don’t really have any meaning for him anymore. Last year he scored 50 points in his last game that he played, which the Kings lost. So who cared if he scored 50 points? It just didn’t mean anything. He had plenty of money and a bunch of records as a scorer and efficient guy, so who cares about the numbers? Really he just wanted to be part of a unit that had a chance to win every night and had real aspirations of championships and titles and rings.

That said, one thing I told him when it seemed like there was a chance he might be traded was, “Don’t go chasing a ring; think about where you’d like to be long-term." I wanted to make sure Kevin digested all the information available to him because it’s not just about going out and chasing a ring from year to year, it’s also being part of a really stable, positive culture that’s going to give you a chance to be competitive every year. The journey is the story, not the end result. Because if all you have to look back on at the end of your career is one great season, that seems like a lot of wasted time. I’d rather him enjoy the process every day.

And it seems like, to me as someone who follows the NBA very closely from an analyst’s perspective, that Houston really is an amazing place to be an NBA basketball player. It’s an amazing city with an incredible culture and an incredible pride for an extremely well run franchise. The players on the team seem so darn happy to be there every day, the coaches obviously are great and nobody needs to tell you what kind of coach Coach Adelman is. It just seemed like a perfect place to be.

So maybe it’s a perfect fit on the court; it’s certainly possible – I think only time will tell if it is or not. But more importantly, I think it’s a great fit for who he is and what he’s hoping to accomplish going forward and that will always help out the basketball side of things.

JCF: We haven’t spoken about the other side of the ball yet. Kevin has, fair or unfair, developed a reputation as being a below average defender. What is your take on his abilities defensively?

DT: First of all, I’m of the belief that almost every player defensively is a product of the system that is built around them. That includes the players and that includes the coaches who create, teach and tweak a strategy – that’s all part of it.

Kevin’s never played more than two seasons with any one coaching staff. The only time that happened was during his first two years in the league under Coach Adelman and even then Kevin didn’t really play much during his rookie season. So speaking as an analyst, because this is not really just about Kevin, it’s really hard for any player to really excel as a defensive player without some sort of stability. Obviously players like Dwight Howard can be dominant defensively pretty much no matter where he goes but they're very much the exception.

In most cases players need to know what their job is supposed to be. They have to have really defined roles and responsibilities. They have to be challenged and need a mindset for it, and I don’t think there’s any question that over the last couple years no one came to really hammer the point home to Kevin that he needed to generate more steals or be a much more available help defender. So I really think that the best way to evaluate Kevin will be when he’s played within the same system for more than a year and to watch for whether or not you see signs of progress and growth within him as a defensive player.

I know this last summer he and I worked a lot on his help-side defense. I felt he could be much more aware of what’s happening on the ball-side. I tried to help him read more plays coming off from the help-side – it’s not about jumping in lanes and getting steals, though I think that’s something he should be good at because he is really quick – but just being more available to muck up what’s going on ball-side. I think he’s made progress there. I think he showed progress with the Kings and I think he’s made progress even since he’s been in Houston.

And I know this: He’s told me that the coverages they employ in Houston are much more complex than anything he’s ever seen before. Kevin’s got a very high basketball IQ, so he’ll learn fast, but learning is what’s going to be required nonetheless. He’s got to learn this stuff and I think he’s excited to be challenged that way; it’s not something he’s done before.

Here’s something else: the reality is that when you’re playing as hard as you have to play defensively to really be good on that end, you have to risk fouls. And you don’t want your best offensive player to do that and I think Kevin fell into that trap a little bit in Sacramento. So now that he’s got some more offensive players on his team – especially with Yao coming back next year – I think he’ll be more willing to take some of that risk because his team won’t necessarily lose if Kevin goes out of the game with foul trouble.

And I’ll throw one last thing at you: I always tell people that when Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were together in Seattle, I think they were a bottom 5 or 6 defensive team. And yet two years ago Ray Allen played for the best defensive team probably in history in Boston and last year Rashard Lewis played for the best defensive team in the league in Orlando. So did they suddenly become great defensive players or was it because they were part of a whole that was much improved and so they knew their roles and responsibilities and had better helpers?

Here’s the bottom line: you get evaluated as a defensive player mostly by the amount of points your team is giving up while you’re on the floor. If you’ve got four good defensive players around you and everyone together is really executing the strategy the coaches designed and it’s a good strategy, you’re not going to give up many points. If someone is there to help you, that’s going to cover for a lot and really that’s what 5-on-5 basketball is: you’re supposed to help each other out. It’s no different on the other end of the floor where players like Shane Battier and Trevor Ariza, I hope, are going to be a little bit better offensively simply because Kevin is on the floor.

Isn’t that how the game is supposed to be played? Your strengths are supposed to help out the weaknesses of your teammates and their strengths are supposed to help out your weaknesses? It’s a 5-on-5 game and the best defensive teams – the best teams, period – understand that.

Got a question for Rockets.com? Send it to Jason Friedman. And for up to the second news and injury updates follow the Rockets and Jason on Twitter.

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