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Meet The Spurs Sharpshooter Who Refuses To Shoot Straight

Marco Belinelli has been one of the NBA’s more successful marksmen from deep the past decade. But few would suggest emulating the Italian’s often unsightly approach to shooting. The 11-year veteran has a curious habit of leaning into his jumpshots “Smooth Criminal”-style. The move puzzles even Gregg Popovich, who, as the longest-tenured American professional coach in sports, has seen just about everything by now.

“It’s not a sometimes thing — he always is leaning somewhere,” said Popovich, who is coaching Belinelli for a second stint. “I don’t know who taught him that, but it can’t be untaught at this point. It’s just there.”

But watch the 32-year-old dart around on offense long enough, and it becomes more clear why he does what he does. Much like an armadillo curls into a ball for protection, Belinelli leans to safeguard his shot from being blocked from behind, particularly as he comes around teammates’ screens.

“It looks crazy when I’m off-balance all the time, but I just want to be quick with the ball,” said Belinelli, who’s had just two of his 265 jumpers blocked this year.1 “That’s the life of a shooter, I guess.”

It’s hard to overstate Belinelli’s offensive importance off the bench in San Antonio, which not only came into the year short-handed but also had several new faces in its experienced rotation. Aside from the trade of star Kawhi Leonard,2 Manu Ginobili — the 16-year warhorse who gave the Spurs’ reserves stability — retired, leaving Belinelli with even more scoring to replace.

The Spurs are the NBA’s biggest shot-selection outlier, with long, midrange jumpers making up a league-high 17 percent of their shots while 3-points are an NBA-low 27.7 percent of their shots. Because of that, Belinelli’s production as a reliable perimeter shooter is welcome.

His return from an early season hibernation — he shot a frigid 35 percent from the field over San Antonio’s first 25 games — lines up with the Spurs’ streak of 13 wins in 16 games, which put the team squarely back in the Western Conference playoff race. During this hot streak, Belinelli has connected on 46.8 percent of his field-goal tries, including almost 41 percent of his threes.

A handful of Belinelli’s most successful tendencies are used more often by the game’s elite ball-handlers. His desire to come off screens aggressively (and with almost no space between him and his screener) is an art that Kemba Walker perfected some time ago. And he sometimes makes use of the perimeter give-and-go, which Steph Curry employed to blister the Cavs in last year’s NBA Finals.

But few players, if any, shoot as well as Belinelli while using such unorthodox leans and angles. He initially developed the tendency to lean forward on a number of his jumpers when he first entered the league with Golden State, playing for Don Nelson’s up-tempo Warriors club. Because the team was always in transition, Belinelli often had forward momentum as he’d launch threes in Golden State’s offense — something that would become a habit elsewhere.

As for his penchant for leaning as he comes around screens, Belinelli said that was something he took from his lone season in Chicago, where the Bulls needed him to serve as a point guard of sorts in the absence of Derrick Rose. The team didn’t have many players capable of creating their own offense, so his coaches there told him to be aggressive — and quick — about shooting when he saw daylight after getting a pick at the top of the key.

Belinelli acknowledges that a fair number of his misses stem from being too off-balanced. But similar to Klay Thompson, the Spurs swingman suggested that it’s usually most important for him to square his shoulders — and less important to think about where his feet or toes are pointed as he lets it fly.

Having the occasional embarrassing miss (or a seemingly impossible, completely redeeming make) simply comes with the territory in this day and age, according to J.J. Redick, the Sixers sharpshooter who was teammates with Belinelli in Philadelphia last season.

“The game’s changed too much for us to stand still and wait for open shots. If we did that, we’d get maybe a shot or two each game,” Redick said of his and Belinelli’s perpetual movement. “We’re not getting many swing-swing passes where we can come straight up and down. When you’re on the move and beating someone to that spot, you’re going to be a bit off-balanced.”

So next time you see Belinelli nearly falling over on a jumper, as strange as it might seem, just remember that it’s likely not an accident. More often than not, he feels like the unusual look gives him a split-second advantage on his defender.

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Footnotes

  1. Of those two blocks, per Second Spectrum data, one resulted in an immediate putback and basket for the Spurs, while the other drew a loose-ball foul on Jimmy Butler, who’d blocked Belinelli’s shot just before.

  2. Danny Green was also sent to Toronto, while Tony Parker signed with Charlotte in free agency.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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