Hawks guard Kyle Korver on pace for all-time great shooting season
ATLANTA — Entrenched in the mystique of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-win championship season, Steve Kerr carved out his own place in history. Then just an undersized 30-year-old journeyman, Kerr had, by that time, found his NBA niche beyond the 3-point line — and he went about his business with stunning effectiveness. Simply put, the reserve guard shot the lights out.
Before playing the role of occasional late-game hero in the 1997 and 1998 playoffs, helping Michael Jordan & Co. deliver their final three titles to the city of Chicago, Kerr invented his own unofficial club: The 50-50-90 Club. He’s served as its president and lone member ever since. Until, perhaps, this season.
As his team continues to chase Golden State for the league’s best record, Atlanta Hawks guard Kyle Korver chases Kerr, the first-year Warriors head coach. In the middle of his best season to date, Korver, already one of the top shooters in NBA history, is on pace to stamp his membership card into that exclusive club — shooting 50.6 percent from the field, 52.5 percent from 3-point range and 91.7 percent from the free-throw line through the team’s first 39 games. Kerr is the only player to shoot at least 100 shots in a single season and put up those types of numbers (although he technically did not shoot a qualifying number of field goals and free throws). He could soon have company.
Adding gravity to that chase: Korver is arguably on pace for the greatest shooting season in league history.
"His preparation is off the charts. His professionalism, he’s a perfectionist," said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who also coached Kerr when he was an assistant in San Antonio. "In some ways, being around a shooter like Steve Kerr for several years and (watching) how hard he worked at his craft and how much attention there was to detail and all the little things that go into making shots — I think those guys have some similarities. And then in some ways they’re very different in how they get shots and make shots and everything. But I can guarantee their coaches were happy they were on their team."
Propped against a wall in Philips Arena’s practice gym on Monday, the 6-foot-7 Hawks guard took the news in stride. ("We’re not even halfway, so I don’t want to get too caught up in it.") Besides, shooting the ball well comes with the territory.
Korver was raised in a family of shooters: mother, father, cousin, brothers, uncles. He ranks among the best outside shooters in NCAA and NBA history. The numbers are all there, and yet, somehow, he’s improving with each passing season. He’s become so much more than a long-range specialist in Atlanta, his fourth NBA home, adding complementary parts to a world-class skill in an offense that appears tailor-made for him, but he still can’t escape that sharpshooter label. Not that he’s necessarily trying to.
"I think a lot of guys get lost in trying to be able to do everything, and show that they can do everything. And no one wants to be pigeonholed or labeled, you know? And I feel like a lot of guys just get watered down with their game," said Korver, who is averaging 13 points per game for a balanced Hawks roster. "You need to have something that you try to be the best at. You’ve gotta stand out in some way.
"A lot of young guys come in and I try to tell them, ‘You’re coming in as a shooter? Be a shooter then. Be the best shooter.’"
That role may already be filled, though. If Korver continues on this blistering pace, that greatest-shooting-season-ever label might just stick as well.
Kerr may have founded the 50-50-90 Club — albeit in a limited role — but Korver is coming for the president’s chair.
Among all players in NBA history to shoot 300 or more field goals in a single season, Kyle Korver’s current 72.6 true shooting percentage, a measure of a player’s overall shooting efficiency, would hold the No. 1 spot. It would be the top mark by a significant margin, too. The only player within four percentage points to hoist more than a couple 3-pointers — many of the most efficient shooters on the list are frontcourt players that do most of their work around the basket, like Wilt Chamberlain, Artis Gilmore and Tyson Chandler — was former Bullets sharpshooter Tim Legler in his own 1995-96 season.
So does that qualify Korver’s 2014-15 campaign for the aforementioned historical shooting title? It’s a complex question, one complicated in historical terms by the NBA’s hesitancy to adopt the "gimmick" 3-point line until 1979, but true shooting percentage is a fair starting point. At the very least, a 50-50-90 season while averaging 33 minutes a night would put him on the VIP list.
Though he doesn’t command the unrelenting defensive attention of premier NBA stars and primary ball-handlers like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and James Harden (other true shooting percentage darlings), he isn’t asked to. That’s not his strength, and very few players in the league understand and cater to their strengths better than Korver. He rarely shoots off the dribble, preferring to do most of his work before even receiving the pass, and he sticks to what he does best: more than 71 percent of his shots are coming beyond the arc.
And his efficiency numbers are off the charts.
Korver is the most consistent weapon in basketball beyond 24 feet. He’s engineered his own long-range layup line.
"I feel like for the most part I’ve shot the ball fairly consistently, and I think the thing with percentages, if you really watch guys’ percentages, a lot guys have a lot of good games but there are those outlier bad games that really kill percentages. And I think it’s trying to minimize those," Korver said. "You can have a few, but just try to be consistent with who you are and your approach."
In the summer of 1998, Creighton assistant coach Greg Grensing arrived in Las Vegas. He was in town for a high-profile AAU tournament and, with the Bluejays losing star Rodney Buford, then the school’s all-time leading scorer bound for the NBA, points were at a premium. Grensing was a couple days ahead of head coach Dana Altman, now the coach at Oregon, and wanted to watch a high-schooler who he had been in contact with in previous months.
The lanky guard was an Iowa product by way of California, and looked the part. Grensing wanted to see him against top-flight competition. In the first game, to the coach’s recollection, Kyle Korver’s team took on an AAU power out of the northeast that featured future NBA players Matt Bonner and Adam Harrington. Korver hit six of his eight 3-pointers in the game, Grensing said. The next day brought a more athletic and physical team down from Michigan and Korver, again, knocked down five triples.
"Coach (Altman) was coming out the next day and I said, ‘Coach, he may not run the fastest or jump the highest, but this kid can flat shoot it,’" said Grensing, who now serves as an assistant at Middle Tennessee. "In our style of play, what we were trying to do is create a lot of spacing and opportunities to complement an athlete or two that could drive it with guys who could spot up and hit 3s. We just thought with his size he would be able to get off balls. About that time he was a good 6-5, maybe closing in on 6-6, and all he did was continue to get better."
Grensing didn’t know he was landing a player that would become the best in school history — at least until Naismith Award winner Doug McDermott came along — but he specifically remembers the growing pains.
The Bluejays tried to play their new freshman at the 3-spot in the lineup early on, with underwhelming results. The physicality of the college game required an adjustment period for Korver. There was also an early-season incident where a teammate celebrated a three-point play a little too enthusiastically, swinging his fist and breaking Korver’s nose. Success was not immediate. He never lost confidence, though.
"Even when I was in sixth grade, even when I had helicopter spin, I thought I was amazing. I still thought I was this amazing shooter even when it was spinning sideways off my hand," Korver said. "It’s a mentality. You’ve got a total line between confidence and arrogance."
Things, of course, turned around. He caught fire as his freshman season wore on, finishing the season shooting 43.4 percent from the outside. Over the course of his four-year career, Creighton never missed an NCAA Tournament, he averaged 20.4 points per 40 minutes, earned consensus All-American honors and became one of only six two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year winners. (McDermott and Southern Illinois guard Darren Brooks have since joined that impressive list that includes Larry Bird, Xavier McDaniel and Hersey Hawkins.) Korver was drafted in the second round by the Nets and, now infamously, sold to the 76ers for $125,000 to pay for New Jersey’s summer league expenses and a new copy machine.
Korver entered a different NBA, though.
The league, highlighted by players like Detroit’s Richard Hamilton, put a greater emphasis on perimeter players’ midrange games. The modern-day efficiency-based model of teams taking the majority of their shots beyond the arc or at the rim had not truly hit the mainstream. The league’s 3-point rate the season before Korver arrived was 18.2 percent. This season, more than a quarter of the NBA’s shots (26.6 percent) come from 3-point range.
And although things changed over time, new coaches arrived and Korver adapted his game, it’s evident that he’s a more valuable piece in places like Atlanta or Houston or Golden State, offenses that put greater emphasis and value on the 3-point line. In the meantime, he’s become a more complete player: improving his passing and rebounding, adding countermoves coming off screens and facing hard close-outs and serving as an alert, more-than-serviceable defender.
He’s gone from expendable to indispensable. Philadelphia dealt him to Utah for Gordan Giricek and a draft pick that became Trevor Booker. Utah let him become a free agent after drafting Gordon Heyward. Chicago traded him to Atlanta for cash and a trade exception. What did Atlanta do? The Hawks signed him to a four-year, $24 million contract extension to be a part of Budenholzer’s long-term plans. When the pieces fit, they fit.
"Kyle, what he’s doing, is a credit to him," Budenholzer said. "I think we’re lucky that he’s in the system. … I think it’s the players that make it work."
Good health is an underlying X-factor in all of this. Korver claims at 33 years old that he’s in the best shape of his life — crediting his long-standing workout program with Dr. Marcus Elliot of P3 Peak Performance in California — and the numbers continue to back him up.
After a couple good seasons as Allen Iverson’s wingman in Philadelphia, Korver began experiencing knee problems, resulting in surgery and a sharp decline in his production. It’s difficult to picture now, but in his fifth season he failed to even hit 40 percent of his outside shots. Things didn’t get much better when he was traded to Utah, again falling short of the 40 percent mark. But with years of work focused on strengthening his legs and providing him with more lift on his jump shot, the percentages continue to climb to career-high, and league-high, rates. Here are the three-year averages in true shooting percentages for Korver’s 12 NBA seasons, the final three coming in Atlanta:
How is Korver, in a league where a player’s prime falls somewhere around his age-25 season, piecing together his best season well into his 30s? How has a once-declining specialist rediscovered himself, serving as a vital member of one of the NBA’s best teams?
"A big part of, for me, shooting is understanding my shot, understand my check points, if I’m off where that comes from and keeping your body healthy. As you get older, you learn it’s not just about, ‘Did I get up 1,000 shots yesterday?’" Korver said. "It’s more, ‘Did I get my lift in? Did I get my legs stronger? Did I get the massage, do I feel good?’ Those things tend to take on as big of a role as getting your shots up every day."
Grensing gave a simpler answer to the production spike.
"I think that he evolved."
In a game against the Washington Wizards on Jan. 11, there was a moment when Philips Arena froze, a single second out of the 48-minute game clock suspended.
When second-year point guard Dennis Schroder forced Wizards star John Wall into a turnover, the ball bouncing out to mid-court, reserve wing Kent Bazemore retrieved it on the left wing and started a fast break. Hawks fast breaks can get unorthodox. The moment Bazemore reached the ball, forward Al Horford sprinted up the court to fill the center lane and Schroder, who had fallen while guarding Wall, recovered quickly and trailed Horford on the break. While all of this was happening, though, Korver was on the right side of the floor. The natural tendency would be for him to fill the outside lane. Instead, things got a little odd.
Korver veered quickly to his left as soon as the turnover occured, leaving the outside lane and looping around to fill in directly behind Bazemore. All of a sudden, the Hawks had a 4-on-2 fast break, overloading the left side of the floor, and when Washington’s two defenders packed into the paint, Bazemore turned and pitched the ball back out to Korver for the wide-open 3. This is not an uncommon occurrence.
"I’ve had to learn how to search out shots because I don’t really create a lot on my own," Korver said. "So in my mind, when I’m limited to one dribble or no dribbles, how do you still get shots off in the NBA? A lot of it is just about finding the opening. There are openings in the halfcourt, there are openings on the break. I started doing that (in transition) a lot in Philly actually, with Allen Iverson. That was a big part of what we did. He would do it with a little flair. He’d like whip it around his back to me. It was pretty fun. As long as I’ve been with a coach that thinks that’s a good shot, it’s something that I’ve always tried to seek out."
This is where everything slows down. Korver catches the ball, primed. The Hawks bench slowly rises, arms raised. The crowd follows suit. Kyle Korver’s open 3-pointers have become the equivalent of seeing an athletic dunker in transition or a deep pass in the direction of a great receiver: the odds are heavily in his favor, and you might as well get a head-start on the celebration:
This is the result of hitting more than half of your outside shots.
This is the result of being the best 3-point specialist in the NBA.
This is the result of challenging the limits of the 50-50-90 Club through the first 39 games of a season.
As Korver was quick to point out, the season has not even reached the All-Star break and percentages can be undercut by one or two off nights here and there. Steve Kerr was an efficient machine for Chicago back in the ’90s, but he was still a backup playing, for the most part, a backup’s minutes. Sustaining those percentages as a starting guard shooting six 3-pointers a night would not only be a remarkable feat for Korver, but it would challenge the known boundaries of just how well an individual can shoot a basketball over the course of an 82-game season.
Forty-three more games to go.