BOSTON – There were many reasons why Marcus Smart had the worst three-point shooting season in NBA history. The trouble started when he dislocated the index and middle fingers on his shooting hand in summer league last July. It was exacerbated when he suffered a subluxation of the Proximal Tibfib Joint in November, which is Latin for, ‘My knee is messed up.’
But Smart’s biggest problem was his love for Freak Nasty: He just couldn’t stop doing Da Dip. Smart has had a deep, slow ball dip in the windup of his jump shot since his Oklahoma State days. It’s a major reason why he set an unfortunate record last season with a 25.3% three-point shot, and it’s a crucial hurdle to cross in order to seal off a weak link in the closing lineup.
But in the blink of a summer, the dip is fading away and the shot is going down.
“It’s just, the dip was so low, that it was taking a longer time for me to get my shot off,” Smart told CelticsBlog in an interview airing on Sunday’s episode of Celtics Beat. “Try to keep the ball above my waist a little bit more. Watching film and looking at it, I got the ball straight up and down.”
Smart’s dip used to cut across his body from the off-hand side and create a counterbalance between his feet and his shoulders. This motion gave him the precision of a sawed-off shotgun. The deep ball dip wasn’t working for him because he dropped his waist too low and spread his feet outside his shoulders, creating balance and timing issues.
When asked if he was trying to keep his shot motion more compact, Smart said, “Exactly. Perfect. The less problems I have, the less room for error I have in my shot.”
Last season, Smart worked to narrow his stance and quicken the rhythm of his 1-2 step gather. But the deep and languid ball dip still threw his timing and balance off. He had a high release point that gave him a catapulting effect when combined with the slow ball dip.
With a release point over his head, Smart created a contradictory motion where he would transfer the energy of the ball back behind his head and then have to reverse it forward to take the shot. This change in direction creates significant room for error and inconsistency.
"I tried to take as much of the hitch out of my shot as possible," Smart told ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg. "I tried to get a quicker release. And just work on repetition. My dip was too far below my waist, therefore it was taking me a longer time to get my shot up and making it easy for a defender to contest me. (Defenders) ultimately made me change my shot a lot."
Smart has changed his standard shot motion to keep the ball at waist level on the catch. This gets the ball to the release point quicker and shows him in rhythm with his step into the shot and sway into the landing.
The dip, like any shooting quirk, isn’t necessarily a cardinal sin. Shooting mechanics come in all sorts of wacky forms that—even in extreme cases like Michael Redd and Shawn Marion—somehow just work.
“Everybody else can tell you how they want you to shoot, but if it don’t feel right to you, then it’s not going to really pay off,” Smart told CelticsBlog. “So you have to find a medium between the two to where it feels right. But I will still keep [the ball] above my waist.”
Ray Allen has one of the most noticeable ball dips in the game, slamming the ball into his crotch before flinging one of the tightest and quickest releases ever. The dip itself is not the issue as much as how it affects your timing and mechanical consistency. Many coaches discourage the dip because it is more difficult to incorporate into a consistent and quick shot motion.
Allen has a dip that is extremely fast and consistently placed. He does not create excessive horizontal motion, and the ball moves from directly at the bottom of the vertical plane to his release point over of his right forehead. Many contemporary elite shooters like Klay Thompson and Steph Curry have a more compact motion within a set shot. Their power and consistency starts with great catch-and-gather technique and finishes with perfect energy transfer into the release.
Marksmen like Allen, Thompson and Curry dip the ball so quickly that it’s hard to see it in real time. It’s a huge reason why Curry and Thompson have developed unprecedented range with a set shot. However, while they do drop the ball to start their motion, they do not technically have a dip. They keep the ball at waist level, something that Smart has committed to implementing.
These elite shooters keep the ball moving completely straight, from the waist up to the forehead. When the ball dip is quick, the ball raise and release is timed correctly so that the release comes while the jump is approaching its apex and moving toward the hoop with maximum momentum. While simple logic would dictate that you have to jump harder to get more power, it just sucks away even more energy when your release is late.
Smart worked last year to correct the cross-motion, but he still had a long way to go as evidenced by his inconsistency throughout the season. While many good shooters bring the ball across their body—most notably Smart’s paradigm career goal, Kyle Lowry—it’s generally preferable to develop a straight ball raise to mitigate the margin for error. He tried hard to fix it in practice, but the consistency wasn’t translating from the Waltham facility to the NBA arena.
“I do a couple things off the move, trying to make sure I keep my body straight,” Smart told CelticsBlog in March, during the worst shooting month of his career in which he shot 14.0% from three. “Keep my posture straight up and down to keep in my follow through. Just things like that and practicing my corner shot because when I’m practicing those, I’m knocking them down. But when I get in the game, I can’t buy a bucket.”
Smart looked uncomfortable with his finish, most noticeably holding his follow through until the rebound during his spring slump. Every shot for Smart was an experiment to see if he got it right. Typically, his best shooting came under high-pressure coverage or short-clock scenarios when he didn’t have time to worry about getting the shot right.
Despite the declining results, his shot buildup got tighter and more repeatable as the season wore on. He still often swung the ball counterclockwise instead of bringing it straight up. But the hardest thing to notice in the pace of the game—and what makes the ball dip such a crucial issue for Smart—is that his legs were moving ahead of his arms.
His energy transfer into his shot was still late, which is why he saw so many clean follow-throughs hit front rim. His release point was slightly late and came just after the apex of his jump, creating that fatal energy reversal.
The first question to answer was whether he uses a hop step or 1-2 step to set up his shot. Smart has been a 1-2 shooter throughout his career, but he began to incorporate the hop last season.
“I’m still one-two-ing, I’m mixing it up,” Smart told CelticsBlog. “Just in different scenarios, it might cause me to go one-two, or it might cause me to both feet jump stop into it. But for the most part, the primary is one-two.”
With his improved stroke, he is releasing on time and shooting with power from deep. Even on this poor pass, Smart is able to regain balance and nail a 28-footer. Although the dip is still there, it is necessary for him to build up enough power from that distance to not throw off his timing or compensate with his arms or legs.
Smart has, for the most part, removed the deep ball dip from his shot. It is still there on deeper shots and catch-and-shoots where the ball is fed to his shooting side. But the ball dip no longer pulls his shoulders down or slows the rhythm of his upper body.
The dip is in tempo with his footwork, and his release is finally well timed with the peak of his jump. Smart’s cross-motion in the shot set up has vanished, keeping him in the vertical plane to improve his left-right shot accuracy.
His comfort and improved technique is most apparent in this handoff three from Jonas Jerebko. Smart is already turning into the shot while the ball is in the air, using the hop to set his feet in line. He dips the ball, but it is again perfectly in sync with his footwork. He brings up the ball at the same time that he pushes off the ground, leading to a perfect energy transfer into his release.
He shot 3 for 5 from deep in the Celtics’ open scrimmage, which is a nice sneak peek of the real test ahead. It’s too soon to definitively determine that his shot is fixed. But these early results are promising.
“We don’t have any sample size yet,” Brad Stevens said. “But I think, at the end of the day, he has worked on it. He’s put in a lot of time to make it more fluid. Then I think, also, it comes down to shot selection for all of our guys, right?”
So how will Smart determine that everything is working? Not having the worst shooting percentage in the league is a good start.
“Ultimately, it really comes down to my shooting percentage,” he said. “Does it help my shooting percentage? It also comes down to the shots that I take. Taking those shots that aren’t bad shots and ultimately that will change.”
Smart shooting even 35% from three would be a seismic shift for the small closing lineup, as the defense sagging off him is currently that lineup’s primary vulnerability. Smart still wants to be a driver first and a shooter second, but he knows he has to be a threat everywhere to truly contend for a title. Consistent footwork and a snappy release form a promising start on that journey.
Listen to this week’s Celtics Beat podcast hosted by Jared Weiss as he sits down with Marcus Smart and Bleacher Report’s Celtics Beat Writer Michael Pina: