Brooks: Smith’s Shooting Makeover Benefitting Buffs

BOULDER – Haley Smith never considered herself a pure shooter. But then, until she arrived at the University of Colorado a year and a half ago she likely never gave it much thought. She merely laced up her sneakers, trotted onto basketball courts in and around Sammamish, Wash., and played.

A three-sport standout (hoops, cross country, track and field) at Skyline High School, Smith got by – excelled actually – on athleticism. In 2012-13, her senior season, ESPN.com's HoopGurlz listed her as the top prospect in the state of Washington and the No. 20 wing nationally.

Flawless, by-the-numbers shooting form? Who needs it?

That changed last season. If Smith’s shooting mechanics didn’t appear to need a complete overhaul, they at least needed a diagnostic check. Enter Kelly Rae Finley, who in her three seasons on Linda Lappe’s coaching staff has become the Buffs’ unofficial (or maybe official) shot doctor. She’s assisted, among others, seniors Jasmine Sborov and Lexy Kresl, newcomer Alina Hartmann and Smith.

“For some of us it meant starting from scratch,” Smith said. “Some people, like Lexy, who were shooters in high school, didn’t really need to do much.”

But Smith, a 6-1 sophomore wing, needed help that she didn’t know she needed. She probably didn’t realize the full extent of the re-do required in her shooting, one reason being her role in high school had been all-encompassing.

“I took the ball up, really did everything,” she recalled. “It wasn’t all that important for me to be able to hit that many shots. But as I got here and understood my role more as a wing, I understood how important it was. There’s been a lot of time put into it but it’s paid off.”

Finley went to work on Smith from the floor up, first noticing Smith’s footwork. “We always say, ‘Your feet make jumpers, your eyes make layups,’” noted Lappe. “With her and her jumper, it was about getting her feet set quicker. There were some mechanical problems, but it was the speed of the game and how much faster it is and getting her shot off. A lot of that starts with getting your feet ready.”

YET THERE WAS MORE to refining Smith’s form than fixing what was going on below her knees. In high school, she could get away with launching her jump shot basically from behind her head or maybe anywhere else. At the Division I level, not so much; a jumper initiated from that point is an invitation to swat.

Now, said Finley, Smith is better at squaring herself to the basket and has made adjustments in her “arm, hand placement and follow through – and I'm sure she'd tell you there's about three more adjustments that go into each of those. Putting the ball in the hoop is the name of the game. Time and repetition build confidence. We work hard to instill that feeling in all of our players.

“Most people wouldn't realize that she was a post in high school. She came in knowing that it was going to take a lot of hard work to develop her game and she's been able to do this very quickly. (It’s) a true testament of her work ethic.” 

But the process hasn’t been painless. Smith says candidly, “I would not have considered myself a shooter until I got here. There were some frustrating months of just not getting it and it being really hard. We basically took my shot apart . . . then it just kind of got easier and easier and came naturally. I’ve tried to mess around and say, ‘This is how you used to (shoot)’ – and now I can’t even do it anymore. My shot now, even from what I shot in the Pac-12 Tournament last year, is completely different from what I came in here with.”

Even in a reflective mood or in goofing around post-practice time, there’s no need to take a look or a step back. After shooting 40.2 percent from the field last season and averaging 3.5 points in nearly 18 minutes a game, Smith’s shot work has been rewarded.

She’s the Buffs’ third-leading scorer (10.7 ppg) and her field goal percentage (49.3) is the best among CU’s starters who have attempted as many or more field goals (66-of-134). Her free throw percentage (81.5) is only a fraction behind team leader Jen Reese (81.7).

Smith is coming off a 19-point effort in CU’s 90-84 loss to UCLA on Sunday. Her season high was 24 points in a 97-89 win last month over San Jose State, but she steadily cooled. In three previous Pac-12 Conference losses she had totaled 17 points.

LAPPE HOPES LAST WEEKEND’S performance signals an upturn for Smith as well as her teammates. After the three previous Pac-12 games of “not letting it flow, I think I just kind of found myself back in the rhythm of the game again,” Smith said. “You just have to play, not think about it too much. I wasn’t thinking, ‘You have to hit this shot’ and putting that pressure on me. (Sunday) before the game I was resolving to just play, just let it come and not make it so hard. And it really helped.”

For a promising 30 minutes, that “keep it simple and compete’’ approach is what Lappe saw from all the Buffs, who despite losing their fifth straight game (0-4 Pac-12, 7-8 overall) showed signs of breaking through. Lappe even went so far as saying a corner was turned and an infinite amount of confidence gained: “We made up our minds and decided that we were going to be great and really were. Now, did we make mistakes? Yeah, but the thing that had been the most concern is that we weren’t playing hard. We were thinking entirely too much and almost paralyzed a lot of times.”

Basketball’s simplicity was being lost on the Buffs, who end their three-game home stand on Wednesday night (7 p.m., Coors Events Center, Pac-12 Network) in the first of consecutive games against Utah. The second is Sunday in Salt Lake City (noon, Pac-12 Network).

“The teams that make it simple are the ones that have a lot of success,” Lappe said. “The teams that make it difficult and make it rocket science, it’s a little bit harder for those teams.”

Still pondering the simplicity and play hard themes, Buffs staff and players turned introspective and asked the same question: What can everyone do different to improve?

“When everybody does that usually some good things happen,” Lappe said. “It’s about being mature and being able to take an honest look at yourself. I think everybody did that from Friday to Sunday. They really, really did that – they didn’t just think they did it. It took us a little while to make us realize we have to make up our minds to change. When that happens the end will take care of itself. I was really proud of how we played.”

Smith agreed on all points. The six-point loss to UCLA stung, but cohesion began developing. “We were playing together, for each other, it wasn’t about any one player,” she said. “It wasn’t about me getting my shot, it was everyone playing as one unit. That’s definitely things we can take away.”

The task now is to carry those things over into Wednesday night – and well beyond.

Contact: BG.Brooks@Colorado.EDU

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