Nuggets forward James Posey catches the ball on the wing and knows what he should do. Shoot it! He squares his feet to the basket, sizes up the rim and raises the ball to eye level. Shoot it! Even Denver point guard Nick Van Exel is yelling, pleading, "Shoot it! Shoot the damn ball!" But instead, as Posey has done so many times this season, he hesitates, then pulls the ball back down. He can't shoot it, because he'll just miss again.
James Posey is in a shooting slump. A can't-throw-it-in-the-ocean, there's-a-lid-on-the-basket shooting slump. After a surprising rookie year in which he played his way into Denver's starting lineup and led all first-year players in three-point shooting (37.3%), Posey has seen his offensive numbers plummet faster than the XFL's ratings. His scoring average, field goal shooting and three-point shooting each dropped every month through February—to, at week's end, 7.4 points, 41.1% and 30.0%, respectively. But even as those numbers plunged, Posey's average minutes went up every month, rising from 25.0 in November to 29.1 in February.
The reason for the fuzzy math is that, despite his shooting woes, the 6'8", 215-pound Posey is a dream teammate. "He does all the stuff that nobody else wants to do," says team president and coach Dan Issel. "He rebounds, hustles, and defends the other team's best player every night. And Pose doesn't let his offense affect his defense and the rest of his game."
Posey rarely had to worry about his shooting before this year. After sitting out his freshman season at Xavier because he was academically ineligible (his father, James Sr., a signal switcher for Conrail railroads in Cleveland, took on a second job at an equipment-rental store to cover the $16,000 in school bills), Posey won two Atlantic 10 Conference sixth man of the year awards, then averaged 16.9 points as a senior. Still, NBA coaches were more excited about his "instinctive defensive intensity," as the Bucks' George Karl described it, than his jump shot. Issel had Posey ranked ninth on Denver's draft board and was ecstatic when he was still around at No. 18. Issel was even happier when the lanky leaper—Posey can dunk from the free throw line—proved to be not only a stellar defender but also an offensive threat, averaging 8.2 points in his first season.
Then, suddenly, his stroke left him, and despite his one-on-one jump shot therapy with assistant coach John Lucas, the ball refuses to fall. As if clanging so many of his shots hasn't been difficult enough for Posey, he was also the main source for a Denver Post story revealing that the players decided to skip a December practice to protest Issel's heavy-handed stewardship. It has not been, Posey says, exactly how he planned his second season.
Through it all the Nuggets, especially good friend Van Exel, have supported Posey. "He's going to keep getting better," says Issel. "He already does the stuff, the defense and rebounding, that it usually takes players the longest to learn. His offensive confidence will come back."
Posey agrees. "I need to thrive on my defense and keep trying to get easy buckets," he says. "Maybe that'll help me get the groove back." After all, a player can hear Shoot it! only so many times before he heeds the call.