The Red Rocket is taking off



It’s that often talked about, always sought for and rarely
found intangible that can make the difference between success and failure.
Sports psychologists and athletes talk reverently about that place called “the
zone”. Kobe Bryant’s 81 points? In the zone. Carmelo Anthony’s recent 33 point
quarter? In the zone. It’s when players talk about the basket seeming as big as
the ocean or about how every shot felt like it would go in. 

My freshman year at Mizzou I took a class called
Psychological Perspectives in Sport. My roommate and I took it hoping it would
be other sports-minded people who genuinely wanted to discuss sports and what
separates the haves from the have-nots. In reality it was full of sports-minded
people who wanted an easy A. Nothing wrong with that. Still, I learned some
principles in there that affect how I view sports, both as a participant and as
a fan. 

Confidence and its affect on one’s performance was one of these principles.

In high school I played soccer for both a club team and my
school. For some reason I was great for my club team but struggled at school.
The difference wasn’t the talent of the competition, which was higher at the club
level. The difference was confidence. I was never confident in my skills, for
some odd reason, at the high school level and my play suffered. Then I would
play for my club team and be fine. 

Matt Bonner a.k.a The Red Rocket, has had his battles with
confidence too. Luckily for the Spurs, he is winning these battles.

Bonner has emerged as the Spurs starting center and
performed remarkably well. I’ve been down on Bonner for most of his time with
the Spurs. He just never seemed to fit in my opinion. I wished that he was
either a tall small forward or a low post bruiser who would grab rebounds and
block some shots. Instead he hung around the three-point line and looked lost.
All of a sudden, however, he became confident and started doing all the things
Popovich asked of him. Both Jeff McDonald and Mike Monroe have written about
this new-found confidence. McDonald wrote:

Bonner says he can’t quite pinpoint the moment this
season when his confidence began to increase. Popovich can.

“I decided to stop screaming at him and just let him
play,” Popovich said.

Bonner disputes that account, at least partially.

“He still screams at me sometimes, but not for shooting,”
Bonner said.

Still, Bonner does credit Popovich for clarifying his
role earlier in the season. One day in November, Popovich came to Bonner with a
simple directive: Shoot or sit.

“He made it clear: If I’m open, I need to shoot the ball,”
Bonner said. “And if not, I’m not going to get in the game.”

I went back through the Red Rocket’s game log to see if he
was truly shooting the ball more. What I found surprised me.

I didn’t want to look just at his basic averages since this
emergence as a starter but at his per minute production. I broke his season into two
sections, the last seven games when he has started and the first 15 when he
supposedly struggled with confidence. 


First 15 Games

Last 7 games


238.46 (15.9 mpg)

189.61 (27.1 mpg)


73 (.306 shots/min)

57 (.301 shots/min)


96 (.403 pts/min)

84 (.443 pts/min)





33 (45% of shots)

24 (42% of shots)

Threes made

17 (51%)

13 (54%)


40 (55% of shots)

33 (58% of shots)

Twos made

21 (52.5%)

22 (66.6%)


52 (3.5 rpg)

52 (7.4 rpg)




As the table shows, he is not shooting more often, but he is
shooting at a higher percentage and making each shot count. I think the
points/shot is an important number to look at here. While he is taking roughly
the same number of shots, Bonner is making each shot matter more. He is simply
more efficient. Another number that jumps out at me is his shooting percentage
on two-point shots over the last seven games. Everybody is pointing out that he
is leading the league in three-point percentage, but it’s his accuracy on two’s
that have been the difference in my opinion. Finally, I noticed the big
difference in rebounding. His rebounds per game should increase with more
minutes, but he has increased his rebounds per minute by 25%. Bonner has not
only increased his rebounds, he is grabbing them at a higher rate.

In my opinion, this increase in production comes back to
this issue of confidence. Not the confidence to shoot more, as you can see he
really isn’t shooting more often, but the confidence in his shot and to take
good shots. Really, his shooting percentage was not that bad before he entered
the starting line up (52%), but now he is more than just a three-point
specialist, hitting from more spots on the court and adding rebounds.

With Popovich showing confidence in Bonner, he is not
forcing shots to make an impression. He is able to play comfortably and perform
at a higher level.

Is Matt Bonner the Spurs answer at center? I’m not sure. But
if he keeps playing confidently, he just might be.