This is a tough subject to truly analyze because so much goes into player development that we’ll just never know nor have access to. It’s especially a tough thing to assess because the last Minnesota Timberwolves’ season was a big heaping pile of chaos and patchwork. However, the work Mike Penberthy did during his first season with the Wolves was paramount for the team’s long-term success, especially in the latest rebuilding project.
When you have young players with flaws, the work a development coach is able to do with them is maybe the biggest key to your entire organization. Teams practice so little once the season starts because of the schedule, injuries, etc. but players are doing individual work with the coaches assigned to develop them on a daily basis. Those consistent in-season lessons with video and court work along with the off-season work are what develop the future of your organization.
After watching what the Wolves’ key young players did last season and the pre-game work and overall philosophies of shooting and skills coach Mike Penberthy, it feels like a no-brainer that the Wolves should do what they can to bring him back for the next season.
“I would love to come back and I feel there is a lot of work to be done with all the young talent in Minnesota,” Penberthy said to me when I asked him recently about his situation with Minnesota. “Flip Saunders is a great coach and I’ve learned so much from him and the rest of the staff. There’s a bright future ahead in Minnesota.”
People around the league have taken notice with Mike and his methods of teaching the skill/art of shooting. At a certain point, that notice turns into demand and you start losing an asset at your disposal. It’s something we saw with veteran assistant Bill Bayno pretty recently. With the emphasis in the NBA being shooting and perimeter work, Penberthy’s expertise on the matter is invaluable. And it’s something you can see oozing from him during every pre-game warm-up sessions.
Penberthy is a ridiculous shooter, even at the age of 40 and 13 years removed from his last NBA game. He last played professionally in 2008 in Italy and again in 2011-12 in a new league called the ABA (no affiliation with the original ABA). His jumper still looks as wet as a tropical storm. He goes out there before every game, putting perimeter players through drills that involve dribble moves into shots. He’s reminding them of the rhythm of the move and how it morphs seamlessly into the shooting motion — preaching balance the entire time.
After he’s done working, you’ll see him get shots up of his own; a gym rat you’d never want to challenge to a game of H-O-R-S-E. Doesn’t matter the spot on the floor; the net rarely moves. It’s one of the purest finishes to a jumper you can find in an NBA arena today, and that’s including the players.
The approach Penberthy takes when it comes to teaching shooting is primarily psychological because confidence can trump the shooting motion in a way the shooting motion can’t trump confidence. He’s not totally interested in changing a shooting motion because not all shooting motions have to be the same. It’s about correcting small flaws within the unique motions that can provide simple yet effective fixes without shattering a players confidence by saying, “Everything you do is wrong.”
Simply putting up shots doesn’t really do anything for a player. They have to learn confidence through mentally linking positive memories of making shots or playing well with the muscle memory — a practice Penberthy preaches and almost tricks his players into doing without them really knowing it.
His biggest project in getting this to work has been Ricky Rubio. The Spanish point guard is one of the more divisive players. His worth from the casual observer is simply tied to his lack of shooting accuracy, which ignores his defensive capabilities and his ability to make plays for others. Ignoring those aspects of his game mean you’re ignoring the impact he has on the floor. But that doesn’t absolve him of his poor shooting.
In order for the Wolves to maximize their venture with Rubio as their point guard, he’ll have to become at least an average shooter from the field to force the defense to make a decision in how they defend him. The biggest obstacle in this happening has been a lack of confidence in his ability to shoot because it’s often all he ends up hearing about.
“Ricky’s hindrance has been his mind,” said Penberthy, who will spend time in Minneapolis and on the road with the team, as well as at home in Los Angeles. “When you read all the time that you’re not a good shooter, you start to believe it, no matter how strong you are as a player. You start to doubt yourself. It’s fear of failure, more psychological. That totally translates into your body language and how you shoot. Changing his mentality is a combination of his body language, his mind and his repetitions being correct. We’ve got the repetition side. I’m in control of that.”
The mental aspect of it is something Rubio has had to get past, especially when it comes to hearing about it. Rubio’s ability to concentrate on the work (his work ethic is incredible), making it proper work through Penberthy’s tutelage, and finding an acceptance of what he’s good at doing and having it bleed into the rest of his game are all things the Wolves have tried create by pairing him with Penberthy.
Rubio has learned that the quality of the work is just as important, if not more than the quantity he does. His work with Penberthy is something he’s eagerly accepted. Perhaps he could’ve shown off greater results had he not injured his ankle 4.5 games into the season.
Do you get tired of people talking about your jumper?
I was. I was at one point. But like I say, I learned how to not get everything too personal. I know I have to work on my jump shot, and I’m doing it. It’s not that I’m not aware of it. I know, but it’s not easy. If it were to be easy, a lot of players would be playing in this league, you know. I have a lot of gifts, I know how to be a point guard. And know I have to learn other stuff. So it’s a process. It’s not going to be easy. And maybe I’m never going to get it, but I’m going to try. I’m going to try hard every day and nobody can tell me that I’m not working hard because I know that I have to work on that.
I don’t know if you have an exact number, but how many shots do you get up when you’re healthy?
I shoot a lot. But at the same time, I thought that I was getting a lot of repetitions at one point and even doing a lot of repetitions didn’t help me. And at one point it’s more about quality than quantity. Still you’ve got to shoot a lot but at one point it’s no more about the time you put in, it’s the quality of the time you put in. So I’m trying to learn every single practice. I’ve been working this past year with [Wolves shooting coach] Mike Penberthy and I really like the way he works. I really improved my shot the last year. I couldn’t show it because I was hurt, but my jump shot was feeling good. And I feel pretty confident that working ahead with him is going to really help me.
To ask when Rubio is going to improve his jumper is to not understand that it took a big leap from the 2013-14 season to this past season. The areas in which Rubio was able to improve came from Penberthy’s mental work and the script he had to follow under Flip Saunders. For as much flak as Saunders’ offense brings about (from myself included), it calms things down for a player like Rubio.
Rubio has the freedom to make plays for others, but there are plays within what they run in which he’s told to take a certain shot. Mostly, it was a shot coming around the corner on a pick-and-roll with Rubio going toward the left side of the court and pulling up for a midrange jumper. The dreaded midrange jumper is not good for most players to take, but it’s one Rubio excelled at this season. He never had to think; he only had to shoot because that’s what the play called for.
Here are his shot charts via ShotAnalytics from the past two years:
The biggest things you notice are the change in the area of success on 3-point shooting, the improvement in midrange shooting, and the huge drop-off Rubio had around the rim. The drop-off around the rim seems too extreme not to be related to the balky ankle he played on for the majority of last season. Even though he was a bad finisher around the rim before that, dropping to roughly one-third of your shots going in around the rim just screams injury.
The shooting around the rim is also the biggest reason Rubio’s field goal percentage fell last season. Yes, his 3-point shooting fell from an almost manageable 33.1% to just 25.6% from 2013-14 to 2014-15. But did you notice his midrange jumper (16 feet to 3-point line) went from 30.8% two seasons ago to 40.4%? And his 10-16 foot shot went from 17.4% to 45.5%.
That’s part of the encouraging progress Ricky showed in his first season with Penberthy as his shot doctor. And it wasn’t the only area in which Rubio improved with his shot.
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Of the 130 players in the NBA to take at least 90 jumpers off the dribble in 2014-15, Rubio ranked 80th in field goal percentage. Granted, he took a lot fewer jumpers but he had a higher field goal percentage in jumpers off the dribble than John Wall (36.4%), James Harden (36.4%), Damian Lillard (35.4%), Russell Westbrook (35.2%), and Kyle Lowry (35.0%).
Of the 235 players in the NBA to take at least 150 jump shots total in 2014-15, Rubio was 170th in field goal percentage. Once again, he took a lot fewer jumpers, but he had a higher success rate on those jump shots than Russell Westbrook (34.6%), Kyle Lowry (34.2%), and Kobe Bryant (33.9%). Not all jumpers are created equal with the defensive attention they garner, but in a vacuum that’s still a pretty interesting list of (in)accuracy.
Moving forward, Rubio’s jumper improved greatly. He shot 8.7% better on jumpers off the dribble (what he’d primarily take in the flow of the offense) and 5.7% better on all jump shots. Even if he just kept that rate of success on jumpers and turned around his shooting around the rim to where it was before the ankle injury (49.1%, which is still really bad), Rubio’s field goal percentage in this scenario would increase to 38.4% over the course of the season.
That’s without fixing the 3-point jumper that had more accuracy in the past. Even if that goes back to 33.1% from downtown, his field goal percentage overall would be above 40% from the field (40.2% to be exact) and he’d start looking like an average threat on offense. That’s before we get into Rubio possibly approaching more of a league average finisher around the hoop or developing that floater in the lane he’s working on.
It’s not that Rubio is fixed by any means. We still have to see if these improvements hold into next season and we have to see if he can remain healthy like we saw in 2013-14 when he played all 82 games. But a big part of this improvement is combining the work ethic of Rubio with the intelligent teachings of Penberthy. Instead of allowing him to move on and work his magic with another team, the Wolves should be making a concerted effort to show Mike it’s more lucrative to stay in Minnesota.
Mike Penberthy has quite a ways to go before he has the same name recognition and clout of San Antonio Spurs’ shooting/assistant coach Chip Engelland, but he has the potential to be that guy for the Wolves’ organization. Hopefully, they come through on making him their Chip Engelland.