Practice at UA hooks Vanover

By: Bob Holt
Published: Sunday, July 12, 2020
Arkansas center Connor Vanover (left) talks with coach Eric Musselman during the Razorbacks' Red-White Game on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas center Connor Vanover (left) talks with coach Eric Musselman during the Razorbacks' Red-White Game on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Fayetteville.

The sky hook has pretty much disappeared from basketball since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used it with devastating accuracy to score many of his NBA-record 38,387 points in a 20-year career from 1969-89.

"It's kind of a long-gone shot," Connor Vanover said. "But I'll try to bring it back."

Vanover, a 7-3 sophomore for the University of Arkansas, said developing a sky hook is among the things he worked on last season when he redshirted with the Razorbacks after transferring from California.

"I've been working on my post moves," said Vanover, who is from Little Rock. "The sky hook is one of those. I've been working on a jump hook, too."

Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said he's excited about Vanover shooting the sky hook.

"Everybody should add to their repertoire when they have a development year," Musselman said. "So I think it's awesome."

Razorbacks assistant coach Clay Moser included working on hook shots as part of a written development plan for Vanover.

"Hook shots were just part of the plan, but Connor did a really nice job working on them," Moser said. "He's eager to learn. He's a good worker. He's smart. So it was all positive.

"He's a really skilled kid. He's got great hands. He's got just kind of an innate touch to the way he shoots the basketball."

Vanover showed good perimeter skills his freshman season at California when he shot 35.5% on three-point attempts (27 of 76) and averaged 7.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in 17.5 minutes.

"With his size, we're trying to give him some more weapons," Moser said. "I think people will try to be physical with him. He may even see some special attention in the post. So really more than anything, it's trying to diversify his skill set and the package he can take out there on the floor.

"Connor also kind of has the right build for [shooting the sky hook], and I think he's cognizant of the fact the more tools he has in his tool box, the better he's going to be."

Vanover said he's watched a lot of video of Abdul-Jabbar shooting the sky hook.

"I'm trying to shoot it like he did," Vanover said. "Get my shot as close to his as I can."

Vanover said he takes about 40 hook shots a day -- 20 from each side of the lane. He estimated that in practice last year, he hit the sky hook about 80% of the time.

"We had [graduate assistants] that would bump him around with a pad so it wasn't just him shooting," Moser said. "We tried to make it a little bit more realistic like it would be in a game.

"Now, it's completely different when you get out there and shoot them in the heat of battle. But the first thing you've got to do is make them in practice."

Vanover said his range on the sky hook is about 10 feet in. Ideally, he takes it from 6 feet to 8 feet.

"I can go farther out than that," he said. "But I don't want anyone yelling at me for taking a free-throw line sky hook."

What about a three-point sky hook?

"If there's two seconds left on the shot clock and I've got the ball, maybe I'll give it a try," Vanover said while laughing.

Abdul-Jabbar in a 2004 interview with the Houston Chronicle lamented the fact that big men aren't utilizing the sky hook.

"[The sky hook] is not sexy," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Everybody who plays wants to be like Michael Jordan or shoot three-pointers or be driving and dunking.

"Backing in and working the post, getting a high-percentage 6-foot shot, has no visual appeal. But it really affects the bottom line -- whether you win or lose. And that's most important."

Moser said working with Bill Bertka, a longtime assistant coach and consultant with the Los Angeles Lakers, gave him the idea of having Vanover develop a sky hook. Bertka is 92 and still working with players.

"Working with big men has been a passion of Coach Bertka," said Moser, who worked for the Lakers for eight years as a scout, assistant coach and director of basketball strategy.

Among the big men Bertka has worked with, Moser said, are Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

"Any time we would have young big men with the Lakers come into the system, Coach Bertka would get on the floor with them and try to teach them the sky hook," Moser said. "None of them other than Kareem really had success with a sky hook -- Shaq had a jump hook, Pau had a running hook -- but that didn't stop Coach Bertka from trying to teach it."

Along with working on sky and jump hooks, adding weight and strength was a focal point for Vanover the past year. He has gained more than 20 pounds since he arrived on campus and is now listed at 247.

"We knew that I definitely needed to add some weight so that I can handle other bigs and playing in the SEC," Vanover said. "I'd like to get a little bigger, up to about 250 pounds."

Vanover said he continued to add weight when he was home while Arkansas' athletic facilities were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Lots of protein shakes," he said of a key to the weight increase. "I've been eating three meals a day and drinking protein shakes two or three times a day.

"Drink one after a workout, go to the gym and drink one. Drink one at night. Doing that for however long we were in quarantine helped put on some weight."

Vanover said he was able to borrow a bench press and some weights from friends and lifted at his home. He also was able to get in work at his church's gym.

"Everybody's starting to notice there's a little bit more definition to my arms," Vanover said of resuming on-campus workouts in June. "I feel stronger. I'm able to do more things. It's great. I'm loving it."

Vanover said he added most of the weight to his arms and legs.

"There's just a lot of space to fill up," he said. "Twenty pounds doesn't really look like a lot on me, but it all helps."

Vanover had hoped to be eligible to play last season after filing a waiver with the NCAA citing a desire to be closer to his grandmother, who lives in Arkansas, and because his coach at California, Wyking Jones, was fired after the Bears finished 8-23.

The waiver was denied.

"A lot of it has to do with the place you're transferring from," Vanover said. "You kind of need your old school to sign off on it.

"California still wanted me, so they said if I left, I wouldn't be able to get my waiver. They made it very difficult."

Vanover said he initially was upset the waiver was denied.

"But I've gotten over that," he said. "I'm trying to look at the positive side of things. By redshirting last season, I got in an extra year to work on my game, get bigger and stronger, and learn Coach Muss' system.

"I wish I could have played last season, but now I'm even hungrier to play."

Musselman said that as much as Vanover improved his game over the last year, his maturity is what's most impressive.

"The one thing that really sticks out with me about Connor is how he's grown as a man," Musselman said. "When we talk to him, he's not shy anymore. He talks with great confidence, he walks with confidence.

"It's been really cool to see him change and become much, much more confident than maybe what he was a year ago."

Vanover said he considered staying at California -- though he never met new Bears Coach Mark Fox -- along with transferring to Arkansas or Vanderbilt.

"At first, I just wanted to keep my options open," he said. "But at the end of the day, I went with something I felt like was better."

Vanover said playing in his home state, and for Musselman, were big factors in his decision to transfer to Arkansas.

"Coach Muss is a really good coach," Vanover said. "He knows what he's doing, and he really sold me on my visit.

"He's definitely crazy, but he's crazy about basketball. All he does is basketball. It's great to see a mind like his and how it works. He pours out so much knowledge every day."

In California's last 11 games of Vanover's freshman season, he averaged 12.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 blocked shots and 27.5 minutes.

"I'd say it was that the game kind of started slowing down for me," Vanover said of his late surge. "I started getting into a good rhythm."

After most practices last season, Vanover played three-on-three games with two other redshirting transfers -- guard JD Notae and forward Abayomi Iyiola -- against walk-ons Ty Stevens, Emeka Obukwelu and Jamario Bell. Ethan Henderson, a sophomore last season, also took part in the three-on-three work until he earned more playing time in games.

"Overall, I'd give Connor an 'A' for everything he got done during his sit-out year," Moser said. "He did a really good job.

"It's tough for a player to sit out, but I think as the year went on he started to find his groove a little bit and find a competitive juice."

Moser said Vanover is working on shooting his jump hook with his dominant right hand as well as his left hand. He shoots the sky hook primarily with his right hand.

"We want want him to be able to take both shots on the baseline and turning into the middle," Moser said. "If Connor can hit the sky hook on the block or just off the block, that would be spectacular. If he can go to 10 or 12 feet, that would be even better."

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