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The King Of Shooters West-leading Sacramento is riding the right arm of Peja Stojakovic, considered by many to be the best pure marksman since Larry Bird

Jan. 19, 2004
Jan. 19, 2004

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Jan. 19, 2004

The King Of Shooters West-leading Sacramento is riding the right arm of Peja Stojakovic, considered by many to be the best pure marksman since Larry Bird

Finding fault with Peja Stojakovic's offensive game these days is
difficult, even for Sacramento Kings assistant coach Pete Carril,
who describes himself as "the crankiest, most critical pain in
the ass there is." Minnesota Timberwolves guard Fred Hoiberg
considers Stojakovic "Number 1 by far" among NBA shooters, a
sentiment echoed by a potential rival for that spot, the Seattle
SuperSonics' Ray Allen. And no less a deity than Larry Bird, to
whom the 6'10" Stojakovic can be compared in size and shooting
range (though not in irascibility), considers the Kings' small
forward "the best shooter

This is an article from the Jan. 19, 2004 issue

in the league by far." The former Celtics great recently marveled
to The Sacramento Bee about the consistency of Stojakovic's shot.
"When Peja lets the ball go, it looks like it's going in every
time," said Bird, now the Indiana Pacers' president of basketball
operations. "The ball hardly goes left or right. If he misses,
it's always front or back rim. That's the sign of a great
shooter."

Ah, but on the subject of Sacramento, one can always count on a
caviling word or two from the southern part of the Golden State.
In anticipation of a Kings-Los Angeles Lakers matchup scheduled
for Friday night at Arco Arena, the Lakers' Rick Fox was asked to
evaluate the man many consider the best marksman since Bird.
"Peja is the best shooter in the league right now," said Fox, who
guarded Stojakovic during the Lakers' playoff series wins over
the Kings in 2000, '01 and '02, "but is he the best since Larry
Bird? No. I think you've got to be able to make them in the
playoffs, too." Fox offered into evidence Game 7 of the '02
Western finals, at Arco--53 minutes that hang like a psychic
shroud over the Kings' franchise--in which Stojakovic shot 3 for
12 from the field and missed all six of his three-pointers,
including air-balling a wide-open three that would have won the
game in regulation. (Los Angeles prevailed in overtime 112-106.)
"There are a lot of good shooters who, when pressured, become
stressed shooters," Fox said, "and that changes mechanics and the
tiniest things in the shot."

These days, though, there doesn't seem to be a less stressed
shooter on the planet than the 26-year-old Stojakovic. His 25.1
points per game through Sunday ranked third in the league, but
with only 17.6 field goal attempts per game, he was a far more
efficient scorer than the two players above him, the Philadelphia
76ers' Allen Iverson (27.0 points per game on 24.0 shots) and the
Orlando Magic's Tracy McGrady (25.5 on 21.7 shots). Stojakovic's
three-point shooting percentage of .429 ranked eighth, but no
player above him had made nearly as many treys as Stojakovic's
93. (Stojakovic decided last week that he will defend his
three-point title at the All-Star Game, putting him in line to
become the third three-time winner, along with Bird and Craig
Hodges.) At week's end Stojakovic was also hitting nearly 92% of
his free throws, third best in the league. His one liability in
that regard is that he doesn't get to the line often enough--24
players had attempted more than his average of 5.2 per game.

Stojakovic's smooth stroke is the main (though not the only)
reason that the Kings, with a league-best record of 26-9 through
Sunday, have put some flow and rhythm back into a league that has
otherwise been turned over to bricklayers. (As Ray Allen has
cannily observed, there are great dribblers and great passers in
the NBA, but very few great shooters.) Sacramento was first in
points per game, assists per game and three-point shooting, and
second to Minnesota in field goal percentage. And the Kings have
been playing without power forward Chris Webber, whose return
from off-season surgery on his left knee is still unscheduled.

In his sixth season Stojakovic has emerged as such a preeminent
offensive player (his scoring average is up 5.9 points from last
season and 8.4 points from his career average of 16.7 entering
this year) that Webber can no longer reflexively be assigned the
tag the Kings' best player. Webber still may be that--his knee
injury in last year's playoffs, after all, was the main reason
Sacramento did not get past the Dallas Mavericks in the first
round--but it's possible that the marvelous offensive chemistry
the Kings have cooked up will be disturbed, at least temporarily,
when Webber returns. What happens to the substantial
contributions of Brad Miller, who arrived from Indiana in a trade
that will go down among Sacramento general manager Geoff Petrie's
best moves? (At week's end Miller was averaging 15.1 points and
10.6 rebounds and was playing as if he'd been weaned on his new
team's high-IQ offense.) Will the main go-to guy be Webber or
Stojakovic? Will the Kings be less successful when the Serbian
sharpshooter's field goal attempts go down, as they inevitably
will with Webber in the lineup? Even if the personnel adjustment
is as simple as cutting the minutes of center Vlade Divac, who
turns 36 on Feb. 3, it's incumbent upon Webber, as well as on
point guard Mike Bibby, to see Stojakovic as much more than a
second option, much more than just a shooter.

Still, conversations about Stojakovic inevitably begin with tales
of his marksmanship. During a summer workout last year,
Sacramento assistant coach John Wetzel watched Stojakovic make 87
of 100 three-point shots, moving to a different spot after each
cycle of 10, never stopping for a breather, eyes on the basket,
release high, concentration fine-tuned. "Even with nobody
guarding you," says Wetzel, "making 87 out of 100 threes should
be against the law." For Stojakovic that day wasn't particularly
memorable. He's uncomfortable bragging about his shooting but
allows that he has converted as many as 40 straight
three-pointers during arm-wearying postpractice drills in which
he requires himself to make 100 twos, 100 threes and 50 foul
shots before showering. Carril actually worries that Stojakovic
is overtaxing his shoulder with all that practice shooting.

Surprisingly, Stojakovic's shooting form is far from classic;
Divac even calls his shot "ugly." A righthander, Stojakovic
starts the shot from his left side, sweeps it quickly over to the
right and releases it with his right forearm angled back rather
than textbook-perpendicular to the floor. "What matters is that
he shoots it the same way every time, and his release is high and
perfect," says Petrie, a classic shooter in his playing days.
Stojakovic's stroke might be compared to Jim Furyk's golf swing,
which is loopy and ugly except at the point of contact, when it's
absolutely perfect.

Also, unlike most classic shooters, Stojakovic is most
comfortable with a hand in his face--when "he's got no air
space," as the Miami Heat's Malik Allen puts it. "It seems like
he doesn't want to see the whole basket," says Miller, and the
Kings swear that at times they've hollered at their opponents,
"Guard him!" in hopes that more pressure by the defense will
increase Stojakovic's proficiency. "Maybe I just concentrate more
when I'm blocked out," says Stojakovic, "but I really can't
explain it."

Nor can the elevation in Stojakovic's numbers this season be
explained purely by improved marksmanship or by Webber's absence.
Stojakovic has become better in every aspect of the offensive
game, particularly in moving without the ball, which he now does
relentlessly. "There's no other small forward you have to chase
around like that to take him off his jump shot," says Miami's
Lamar Odom. During Sacramento's 113-93 win last Friday night in
Phoenix, Suns rookie Zarko Cabarkapa looked around frantically
for Stojakovic, whipping his head back and forth as if searching
for a lost child, as Stojakovic sneaked behind him to get a pass
near the basket. Stojakovic's moves away from the ball, like
Reggie Miller's, are sometimes dodgy and deceptive, but he also
makes exceptionally hard cuts and beats his defender to a spot.

Then, too, Stojakovic is adept at using his big men like bumpers
in a pinball game. One of his patented moves is to begin a hard
cut through the middle, bounce off Divac, take a pass and shoot a
three from the top of the arc. Fortunately for Stojakovic, the
Kings' big men, Divac and Miller (and Webber when he returns),
are accustomed to being used. Sacramento's half-court sets are
predicated mostly on where the center and power forward set up,
and coach Rick Adelman runs much of his offense through them.
Divac and Stojakovic frequently improvise with each
other--"Serbian telepathy," Divac calls it. During one recent
game Stojakovic started to run an angle cut off Divac, then
suddenly went backdoor for a return pass and a basket. They
started calling it Special Play, Stojakovic became Special Boy,
and it's now part of the Kings' offense. "To be a scorer on a
team with unselfish big men," says Stojakovic, "is a wonderful
thing."

But then Sacramento's entire offense is tailor-made for
Stojakovic's talents. The Kings are considered a fast-break team,
but they are actually more of a run-and-read team that doesn't
get many spectacular finishing dunks. They play an up-tempo style
but use it mostly to flow into their half-court offense, making
reads on the run, endlessly curling, cutting and backdooring
until somebody gets open. "From the time I started playing," says
Stojakovic, "I've always been the high-energy, never-stop-moving
guy." He has a laugh at his own expense. "On offense, that is."

Like most European players, Stojakovic was branded a soft
defender in his early years--not undeservedly--and he's still no
stopper. In that, he mirrors his team, which through Sunday stood
near the bottom of the league in opponents' field goal percentage
(24th) and opponents' scoring (25th). Adelman concedes that
Sacramento was better on defense last season and reasons that
it's because the players the Kings lost through trade or free
agency (Jimmy Jackson, Keon Clark, Hedo Turkoglu and Scot
Pollard) were multiposition defenders.

What Stojakovic wants to do, generally, is get tougher, which
involves a whole package of modifications: throwing his defender
off him (Adelman has already implored league officials to look at
the extent to which Stojakovic is held and grabbed); becoming
more rugged on defense; mixing it up on the boards (he was
averaging 5.9 rebounds per game at week's end but had a
season-high 12 last Friday); and taking his offensive game closer
to the basket to become a low-post force, something Bird has
suggested.

But it won't be easy to change Stojakovic's nature: He is at
heart more nice guy than tough guy. His agent, David Bauman of
SFX, calls him a mensch, a thoughtful man who always asks about
people around the office and shows up at Bauman's home with gifts
for his wife and two sons. Like Divac, Stojakovic has an openness
and generosity of spirit, and that has helped Stojakovic become a
citizen of three cultures. A native of Belgrade, Stojakovic makes
his second home in Thessaloniki, Greece, where Petrie first saw
him, draining jumper after jumper as a 17-year-old playing for
PAOK in the Greek pro league. (Sacramento drafted him in the
first round in 1996 and signed him in June '98.) The U.S. will no
doubt have the marquee basketball team at the 2004 Olympics in
Athens, but Serbia and Montenegro's Stojakovic may be the most
popular player in the tournament. "After the Olympics, Peja is
going to go like this," says Olympic teammate Divac, raising his
index finger to the sky and making a noise like a rocket's.

For now, the Kings will be content if Stojakovic plays exactly
the way he has been playing. In the postseason, however, they
will need him to go like this, even as the Lakers, and the rest
of the league, hope he once again goes in the other direction.

SI.com
The latest NBA news, scores and statistics, plus analysis from
Jack McCallum and Marty Burns, at si.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK POINT MAN In his sixth year Stojakovic has upped his scoring average to 25.1, 8.4 points higher than his career number.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK OUTSIDE IN An established perimeter master, Stojakovic now is intent on improving his game closer to the basket.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH

SURE SHOT

Peja Stojakovic is having one of the best all-around shooting
seasons in NBA history. His field goal, three-point and free
throw percentages are all among the best in the league, and he
could become the fifth player in history (among those who
qualified for scoring titles) to shoot 50% from the field, 40%
from behind the arc and 90% from the free throw stripe in the
same season. --David Sabino

SEASON FG% 3FG% FT%

Peja Stojakovic, Kings 2003-04* 49.4 42.9 91.2
Steve Kerr, Bulls 1995-96 50.6 51.5 92.9
Reggie Miller, Pacers 1993-94 50.3 42.1 90.8
Mark Price, Cavaliers 1988-89 52.6 44.1 90.1
Larry Bird, Celtics 1987-88 52.7 41.4 91.6
Larry Bird, Celtics 1986-87 52.5 40.0 91.0

*through Sunday

WASTE NOT

One reason the Kings had the NBA's best record at week's end is
that they make the most of each possession. Sacramento led the
NBA with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.89 to 1 and ranked
either first or second in the three main shooting categories.
Three Kings--Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby and Brad Miller--were
among the league's most efficient shooters, scoring about a point
for every field goal or free throw they've attempted. Here are
this season's leaders in points per "release," a release being an
attempted field goal or free throw (minimum 300 FGAs and 100 FTAs
through Sunday). --D.S.

FGA FTA Pts. Pts./Release

1. Peja Stojakovic, Kings 599 182 855 1.095
2. Sam Cassell, T-Wolves 577 120 711 1.020
3. Allan Houston, Knicks 524 127 639 .982
4. Cuttino Mobley, Rockets 472 100 559 .977
5. Antawn Jamison, Mavs 437 131 555 .977
6. Rashard Lewis, Sonics 546 131 658 .972
7. Brad Miller, Kings 375 169 527 .969
8. Mike Bibby, Kings 483 148 610 .967
9. Michael Redd, Bucks 672 159 802 .965
10. Kevin Garnett, T-Wolves 711 189 863 .959