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Wizards Cash In on Some 'Free' Advice
Shot Guru Hopla Has Helped Team Improve Percentage From Line, Other Areas of Court

By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Even when he misses a free throw this season, which is not nearly as often as in the past, Wizards center Brendan Haywood doesn't worry too much about it. He simply waits for a chance to consult with assistant coach-player development Dave Hopla and makes the necessary adjustment the next time he steps to the line.

Haywood, who is shooting a career-best 73.3 percent from the free throw line after making a career-worst 54.8 percent of his attempts last season, credits much of the improvement to work he's done with Hopla, a super-energetic shooting expert who joined Coach Eddie Jordan's staff over the summer.

"The key was developing consistency. He came and worked with me this summer in Charlotte and even now in games, he's always reminding of little things like keeping my balance or keeping my elbow locked in the right position, and that has made a difference," said Haywood. "When I miss now I know why. In the past when I missed or went into a bad slump, I was up there just hoping and wishing."

Heading into tonight's game against the Toronto Raptors, Haywood is hardly the only Wizard who has improved as a shooter at the free throw line and at other spots on the court.

Seven Wizards have raised their free throw percentages this season, and as a team the Wizards rank fourth from the stripe (79.5 percent) after finishing last season ranked 11th (76.5 percent).

No player has been more effective at the line than Caron Butler, who is shooting a career-best 91.5 percent and has made 70 consecutive free throws. Butler -- a career 85 percent free throw shooter -- is within striking distance of the single-season record of 78 consecutive made free throws set by former Houston Rockets guard Calvin Murphy during the 1980-81 season.

The NBA record was established by former Minnesota Timberwolves guard Michael Williams, who made 97 straight spanning the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons.

Like Haywood, Butler has worked extensively with Hopla, a 50-year old Baltimore native who played college ball at Chadron State (Nebraska) and spent eight seasons playing professionally in Europe, South America and the CBA before embarking on a career as a shooting coach.

Hopla, who worked for the Raptors last season as a consultant, breaks down a basketball shot the same way baseball hitting coaches break down a player's swing.

He pays attention to technical matters, like how a player gets his legs into a shot, foot placement, elbow position, release point and follow through. But regardless of an individual player's shooting style, he believes that documenting success and failure is one of the keys to developing a consistent shot.

Hopla keeps a color-coded chart on each player's shooting patterns by quarter. When reviewing tape of a given game, Hopla sees a player miss a shot and jots down something like: DLH (dropped left hand), BS (bad shot) or TQ (too quick).

"The idea is that a picture is always worth a thousand words," Hopla said. "It's one thing to tell you that you are developing a bad habit, it's another to be able to show you what you are doing and how you can correct it."

Butler has extended his range to the point that he's already made 45 three-pointers this season after never connecting on more than 41 during his previous five campaigns. He says he holds conversations with himself sometimes when he's at specific areas of the court.

"You may think, 'This is my sweet spot,' because you know you make shots there, but when you see it written down in front of you on paper, you know, 'These are my numbers,' " Butler said. "It's different."

Hopla's consistent advice to Butler is to "freeze his finish," meaning he encourages Butler to hold his follow-through on his shot until the ball reaches the basket. In the past, Butler had a tendency to pull his hand back as soon as he released the ball.

"He's so quick with his release, he tends to drop his hand," Hopla said. "And that can tend to leave the shot short because you're not getting enough arc on the shot."

Gilbert Arenas has known Hopla since Arenas was just a skinny teenager overly infatuated with dunking; then he saw Hopla go through his extensive shooting routine at a basketball camp.

What Arenas saw that day explains why accomplished NBA players with huge contracts pay attention to the short, former small college player who never sniffed the NBA.

"I went to this camp in the summer and I was like every kid, all I wanted to do was dunk," Arenas said. "And then I saw this guy go out there and start making shot after shot and I was like: forget dunking, I want to be like this guy. This guy can shoot it."

Hopla often puts on shooting displays when he conducts basketball camps, and over the years he has meticulously tracked his own shooting patterns. He says he once made 1,234 free throws in a row, and his personal record for consecutive made NBA distance three-pointers is 78.

"It makes a big difference when guys actually see what you can do as opposed to if I walked in and never shot the ball and started to try to tell guys how to shoot," said Hopla. "What has really helped me a lot is I made an impression on Gilbert when he was a kid, DeShawn [Stevenson] saw me at camps when he was younger and Caron saw me when he was at [Connecticut], so that has helped a lot. And then, this is a good group of guys to work with. Very coachable. It's been a really rewarding experience."

Notes: Raptors point guard Jose Calderon has flourished in the absence of injured T.J. Ford and helped Toronto (24-19) win seven of its last nine games.

In January, Calderon has averaged 14.5 points and 10.1 assists while shooting 52.7 percent from the field. He ranks fifth in the NBA in assists (8.6) and leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (371 to 67).

The Wizards know all about Calderon because he's hurt them in the past with his ability to run the pick-and-roll to perfection with forward Chris Bosh and the team's other versatile big men.

"He's always been solid but now he's really got it going because he's playing more minutes with T.J. out," Jordan said. "His confidence is rising and they do things that are conducive to his strengths. It's really pick your poison with him because he can really hurt you."

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