Celtics

Why can’t the Celtics shoot? Shooting guru Dave Hopla has thoughts.

"At times he drops both hands like touching a hot stove."

With all that’s ailed the Boston Celtics along this season of uncertainty, from injuries and execution, to coaching and a lack of caring, the three-point line has been a particular pain. At a time when long distance shooting is more valuable than ever in the NBA, the Celtics continue to struggle.

Through 38 games this season, after Wednesday night’s loss to San Antonio, president Brad Stevens’s crew ranks 24th overall in three-point percentage. At .333, Boston’s current rate is its worst since the 2013-14 season (when Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace ruled the roost), and a far cry from the 2017-18 season, when Boston boasted the second-best three-point percentage (.377) in the entire league.

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Back then, rookie Jayson Tatum led the way, shooting .434 from deep. All Star Al Horford spread the floor at a career-best .429 clip. Four seasons later, Tatum’s three-point percentage has dipped to a career worst .325. Meanwhile, Horford is shooting under 30 percent from beyond the arc (.283) for the first time in his career. And the question is why? Why have historically good Celtics shooters suddenly gone sour? Why has Marcus Smart reverted to his pre-Renaissance self? Why, for the first time in years, is Jaylen Brown closer to 35 percent than 40? Is it the small sample size? Bad luck? The new balls? The crowded arenas? Is it focus, or simple fundamentals?  How in the world does an NBA team miss 38 of 42 three-point attempts in a single game – and at home to boot?

It was that effort, last Wednesday against the Clippers, which inspired a more earnest search for answers. A voyage from the depths of the keyboard to the top of Mount Swishmore, to seek the sage advice of the world’s greatest living jump shooter.

If you don’t know, his name is Dave Hopla.

A few years back, George Karl dubbed Hopla the best shooter in the universe. He’s still the only human in history to approach Ray Allen before an NBA game, and justifiably ask, “So what’s it like to be the second-best shooter in the arena?” A few weeks ago, now 64 years old, Hopla conducted a weekend’s worth of basketball clinics in Connecticut. Shooting the entire time, from all over the gym, he made 818 of 834 shots.

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That’s 98.1%.

“I was a little off,” he says. “I’m usually around body temperature: 98.6.”

Jump shooting is Dave Hopla’s life. It’s his livelihood. If 10,000 hours makes you a master, Hopla is Splinter, a man (in this case) grounded in discipline and fundamentals, dedicated to grooming generations of better jump shooters through his BEEF method: Balance, Elbow, Eyes, Follow-Through.

When he’s not teaching, or breaking world records, or enjoying life on the beach in Naples Fla., Hopla will even the take time to answer a random, desperate email. Something like, “Hey Dave. What’s going on with the Celtics? Can you look at these clips, let me know if anything obvious jumps out about the shots or shot selection?”

So here we go.

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Not to pick on Jaylen Brown, but his 1-for-13 from long range in that Clippers game was a convenient place to start.

Hopla Says: “Jaylen’s shooting arm is in a V not an L, so he brings the ball back towards his head or brings it up in front of his body. Jaylen does not have the same shot every time. His follow through is different every time. He’s not getting his body aligned to the basket. No one has a perfect shot, but you want to have a repeatable shot.”

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Then there’s Al Horford. He was 0-for-7 from three in that Clippers game. He was 0-4 last night against the Spurs. In 29 games with Horford this season, the Celtics are 14-15. In the 14 wins, Horford shot 35 percent from three. In the 14 losses, he’s shot 22.8 percent. As long as Big Al is in the rotation, never mind starting, the 35-year-old needs to hit some shots.

Hopla sees plenty of spots for improvement.

Hopla Says: “HORFORD tends to have his right foot pointing towards the left of his target. On the catch his balance hand is on top of the ball, when lifting the ball to his set point, his elbows stick out and his right hand appears to be in front of his face. On his follow thru he drops the left hand and turns his right hand to the right on follow thru.”

Al Horford shoots against the Bucks on Dec. 13.

But don’t just take his word for it on these critiques. Hopla has a track record of NBA coaching success. In 2006, the Raptors hired him to work with their shooters, and proceeded to win the Atlantic Division. The following season, Hopla went to Washington, and the Wizards turned out the best team FT percentage in franchise history. In 2012, the Knicks brought in Hopla and jumped from 21st to fifth overall in three-point percentage. That season, the Knicks hit 891 threes, which was an NBA record (since demolished) but remains the franchise high mark.

“He’s a great motivator, man, especially when you’re out there shooting the basketball,” Carmelo Anthony said that season. “He’s very positive, always going to tell you about your mechanics and what you’re doing wrong. So, his main thing is just consistency, doing the same thing over and over again.”

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***

During those NBA offseasons, Hopla also worked with famed-trainer Tim Grover in Chicago and spent a fair amount of time around a young Rajon Rondo. “Rondo would play all day long. He loved the game,” Hopla says. “But to get him to just go and work on his shooting, he wouldn’t do it.”

Unlike Rondo, Marcus Smart has appeared willing to work on his three-point shot. After hovering around 30 percent early in his career, Smart’s percentage climbed as high as .364 in 2019.

But this year, Smart’s long-range radar has been jammed. He’s back shooting 29 percent. On Christmas Day, Smart added to his brick collection with a 3-for-10 outing against the Bucks.

Hopla Says: “Smart is not squared up or aligned to his target. Right foot is pointing to the left. Looks like he brings the ball up the center of his body. Drops his balance hand and turns his right hand to the right on follow thru. At times he drops both hands like touching a hot stove. When he drops his left hand, it causes body to rotate from right to left.”

Marcus Smart shoots against the Suns’ Landry Shamet.

***

Probably the highlight of Hopla’s career arrived in the mid-90s, while working for super-agent Arn Tellem. Every year, Hopla would train Tellem’s incoming rookies for the NBA Draft, and in the summer of 1996, he had the opportunity to work extensively with a young Kobe Bryant.

“Working with Kobe was a double-edged sword,” Hopla says. “It was a blessing, of course, but it was also a curse because I’ve been disappointed in every other player I’ve worked with since.”

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Another guy who famously worked out with Kobe, the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, has elicited some disappointment this season. On the surface, that sounds crazy. Disappointed in a 23-year-old averaging 26 points and career-high 8.6 rebounds? But something feels off. His three-point shot is clearly off.

Prior to Christmas Day, Tatum’s last game before entering protocol, the All Star was in a five-game slump where he shot 8-for-34 from three. That’s 23.5 percent. Within that span was a home game against the Knicks, where Tatum hits his first two three-pointers, then misses 10 of his last 11 to finish 3-13.

Hopla had a field day with the footage.

Hopla Says: “Tatum’s footwork is not consistent. On a couple clips it looks like he is landing on his toes or flat footed, sometimes he hops. Consistent footwork leads to a consistent shot. On several occasions he has a super wide base. When this happens no elevation on shot or power. Jayson could do a much better job of being shot ready: knees flexed, shoulders in front of feet, palm to passer, wrist wrinkled, cocked, and locked. He cocks his wrist after catching the ball going into his shooting motion. His follow through is very inconsistent.”

Jayson Tatum shoots Wednesday night against San Antonio.

Maybe that’s harsh, but if Tatum is to become the player most everyone believes he can be, he should welcome the critique as his idol would have.

“With a lot of younger guys, you try to correct them, and they take it like a personal attack,” Hopla says. “But with Kobe, and his attention to detail, he wanted to know. He wanted to learn. He’d shoot 20 for 20 from one spot, and we’d be ready to move, and he’d be like, ‘Nah, let’s stay here. It doesn’t feel right yet.’ He wanted every shot to feel the same.”

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That’s what Hopla strives for every day.

“As I get older the NBA three can be a tougher shot,” he says. “If legs are feeling good, I can still make 90 out of 100. When knees are sore drops to about 85 percent. I can’t shoot on the move like I used to, but spot shooting I’m still fire.”

For now, he remains content traveling the country, putting on clinics, or training out of his gym in Naples. But he’d be lying if he said he doesn’t want one more crack in the NBA. Even if he’s older now, even if some (OK, most) of the technology has passed him by, he still devours the game. His brain is a wealth of knowledge to anyone with the desire to get better. With the shooting performances posted nightly around the league, he knows he can help. He’s done it before. He doesn’t understand, with all the emphasis on shooting, and all the assistant coaches on the bench, why every team doesn’t have a certified shooting specialist on staff.

“In baseball, you have a pitching coach,” Hopla says, “a batting coach. In football you got a coach for everything. You got a snap coach. A place holder coach. But basketball, you know, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

And neither has most of this Celtics season. The injuries, the execution, the coaching, the not caring. After Hopla’s analysis, the three-point shooting woes are more digestible, but that does nothing to quell concerns. With the calendar turned, the roster finally healthy, and the home stretch creeping up on the horizon, something must give: Either this prolonged shooting slump, or any hope to steer this season of uncertainty back on track.

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