AROUND THE HORNS: NIXON SHOOTS DOWN DOUBT

By Chris Kowalczyk

A year ago, it's plausible that people would've showered Ed Nixon with incentives just so he wouldn't shoot the ball. Free lunch? Sure. A suitcase full of novelty teeth? Terrific. An autographed copy of Gigli? Great. An island in the South Pacific? Whatever. Just please don't shoot the ball.
 
So, when new Head Coach Shaka Smart stopped practice last fall because Nixon passed on an open jumper, some head scratching would have been understandable. If you consider Nixon's career 3-point shooting percentage was .245 at the time, you'd think Smart needed a CAT scan for suggesting an option other than: drive, pass or drive, then pass.
 
"I remember telling him early in the year during practice after he turned down a shot in the corner, that if he ever did that again, I was going to take him out [of the game]," Smart said. "I was just letting him know that I want him to knock down that shot and we believe in him. That's a shot that he can make and will make."
 
It was a far cry from the previous two seasons, when Nixon's bruised confidence had him playing "hot potato" with the basketball.
 
"A lot of times we'd run one-on-one and a lot of special plays for Eric [Maynor] coming off a ball screen and he'd throw it out to me on the wing and I'd be like, 'ahhhh, what's next?'
 
"My confidence shooting the ball was shot," Nixon said. "I did not have any confidence to shoot the 3-point shot, so even if I did shoot it, it probably wasn't going in. It's not that I couldn't make the shot. If you don't believe in yourself, there's no way that you're going to prevail."
 
When Smart, named VCU's Head Coach following the 2008-09 season, met Nixon initially, he found an immensely talented, albeit disillusioned shooting guard.
 
"When I first got here, I didn't really like Ed," Smart admits. "He didn't seem like he loved basketball, and I think, even if you ask him now, he'll tell you that he lost a desire to be great, and for whatever reason. I remember sitting down with him in the spring and saying to him, you're going to have to figure this out, and if you really want to be good with this and be a big part of what we're doing."
 
In the meantime, Smart noticed a mechanical flaw in Nixon's shooting form one day during a workout. Nixon's natural motion was to drop the ball to his waist before he brought it up to its release point. The dip slowed Nixon's release and allowed defenders to close out on him. Once corrected, the 6-foot-4 guard began to redefine his game.
 
In previous years, Nixon was known as a slasher on the offensive end. Now, he had another weapon in his arsenal. Nixon began burying 3-pointers with surprising accuracy.

Along the way, he also impressed Smart with his renewed energy and enthusiasm. Havoc, Smart's preferred nomenclature for VCU's full court press and up-tempo offense, requires players with an Energizer battery. So impressive was Nixon in that regard, Smart began to refer to him and teammate Brandon Rozzell as "The Energy Brothers."

"In the fall, before we started practice last year, he was the one guy that had an epiphany," Smart said. "For whatever reason, he figured it out. Because of that, he was our most consistent player in practice. He had the best attitude. He was, by far, our best defender."
 
Nixon had always been an outstanding defender, but in 2009-10, he became one of most reliable options in VCU's high-octane offense, averaging a career-high 7.9 points while shooting .469 from the field, including a team-leading .432 (41-of-95) from 3-point range.
 
Nixon hopes his progression will help the Rams bag a Colonial Athletic Association Championship this March. Following a 2009-10 season in which VCU endured a number of heartbreaking losses, every little bit counts.
 
"I felt like we left something on the table last year," Nixon said. "All the games we lost were by 4-5 points, something like that. If you ask me, that's a close game, and we had more than enough talent last year to win, but we didn't do the little things."
 
That's one of the reasons Nixon spent the offseason ironing out his other weaknesses. During the summer, Nixon and VCU Video Coordinator Matt Fleming broke down film of all 51 of his turnovers from last season.
 
"Three points, that's one possession," Nixon says, matter-of-factly. "That's one blown assignment on defense. They got a wide-open three."
 
The proof of Nixon's offensive growth is probably in Smart's unwavering trust in the St. Petersburg, Fla. native. Smart's staff tracks the offensive efficiency rating, or OER, of each play the team runs. Simply, it tabulates the average number of points generated each time the Rams run a certain play.
 
"There's a particular play where we set a ball screen for Ed, and it's his opportunity to create," Smart said. "In our game at UNC Wilmington last year, we ran that play five or six times in a row and got something out of it every time."
 
In a tight game at William & Mary on Dec. 5, Smart picked Nixon to take the potential game-winning shot at the final horn. Although Nixon just barely missed the 3-pointer, Smart wouldn't change a thing.
 
"If we went back to that situation, I'd run the exact same play. That's how much confidence I have in Ed."
 
That's too bad. I had a bag of hammers I was trying to unload.
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