July 7, 2017
By Andy Demetra/Georgia Tech Radio
– The headline, if read without context, begs for mockery.
“GEORGIA TECH BRINGS IN LAYUP COACH.”
The layup? That most basic of basketball shots? The skill everyone learns when just starting out? And the Yellow Jackets – a collection of elite, high-major college basketball players – need someone to help them with it?
How bad must things be at Zelnak?
But Josh Pastner sees beyond the trite, made-for-Internet punchlines. Georgia Tech’s second-year head coach is constantly searching for an edge, which is why he recently asked Miami Heat shooting coach Rob Fodor, known in coaching circles as a body movement specialist, to pay his program a site visit last month.
“I had never spent more time in my life on shooting layups than I did last year,” said Pastner, whose team finished 21-16 and reached the championship game of the NIT.
“We got better. But we just missed too many.”
For Pastner, who studies film with Talmudic dedication, the need for help became clear after re-watching every one of his team’s ACC games this Spring. According to Synergy Sports, Georgia Tech made 51.5 percent of its shots inside a 10-foot radius of the rim. That number would have ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the ACC. In Tech’s conference wins, its percentage jumped to 55.0 percent. In losses, it dropped to 48.2 percent.
FG% inside 10 feet – ACC Games
ACC Average: 54.2%
Georgia Tech: 51.5%
GT Wins: 55.0%
GT Losses: 48.2%
Considering Tech lost four ACC games by four points or less, those missed opportunities gnawed at Pastner.
“We left a lot of points on the board. We’re just not capable of doing that. We’re not capable of affording to do that in this league. That’s the difference between possibly another win or two and being in the NCAA Tournament or not being in it,” he said.
“He would get very mad if we missed easy layups in practice,” added senior center Ben Lammers. “He made sure to emphasize it. We’d do specific drills to make sure everyone gets a little tougher around the rim.”
Still, Pastner saw room for growth. In hopes of becoming more adept finishers at the rim, Pastner had assistant Eric Reveno reach out to Fodor through a connection with Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra (Spoelstra played collegiately at the University of Portland; Reveno was the head coach at Portland before joining Pastner’s staff at Tech). For three days last week, Fodor spent time with Tech’s coaching staff, trading ideas on techniques, mechanics and teaching methods. They learned of concepts like “eye posture,” “ball posture” (keeping the ball higher rather than raising it up from the hip) and proper elbow placement.
“What I liked about him, he was a little more unorthodox. As you know me, I’m a little more unorthodox in how we want to play. I thought it was awesome. It was just different ways to look at things,” Pastner said of Fodor’s visit.
Pastner would also like to clear up another misconception about the layup: except on breakaways, it’s actually a difficult shot. Finishing through contact, recalibrating the arc as a defender swoops in, adjusting the angle off the glass – at the high-major level, there’s far more nuance to a layup than people suspect. Makeable, yes, but by no means a gimme.
“It’s no longer the old-school, junior high, take off with your left, shoot with your right, or take off with your right, shoot with your left. Layups are now becoming – because of the athleticism and everything else – you’ve got to be able to score layups off of different feet, awkward positions,” Pastner explained. “You’ve got some guys who have 7’2,” 7’3” wingspans. You’ve got to get over that, and you’ve got to focus on trying to make it at the same time,” said senior Tadric Jackson, whom Pastner regards as his best layup maker.
Pastner, in fact, takes it one step further: “To me, a wide-open three-point shot off a penetration and kick is an easier shot than a contested layup,” he said. “You might say, ‘Well, no.’ No. It’s way easier. Your feet are set, you have clear vision, no one’s in your way. Yeah, it’s a farther distance. It’s an easier shot than when you’re driving the ball and have to make a play at the rim,” he said.
While he hasn’t used Fodor’s methods on his players yet, Pastner believes one person in particular can benefit.
“Josh Okogie has to get better,” he said. That may seem odd, given Okogie led the Yellow Jackets in scoring last season (16.1 ppg) and is currently playing on USA Basketball’s U19 national team at the FIBA U19 World Cup. But better finishing at the rim, Pastner believes, can make the sophomore an even more impactful player.
“As much as he scored, do you know how many points he left on the board with missed layups?” Pastner said.
Reveno, who coaches the Jackets’ post players, uses Lammers as another example. Fodor observed that when Lammers rolled the ball up to the rim, he often had his elbow cocked out, rather than tucked in. As a result, the ball accelerated to the rim faster, which cut down on the number of soft bounces Lammers got.
It’s paying attention to those details, Pastner believes, that can pay big dividends for the Yellow Jackets this upcoming season.
“Talking to another coach, who’s kind of innovative on some things he does, his one stat was if you make six more restricted-arc layups than the opposing team, the winning percentage is like 98 percent,” Pastner said.
Hence the Jackets’ scrutiny this summer on a shot that’s often taken for granted. And if their work pays off, it could lead to much better headlines in 2018.