He's an interesting guy, this coach.
Resembles actor Richard Gere. Is said to be the very best in his field. Won NBA championships. Dated Jeanie Buss.
Meet Chip Engelland, San Antonio Spurs assistant. The shooting specialist credited with sharpening the strokes of Grant Hill, Tony Parker and, most recently, Kawhi Leonard.
Engelland, 52, was a UCLA ball boy in the days of John Wooden and led the City Section in scoring as a senior at Palisades High in 1979. Basketball fans around the Westside mention his name in the same breath as former NBA sharpshooters Kiki Vandeweghe and Steve Kerr.
Using lessons he learned as a gym rat, Engelland is considered at least partially responsible for Leonard's shooting better in the NBA than he did at San Diego State.
The 6-foot-7 forward has never been considered a deft shooter, and still isn't. He's best known in these NBA playoffs as a player responsible for holding Miami Heat star LeBron James to his worst three-game scoring output in more than two years.
However, Leonard has also been the Spurs second-most efficient scorer during the postseason. His 53.7% shooting trails only center Tiago Splitter among the Spurs, and his 39.1% shooting from three-point range is third among rotation players.
Perimeter shooting was a knock against Leonard when he was drafted out of San Diego State in 2011. In college, he never shot better than 45.5%. But in two years under Engelland's tutelage he's shot nearly 50%.
"When you start working with a player, you're writing the script," Engelland said. "I'm helping, but the work that they put in and the confidence they have behind it … you can go one page of the script a day or you can move quickly."
Leonard improved rapidly once he shifted his release point farther back.
"He helped out a lot," Leonard said of Engelland. "Just working with him, changing my form and just getting reps."
People who remember Engelland's dead-eye exploits at Palisades aren't surprised the NBA eventually came calling.
"He was a hell of a shooter," said former Dolphins coach Jerry Marvin, who changed his offense so that Engelland would have more opportunities to take jump shots as he curled off screens. "I can't think of anybody more qualified to be teaching shooting."
At Palisades, Engelland was one of "the Champagne Kids," a nickname he says his class earned "for celebratory reasons that shouldn't be discussed." The team scorekeeper, Buss, now the Lakers' executive vice president of business operations, was his high school sweetheart. (And no, he doesn't care to talk about it.)
From Palisades, he went to Duke, where he was team captain as a senior, and then to a 10-year career in pro basketball, playing in the Philippines, Canada, and with the Topeka (Kan.) Sizzlers of the Continental Basketball League.
His career swerved onto a coaching path after Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski and assistant Johnny Dawkins introduced Engelland to Hill, another Duke alumnus, in 1997.
Hill was already a first-team All-NBA player, having just averaged 21.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game and leading the league with 13 triple-doubles. But his mid-range and outside shots needed work.
After two years as Hill's personal assistant, Engelland was hired by the Pistons as a shooting consultant.
When Hill went to Orlando, he brought Engelland with him. But when recurring ankle injuries forced Hill to miss almost all of the 2002-03 season, Vandeweghe, a Palisades High alum, swooped in. Vandeweghe was general manager of the Denver Nuggets, and he hired Engelland as an assistant coach.
In Denver, Engelland diversified, training such big men as Nene and Marcus Camby along with rookie swingman Carmelo Anthony and smaller guards Andre Miller and Earl Boykins. The Nuggets became the first team to go from a sub-20 win season to making the playoffs since the 82-game schedule was implemented.
Then-Nuggets head coach Jeff Bzdelik recalls Engelland adjusting Nene's thumb position and stabilizing his head on free throws, but he said it was the coach's tireless work ethic that defined him.
"He'll work with an 8- or 9-year-old at an Air Force Academy camp with the same intensity he would with a guy like Tim Duncan or Carmelo Anthony or Andre Miler," Bzdelik said. "There's integrity there."
With the Spurs since the 2005-06 season , Engelland already has one NBA championship ring.
Parker was his first personal project. Now there is Leonard, who between his rookie season and this one has improved his shooting percentage by 13.5 points on shots from 10 to 16 feet.
Steve Fisher, Leonard's college coach, can see a difference in Leonard's release point and is impressed by his dramatic improvement. "I didn't know whether that part of his game would grow at the pace that it has," Fisher said.
In three Finals games, Leonard is a combined 13 for 31 shooting, but Engelland doesn't worry about percentages. Sometimes shots just don't fall. That's part of the psychology he uses with every player he trains. Feel-based goals, not numerical ones, lead to improvement.
No doubt, his approach works.
Former Pistons coach Alvin Gentry summed it up this way: "He's the best shooting coach in the league."
Staff writers Mike Bresnahan and Brad Turner contributed to this report.