Long after Thursday’s practice concluded, Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio sat on the Target Center scorer’s table, engaged in a lengthy conversation with the man hired by the team recently to be both a coach and confidante.
The team sent Rubio to Los Angeles last July to work for a week with specialist Mike Penberthy and then hired the shooting coach who has spent summers with Indiana’s Paul George and Oklahoma City’s Reggie Jackson, among others. With the Wolves, Penberthy will work with everyone from Rubio to big men Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng.
Sometimes that means repetitive work on the court, modifying Rubio’s positioning and mechanics in an attempt to correct the biggest deficiency left in his game, or pushing veteran forward Chase Budinger out to halfcourt to work on his midrange shot.
Sometimes it means long conversations off the court concerning the art of shooting and the mind’s fragile nature when it comes to said subject.
The one thing it hasn’t meant so far: No player has been bamboozled into post-practice shooting games for a little money with Penberthy, a former two-time NAIA All-America point guard who shot his way onto the Los Angeles Lakers for their 2001 championship season.
“No games of H-O-R-S-E yet,” Budinger said. “I don’t think too many guys would take him in that.”
Wolves coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders calls Penberthy’s hiring a “speciality-type thing” and “proactive.” Six-time NBA champion San Antonio long has had a shooting specialist on its coaching staff … and look where it has gotten the Spurs.
“Mike is not going to change somebody’s shot, he is going to tweak it and work on certain mechanics,” Saunders said. “As coaches, when we go through practice we are looking at everything. It’s the whole canvas. With Mike, he’s going to be able to look at one person and really lock into what they’re doing.”
Changing lives, one at a time
Penberthy works with players after practice. He breaks down video with them on their shooting stroke and shot selection. He comes back evenings to work individually for an hour or more with whoever wants to put in overtime to get better.
He speaks to them both in specifics and on big-picture generality about the work they do together.
“You can change your life if you become a better shooter,” Penberthy said. “You can extend your career. [Recently retired NBA forward] Shane Battier did it. He wasn’t a great shooter, he became a great shooter. You’ve got guys still in the league because they can shoot it. Mike Miller’s still shooting it.”
Penberthy found his profession doing it. He broke NAIA shooting records while earning a biblical studies degree at tiny The Master’s College in California and played professionally in the Continental Basketball Association, in Germany and Italy.
And there was those 56 glorious games over parts of two seasons with those mighty Lakers.
In between, he briefly drove a forklift.
“I wanted to be a pro something,” said Penberthy, who first hoped to play pro baseball. “If I was going to play basketball, it had to be shooting. The only way I was going to get on the court was if I made shots. With the Lakers, it was my role. I had no choice. We didn’t play H-O-R-S-E. I’d still be in the league if we did.”
He believes he can change Rubio’s life — and by doing so quite possibly the Wolves’ direction — by daily work intended to change both Rubio’s mechanics and his mind. He believes he did that with Thunder point guard Jackson, who in one season improved his three-point percentage from 23 to 34 and his free-throw percentage from 84 to better than 89.
“I think he understands; he feels the player,” said Rubio, a career 36.8 shooter from the field. “When I say that, I mean he teaches you not how to change, but how to feel the shot. It’s something that I’ve been working with him, and I’m going to try to work almost every day with him here in Minnesota.
‘‘… I want to work with him. I just want to be the best I can. I knew where my weakness is at, and I’m just trying to work on that.”
Penberthy calls Rubio’s work ethic “incredible” and terms him “one of the more coachable guys” with whom he has worked. That’s a very good place to start for a gifted passer and active defender whose only obstacle on the way to stardom might be the thoughts between his ears when he shoots, not how he positions his feet.
“Ricky’s hindrance has been his mind,” said Penberthy, who will spend time in Minneapolis and on the road with the team, as well as at home in Los Angeles. “When you read all the time that you’re not a good shooter, you start to believe it, no matter how strong you are as a player. You start to doubt yourself. It’s fear of failure, more psychological. That totally translates into your body language and how you shoot. Changing his mentality is a combination of his body language, his mind and his repetitions being correct. We’ve got the repetition side. I’m in control of that.
“He’s going to have to just trust me and trust the work we’re doing. It’s going to take time, though. I wish I was that good where it could just happen. I really do. I want all players to enjoy what I enjoy, which is making shots.”
Attention to detail
Both Rubio and Budinger have been coached plenty on their shooting through the years. Each says a relationship with a specialist such as Penberthy is different, whether it’s the courtside chats Rubio has regularly with him or Penberthy’s suggestion that Budinger correct a shooting flaw by hoisting midcourt shots so he’s forced to used his legs more.
“Mike is a lot different,” Budinger said. “He finds those tiny little details in your shot and corrects them. Sometimes shooting coaches try to pretty much totally change your shot and mentally that’s what kills guys. Trying to change their shot totally messes them up. He knows everybody has a different type of shot so he doesn’t try to correct anybody. He just tries to improve it a tiny bit.”
And then there are some players entirely whom Penberthy will let be.
Veteran Kevin Martin — a career 38.5 three-point shooter with a shooting stroke as unorthodox as golfer Jim Furyk’s swing — is one of them.
“If he wants to line up and be one of the many that failed to try and change it, I guess he can if he wants,” Martin said with a smile when asked if the new shooting coach can fix his shot.
Instead, Penberthy said he’d like to get Rubio in the gym twice a day for 100 days next summer — the same formula he used with Jackson and others — and see what happens.
Just how much could one man and 100 days make for a young point guard and a franchise in need?
The man who was hired to teach a team to shoot but already is known generically as Ricky Rubio’s shooting coach says he honestly doesn’t know.
“That’s a good question,” Penberthy said. “I wish I could tell you the truth. It’s going to be as much time as we can get in the gym. He’s going to get worse before he gets better. That’s in everything. He knows that. … We’ll see. He can make some huge strides. He can take some baby steps. But as long as he’s getting better, that’s what we want, right? Just some steady improvement, but it takes time.”