Oakland three-point specialist Travis Bader prepares for the 2014 NBA draft
Grammar and syntax were Travis Bader’s chief concerns. He was in seventh grade, and he had been assigned a paper in his Language Arts class about what he wanted to be when he grew older. He was told to be realistic. Bader didn’t put much thought into the subject matter. Of greater importance, he thought, was whether the paper was properly written. Bader wrote that he wanted to play in the NBA, and when he turned in his work, he felt confident that he’d done a good job. Instead the paper was returned to him with a poor grade and the words This isn’t realistic written across the top. Bader was dismayed. He showed his parents and told friends. He wondered why a teacher would cast doubt on his dream.
Bader reflects on that assignment sometimes. It has served as motivation throughout a basketball career that could lead, on Thursday, to an opportunity to make an NBA roster. Bader, a former guard at Oakland, a public university located in Rochester, Mich., could be selected late in the second round of the draft. In four seasons with the Golden Grizzlies, Bader set NCAA Division I records with 504 three-pointers made and 1,246 attempted. He bombed threes against high-profile opponents inside famous arenas, lit up the small gymnasiums of the Summit League and, after Oakland changed conferences, the Horizon League, and made fans everywhere shake their heads in disbelief at his range and marksmanship.
Bader’s three-point prowess went largely unnoticed, due in part to the fact that he played just one NCAA tournament game, which came during his freshman season. Now that it is complete, however, his college career deserves greater acknowledgement. He is the most prolific three-point marksman in college hoops history, with a body of work that makes “good shooter” sound like an insult. Even if NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum does not call Bader’s name Thursday night, he will keep shooting for his dream.
Every one of Bader's three-pointers for Oakland.
Bader was not born a great shooter, and practicing to become one wasn’t always easy either. At his home in Okemos, Mich., he used a hoop weighed down by a water-filled base until one windy day, when it blew over and dented his family's red Chevy Trailblazer. He moved on to his neighbors' driveway and would dribble and shoot until their daughters jokingly told him to go home.
When he started at Okemos High School, Bader knew he needed further refinement. Dan Stolz, who stepped down as head coach at Okemos in 2012, would instruct Bader to wear a softball pad on his left hand to help prevent his left thumb from affecting the rotation on his shots. Stolz also impressed upon Bader other mechanical tweaks, like tucking in his elbow and following through.
Still, Bader wasn’t receiving much attention from college coaches during his junior season at Okemos, even though he averaged nearly 15 points a game and earned all-conference recognition. NAIA, Division III and eventually Division II schools began to notice. Bader visited and strongly considered Lake Superior State, a D-II program in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He was bummed when Grand Valley State, another GLIAC program, didn’t offer him a scholarship. The University of Detroit and Central Michigan offered him a spot as a preferred walk-on. None of those options satisfied Bader. He wanted a scholarship to play Division I.
The problem? Bader didn’t look like he could play at that level. Darren Sorenson, an assistant at Oakland, said Bader looked like he was 12 years old. The last two years of his high school career, he stood around 6-foot-2, 160 pounds and had never consistently lifted weights, lacking the physicality D-I coaches seek out on the recruiting trail. Before a district playoff game against Okemos, Drew Valentine, a former guard for Sexton High in Lansing, Mich., who wound up rooming with Bader at Oakland, remembers reading about Bader in the newspaper and scoffing at the idea that he could play. “Man, this little scrawny dude is not good. Why are people writing about him?” he thought. Bader proceeded to score 20 points against Valentine’s team.
Meanwhile, Richard Bader vouched for his son. He had hard evidence suggesting that Travis was still growing: An X-ray showing that his growth plates were still open, his large hands and Richard’s height (6-5). “At that time, he didn’t look like a very physically mature kid at all,” says Stolz. “He was still kind of slender and a little bit baby-faced and all that. And yet, I was trying to tell coaches, ‘This kid is going to be so good, and he’s going to grow, and he’s going to get thicker and he’s just a gym rat.’”
Through Richard, who served as the director of basketball operations at Michigan State for eight years, Travis had access to the Spartans’ basketball program. He attended practices, traveled to different tournaments and developed relationships with several players. While walking on at Michigan State may have been a plausible option, Bader never strongly considered it. He wanted to get away from the program he’d spent so much time around growing up. “I think they kind of knew I wanted to go somewhere and be my own man and actually play and not just be a walk-on somewhere,” Bader says.
The summer before Travis’ senior year, Oakland coach Greg Kampe saw Richard – whom he knew as a business acquaintance – at a fast food establishment in Las Vegas, where his son was playing in an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Tournament. Richard and Kampe talked about Travis, and Kampe decided to watch one of his games. Kampe liked what he saw. Travis was not a recruiting priority for Oakland, though, until late in his senior year. Richard showed Sorenson film of Travis, and Sorenson saw him dunk in a high school game. “Woah, maybe he has a little more to him than what we thought,” Sorenson remembers thinking.
Kampe was looking for a player who could replace former guard Eric Kangas, a lights-out three-point shooter during his time with the Golden Grizzlies. In March 2010, after Bader was named player of the year by the Lansing State Journal and led his Chieftains to a district championship as a senior, Kampe offered him a scholarship. Bader visited and signed with Oakland in April and arrived at the school about two months later. “I’d really like to tell you that I’m some genius that knew that he was going to be a great player and all that kind of stuff,” Kampe says. “But none of that’s true.”
When he got to Oakland, there was skepticism about whether Bader, who was so thin and baby-faced that he earned the nickname McLovin, could fill the featured shooter’s role in Kampe’s offense. But Bader was putting in serious work behind the scenes. With practice scheduled for 10 a.m. most days, Bader would wake up early to shoot and lift weights. He would also shoot at night, sometimes using rec courts on campus and even resorting to a local YMCA on one occasion. Bader shot so much in college that he irritated and cracked the skin on his right ring finger, causing it to bleed.
Bader’s first appearance in a college game came ahead of schedule. The morning of Oakland’s season opener at West Virginia, in November 2010, two presumed starters, Reggie Hamilton and Leadrick Eagles, irked Kampe when they were a minute late to the bus to shootaround. Kampe decided that Hamilton, an All-Summit League first team selection, and Eagles would not start. When Valentine and Bader learned they would start instead, Bader remembers looking at Valentine and saying, “Oh crap. This just got really serious.”
After shootaround, Bader called his sister, Christine, who calmed his nerves. Before the game, Kampe told his staff, “God I hope this is the right thing to do. I hope this kid doesn’t get killed.” Bader did not disappoint him. He went on to score eight of Oakland’s first 10 points – after which one of Kampe’s assistants told him, “Yeah, I think it was the right thing to do” – and 15 total, in a team-high 35 minutes. His first bucket was, fittingly, a nothing-but-net three, fired a few steps right of the top of the arc. Bader averaged 25.7 minutes and started 22 games that season, including the Grizzlies' loss to Texas in the NCAA tournament. As a sophomore he started 24 times and increased his scoring average from 10.5 the previous year to 15.9. He moved into the starting lineup for good his final two seasons and averaged 22.1 points as a junior and 20.6 as a senior.
Most of those points came from beyond the arc. Bader made at least one three in 62 consecutive games, sank 10 triples in a game four times and laced a single-game school-record 11 treys in a 47-point performance against IUPUI in January 2013. He even lit up the big boys, opening his senior season with four threes and 18 points against North Carolina, then going for five treys and 19 points at UCLA and, a few weeks later, four triples and 18 points against Michigan State in East Lansing.
Bader was a perfect fit for Kampe’s dribble drive offense. The system utilizes a sharpshooting guard who takes about 10 threes a game. By Bader’s senior year, Kampe estimates that in a typical game around 30 percent of Oakland’s possessions were designed to get Bader a shot. Bader had what Kampe called “probably the biggest green light there possibly could be. If he stepped off the bus and had the ball and nobody was around, he could shoot it.”
After graduating in three years with a degree in communication, Bader knew he could have transferred to a high-profile program. He stayed to repay Oakland for taking a chance on him when other schools wouldn’t. Kampe gave him another reason to stay: “The only thing I told him is, ‘You could probably go play at those schools, but you ain’t going to break that record there. You’re going to break it right here, because they’re not going to let you shoot 300 times.’”
Bader had some difficulty managing the pressure of passing J.J. Redick’s mark of 457 made three-pointers. He started thinking about the milestone and during a stretch in early January he hit just 7 of 39 attempts from beyond the arc. Kampe tried to settle him, even if he wasn’t cordial. “You’re going to break the f------ record, just forget it,” he told Bader during a game. “Just shoot the f----- ball.”
Bader passed the former Duke star on Feb. 2, during a loss at Milwaukee, on a shot from the right corner with around six minutes remaining in the first half. At Bader’s request, Oakland ran an inbounds set called Atlanta, which Kampe had learned from former NBA coaching great Chuck Daly and made a staple of his offense. The play, which produced 42 of Bader's threes, calls for a pair of staggered screens to be set for the shooter, who sprints across the lane – either along the free throw line or baseline – catches the ball, and fires from the corner.
After the shot went in, Bader turned and ran down to the other side of the court to play defense, like it was just one of 504. He finished the game with 21 points, making 6-of-11 from three-point range. Redick sent Bader a congratulatory text, and a video of Redick acknowledging Bader’s feat was played at Oakland’s next home game, against Cleveland State, in which he bombed 10 threes and scored 35 points.
The summer before his senior season, Bader says he made around 46,000 shots, with an average of 700 per day. He performed what an Oakland assistant called the ‘Steph Curry Drill,’ in which a running tally of made threes was kept and consecutive misses forced Bader to start over. He recalls reaching 150 once.
Bader’s accomplishments make clear he is a lethal shooter. Yet as draft day looms, it is unclear where his game will take him next. He’s small for a shooting guard (6-foot-5, 184 pounds), lacks elite athleticism and could be a liability on defense. Teams may also be wary of taking a player who faced lesser competition in the Summit and Horizon Leagues. The scouting website DraftExpress ranks Bader 77th among seniors and did not list him in its latest 2014 mock draft. Bader was also not included in SI.com’s shooting guard rankings or Big Board. Bader understands he will be a specialist at the next level. Knocking down shots, spacing the floor and creating open looks for others will comprise his role. Asked to compare himself to an NBA player, Bader mentions Steve Kerr, the newly hired coach of Curry's Golden State Warriors, and 11-year veteran Kyle Korver.
Recent developments suggest Bader’s draft outlook is not as grim as it may seem. He shot 11-for-23 on threes, averaged 19.7 points and was named to the all-tournament team at the Portsmouth Invitational, a 12-game tournament for senior draft prospects that is heavily attended by NBA scouts. Bader spent several weeks working out in Los Angeles with UCLA scoring legend Don MacLean and a group of draft hopefuls that includes Gary Harris, Elfrid Payton, Glenn Robinson, T.J. Warren and James Young. He has also trained with current and former Michigan State players and Valentine, who says Bader has made significant strides defensively.
Two sources close to Bader say multiple scouts and front office personnel believe he is a strong candidate to be taken in the second round, and one team has already offered him a summer league contract. Bader has worked out for more than 10 teams, including San Antonio, Chicago, Sacramento, Detroit and Boston. “I really don’t know right now how it plays out,” Bader says. “But I’d be thrilled at the opportunity just to play for an NBA team.”
Whether Bader does or does not hear his name called Thursday will not change him. Whether it's in the NBA, the D-League or Europe, Bader will set his feet behind the three-point line and shoot. And shoot and shoot.
Videos, graphics, images and statistics courtesy of Oakland University Athletics, Richard Bader, Synergy Sports Technology, Josh Rosenblat and Chris Johnson.