What Georgia Tech has polished at ‘finishing school’

021421 Atlanta: Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado drives through three Pittsburgh defenders making a layup for two of his 12 points during a 71-65 victory over Pittsburgh in an NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Feb 14, 2021, in Atlanta.      Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com���

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

021421 Atlanta: Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado drives through three Pittsburgh defenders making a layup for two of his 12 points during a 71-65 victory over Pittsburgh in an NCAA college basketball game on Sunday, Feb 14, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com���

When Anthony Wilkins was hired at Georgia Tech in May 2018 to be an assistant coach on Josh Pastner’s staff, his new boss had a particular agenda item that he wanted Wilkins to address. In his first two seasons coaching the Yellow Jackets, Pastner – and anyone watching the team – recognized that his players were not very effective when it came to putting down shots close to the rim.

They had the quickness to get to the basket, but when they got there, they often tossed up what Pastner calls “hope shots” – as in, you release the shot and hope it goes in. A common sight at McCamish Pavilion was contested layups that caromed off the backboard and hopped around the rim before ultimately popping out.

“I told him that, I think through time, we’d be able to help our guys be better finishers,” Wilkins said recently.

When Wilkins came to Tech from Tulane, primarily to work with the guards, the Jackets were coming out of a season in which they had shot 46.6% on two-point field-goal attempts, 298th in Division I and 14th in the ACC, per KenPom. As the Jackets draw to the close of their third regular season with Wilkins on the staff – they play at Miami on Saturday – the deliverables have been achieved.

Going into Friday’s games, the Jackets ranked 56th nationally at 53.2%, fourth in the ACC. There’s different factors that account for the improvement beyond better finishing – Tech’s high volume of steals, for instance, has created more fast-break opportunities, and the team also has shot better on mid-range and long-range two-point shots – but the difference in players’ scoring ability near the basket is hard not to notice.

“We call it finishing school, working on finishing at the rim,” Pastner said of Wilkins’ project. “He’s done a really good job at player development.”

As a freshman and sophomore, guard Jose Alvarado perhaps was Tech’s chief producer of hope shots, but he has steadily improved both in his technique and discernment around the basket, becoming a dependable maker of layups in traffic. The progression in his two-point field-goal percentage over his four seasons in ACC games is stark – 45.8%, 41.1%, 55.7%, 62.0%. His ability to attack creases, maintain body control and score at the basket is a significant component of his ranking fifth in the ACC in scoring (16.8 points per game) and sixth in field-goal percentage (51.7%). At 6-foot, he’s the only player in the top 10 in the latter category who is under 6-6.

“Before I met (Wilkins), I was a little wild going into the rim,” Alvarado said. “I was just jumping into you.”

One significant way that Alvarado has become a better finisher is not in the shots he takes, but the ones he doesn’t. The first rule of Wilkins’ finishing school is never predetermine your finish when going to the rim.

Wilkins wants players to read the defense and analyze the options, much like a quarterback would when dropping back to pass. How much space is there from the defender? Is there a help defender coming, and if so, from where, how quickly and how much of a shot-blocking threat is he? With the help defender rotating over, who else is now open for a potentially better shot? Rather than gathering the ball off the dribble and landing on two feet to go up to shot, pass or pivot, is the better decision to keep dribbling?

“And it’s all happening in real time,” Wilkins said. “It’s not an easy thing.”

Based on all those variables, there are concepts on how the player should gather the ball and where it should go.

“Just over time, you just hammer away at this stuff, and it becomes a little bit instinctive for these guys,” Wilkins said.

An effective drive doesn’t have to result in a layup or dunk. Another precept of finishing school is to attack a gap effectively enough to force the defense to rotate.

“The concept of, when you’ve drawn two (defenders), you’ve done your job,” Wilkins said, “and making sound passes and decisions for your teammates based on drawing two.”

Of course, sometimes finishing at the basket is the right course. Wilkins recalled with pride how against Kentucky in December, guard Bubba Parham (generously listed at 5-foot-10) dribbled hard to the basket against Wildcats guard Terrence Clarke, long of limb at 6-7 and a five-star recruit.

Starting beyond the 3-point arc and gaining speed down the left side of the lane, Parham got his right hip into Clarke, jumped off two feet and went up with the ball in his left hand, creating space between Clarke and the ball. Further, by getting his body into Clarke’s, Parham limited Clarke’s ability to jump freely and use his length to his advantage.

“He just gathered with so much velocity and power, and he almost kind of locked the defender into the floor,” Wilkins said. “He finishes with a layup and it’s like, he’s the smallest guy on the floor – I’m not sure if he weighs 160 pounds – versus an elite, blueblood athlete. But it speaks to the buy-in that he and others have had, in terms of buying into what we do.”

In that play, there was Parham’s recognition of how to attack the basket, but also the actual act of scoring that was the result of repetitions on the practice floor of finishing through contact and laying the ball up off the glass with his non-dominant hand.

“It’s very much a part of finishing school,” Wilkins said of practicing against contact.

In practice, Pastner doesn’t hesitate to have coaches or walk-ons wield pads to simulate the contact that players get when they go at the basket.

“Coach likes to see that physicality because, hey, look, he knows that to win at a high level, you’re going to have to play through contact,” Wilkins said.

Tech has three players in the top 40 in the ACC in two-point field-goal percentage – Alvarado (59.2%), Jordan Usher (58.2%) and Moses Wright (52.7%) – and Parham (54.3%, up from 42.9% last season) would be in the top 40 if he had one more two-point field-goal attempt this season to qualify for the rankings.

What’s even more remarkable is that Tech is measured as the shortest team in the ACC.

Usher is another success story. After shooting 45.9% on two-point shots last season, he is up to 58.2% this season. As Usher put it, he had the athletic ability last season, “but it was just 100 miles per hour at the rim.” Usher credited Wilkins and other coaches for slowing him and helping him absorb fundamentals such as landing on two feet while gathering the ball off the dribble “so if you don’t have a layup, you can pivot out. All props to (Wilkins), because whenever our numbers go up, our coaches are for sure doing something right.”

Wilkins gives the praise back to players for heeding the instruction, and to Pastner for building an offense that allows those skills to flourish. During video-review sessions, when players carry out a technique perfectly or make a smart decision based off the principles of finishing school, Wilkins will say, “Training tape,” as in, that play will go into the collection that coaches will use to show future Jackets the proper execution of that play.

“They all get a kick out of that,” Wilkins said. “When they do something and they kind of all know that they did it at a really high level, they’ll all scream out, ‘That’s training tape!’”

The development has helped produce an offense that is far more efficient than any in Pastner’s first four seasons and a team that is challenging for an NCAA Tournament bid.

“These guys are really, really skilled, and the numbers are a reflection of their skill level,” Wilkins said.