Towards the end of October, when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was right in the thick of his season-opening struggles, he sat down with Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Jesse Mermuys for a conversation.
The two talked about Caldwell-Pope’s role and how the coaches saw his game, while giving Caldwell-Pope the chance to talk to a coach about what he was seeing out on the floor. The chat helped Caldwell-Pope understand exactly what the Lakers wanted from him, and since then, he’s gone out and given it to them.
”My season didn’t start out how I wanted,” Caldwell-Pope told Silver Screen and Roll in a phone conversation Monday. “But I feel like the new role that I had to encounter, I just kind of embraced it. I’m trying not to worry about what else is going on, and just focusing on what my role is now for this team and being my best at it.”
During his rough start to the season in October, Caldwell-Pope’s shooting from 3-point range was downright scary, as he was only hitting 22.2 percent of his triples. That was the worst 3-point percentage of any Laker to take more than 5 attempts in the Lakers’ 8 games that month.
In November, his shooting has flipped, making defenses being the ones in fear when Caldwell-Pope lets fly from behind the arc, as he’s canned 36.2 percent of his triples in the Lakers’ 11 games so far this month.
Over the last six games Caldwell-Pope’s shooting has continued to get even better, as he’s made 38.5 percent of his threes (the third-best rate on the team over that span).
The Lakers have also been 3.7 points per 100 possessions stingier on defense when Caldwell-Pope plays than they are when he sits in November. Caldwell-Pope’s upward trajectory defensively has coincided with the Lakers jumping from 23rd in defensive efficiency in October to ranking in 4th for games played in November, allowing just 103.7 points per 100 possessions.
Not all of that is a credit to Caldwell-Pope, as it also neatly lines up with the addition of Tyson Chandler — who joined the Lakers 9 games ago — but it’s also a credit to Caldwell-Pope locking in on that end after a rough opening stretch.
“I’ve built my career off of playing hard on that end, because that’ll get me going on the offensive end. I feel like just by me playing hard on (defense) it kind of opens up my game to play freely on the offensive end because I have my rhythm,” Caldwell-Pope said. “That’s what I build off of right there. Just playing off my defense first and then my offense will come to me.”
Caldwell-Pope’s pesky defense against the Orlando Magic on Sunday also earned him closing minutes in that game, which Lakers head coach Luke Walton credited to Caldwell-Pope “flying around and fighting over screens, and coming up with loose balls,” progress Walton also praised the 25-year-old for earlier in the weekend.
”To me he’s just relaxed out there. He’s just playing basketball. He’s a very good basketball player, and he’s found a nice groove,” Walton said. “When he’s open, he’s shooting it. He’s getting after it on defense, and when you get comfortable and you just relax and play, when you’re a good player, good things happen.”
Unprompted, Caldwell-Pope also credited being more relaxed for his uptick in play. He said that before games, when he’s warming up, he now focuses on taking a deep breath before every shot to fully relax himself, almost a quick pause before shooting.
“I feel like that’s a big key in me shooting the ball is not being rushed. Not rushing myself, not letting anyone rush me, and just being more relaxed when I’m shooting the ball,” Caldwell-Pope said.
The numbers back up his assertion. Caldwell-Pope is shooting nearly two percent better overall when taking 2-6 seconds to shoot vs. shooting in less than two seconds, according to NBA.com. During his turnaround in November, his field-goal percentage while taking between 2-6 seconds to shoot has risen to 47.6 percent, while he’s making just 35.6 percent of the shots he takes in less than two seconds.
Walton is glad Caldwell-Pope has figured it out, and more importantly, that Caldwell-Pope never lost faith. Walton said that he and the other coaches were continuously telling their backup shooting guard to stay confident and keep firing away when open, even when he was slumping.
”We tell him just shoot the ball. You’re open, shoot it. You’re a great shooter,” Walton said. “That’s what we’ve been telling him ever since he’s been here.”
And while Caldwell-Pope will freely volunteer that his talk with Mermuys, acceptance of his role and relaxing more have helped him figure things out, one explanation for his turnaround that he hadn’t seemed to consider was the popular internet explanation: His decision to wear a headband, unleashing a few uses of #HeadbandKCP hashtags.
Caldwell-Pope laughed when presented with the idea, and said that starting to wear the headband was actually a decision he, Josh Hart, Rajon Rondo and other members of the Lakers’ bench came up with as a way to identify the second unit, team bonding manifesting as wardrobe alterations.
“We was talking about it like ‘hey, this can be the second-unit identity. Wear headbands. Just everybody with the second unit wear headbands.’ It came out of us just joking around about it,” Caldwell-Pope said.
Then they actually did it, so while while Caldwell-Pope won’t fully credit the headband for his improvement, as he was talking, he did seem to come around to at least acknowledging the correlation, if not the causation.
“It was just us joking around with it, and then the game just turned around for me,” Caldwell-Pope said.
The game has “turned around” enough for Caldwell-Pope that his offseason goal of improving as a shooter no longer seems as unrealistic. After shooting a career-high 38.3 percent on threes last year, Caldwell-Pope still has a ways to go from his current 32.3 percent average on the year, but his strong November has him optimistic he can still exceed expectations once again.
“I still think it’s possible. We still got a long season. We haven’t even gotten to almost the halfway mark,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I know I started out in a slump with my percentages, I’m trying to get my percentages up and either surpass last year, or be around that range. 38, 40 percent. That’s what I can bring to this team, just being able to knock down wide-open shots.”
He just had to relax a bit first.