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THE KING OF SHOOTERS
Jack McCallum
January 19, 2004
West-leading Sacramento is riding the right arm of Peja Stojakovic, considered by many to be the best pure marksman since Larry Bird
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January 19, 2004

The King Of Shooters

West-leading Sacramento is riding the right arm of Peja Stojakovic, considered by many to be the best pure marksman since Larry Bird

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SURE SHOT

Peja Stojakovic is having one of the best all-around shooting seasons in NBA history. His field goal, three-point and free throw percentages are all among the best in the league, and he could become the fifth player in history (among those who qualified for scoring titles) to shoot 50% from the field, 40% from behind the arc and 90% from the free throw stripe in the same season.
—David Sabino

 

SEASON

FG%

3FG%

FT%

Peja Stojakovic, Kings

2003-04*

49.4

42.9

91.2

Steve Kerr, Bulls

1995-96

50.6

51.5

92.9

Reggie Miller, Pacers

1993-94

50.3

42.1

90.8

Mark Price, Cavaliers

1988-89

52.6

44.1

90.1

Larry Bird, Celtics

1987-88

52.7

41.4

91.6

Larry Bird, Celtics

1986-87

52.5

40.0

91.0

*through Sunday

Finding fault with Peja Stojakovic's offensive game these days is difficult, even for Sacramento Kings assistant coach Pete Carril, who describes himself as "the crankiest, most critical pain in the ass there is." Minnesota Timberwolves guard Fred Hoiberg considers Stojakovic "Number 1 by far" among NBA shooters, a sentiment echoed by a potential rival for that spot, the Seattle SuperSonics' Ray Allen. And no less a deity than Larry Bird, to whom the 6'10" Stojakovic can be compared in size and shooting range (though not in irascibility), considers the Kings' small forward "the best shooter in the league by far." The former Celtics great recently marveled to The Sacramento Bee about the consistency of Stojakovic's shot. "When Peja lets the ball go, it looks like it's going in every time," said Bird, now the Indiana Pacers' president of basketball operations. "The ball hardly goes left or right. If he misses, it's always front or back rim. That's the sign of a great shooter."

Ah, but on the subject of Sacramento, one can always count on a caviling word or two from the southern part of the Golden State. In anticipation of a Kings- Los Angeles Lakers matchup scheduled for Friday night at Arco Arena, the Lakers' Rick Fox was asked to evaluate the man many consider the best marksman since Bird. "Peja is the best shooter in the league right now," said Fox, who guarded Stojakovic during the Lakers' playoff series wins over the Kings in 2000, '01 and '02, "but is he the best since Larry Bird? No. I think you've got to be able to make them in the playoffs, too." Fox offered into evidence Game 7 of the '02 Western finals, at Arco—53 minutes that hang like a psychic shroud over the Kings' franchise—in which Stojakovic shot 3 for 12 from the field and missed all six of his three-pointers, including air-balling a wide-open three that would have won the game in regulation. ( Los Angeles prevailed in overtime 112-106.) "There are a lot of good shooters who, when pressured, become stressed shooters," Fox said, "and that changes mechanics and the tiniest things in the shot."

These days, though, there doesn't seem to be a less stressed shooter on the planet than the 26-year-old Stojakovic. His 25.1 points per game through Sunday ranked third in the league, but with only 17.6 field goal attempts per game, he was a far more efficient scorer than the two players above him, the Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson (27.0 points per game on 24.0 shots) and the Orlando Magic's Tracy McGrady (25.5 on 21.7 shots). Stojakovic's three-point shooting percentage of .429 ranked eighth, but no player above him had made nearly as many treys as Stojakovic's 93. (Stojakovic decided last week that he will defend his three-point title at the All-Star Game, putting him in line to become the third three-time winner, along with Bird and Craig Hodges.) At week's end Stojakovic was also hitting nearly 92% of his free throws, third best in the league. His one liability in that regard is that he doesn't get to the line often enough—24 players had attempted more than his average of 5.2 per game.

Stojakovic's smooth stroke is the main (though not the only) reason that the Kings, with a league-best record of 26-9 through Sunday, have put some flow and rhythm back into a league that has otherwise been turned over to bricklayers. (As Ray Allen has cannily observed, there are great dribblers and great passers in the NBA, but very few great shooters.) Sacramento was first in points per game, assists per game and three-point shooting, and second to Minnesota in field goal percentage. And the Kings have been playing without power forward Chris Webber, whose return from off-season surgery on his left knee is still unscheduled.

In his sixth season Stojakovic has emerged as such a preeminent offensive player (his scoring average is up 5.9 points from last season and 8.4 points from his career average of 16.7 entering this year) that Webber can no longer reflexively be assigned the tag the Kings' best player. Webber still may be that—his knee injury in last year's playoffs, after all, was the main reason Sacramento did not get past the Dallas Mavericks in the first round—but it's possible that the marvelous offensive chemistry the Kings have cooked up will be disturbed, at least temporarily, when Webber returns. What happens to the substantial contributions of Brad Miller, who arrived from Indiana in a trade that will go down among Sacramento general manager Geoff Petrie's best moves? (At week's end Miller was averaging 15.1 points and 10.6 rebounds and was playing as if he'd been weaned on his new team's high-IQ offense.) Will the main go-to guy be Webber or Stojakovic? Will the Kings be less successful when the Serbian sharpshooter's field goal attempts go down, as they inevitably will with Webber in the lineup? Even if the personnel adjustment is as simple as cutting the minutes of center Vlade Divac, who turns 36 on Feb. 3, it's incumbent upon Webber, as well as on point guard Mike Bibby, to see Stojakovic as much more than a second option, much more than just a shooter.

Still, conversations about Stojakovic inevitably begin with tales of his marksmanship. During a summer workout last year, Sacramento assistant coach John Wetzel watched Stojakovic make 87 of 100 three-point shots, moving to a different spot after each cycle of 10, never stopping for a breather, eyes on the basket, release high, concentration fine-tuned. "Even with nobody guarding you," says Wetzel, "making 87 out of 100 threes should be against the law." For Stojakovic that day wasn't particularly memorable. He's uncomfortable bragging about his shooting but allows that he has converted as many as 40 straight three-pointers during arm-wearying postpractice drills in which he requires himself to make 100 twos, 100 threes and 50 foul shots before showering. Carril actually worries that Stojakovic is overtaxing his shoulder with all that practice shooting.

Surprisingly, Stojakovic's shooting form is far from classic; Divac even calls his shot "ugly." A righthander, Stojakovic starts the shot from his left side, sweeps it quickly over to the right and releases it with his right forearm angled back rather than textbook-perpendicular to the floor. "What matters is that he shoots it the same way every time, and his release is high and perfect," says Petrie, a classic shooter in his playing days. Stojakovic's stroke might be compared to Jim Furyk's golf swing, which is loopy and ugly except at the point of contact, when it's absolutely perfect.

Also, unlike most classic shooters, Stojakovic is most comfortable with a hand in his face-when "he's got no air space," as the Miami Heat's Malik Allen puts it. "It seems like he doesn't want to see the whole basket," says Miller, and the Kings swear that at times they've hollered at their opponents, "Guard him!" in hopes that more pressure by the defense will increase Stojakovic's proficiency. "Maybe I just concentrate more when I'm blocked out," says Stojakovic, "but I really can't explain it."

Nor can the elevation in Stojakovic's numbers this season be explained purely by improved marksmanship or by Webber's absence. Stojakovic has become better in every aspect of the offensive game, particularly in moving without the ball, which he now does relentlessly. "There's no other small forward you have to chase around like that to take him off his jump shot," says Miami's Lamar Odom. During Sacramento's 113-93 win last Friday night in Phoenix, Suns rookie Zarko Cabarkapa looked around frantically for Stojakovic, whipping his head back and forth as if searching for a lost child, as Stojakovic sneaked behind him to get a pass near the basket. Stojakovic's moves away from the ball, like Reggie Miller's, are sometimes dodgy and deceptive, but he also makes exceptionally hard cuts and beats his defender to a spot.

Then, too, Stojakovic is adept at using his big men like bumpers in a pinball game. One of his patented moves is to begin a hard cut through the middle, bounce off Divac, take a pass and shoot a three from the top of the arc. Fortunately for Stojakovic, the Kings' big men, Divac and Miller (and Webber when he returns), are accustomed to being used. Sacramento's half-court sets are predicated mostly on where the center and power forward set up, and coach Rick Adelman runs much of his offense through them. Divac and Stojakovic frequently improvise with each other—"Serbian telepathy," Divac calls it. During one recent game Stojakovic started to run an angle cut off Divac, then suddenly went backdoor for a return pass and a basket. They started calling it Special Play, Stojakovic became Special Boy, and it's now part of the Kings' offense. "To be a scorer on a team with unselfish big men," says Stojakovic, "is a wonderful thing."

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