This special report on the Art and Science of Shooting a Basketball comes from a detailed and informative article written by legendary NCAA coach Jerry "The Shark" Tarkanian.
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Shooting a basketball is both an art and a science. Basketball shooting is an art form because it involves finely tuned hand-eye coordination rather than gross motor skills. For example, unlike such skills as the defensive stance and pivoting, which are relatively invariable, shooting form is highly individualistic. There is no one correct way of shooting a basketball, although there are certain elements of basketball shooting form common to all good basketball shooters that may be identified.
Shooting a basketball is also a science because it involves such mechanical processes as depth perception, velocity, angle of release, and trajectory of the ball in flight. The comic strip Mary Worth once featured an episode about a brilliant mathematics student who became an outstanding shooter on his basketball team because of his analysis of the scientific principles involved in shooting a basketball. Though the episode is rather far-fetched, it illustrates that an awareness of the scientific bases for good shooting can help to improve a player’s shot within the limitations of his ability and time spent practicing his shooting.
All the fundamentals of offensive basketball are interrelated. Shooting depends on good balance in executing the various shots and on the footwork that enables a player to get open for a shot. The actual release of all shots depends upon the proper finger and wrist control of the ball. The arc given to the flight of the ball depends upon individual preferences; however, most players are comfortable with a medium arc. Other players use a flat shot that looks as if is could barely clear the rim and enter the basket. Lowering the arc enables players to extend their range without increasing the force applied to the shot.
Everyone in basketball would like to be a good shooter and a high scorer. That not everyone turns out to be a good basketball shooter or high scorer may be primarily the result of his failure to understand the elements involved in basketball shooting proficiency (and, of course, the time spent practicing basketball shooting). Although individual basketball skills may limit a player’s ultimate basketball shooting ability, in far too many cases the player limits himself by his inattention to the details involved in shooting a basketball. We have identified nine elements of basketball shooting accuracy.
Even without possessing what coaches consider “good” basketball shooting form, a player can, through long hours of practice, become a good basketball shooter and an effective scorer if he possesses at least minimum hand-eye coordination. In most cases, good basketball shooters are the product of long hours on the basketball court practicing their shooting. Like practically everything else in life, basketball shooting is a habitual thing; that is, it involves repetition of a given set of movements until those movements become an unconscious part of a player’s court behavior.
Since basketball shots can be taken from any body position, whether on the floor or in the air, there is no one identifiable “right” stance beyond the need for balance when setting oneself to take the shot. Because the triple-threat position offers the greatest balance and versatility, let’s begin with it.
The triple-threat position refers to a low, balanced stance from which the ballhandler may either shoot, drive, or pass the ball. However, it may seem incongruous to have the shooter lower his center of gravity prior to taking the shot because he has to get the ball over his defender, two factors make this move necessary. First, he needs the lowered stance to gather upward momentum for his jump shot; and second, he is more limited in what he can do with the ball when he is standing upright than when he is in a crouched position. The triple-threat position is just that, a stance from which the ballhandler may attack the defense in any of three ways.
In addition, integral to any positioning before you take a shot is the action of squaring yourself to the basket, or turning your body so that your shoulders and torso are facing the basket. In their haste to get a basketball shot away before it is blocked, players sometimes will receive a pass or catch the ball off the dribble while facing perpendicular to the basket and shoot without ever having squared themselves to the basket – for example, inexperienced players at the wing positions on zone offenses. Players should turn to the basket whenever they catch a pass or pick up their dribble. They may have to protect the ball as they turn to face the basket, but they still need to turn.
Proper grip is also fundamental to basketball shooting success. The basic grip varies slightly from player to player, but certain common traits may be identified; the hands close together on the ball, fingers (and thumb) of the shooting hand spread, the shooting hand under (not behind) the ball, and the ball resting on the pads of the fingers and hand, not in the palm of the hand.
A one-hand shot is just that, a shot taken with one hand providing most of the force and direction. The other hand is applied to the ball mainly to stabilize the grip – that is, to keep the ball from falling out of the basketball shooting hand and to make it more difficult for a defender to knock the ball out of the shooter’s hand. The two hands should be fairly close together, with the thumbs two to three inches apart on the ball. The shooting hand should be under the ball, with the other hand on the side of the ball to stabilize the grip.
The fingers of the basketball shooting hand should be spread almost to maximum. To discover whether the spread is adequate, check the amount of daylight that can be seen between the ball and the shooting thumb and index finger. If more than one-half inch of daylight is showing, the shooter is placing the ball on a pedestal formed by his thumb and fingers. (At the same time, no part of the palm of the basketball shooting hand should be touching the ball except the pads nearest the fingers and the fingertips, of course.)
When a player overshoots the basket consistently, he is using too much arm (particularly forearm) action and too little wrist action in his shot. The player should move his shooting hand farther under the ball in his basic grip and then use his wrists more and his arms less in releasing the ball. When a player gets his hand under the ball, the shot may be made more softly and with less force than when he catapults the ball toward the basket with his arms along. Good basketball shooting requires finesse, not brute force. (There are some limited exceptions to this rule, such as slam dunks, but we’re talking about general rules applied to shooting, not specialized shots.) As player is unlikely to apply the kind of finesse needed in shooting a basketball through arm action alone.
The ball should rest on the pads of the fingers, thumb, and callused parts of the palm of the shooting hand. Good basketball shooters don’t necessarily hold the ball in their fingertips, but they use their fingertips in guiding the shot. If the ball rests in the shooter’s palm, fingertip control will be reduced accordingly.
Finally, the basketball shooter’s elbows should be close to the body as the ball is held in front. Throughout the shot, the shooter’s elbows should be kept fairly close together, as opposed to being extended to the sides. If the shooting elbow is extended to the side, the shooting hand will not be under the ball, and the shooter will thus shoot with either side spin or no spin at all, both of which provide less control than back spin.
Since timing for the jump shot will be discussed later, we will confine our discussion of timing at this point to the release of the ball as the arms reach full extension. Whether shooting a set shot or jump shot (or, or that matter, a layup), the player should keep the ball in his hand(s) until his arms are extended fully. Premature release of the ball will result in a jerky shot (in addition to a shot that is easier to block). In contrast, full extension of the arms prior to releasing the shot permits wrist action to impart back spin and “soften” the basketball shot.
In addition to fully extending the arms before the ball leaves the basketball shooter’s hand, two other aspects of proper release should be noted: the basketball shooter’s hands should be held high after the ball leaves his hands, and his wrists should be bent fully. A high release not only makes a shot more difficult to block but also facilitates the wrist flex that imparts back spin to the ball. (Using a high release does not necessarily mean that the shot will follow a high arcing path to the basket. It is possible to shoot with relatively low trajectory while using a high release, since high release refers to keeping the ball in the shooting hand until the arms are fully extended.
Shooting a basketball involves more than physical skill. The player hoping to “groove” his basketball shot – that is, to establish proper basketball shooting habits through repetition – must be willing to put in long hours of basketball shooting practice. In addition, whether practicing shooting in games or in practice, he must be able to concentrate on his shot if he is to be a consistently good basketball shooter. We’ve seen middle school basketball players watch the man guarding them as they shot rather than look up at the basket they were supposed to be aiming at; blow easy layups when they heard the footsteps of defensive players closing in on them from behind; and fumble passes out of bounds under the basket in their haste to shoot before they catch the ball.
In each case, the culprit is easily identifiable: inattentiveness, or loss of concentration. Although it is impossible to concentrate 100 percent in a ball game, that should be the goal each player sets for himself. Basketball shooters in particular need to concentrate as fully as possible at the end of whatever movement frees them for a shot, since all the basketball moves designed to break them free from their defender for an open basketball shot are useless if they cannot make the shot. It’s difficult, but certainly not impossible, to concentrate on your basketball shot and on your target when an opponent is applying defensive pressure.
First, the truly outstanding offensive basketball player will develop basketball moves to free him from tight defensive pressure. Second, through basketball practice under competitive conditions, he knows which basketball shots to take and which to pass up. Third, when he decides to shoot the basketball, he is able to concentrate on basketball shot regardless of whether defensive pressure is applied. The prudent basketball coach will use every opportunity to provide competitive basketball drills, including basketball shooting drills, designed to improve his basketball players’ concentration. Lapses in concentration lose games. In many cases, it is not the spectacular play that wins the game, but the normal play, or open basketball shot taken and made, under circumstances in which other players are panicking or losing their concentration.
Successful quarterbacks in football and high scorers in basketball share at least one common trait: confidence in their ability to generate offense. Without confidence, neither would be likely to achieve success. Good basketball shooters expect to make every shot. Michael Jordan, for example, wanted the ball in pressure situations because he knew he could make the shot. He had total confidence in his ability to shoot the basketball and score, and as a result the pressure didn’t bother him.
Michael Jordan was never a cocky player; he simply knew what he could do, and his confidence helped to ensure that he performed at high levels regardless of the situation. He knew he had ample moves to work himself free for shots, he knew he could make the shots once the opportunities arose, and as a result he seldom worried about the consequences of possible failure. He didn’t expect to fail. All good basketball shooters are “confidence” men.
A relaxed basketball shooting style is the result of mastering everything we’ve talked about thus far. No matter how hard a player works for his shot, he should be relaxed enough in his release to shoot softly, applying as much finesse as necessary to make the shot. If a player has grooved his basketball shot to the extent that he can make it consistently in practice with little or no variation in stance, grip or release, he must be able to duplicate that style under the pressure of game situations to be effective. Confidence and concentration will help a player to relax as he shoots the basketball.
What is a good basketball shot? A good basketball shot is any shot taken within the shooter’s effective shooting range that he thinks he can make without having to alter his shooting style or the arc of the ball. It just isn’t true anymore that players can’t shoot effectively with a defender in their faces. If a player thinks he can make a given basketball shot without altering his style to compensate for defensive coverage, we let him take it. His mind is free to concentrate on the shot when he doesn’t have to look over at the bench to see whether the coaches approve. Our players still make some outlandish shots from time to time, but every year we can see improvement in their shot selection as well as in their confidence and ability to shoot the basketball.