As NBA teams work out and interview potential draft picks in the remaining weeks heading up to the draft, one of the most important traits the various general managers and directors of player personnel will be looking to uncover is whether a player can handle the truth.
“The NBA is all about the truth,” said Boston Celtics assistant coach and skills instructor extraordinaire Kevin Eastman. “You can’t lie your way through to this level. Sooner or later, your skills, or lack of skills, will be exposed. So you deal with the truth straight on.”
What Eastman means, and the reason my recent conversation with him turned all Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men is this: NBA teams want to know whether a player they’re about to invest millions of dollars in is coachable. And if the answer to that most basic of questions is yes, the next question is, can that player understand and agree with a realistic assessment of his game, warts and all?
In other words, can he handle the truth?
If he can, and he’s willing to put in the time to improve, he can make a nice living in the best basketball league in the world. The NBA assistant coaches I consulted for this column contend that most any weakness can be improved upon.
Talking with college coaches, I hear all the time about how their players, freed of the NCAA’s 20-hour rule (which limits a student-athlete to 20 hours a week of athletics related activity), can blossom at the next level, where they can work on their games as often as they choose. Not surprisingly, in a league that is constantly adding 19, 20 and 21-year old talent, skills development has become refined and sophisticated, practiced by game-improvement mavens who draw upon any means necessary to get their points across.
“The younger the league gets, the more important skills development becomes,” said Denver Nuggets assistant John Welch. “Before, a lot of that stuff was done in college, but now it has to be done in the NBA. With a team like ours, where we’ve traded older players and gotten back younger players, it’s become very important.”
NBA coaches know what to look for in the selection process. During a recent workout, Kenny Atkinson of the New York Knicks sidled over to a 6-foot-10, 260-pound post prospect and told him the trajectory of his jump shot was a bit too flat.
“So I told him to get his elbow up a little, and he started making them,” Atkinson said. “Then we worked on his footwork a little bit, and he went to the corner and started make 3s. I’m sure the mentality with him has always been, ‘you’re 6-10, you need to be down on the block.’ But to me, with that shot being worth an extra point, it adds to your value if you can make it. It won’t be his bread and butter, but it expands his game.”
With that brief exercise, Atkinson could report back that this player was coachable, just like Landry Fields, who the Knicks took in the second round last season. A couple of tweaks to Fields’ jumper by assistant coach Dan D’Antoni turned Fields into an NBA 3-point threat. His career percentage from the college three-point line was .343. As an NBA rookie shooting from three feet farther than he did in college, Fields shot .393 from behind the arc.
“A lot of that was footwork, getting more arc on it,” Atkinson said. “Dan will be the first to tell you those weren’t monumental changes, they were subtle changes.”
The key was that Fields was willing to make them.
Clearly, the prevailing opinion on the Knicks staff is that poor shooting mechanics can be corrected.
“There’s a lot of argument back and forth [in the coaching fraternity] about what skills you can improve,” Atkinson said. “There are guys who debate whether you’re a shooter, or not a shooter. As a coach, I’d like to think you can improve shooting.”
Eastman, who has been immersed in skills development since he wrote a 30-page booklet as a senior at the University of Richmond in 1978, believes that, too. And the process is easier than a lay person might imagine.
“A trait that I have is the ability to simplify something,” Eastman said. “We try to get every skill to three or four teaching points, no matter what it is.”
That comment reminds me of something amateur golf legend Bobby Jones once wrote about swing thoughts. If he took one thought to the course, Jones believed, he would play well. If he had two floating around his brain, he was in for a challenging day. And on those days when three or more thoughts fought for his attention, he couldn’t beat his grandmother.
Basketball is a game of quick reactions. The best coaches don’t cloud the minds of their players with a ton of excess baggage for fear they’ll start thinking too much rather than reacting. Eastman’s tried and true shooting tip, for example, is remarkable in its simplicity.
“Ten toes to the rim,” Eastman said. “If you do that, you can’t be anything but square. And if you’re square, you’ve got a good chance to make the shot. It’s stuff like that we’re trying to get it down to.”
Atkinson, who has an extensive international player development background, has changed his approach over the years to better approximate game conditions. How simple is that?
“I used to be a big repetition guy,” he said. “Let’s make 25 shots from one spot. But I’ve come to find that as limiting; you’re not challenging the mental process. In a game you’re going to get different shot opportunities; you might get up a 3, then go to the rim the next play. So why not work on expanding the thought process? What are you going to do in a game?”
Besides simplicity, Eastman has another thing going for him that makes him one of the best in the business. It’s called passion.
The Celtics have done a great job developing lower draft picks, thanks in part to the careful eye of executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge and in part because of their player development program. Eastman is quick to credit the franchise’s various player personnel successes to head coach Doc Rivers and his other assistants. But make no mistake, Eastman has played his part.
ESPN analyst and former Duke player Jay Bilas works with Eastman during the summer at the Nike Skills Academy and speaks in reverential tones about the effort Eastman puts into his teaching and his willingness to share what he knows.
“When we finish a workout, he sweats as much as any player out there,” Bilas said. “He throws every ounce of his being into it.
“Every time I’m around him, I learn stuff. I take a ton of notes. Kevin’s the type of guy that, if he gains a piece of knowledge about the game, he would never keep it to himself. He would consider that an affront to the game.”