How two unlikely players are leaving NBA benches flabbergasted
WHEN CHARLOTTE HORNETS center Mason Plumlee launched a left-handed, 15-foot, shot-put-like jumper over Brook Lopez on Dec. 3, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench reacted as if they had just seen a UFO fly through the Spectrum Center.
The sight of the right-handed Plumlee making a midrange jumper with his left hand was so stunning to Antetokounmpo that he stood with his arms slightly bent and hands ready in anticipation of something incredible, as if Plumlee was about to hit a winning shot.
After the Bucks called timeout, Antetokounmpo, who wasn’t playing that night, was still replaying what he had just seen, putting a finger on his upper lip and then his hand over his mouth like a detective trying to solve a crime.
The Bucks bench reaction after Mason Plumlee’s lefty jumper 😂 pic.twitter.com/NOiTncJWrC
— NBA (@NBA) December 3, 2022
Two nights later against the LA Clippers, Plumlee pulled up from the free throw line and shot left-handed. From the bench, Paul George followed the ball’s flight path like it was a home run, and Robert Covington’s jaw dropped.
Plumlee is a good sport and laughed when he thought about the reactions to his switch in shooting hand on jumpers and free throws.
“Oh man,” Plumlee told ESPN, laughing when asked about what has been said to him. “To me, it’s probably less what’s said and more just the reactions of the benches.”
Plumlee isn’t the only player this season going viral because of a major shooting form change. San Antonio rookie Jeremy Sochan hasn’t just stood out because of his bright hair color, he has stood out because he switched to shooting free throws one-handed.
Both players have had the courage to make radical changes to their form and routine for better results — even if it leaves social media and opposing benches flabbergasted.
“You know, it’s funny,” Plumlee said. “When you first do it, people are like, ‘Are you really going to keep doing that?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’
“It’s something I can’t really explain. It felt good changing and then the more I repped it and practiced it, it just kind of shored up my decision.”
WHEN SPURS COACH Gregg Popovich and assistant Brett Brown approached Sochan on Dec. 19 with a shooting change they wanted to make, he was perplexed.
“I thought they were joking,” Sochan told ESPN.
Sochan had been struggling from the free throw line to start his NBA career. In his first 23 career games, Sochan was 11-for-24 from the stripe — a paltry 45.8%.
So the two veteran coaches had an idea. They wanted Sochan to shoot free throws one-handed. Some players would immediately scoff at the idea. Instead, Sochan was a sponge.
The idea was that shooting one-handed will keep Sochan’s elbow tucked closer to his body. When he uses his left hand as a guide hand, his right elbow strayed further than anyone would like, causing a lower percentage.
That night, the Spurs were playing at the Houston Rockets. In the first quarter, Sochan was able to put his new form into practice.
Sochan stood at the line and caught the ball from the official. He took two dribbles and went into his shooting motion. But instead of using his left hand as a guide hand, Sochan let the ball go toward the rim using only his right hand.
The first shot missed off the back of the rim. Sochan adjusted, and the second shot swished.
With 2:55 remaining in the third quarter, Sochan returned to the free throw line. He missed both shots.
A one-handed free throw 😳 pic.twitter.com/9HQcQvywvz
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) December 20, 2022
Social media had its fun with Sochan’s newfound form, but that hasn’t bothered him. He said he trusts his work and trusts the process, never second-guessing the coaching staff.
“When someone like Coach Pop shows you something, it means a little more,” Sochan said.
Popovich said Sochan embraced the new free throw style right away.
“He’s courageous, he’s pretty fearless and he doesn’t worry about what people think,” Popovich said prior to the Spurs’ loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 22. “He just wants to get better, so that’s just a character thing. A lot of guys wouldn’t even want to try it.”
In the second game of his new shot, against the Pelicans, Sochan showed confidence. He eliminated one step — no more dribbles. Sochan took the ball from the official and immediately went into his shooting motion.
Sochan missed his first attempt but quickly found a groove. In the midst of a career night — his 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists all set or tied career bests — Sochan went 7-for-10 from the line.
Sochan is now shooting 60% from the stripe. Since going to the one-handed free throws against Houston, he’s 20-for-28 (71.4%), including 19-for-24 (79.2%) after he eliminated the dribbles.
Something is working. And Sochan is fine with that.
“We’re going to keep doing it,” he said, “until they tell me something different.”
EVEN THOSE WHO played with Plumlee have had priceless reactions to their former teammate’s new shooting technique.
Austin Rivers played with Plumlee at Duke in 2011-12. But when Plumlee shot left-handed from the foul line late in the fourth quarter against Minnesota on Nov. 25, Rivers looked so confounded on the sideline that he didn’t know what to do with his arms. They started extended out as if he was holding people back before he moved his elbows upward like a puppet on strings. By the time Plumlee’s free throw swished, Rivers’ hands were on top of his head in full surrender cobra.
“To be honest, I’m not doing it for them or for anybody,” Plumlee said of the reaction. “It’s about the result.
“And, I’m happy I made the change.”
Austin Rivers cannot believe what he is witnessing. pic.twitter.com/ZLUll32FLu
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) December 6, 2022
Plumlee is averaging 10.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists, and shooting 63.9% this season with the majority of his shots coming close to the rim. He has been working on his left-handed shooting since last March when an injury left a finger on his right hand so badly swollen that he had trouble gripping the ball.
Plumlee decided to start shooting free throws with his left hand and had nothing to lose. His free throw shooting went from 66.9% in 2020-21 to 39.2% in 2021-22.
Plumlee shot left-handed free throws in the final 15 games last season and went 17-for-32 (53.1%).
“When you have someone you’ve seen shoot right-handed and they come back next year, they’re shooting with a different hand,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said, “that is strange. It’s kind of different, but Tristan [Thompson] did it as well.”
Plumlee’s free throw percentage is 58.9% this season, a nearly 20% increase and almost 3% better than his career average of 55.9%. And while the veteran still shoots shots close to the rim with his right hand when he isn’t dunking, Plumlee shoots with his left hand from the midrange, going 6-for-11 this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“I can’t remember anybody doing that before,” Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said last month prior to a Clippers-Hornets game. “But this … [Plumlee is] not a happenstance guy. He is a fanatical worker. He had been in there every day, free throws, hook shots, 3s, all of it. So he’s very comfortable. He spends a lot of time at it.
“… You know, shooting can become so mental. I’m not sure how many people would be gifted enough to be able to do that, but he’s got obviously terrific hand-eye coordination.”
As long as he’s improving and the shot feels good, Plumlee is going to keep shooting with his left hand no matter what others think.
“I can tell you I’ve done a good job of excusing the numbers mentally and just going off of feel,” Plumlee said. “And I like [the] reps in the offseason, preseason practice, like it’s pure to me. So I don’t even question it. And that’s where I like to be.”
He hasn’t shot any lefty 3s in a game — yet.
Luke Kennard, the Clippers’ left-handed shooter who led the league in 3-point percentage last season, said Plumlee’s left-handed form pleasantly surprised him.
“I was talking with some people on the bench when he was shooting free throws,” Kennard told ESPN, who also played at Duke, like Plumlee. “It doesn’t look bad, honestly. Obviously he has made little midrange shots with it, and it’s just getting more comfortable, getting reps in.
“… I’m down to talk with him, throw him some tips. Turn him into a lefty.”