Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


‘The best feeling in the world’: a conversation with Timberwolves shooting coach Mike Penberthy

More than anything, I wanted to know if Penberthy’s teachings are translateable to the denizens of pick-up nation.

Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger and shooting coach Mike Penberthy on the court at Target Center.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Last Friday morning, during the Timberwolves shoot-around at Target Center, players and members of the press alike were quietly abuzz about the just-announced news of Kevin Garnett’s return. On the court, though, it was business as usual for Wolves shooting coach Mike Penberthy, who spent the workout shagging rebounds and keeping a watchful eye on the shooting forms of Ricky Rubio, Anthony Bennett, and Chase Budinger during a spirited three-point competition.

“Ricky! Ricky!” Rubio barked as he clanked a couple in a row. A good-natured husband and father of three who wears bow ties on the bench, Penberthy immediately sidled up and said something to crack up Rubio, who has been Penberthy’s star pupil this year, going from dreadful down-in-the mouth bricklayer to steely-eyed shooter who should only get better with age.  

Rubio’s development can be attributed in large part to the calm tutelage of Penberthy, an undrafted point guard out of The Master’s College who played two years in the NBA, winning a title with the Los Angeles Lakers, and who went on to work as shooting coach under Zen master and legendary Lakers coach Phil Jackson. Penberthy was hired by Wolves Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders for his approach to positive thinking, philosophy, and psychology — and his ability to instill confidence in even the most nerve–rattled shooter.

His all-time favorite shooters? Mark Price, Reggie Miller, John Stockton, and Calvin Murphy. His dream job down the road? Head coach in the NBA. His favorite thing to do, off the job? Visiting high schools and sharing his knowledge about shooting the rock.

Article continues after advertisement

More than anything, I wanted to know if what Penberthy teaches the best basketball players in the world is translatable to the likes of me and other denizens of pick-up basketball nation.

“Hey Walsh, he can’t fix you,” hollered my old pick-up ball buddies, Star Tribune Wolves beat reporters Kent Youngblood and Jerry Zgoda, in tandem, as Penberthy and I sat down to talk about the art of shooting. I figured they were probably right, but Penberthy makes you feel good about giving it a shot anyway:

MinnPost: How did you get started at this, how did you become the Wolves’ shot whisperer?

Mike Penberthy: My dad was a coach in California. Valley Christian High School, he was Division Five coach of the year in 1979. I remember doing shooting drills when I was five years old. He always told me, “Have good backspin and shoot with high arc.” That’s what I tell young kids all the time, until they’re strong enough, “Make sure you have good backspin and high arc.” That will, by default, get you to do everything fundamentally right, and that’s easy for kids to remember. 

MP: Shooting is mostly mental, and muscle memory, right?

Penberthy: It’s all mental. The mental side never leaves. The mental side is everything. That’s a deeper subject; we start getting into the psychology of people and it really takes a lot of time to build relationships to be able to speak into that with somebody. Because now you’re getting into some pretty touchy areas, especially with some of these guys coming from difficult backgrounds.

You get into some sensitive spots, and that affects how you play the game, no matter what anybody says. You don’t take that life away from basketball; in fact, you may use that, like I did. I used people doubting me and people saying I wasn’t good enough to fuel the way I played. And Ricky’s similar in that people have doubted him and told him he’s not very good. I always tell him, “use that.”

MP: He’s improved so much from last year. He was so down, and hating life. He looks like he’s having more fun, naturally, almost hitting that Zen thing where you’re not thinking about it, just shooting it.

Penberthy: You have to get to that point, but it takes a lot of work to get to that point. It takes a lot of repetition, it takes a lot of technique, it takes a lot of focus. You’re probably talking about 50 to 100,000 reps before you’re not thinking about it. Most people say they read Outliers and think that 10,000 hours at anything [is the key to greatness], but I don’t believe that.

Article continues after advertisement

Mike Penberthy
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Mike Penberthy

Ten thousand hours of focused shooting to become a great shooter is not even close to enough, because you’re not taking the competitive side into it. Ten thousand hours of competitive shooting in a game situation is one thing, but you’ve got to do another 50,000 to get to that point, and then you’ve got to do more.

Guys are always saying, “You’re such a better shooter than me,” and I’m, “Yeah, but I’ve got two million more reps than you. You’re just behind in reps.” They say, “How can you make 92 out of a 100 shots?” and I just say, “Because I’ve taken millions of more shots than you.” Besides the fact that I’ve played more games and all that experience.

When you find older guys that are good shooters, they just have a volume of shot experience that’s deeper than yours. They’ve put in more hours and taken more game shots and missed more so that they know where their faults are and they’re very good at self-assessing. The idea is you have to be completely self-aware early on. 

Ricky’s done a lot of work, but it was a lot of bad work. It was the wrong self-assessment, the wrong psychosis, the wrong shot talk, the wrong self talk. Everything was just so negative, which affects his body language, which affects his mind, which affects his performance. So it was a matter of redoing all that, and then doing some technical things. It isn’t just moving your hands and, “Let’s shoot a hundred threes every day.” It’s way deeper than that.

MP: It’s truly not just muscle memory. It’s connected to the brain, the heart…

Penberthy: It’s your heart, your emotions… The deeper your emotions are tied to your shots, the better you’ll shoot the ball. You have to have those in practice. I tell them all the time, “You need to sense and feel the imagery of the arena when you’re playing by yourself. You should shoot and make shots and get chills; that’s how deep you should shoot the ball.”

I’ll say to guys, “Do you remember the best game you ever played?” and I’ll take them into that conversation as deeply as I can get, even to the point where they smell the popcorn, remember what shoes and socks they wore, coach’s energies. I mean, the best game you ever played, you remember, right?

MP: I do, I got hot a couple months ago and I’ll never forget it. I’ve always said that when you’re hot and really feeling it, it’s art, and you actually decide how the ball is going to go through the net.

Penberthy: I feel like every time I shoot, that’s how I shoot. Now, to get to that point is where I want all my guys to get. I want Ricky to get to that point. Like last night, I was shooting with Glen Robinson [III] and I was saying, “I’ll hit the back of the rim, 10 in a row.” He said, “How do you do that?” And it’s just, I’ve done it enough and I know exactly how my body’s gonna work to get the ball to go exactly where I want it to go. You have to know yourself so much.

Article continues after advertisement

MP: Have you studied energy work like qigongor other practices that fine-tune the body and mind?

Penberthy: Not really. We did a little bit of tai chi stuff when I was with Phil and the Lakers. I’ve done a lot of research on body movement [and] mind, mental state, how to get yourself into the zone consistently even when you’re out of it; the ability to stop and turn in a moment and get back in the zone.

Which I do a lot with him [nodding at Rubio on the court] in pre-game, just because he’ll have moments where he might miss four or five in a row because he’s an immature shooter. He can take himself out of a good place because of missing a few shots and go bad. It’s like, “Dude. It’s four missed shots. Nobody’s out here with a gun. You’re just shooting.” And he’ll laugh and I try to erase the bad and get him back into it and he’ll make ten in a row.

So there’s that side of coaching that has nothing to do with technique and everything to do with what I’m saying and my voice. I want him to hear my voice in those moments of the game when he’s feeling that way, and the words that I use. Every player I have I use different terminologies so that when I talk to them in the games, they know exactly where I am. I’m anchoring them in those moments, so when he’s hot, I’m anchoring a word that ties into that moment so when I yell at him at the game, it takes him back to that place.

MP: What word do you use for Ricky?

Penberthy: His hometown (Madrid, Spain). That’s key. One day early on he was shooting and making everything, and I said, “I gotta get him thinking about this on a regular basis so he can take that feeling with him.” When Ricky says “I could feel my shot,” that’s what we’re talking about. You know how that feels, right? I want him to feel that feeling of putting up a shot and walking away, knowing it’s going in before it does. That’s the best feeling in the world, when you know it’s going in before it goes. It’s not that it goes in; it’s that you know it’s going in. You’re not thinking at all about technique, or who’s guarding you, or the score. You don’t even know anyone’s there. You’re just thinking about the fact that, as soon as I let it go, that’s it. That to me is the best feeling in the world.

MP: What happened with that third quarter this year, when [Golden State guard] Klay Thompson went off [for a record-setting 37 points in one quarter]? 

Penberthy: There were a lot of factors. His players were looking for him, which is communication from his team, saying, “We trust you, we want you to score.” There’s an energy and encouragement there, which is a big part of it. That’s what I try to bring into all these guys, the confidence, and your teammates need to do it, too. They were looking for him every time down the floor, and that’s gotta make you feel great as a player. Besides the fact that technique-wise, he’s one of the best in the league. He’s got incredible fluidity and smoothness in his shot; effortless in his release. 

MP: What do you teach these guys that might translate to pick-up ball players?

Penberthy: One, your expectation on the court has to be realistic, because you don’t put in the hours of practice [that an NBA player does]. The second thing I’d say is you should always walk out on the court thinking you can make every shot you take. Like, if I didn’t practice for a week, I could still walk out here and say, “I’m going to make 98 out of hundred,” and I can do it because that scene that I’m playing in my head is confident. It just falls back into muscle memory; I always say to guys, “Just fall back into that place where you’re making everything,” and you should be able to do that as a player, pro or not.

Article continues after advertisement

Some guys get superstitious about what shoes they’re wearing, and they want to wear the same ones they were hot in – not because they’re superstitious, but because they want to get back to that mental state when they were hot. I don’t even introduce that to Ricky, because it wouldn’t even matter. Ricky is all about feeling. I want to do something to empower him with something he can actually control. 

MP: It’s got to be all-consuming. How much do you think about this stuff? 

Penberthy: All the time, I’ve been thinking about it all the time since I was ten. I never wanted to miss. I always wanted to play efficient games. I didn’t want to take all the shots, because basketball is a beautiful game outside of shooting. There’s so much joy in setting a screen for somebody and seeing him make the right read and the ball arriving on time and spacing the floor correctly and scoring as a group. But I never wanted to miss, I never wanted to let the rest of team down, especially if everybody did their job and then I miss… I just never wanted to miss. I’ve been thinking about it forever, and I get asked about it a lot. 

I think most amateur guys – and I say that carefully because I don’t want to be disrespectful – but guys who don’t work with pros think that everybody’s shot is the same, from elementary school to high school to college to pro, [but] the pro game is completely different. You can’t take pro shooting and tie it to a high school kid, because he’s not playing 82 games, 200 days a year, travel, pressure, millions of dollars, fans, autograph signings, the lifestyle itself: the fatigue factor has to go into how you teach, and the high school kid doesn’t come close to experiencing that. It’s all about results here.

MP: It’s amazing to me how fast your shot can go when your legs get tired. It’s so true that the whole body is involved in shooting, with the energy going from the tips of your toes to the tips of your fingers. Leg fatigue is the main thing that leads to misses, yes?

Penberthy: Legs are everything. It’s the foundation. The majority of people who shoot baskets nowadays are pretty narrow in how their feet are. I think a wider stance, the wider the better, because I think the number one flaw of shooters in the NBA is balance; they’re all very casual with balance. They’re good enough to take off-balance shots, but guys that take balanced shots, like Klay Thompson, are going to be more effective. The reason [Golden State bomber] Steph Curry misses so much is because he’s off-balance. If he was on balance more, he’d make more. 

That’s what I did with Ricky, too. Just widened him out and slowed him down. He plays at such a frantic pace, it was like, “Dude you’re just going too fast, you’ve got to play slower to become a better shooter.” But your legs are everything, and having a wider base just engages the stronger muscles, your hamstrings and your butt, those strong muscles you need to have at the end of games.

MP: It is difficult to coach a shooter like [Wolves’ assassin] Kevin Martin, whose form is so from-the-hip?

Penberthy: Well, I don’t coach him; I just tell him to keep shooting. He’s such a good player, and very unique. But he does something that I try to teach the guys, as well: He times his release with his feet, so he’s snapping his wrist as his feet go. He’s using all the energy of his body to time it right at the end. That’s why he can, with very little effort, shoot the ball from so far away and so accurately. His shots rarely hit the rim. I would never say anything to change him. He’s a pro scorer, he’s a scoring shooter. Some guys are scorers, he’s a scoring shooter. Like Curry, he’s a scoring shooter.

MP: There’ve been games when I’ve been playing with guys, total strangers, and I’ll hit a few in a row and the call goes up: “Shooter.” The word itself is a defensive warning, a sign of respect. It’s like a gift, a special weapon. Not everyone who plays ball is a shooter.

Penberthy: Yeah, “We gotta guard that guy.” I play pick-up, and even this summer playing with the pro guys, they’re guarding me at half-court. Make a couple in a row and you’ve got [Indiana All-Star] Paul George guarding you. It’s like, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” He’s like, “Man, I’m not letting you touch it.” That’s the goal, that’s how I want my guys to feel, that’s how I want my guys to be treated: Shooter, shooter, don’t let him touch it