The most accurate 3-point shooter in the country starts his stroke too low, splays his legs too wide, juts his elbows too far and launches the ball too high.
That might actually matter if he missed once in a while. But for Arizona guard Salim Stoudamire, his quirky deviations look more like artistic flourishes.
Most basketball marksmen mimic each other's footwork, form and release, but Stoudamire finds the basket strictly by feel. He can make a 3-point shot look as creative as a reverse dunk, even if there is no fourth point for style.
Stoudamire, a senior, has never had a shooting coach, he is admittedly too stubborn to accept advice and he rarely watches college basketball on television. But he is not only the most accurate 3-point shooter in Division I, he is also the most entertaining. Stoudamire and the third-seeded Wildcats (29-6) will take on second-seeded Oklahoma State (26-6) on Thursday in the Chicago Regional semifinals.
The show usually starts when he walks across midcourt, hunched and sleepy-eyed, as if he is still in the middle of his morning meditation. He wipes his hands incessantly on the bottom of his sneakers, then cleans them off on his shorts. As an underclassman, he sometimes played entire games that way, content to fidget in the far corner until someone wised up and threw him the ball.
After three seasons of lulling defenders and frustrating fans, Stoudamire has jolted them awake this season. He charges from the top of the key to one corner, then across the baseline to the other, his long black locks shielded from his face by a white headband. When his teammates find him in an open spot, they must remind themselves to move without the ball because it is tempting to stand and watch along with everyone else.
"I've never seen anything like what he does," said Channing Frye, the Wildcats' senior center. "It's as though he doesn't even have to warm up. He's so natural that he can just go."
Because the 6-foot-1-inch Stoudamire dribbles low to the ground and is bent over at the waist when he catches passes, he generally starts his shot from somewhere south of his belt buckle. In theory, his extended motion gives defenders time to close in and block anything he puts up. But Stoudamire is so quick to shoot that Arizona coaches say he has had only one shot blocked this season. The assistants often yell "Too late!" at defenders in practice.
"What separates Salim is that he's able to get the ball up into the shooting pocket so quickly," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "All he needs is one look at the basket, one second with the ball, and it really is too late."
If Stoudamire is open, he will usually jump straight off the ground, the way most of his peers would. If covered, he will contort his body until he finds a sliver of space. And if he needs to, he will kick his feet back like a skateboarder trying for extra air.
"I learned to shoot playing with my older brother in the backyard," Stoudamire said. "He was 6-foot-4. I was 5-foot-something. I had to come up with a few different ways to get the ball over him."
This season, he has hit 51.3 percent of his 3-pointers (115 of 224) to lead the nation, and his average of 3.4 a game is eighth among Division I players. He also leads the Wildcats in scoring with 18.6 points a game.
Most 3-point shooters contend that the secret to their craft is repetition, practicing the same mechanical stroke in exactly the same way. Stoudamire, however, seems to like changing things. In elementary school, he switched his name almost every year, alternating between Charles, his first name, and Salim, his middle name. At Arizona, he has threatened to transfer and Olson has threatened to kick him off the team, in part because of his mercurial personality and in part because of his permanent scowl. Stoudamire is so unaccustomed to shooting slumps that he often pouts when he misses even a couple in a row.