SI Vault
 
Square Shooter
L. Jon Wertheim
April 03, 2000
In his final season Jeff Hornacek is still lifting the Jazz with the kind of good old-fashioned shooting that's rarely seen these days
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 03, 2000

Square Shooter

In his final season Jeff Hornacek is still lifting the Jazz with the kind of good old-fashioned shooting that's rarely seen these days

View CoverRead All Articles

Surest Shot

Only four NBA players are in the top 30 in career three-point and free throw shooting for both the regular season and the playoffs. Through Sunday's games Jeff Hornacek had the best cumulative ranking among them.

 

REGULAR SEASON

POSTSEASON

PLAYER

3-PT. % (RANK)

FT % (RANK)

3-PT. % (RANK)

FT % (RANK)

SUM OF RANKS

Jeff Hornacek

40.2% (15)

87.7% (8)

43.5% (3)

88.8% (7)

33

Reggie Miller

40.4% (12)

88.1% (7)

40.9% (8)

87.4% (11)

38

Hersey Hawkins

39.4% (20)

87.0% (12)

39.8% (9)

91.1% (4)

45

Chris Mullin

38.3% (30)

86.6% (16)

41.7% (5)

86.1% (19)

70

With little fanfare the Jeff Hornacek Farewell Tour stopped in Philadelphia recently, and when the Utah Jazz guard appeared for pregame warmups, a fan at midcourt encouraged his young son to observe Hornacek's dexterity as a shooter. As if on cue Hornacek swished four straight three-pointers, then nailed medium-range jumpers from various points on the First Union Center floor. Finally, he tossed in a series of bank shots and layups, employing angles that would have left Euclid scratching his head. There is something almost hypnotic about watching the man shoot, yet when Hornacek walked off the court, the child turned to his father and asked one question: "How come he didn't dunk?"

If outside shooting is a dying art in today's gravity-defying NBA, it will take a major step toward extinction within the next few months when Hornacek retires. A player who has spent the better part of his 14 pro seasons in what marksmen call "the zone," Hornacek is winding up what might be the best shooting season in history. At week's end he was second to the Dallas Mavericks' Hubert Davis in three-point accuracy (48.2%), second among NBA guards to teammate John Stockton in overall field goal accuracy (49.0%) and not only the league's best free throw shooter (95.7%, sinking 156 of 163) but also within a few successful foul shots of Calvin Murphy's record 95.8%, set in 1980-81. "Enjoy Jeff while you can," says Karl Malone, "because there may never be another shooter like him."

Since the All-Star break—when he won the three-point shootout for the second straight time and then paired with the WNBA's Natalie Williams to win the 2Ball competition—Hornacek has drained 28 of 43 threes. (For perspective, scoring 84 points on 43 three-point attempts is tantamount to shooting 97.7% on the same number of shots from within the arc.) Not coincidentally, shopworn Utah has gone 19-3 in that span and has suddenly emerged as the most viable threat to the Lakers in the West.

Hornacek's long-range shooting has always been, well, trey bien. But unlike other top gunners, such as Davis, the Toronto Raptors' Dell Curry and the San Antonio Spurs' Steve Kerr, Hornacek is no mere spot-up shooter. Averaging 12.6 points through Sunday, he scores frequently on runners, floaters and spin-laden reverses that would make him the top draft pick were there ever a professional H-O-R-S-E league.

Still, what makes Hornacek so effective, particularly now that he's playing on a bum left knee? For one, he has the hair-trigger release of an arcade junkie playing POP-A-SHOT. It often seems as though the 6'4" Hornacek isn't actually shooting so much as redirecting a teammate's pass toward the basket. "When the ball arrives, I try to be in my motion already," he says. "It's just catch-release-bang, catch-release-bang." Hornacek also has immense powers of concentration. Johnny Orr, his coach at Iowa State, recalls Hornacek's speaking to a group of kids at a summer basketball camp 10 years ago, all the while shooting long jumpers. "Jeff was talking, but his eyes never left the rim," says Orr. "He went around the horn twice and didn't miss a shot."

What's more, Hornacek is an outstanding athlete. Don't laugh. True, he unabashedly admits he's incapable of dunking (there's your answer, kid) and, yes, he took stitches during the 1998 postseason after he tripped on a rake in his garage and cut his head. But his extraordinary hand-eye coordination compensates for his lack of speed and leaping ability. The national Pitch, Hit & Run champion as a nine-year-old in 1972, Hornacek also has soft hands and a keen sense of anticipation. "He looks like he's going in slow motion, but his shot never gets blocked," says Jazz guard Howard Eisley. "That tells you something."

Hornacek will turn 37 in May, but his shooting hasn't diminished with age. In fact, here's a rule of thumb: The longer the shot, the longer the teeth of the deadliest shooters. The average age in the NBA is 28.3 years, but at week's end every player among the league's top dozen three-point shooters was older than that. The most proficient three-point shooters of the past two seasons, Curry and Dale Ellis, were 34 and 37, respectively, when they won their titles. This is in part because shooting is a skill of repetition that improves with practice, but also because it's a matter of professional self-preservation. As an aging player's other skills start to decline, he figures—correctly—that shooting might be a way to prolong his career (see Perkins, Sam). "You also get more comfortable as you get older," says Hornacek. "You realize that if you make it, great. If not, there's always another shot."

Befitting an accounting major, Hornacek is steadfastly rational about his shooting. He is without superstition—his ritual of stroking his right cheek three times before each foul shot to acknowledge his children (Ryan, 11, Tyler, 7, and Abigail, 5) notwithstanding—and rarely waxes philosophical on the subject. He even claims to scarcely remember the important shots he's missed. (Of course, moments later, he describes the errant free throw that snapped his streak of 67 earlier this season. "It was right on line, but hit the back of the rim and just popped out," he says, wincing. That was on Jan. 6.)

Further, Hornacek lacks the so-called shooter's mentality: If I miss my first nine shots, I'm still jacking up a 10th. Ever the realist, Hornacek does his own accounting on that point: "If I miss my first nine shots, I might shoot a 10th—but I better be wide open, because it's probably not my night." Having notched more than 5,000 assists in his career, Hornacek passes up scads of open looks. "Like all great shooters, Jeff has supreme confidence," says Utah assistant Gordon Chiesa, "but he doesn't need to shoot whenever he can."

If there's any mystique to shooting, any be-the-ball Zen, Hornacek thinks that it's in the mechanics. Throughout his career, when his shot has felt particularly good, he has jotted down all the reasons; after an off night, he checks the list to figure out what he was doing wrong. Also, he has constantly tinkered with his technique. Early in his career, for example, he discovered that the thumb from his guide hand was adding backspin to his shot and detracting from his touch; he taped the thumb to the index finger until he broke the habit. "With shooting, you can do 99 things right," he says, "and if the hundredth thing is off a little bit, your shot won't go in."

Continue Story
1 2