As the creator of a deceptive one-handed crossover dribble — appropriately named “the Shammgod,” and which, when pulled off, is as aesthetically satisfying as any move in basketball — the former Providence point guard is sought by current stars for instruction.
“If you see somebody knock people out and they tell you how to knock people out, you would take it better from them than somebody’s that’s never knocked anybody out,” says the 42-year-old Shammgod, punctuating his sentences with rhythmic intensity in a way that’s designed to create a verbal sparring partner.
The Shammgod is a proud legacy, but its inventor’s current job may eventually come to overshadow it. Before the 2016-17 season, Shammgod was hired as the NBA’s only ballhandling coach, working for the Dallas Mavericks. His appointment was unusual — no team had committed to a full-time specialist and, almost three seasons later, no team has followed Dallas’s lead — but it acknowledged an evolving league.
“My perspective was that if we can help a player improve his handles, it can be the difference between preventing a turnover or not, or allowing him to add an offensive sequence that could win games for us,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban writes in an email. “So we hired Sham. Turned out to be a great move.”
As the NBA whirls through an analytical revolution that has amplified the three-point shot and turned the ideal defense into a positionless stonewall, one byproduct has been a need for players who can put the ball on the floor, create space and force a defensive rotation, especially against schemes designed to stay on the three-point line or race shooters off it.
“I think having the ability to break people down off the bounce is more important now than ever,” Denver Nuggets Coach Mike Malone says.
There is a desire across the league for offenses to attack with as many adaptable weapons as they can, and tight, competent, logical ballhandling can propel (or limit) just about every player. Even as Shammgod’s responsibilities have expanded into something akin to a traditional player development coach — with dribbling principles remaining at the core of everything he does — he may ultimately be viewed as a pioneer: In the same way shooting coaches are employed throughout the NBA, a proliferation of ballhandling specialists may be on the horizon.
“In our league, any way you can find a competitive advantage, you’re going to do that,” Milwaukee Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer says. “So if it can help you win games or help players grow and develop, there’s certainly potential for that.”
Shammgod runs drills that remove players from their comfort zone, stimulate their imagination and train their brains and bodies to lean on instincts when navigating the complicated hurricane that is 48 minutes of NBA action. Hesitation is a killer. To help eliminate it, Shammgod sifts through video, often in slow motion, explaining how certain moves won’t have success against certain defenders. He’ll often highlight a player’s feet to explain how, if they’re pointed at the wrong angle, it defeats the purpose of what they’re trying to accomplish. “Dribbling is footwork,” says Shammgod, who is a stocky 6 feet, with a pavement-black beard and Harlem accent. “The hands are just an illusion.”
Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews, who arrived in Dallas as established veterans with set habits, view their work with Shammgod as career-altering.
“He instilled that confidence again that I’ve always had but, you know, through work, you feel yourself get better and you work on stuff that you’ve never worked on before,” says Matthews, who is now with the Indiana Pacers. “And you feel it be smooth and seamless and easy, and then you do it in the summertime and it’s effective, and then you do it in the season and it’s working . . . He’s special . . . He’s as valuable a piece to an organization as there is.”
Shammgod helped Matthews learn to consistently extend his arms on drives into the paint, a motion that increases his ability to draw fouls. “Anytime I feel traffic when I’m driving, it’s instinct to do it,” he says.
Shammgod wanted to make Barnes “the best four dribbler he can be.” In his last season with the Golden State Warriors, 2015-16, only 13.9 percent of Barnes’s shots were launched after he took at least three dribbles. Last year, his second season with the Mavericks, that leaped to 40.5 percent.
DeAndre Jordan — a 6-foot-11 center who rarely touches the ball in spots that allow much “optionality” — was surprised to be approached by Shammgod last summer before his 50-game stint with Dallas this season. “It was definitely new for me to do a workout where it was pretty much all guard stuff,” says Jordan, who was traded to the New York Knicks in January. The two focused on ways Jordan could get into his post moves using one or two dribbles; in spots that once made him feel claustrophobic, he grew comfortable.
Shammgod says his goal is to expand each player’s strengths without making them sabotage the greater good. “I can teach somebody how to dribble like me,” he says, “but if the team only lets them dribble three times, then did I hurt him or help him?”
In other words, efficiency is key — the Mavericks finished third and first in turnover rate during Shammgod’s first two seasons with the team, per NBA.com.
The players who worked with Shammgod believe his tutelage helped stretch their usefulness, which is increasingly valuable in today’s NBA.
“The way the game is going, teams are scrambling, trying to find people who can do everything on the court,” says Barnes, who now plays for the Sacramento Kings. “Bigs who can dribble, guards who have a tight handle, playmakers, all that type of stuff. I think [Shammgod’s] value now is showing up a lot more now.”