Let’s hop in the wayback machine for a second: before Wembanyama’s guardrail to guardrail summer league debut, before the Alamodome game set a new NBA attendance record, and before the calendar flipped to 2023.
It’s December 19, 2022 and the 12-17 San Antonio Spurs were making good on Gregg Popovich’s advice to the press against betting on San Antonio to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Part and parcel of this early nadir was rookie Jeremy Sochan’s flagging free throw rate. Every trip to the line was a stomach-churning disaster waiting to happen.
But then, like a cool breeze and oasis in the winter desert, came coach Gregg Popovich. He left his cape at home that day, but his (and sidekick Brett Brown’s) aim was the same: play superhero. Or, at the very least, offer some advice and maybe fix something.
“During shootaround, before I even touched the ball, Coach Pop and Brett came up to me and they just said, ‘You’re shooting with one hand from this game.’ I just did it,” Sochan told reporters. “It’s more about my development than how it looks or whatever, so I’m just going to listen to them and try and do my best.”
Sochan on his free throw shot, Pop and Brett instructing him to shoot FT w/ 1 hand, coloring his hair, being a secondary pt guard, thoughts on the season so far, and more #porvida #nba #gospursgo pic.twitter.com/78nn3jX5DL— JeffGSpursKENS5 (@JeffGSpursZone) December 21, 2022
It worked. Sochan’s free-throw shooting improved after Pop and Brown’s suggestion. To start the season, he shot a grisly 45.8% from the charity stripe. But after December 17 (the game before Pop’s adjustment), his free throw rate ballooned to 76.1%.
But of course it worked! Not just because Pop is quasi-wizard, but because his out-of-box advice appears to be rooted in sports science.
A recent story by ESPN chronicles the impressive work of Breakaway Data, a “startup that has developed a biomechanics shooting lab” that relies on eight video cameras to turn “thousands of data points” into a five-page report. The goal is simple: give players a few, data-backed changes that they can make to their shooting mechanics.
“For example, the reports show whether there are biomechanical trends for an individual player that correlate to accuracy,” Tim MacMahon writes. “Does he tend to miss short when he has a shallower shot path with a lower shoulder angle? Is there variation in the wrist set point at release that factors into the ball’s trajectory?”
If the answer to one of those questions is yes, it might lead to specific tweaks to a player’s form (i.e. shooting one-handed at the free-throw line).
Breakaway’s feedback is player-dependent; rather than have a player watch hours of Steph Curry jacking up jumpers and copying the form, Breakaway’s data targets inefficiencies in a player’s form and seeks to correct them. Curry’s form works for Curry. The odds it works perfectly for someone like Sochan is less of a certainty.
Similarly, a single-handed free throw might not work for someone like Curry. But when adopted by someone like Sochan, the reward could be a thirty-point swing in free-throw rate.
Does this mean Popovich’s eyes capture shots at 240 frames per second? Perhaps — it would be further evidence that Pop sees things differently, which is something basketball fans have been saying for years. But more likely, his years of experience have ingrained in him something finally backed up by a bank of cameras and data: every player’s developmental path is different.