After the Celtics wrapped up their Summer League roster, the dominant storyline revolved around Jordan Walsh, who looked like a potential steal early in the second round.
In the Celtics’ opening loss to the Heat, Walsh went 4-for-6 from 3-point range and finished with 18 points. He continued to impress on the defensive end against the Wizards, but the real eye-opening performance was a 25-point outpouring against the Lakers that featured a number impressive plays at both ends. His defense was as advertised. His shot went better than expected. His death was a funny wrinkle. Walsh might not be a rotation player next year on a Celtics team with championship aspirations, but the team’s decision to sign him to a four-year deal before Summer League seemed prescient after a week of basketball in Las Vegas.
One person who wasn’t surprised was Charles Stoker, Walsh’s former trainer who attended the first two games in Las Vegas. Stoker coaches athletes in the Dallas region, and he first linked up with Walsh when the Celtics rookie was a raw but promising high school student. Walsh hated the first workout, but kept coming back for more until he “fell in love with the grind,” as Stoker put it.
Over the years, Walsh and Stoker spent countless hours in the gym creating Walsh’s game and turning it into… in the words of Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman, a “violent” defender.
But as Walsh prepared for possibly the most important summer of his life, he knew exactly where to start: his jersey.
Shooting is Walsh’s swing ability, the ability that would keep him on the court and earn him millions at the NBA level if he made it a consistent part of his game. Unfortunately for Walsh, after his only season at Arkansas, his jumper was a big question mark. Walsh shot a disastrous 25 percent for the Razorbacks, who came on the heels of a tough AAU performance the previous summer. One youtube video scan he noted that Walsh played “like a complete non-shooter”.
So when Walsh and Stoker discussed how to get the 19-year-old’s name mentioned on draft night, they agreed that, for the first time in his young career, Walsh needed a unique focus on shooting from deep.
“We knew what he had to do … get drafted or prove he can play at that level of the NBA, and that was basically just catch and shoot 3s,” Stoker told Boston.com. “So our workouts were 80-90 percent geared toward catching and shooting 3s. Catch and shoot, catch and shoot. Multiple reps over and over and over again, quality reps over and over and over and over again.”
Stoker and Walsh took a ground-up approach, which included minor tweaks to their mechanics. Walsh’s sweater never looked tattered in college, but Stoker went through a long list of essentials. In particular, Walsh needed to remember to hang his index and middle fingers on the rim after shooting, an adjustment that helped fix his shot placement.
“Once he believed in that, once he locked in on that, Jordan was taking them down without question,” Stoker said.
But just taking shots wasn’t enough. Walsh also needed to show NBA decision makers that he would be able to shoot accurately within the grind of a game, defending the best players in the world at a high level before coming back and having the focus and confidence to bury a triple in the Other ending.
Stoker and Walsh couldn’t perfectly simulate NBA opponents, so they did the following: Execute drills designed to be extreme even by Stoker’s lofty standards.
“I hope no one is offended,” Stoker said. “But man, we were beating him up.”
Stoker means it literally. In one particularly notable exercise, he and Walsh’s former AAU coach Brandon Espinosa wrapped a resistance band around Walsh’s waist. As Walsh dragged (in Stoker’s words) “a grown man” around the court, dribbling different ways the whole time, the other coach donned boxing gloves and threw punches, hitting Walsh in the shoulders and legs.
“And that wasn’t the actual training,” Stoker noted.
The actual workouts were often 40 to 55 minutes before Walsh could take a water break and were designed to improve Walsh’s shooting while building his stamina and overall fitness. After taking blows to the body from his coaches, Walsh was expected to make 30 corner 3-pointers in less than three minutes. In one workout, which Stoker laughed a little sheepishly at before describing it, Walsh had to run from one side to the other five times in 60 seconds. He then had to do it two more times.
“I never really let it slide that much,” Stoker said. “I hated that. He hated that.
As for the shooting, Walsh watched from five points; the two corners, above the break on both sides, and the top of the key. Once again, he had to make 30 three-pointers in three minutes. If he missed his marks, there were consequences.
“Whatever we gave him that day as far as skill work, he embraced it. Did you like her? No. But at the end of the day, as long as he showed great results and he knew he was improving and confidence grew to a high level, then he was always ready to go.”
After the Celtics traded in the first round and targeted Walsh at the No. 38 pick, Brad Stevens noticed Walsh’s jump shot improvements without warning.
“He’s a better shooter, and we had him twice for training,” Stevens told reporters. “He is getting better and better. I always thought his touch looked good, but sometimes he looked hesitant. I think that in time he will develop into a very good shooter who has the athleticism to finish and get closures.”
The size of the NBA is a rarity. NBA athletics is a rarity. The determination and focus on a young player to create NBA talent may be the rarest of all. The combination of size, athleticism and focus is generational, even if the player himself only plays a role at the professional level.
Stoker, who said he got chills when he saw the news of Walsh’s four-year contract, is relishing the chance to coach his first player of that caliber.
“Everyone let me know that Brad Stevens loved him and said nice things about him, to me, that’s my thanks,” Stoker said. “Honestly and honestly, I just grin from ear to ear whenever I hear stuff like that and really see Jordan act like he did.
“For the Boston Celtics organization to dump Jordan and let him know that, ‘Hey man, we’ve got you for the next four years,’ that just shows how confident they are in that guy. Just a testament to his hard work, a testament to what the Boston Celtics see in Jordan and expect from him, to give him a chance to play at this level. It was a surreal moment, I can tell you.”