Highlighting the NBA’s Early Sharpshooters

[In January 1953, Red Auerbach published the first edition of his how-to book Basketball for the Player, the Fan, and the Coach. By September 1953, this classic was in its third edition, touting over 50 illustrations on such things as the fine art of spreading your fingers while dribbling and the mechanics of the one-hand underhand pass. 

Auerbach also mixed in some commentary about the NBA’s greatest shooters, including practitioners of this newfangled thing called the “jump shot.” “The two greatest all-around jump shooters I have ever seen were Joe Fulks and Paul Arizin when they both played with the Philadelphia Warriors,” wrote Auerbach. “These two shooters use different fundamental principles. Fulks may give a slight fake merely to make a defensive man rise on his toes. When this defensive man is on his way down to proper balance, then Fulks with all of his 6-feet-5 height and tremendous spring can outjump the man guarding him. He also has ‘great’ hands and can shoot any way while up in the air. 

“Paul Arizin , who is also blessed with excellent hands and good deception, has in addition an uncanny natural ability and timing. Not only can he jump high, but somehow, he can stay in the air at the top of his jump longer than anyone I have ever seen. In fact, I have seen him hold his shot until his defensive opponent is on the way down.” 

Nearly 70 years later, it’s hard to find other thoughtful commentaries on the NBA’s greatest early shooters. This fantastic article from the April 1956 issue of Sport Magazine is an exception. It’s written by Bud Palmer, a former pro-turned-sportscaster, menswear model, hair tonic idol, and advice columnist. Here Palmer has plenty to say about the NBA’s top shooters in an era when six different shots were on display nightly across the association, from Syracuse to St. Louis.]

Bud Palmer

Today’s 100-point scores rolled up at breakneck speed by jumping, bouncing, floating, fading, and flying deadeye shooters have made pro basketball an exciting, crowd-pleasing, successful game. Yet, even with this high-powered, apparently irrepressible offense, the game is still sound, solid, and balanced—maybe even a little more so than before. It’s just that today’s player has to be able to score, whether he is in pro ball, college, or even high school. 

The player of 20 years ago was a star if he could pass the ball or hit occasionally with an orthodox two-hand set shot or play a strong defensive game. Today, every player in the NBA does all three—he has to, to stay in the league—besides having a hook shot, a one-hand push, a kangaroo jump and/or a behind-the-ear heave. There are so many sharp shooters coming out of the colleges every year, and so few rookies who can make the NBA, that the pro game, almost by definition, is loaded with sharp-eyed “gunners.”

From the variety of shots taken in the average pro basketball game, I have selected the six that are considered the most effective, and the player who is the top specialist in each. There are other strong candidates, of course, but these are the stickouts: 

Two-Hand Set—Carl Braun, New York Knicks

One-Hand Push—Bob Cousy, Boston Celtics

Corner Shot—Bill Sharman, Boston Celtics

Jump Shot—Paul Arizin, Philadelphia Warriors

Hook Shot—Neil Johnston, Philadelphia Warriors

Rebound Tap-In— Maurice Stokes, Rochester Royals

The two-hand set—there aren’t many two-hand set shooters in the NBA anymore. It is a long-range and difficult shot to make, but still a pretty sight. The best at getting one off and hitting is Carl Braun. What makes Carl’s set so effective is the speed with which he gets it away without ever changing his grip on the ball or resetting his fingers, as so many others do. Most set shooters need time to get the shot away. Not Carl. He takes a quick step backward, and without changing his hands, lets the ball go. He fires it just above eye level, using a medium amount of arc. His is a fairly long shot, too, but Braun’s accuracy with it is amazing. He has been the Knicks’ top scorer every year he has been with them and his field goal percentage last season was just a fraction under 39 percent. Remember, most of those goals came on two-hand sets taken from the outside. 

Carl Braun, master of the two-hand set shot

Having a man like Braun on your team keeps the defense “honest.” For the Knicks, it means that a defensive man must play Carl practically nose-to-nose in order not to give him much room to set. It also means he can’t help out the defense by collapsing on the middle. If he does, Karl will riddle the defense with his long sets. Most opposing NBA teams keep a hand in Braun’s face most of the time. Of course, playing him tight is an invitation for Carl to drive around his man for a layup. 

I was Carl’s first roommate when he came to the Knicks and I know he has had that shot ever since his days at Colgate. Only he needed more time getting it off then. I’d say he has picked up his speed about 70 percent. Being primarily a pivot man in college, Carl didn’t have much opportunity to perfect his technique until he came into the NBA. 

The nearest two-hand set to Braun’s is the one Dolph Schayes (Syracuse Nats) throws. He sets much the same as Carl, but he’s not as quick at getting off his shot. Jack George (Warriors) has improved his two-hand set considerably, and, of course, Bobby Wanzer (Royals) and Paul Seymour (Nats) have been successful with it for years. Dick McGuire (Knickerbockers) Has been particularly effective this season and Richie Regan (Royals) seems to be the best said shooter among the rookies. 

The one-hand push—His amazing accuracy with it from almost any place on the court makes Bob Cousy the most dangerous one-hand push shot in the game. A brilliant and resourceful player, he can—and will—let it go from anywhere at any time. He’ll try it coming around center court, were off a pass or dribble, or before a dribble. Give Cousy room, or press him, either way he can hit with his push shot. 

Bob Cousy pushing one up

Bob’s one-hand push is normally a longer shot than even Braun’s set and he throws it with an unusually high arc. But, unlike Braun, Bob takes longer to get his pet shot away. It is a tremendous offensive weapon not only because he can hit consistently with it, but because the defensive man knows he has to guard closely against it. Consequently Cousy,, with that fantastic dribble of his, going either way, can fake his one-hander to draw his man in and then go around him for a close-in, relatively easy two points. 

Even though he lofts it, Cousy fires his one-hand push in conventional manner, from his right shoulder. Contrast this with the peculiar way Mel Hutchins (Fort Wayne Pistons) throws his. Mel like to shoot it from high above his head while fading away, and when you realize he is 6-feet-6 inches tall, the shot, deadly to begin with, makes him really tough to handle. Off what he has shown in his first season in the league, Chuck Noble (Pistons) also has a good push shot. 

The corner shot—Though it is similar in execution to the one-hand push, the corner shot is nonetheless a distinct weapon. It is what you might call a shooter’s shot and is obviously used by a corner man, whose main function is shooting. Bill Sharman fits the bill. He is a natural shooter.

Bil Sharman, deadeye from the corner

Few people may notice it, but one of Bill’s assets is his big hands. He seems to caress the ball every time he handles it. In the corner, he cups the ball in his right hand and, if he has time, rocks it in his hands several times before shooting. Bill also has great fingertip control which, in the act of shooting, allows him to retain control of the ball at a point  where most other players have already let it go. This is known as “full extension.” Those extra seconds Bill controls the ball give him a better line to the basket. He almost seems to hate to let go of the ball, and when he does, he has perfect follow-through. 

Like most pros, Bill puts backspin on the ball. The reason is that it helps the trajectory to the basket and cuts down air-current resistance. Sharman has a very soft shot, too; it seems to hit the rim with the impact of a snowflake. Without doubt, the corner shot has been Sharman’s payoff shot in the pros. He is so accurate with it, in fact, that he uses it for his free throws. His 89.7 percentage from the free-throw line last year (347 out of 387) proves how accurate he can be. Hutchins, Frank Selvy (St. Louis Hawks) and Paul Arizin (Warriors) are other good corner men. 

The jump shot—The one-hand jump shot is basketball’s newest-point producer. Almost 75 percent of the shots taken in an average game today are on jumps. Because Paul Arizin seems to get maximum efficiency at maximum height with his jump, he heads my list of the growing army of jump-shot specialists. Paul is quite a picture when he goes up for his jump. With his back arched sharply, he seems to hang in the air with the ball. Then, at the top of his jump, just as he seems to be coming down, he releases the ball. 

Paul Arizin, jump shot maker

Naturally, a jump shot depends largely on players’ legs. Once their legs go, they have to force the shot. Paul somehow manages to jump higher and get more accuracy with his shot than anybody else in the league. And, unlike many others, he can achieve this without taking an initial dribble. Some players have to bounce the ball a few times before going into their spring. Paul can do it from a standing start. 

There are four main reasons for a jump shot: 1) The element of surprise. Only the shooter knows when he is going to try it, so he has an edge on his defensive man. 2) It is very difficult to block. 3) It draws fouls. 4) Normally you have a clearer shot at the basket when you are in the air. 

The jump has to be taken from fairly close to the basket since accuracy, in this shot more than in any other, drops off drastically the farther out you move. A jump is most effective at about 15 feet, though Arizin can hit with it from a greater distance. But Paul’s arc, too, is just right and he throws about as soft a jump shot as you will see. Most jump shot artists are corner men, like Arizin, but nowadays backcourtmen like Dick Garmaker and Chuck Mencel of the Lakers have started jumping. More and more pivot men, too, are beginning to use the jump shot as an alternate to their hooks. Ed Macauley (Celtics) uses it to great advantage as he falls away from the basket. Larry Foust (Pistons) has a good jump shot for a pivot man, as do Neil Johnston (Warriors), Maurice Stokes (Royals), Dick Ricketts (Royals), George Yardley (Pistons), and Jim Tucker (Nats).

Nobody seems to know exactly how the jump shot got started. Howard Cann, the NYU coach, claims I [Bud Palmer] was the first to use it, but I’m not sure. I do know that Kenny Sailors had a jump shot when he was at Wyoming. This was about the same time that I played at Princeton, and we couldn’t have picked it up from one another because neither of us saw the other playing college ball. 

The hook shot—It would be worth mentioning here that a shooter must have absolute confidence in his bread-and-butter shot. He must feel sure it is going to hit most of the time. Neil Johnston, the best hook shot in the NBA, strikes me as a perfect illustration of this. Neil looks genuinely surprised when one of his hooks fails, and most of the other good shooters in the league react the same way. At 6-feet-8 inches and 215 pounds, Neil has the strength a good pivot man must have. In the close body contract in today’s pro ball, a pivot man wheeling for a hook has to be able to keep his balance after slamming into a defensive man. Neil never seems to be thrown off stride. 

Neil Johnston, king of the hook shot

Especially when he is using his “full extension” to throw the hook from way out, Johnston is tough to guard. When a fellow his size reaches far out, it is tough to block his shot. The raw-boned Philadelphia center is effective with either hand, although he seems a little stronger with his right hand. He also has that wonderful facility of always knowing where the basket is while his back is to it. Unlike some centers who have a preferred spot from which to start their hooks, Neil can throw his accurately from almost anywhere, either after a dribble or off a direct pass. His ability to fake and still hook accurately is another factor which makes him tops in this department. Many times, centers fake their man dizzy and blow the shot. To me, this suggests that the player tightened up and lost “sight” of the basket. Johnston never seems to lose “sight.” He has a soft hook which normally he banks off the backboard. 

Clyde Lovellette (Lakers) scores most of his points on hooks, and Jack Nichols (Celtics), Arnie Risen (Celtics) and Red Rocha (Nats) have good ones, too. Bob Houbregs (Pistons) has one of the longest hooks I’ve ever seen, but he doesn’t get much of a chance to use it since he is often moved out to the corner. 

The rebound tap-in—The most important factors in rebound taps are luck, position, anticipation, and timing—though not necessarily in that order. In his rookie season in the pros, Maurice Stokes has developed into the best in the league playing his offensive board. Maurice depends heavily on his ability to anticipate, and his speed and timing in out-positioning his man to tap in teammates’ shots. The rebound tap-in is nothing more than putting a lid on a shot that didn’t make it the first time. Stokes has been a bulwark in that department for Rochester. 

Maurice Stokes on the tap

It is hard to get inside your defensive man on the offensive board. Normally, you should be boxed out to begin with. This is where Stokes’ great jumping ability comes in, but, more importantly, he uses feints and speed to get inside. Besides his tremendous spring, Stokes employs exceptional fingertip control once he gets up there. Here again, there is a lot of bone-bruising contact under the boards and you can easily be knocked off balance. At the peak of his jump, Stokes is balanced and ready to flick in a shot in a split second. That’s about all the time you get up there. 

One thing Maurice learned at an early age: you never slap at the ball when it is bounding up on the rim. You have to use a flicking motion, sometimes to change the direction of the ball, other times, holding the hand still, just to deflect the ball into the basket. Stokes has just the right touch for it. 

Around the league, Larry Foust (Pistons) is known for his rebounding and George Yardley’s spring helps give the Pistons an excellent one-two combination on the offensive board. Vern Mikkelsen  (Lakers), Schayes and Pettit also do an excellent job here. 

The exclusion of the layup shot in this article not only speaks for the excellence of the six shots already mentioned, but also for the complex nature of the layup. They are no longer simple shots. They have become so fancy and avers that it would be unfair to classify all layup shots in the same group. Today there are driving layups, floating layups, layups with reverse spin—any number of them. If I had to pick out one all-around layup artist, it would be Slater Martin of Minneapolis. The layup is also Frank Selvy’s best shot and Dolph Schayes, who is good at almost everything, had an unbeatable driving layup. So does George Yardley.

While it is the belief of some critics of the modern game that the emphasis on offense has virtually wiped out defensive basketball , actually the opposite is true. In the old days, all the defense had to watch for was one particular shot in a given situation. Today, with such a rich assortment of shots and complicated offensive play patterns in use, the defense has developed into an integral, highly complex phase of basketball. 

High-scoring games don’t indicate that the defense is inoperative. Scores are much higher than before because of the advent of the new, accurate and almost unstoppable shots. Naturally, the defense has to concede a certain number of these, but it works to hold a shooter to his average. As far as the 100-point scores go, the fans seem to be overwhelmingly in favor of high-scoring games. I’ve even been told by the All-American Scoreboard Corporation that they are building scoreboards for pro arenas to accommodate three-figure scores. They already have installed one at Charlotte, N.C.  

If anything, defenses are smarter today than they ever were. The pros collapse as much as possible when they can, block the driving lanes, and hamper set plays. But the countless deadeye shots in the league today, notably the ones we’ve discussed here, can knock their brains out if the defense doesn’t stick right with them.  

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