LAS VEGAS -- Visitors witnessed a strange sight at the U.S. national team practice Wednesday: NBA superstars trying to learn how to be open. There was LeBron James setting his feet and launching set-shot three-pointers, like some old-timer at the YMCA. And there was Kobe Bryant taking a deep breath before unspooling his own threes, perfectly in balance and without any of the usual head fakes or fadeaways.
In each case, they were practicing what is an unfamiliar role: the second or third option spotting up on the wing, in this instance to shoot an unfamiliar shot, the shorter 20-foot, 6-inch international three-pointer.
"Think about it," U.S. assistant coach Chris Collins said, "how many times during an 82-game season do guys like Kobe and LeBron catch the ball and nobody's on them? Maybe 10? These guys are so used to being smothered, or looking for a double team, that the biggest adjustment is catching the ball and being ready to shoot. Not one dribble, or one fake, just catch and shoot."
So all this week, coach Mike Krzyzewski and his assistants are using drills and spot-shooting, often focusing on drive-and-kick penetration, in an attempt to turn a group of slashing scorers into a bunch of tall, freakishly athletic Steve Kerrs. Stand there. Catch. Shoot.
"That's what Coach wants us to do, shoot it when you're open no matter who gets it out there," explained Dwyane Wade, icing his knees after practice. "They leave us too. Like Melo [Carmelo Anthony], he gets left open a lot. I don't know why, but he does."
Actually, Wade should know why. It's the legacy of the U.S. team's underwhelming shooting performances in recent international competition. It didn't take opponents long to realize that the best way to defend the Americans was to lay back in a zone and dare them to hoist away from the three-point line. This took away the inherent U.S. advantage in athleticism (and cutting-and-slashing) while masking the defensive weaknesses of many foreign teams. The fact that the U.S. players often couldn't draw iron on their threes didn't hurt either.
What's flummoxing is that, theoretically, the shorter line should be a boon to the U.S. team. Take a bunch of NBA players who are accustomed to firing from 24 feet and tell them they can now shoot from 21 feet and one would expect a giant game of Pop-A-Shot to break out, right?
In the beginning, at least, it did. In the first three NBA-attended Olympics -- 1992, 1996 and 2000 -- the U.S. team had at least one pure shooter on each roster. First it was Chris Mullin (53.8 percent from three-point range during the '92 Olympics), then Reggie Miller (41.5 percent in '96) and then, in 2000, both Ray Allen (52.6 percent) and Allan Houston (60 percent). Each year, the United States took home the gold.
Then, in 2004, the Americans fielded a squad of lanky forwards and slashing guards, with nary a shooting specialist among the bunch. Bad idea. The U.S. team shot 31.4 percent as a team on threes (to 44.1 percent for its opponents), with the trio of Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Richard Jefferson combining to go 31-for-95 (32.6 percent). Think about that. If an NBA player shot about 30 percent on a mid-range jump shot -- essentially what the international three is -- during the regular season, would any coach let him keep shooting? The U.S. team departed Athens with a bronze.
It didn't get much better in 2006. At the World Championships in Tokyo, Team USA shot 36.9 percent as a team from beyond the arc, with Wade (5-for-18) and Joe Johnson (12-for-39, 30.8 percent) having the most trouble. Another bronze.
There is hope this year, though. Not just because the U.S. team added Michael Redd, who set a U.S. international qualifying record by hitting 29 threes (out of 64 attempts) in the FIBA Americas tournament last summer, but because the team's scorers -- the guys Collins calls "comfortable with the shot" as opposed to being "pure shooters" like Redd -- are getting the hang of the shorter distance. The best evidence came at the FIBA Americas, where the team shot 47 percent overall and Anthony (57.8 percent), James (62.2 percent) and Bryant (45.9 percent) in particular shot well. Granted, the competition wasn't the same as the Olympics, but the shot -- wide open on the wing, after penetration -- was.
It's a shot some of the U.S. players have been specifically practicing for months. Wade says he began working on the shorter threes in May, using the more slippery Olympic ball, which has given U.S. players trouble in the past. He had to change his form a bit, as he tends to fade away on his jump shot to create space in the NBA. Now, with the shot uncontested, at Coach K's urging he's focusing on going straight up and down. He says he now hits at worst five of eight shots from each spot around the arc in practice.
Redd also began going to the gym a few months ago and shooting with an Olympic ball, though not just international threes (which he says are "more of a touch shot" than a "legs shot"). The key for him, he says, is to not even be aware of the line.
"Today I hit a couple jumpers where I had no idea they were threes," he said after practice Wednesday. "The referee [during the scrimmage] raised his hands and I was like, really? Other times, I end up shooting from the NBA distance. I try to think of it as just shooting, no matter where I am."
Most of the other U.S. players claim to not be bothered by the distance (though, then again, so did Iverson and Marbury four years ago). Chris Paul says he's "totally comfortable" from that range, in part because he's been working out at Wake Forest, where the line is now 20-9 (as it will be at all NCAA schools starting this fall). Deron Williams calls it "just a jump shot." And James worked his way around the arc at the end of practice Wednesday, hitting roughly eight out of every 10 threes by using that old-school set shot, with little lift from his legs (think Dell Curry).
Then again, it's always easier to hit threes in practice, when nobody's guarding you. Now the U.S. players will have to prove they can hit threes in the Olympics, especially when nobody's guarding them.