August 17, 2010

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Deuces Wild for MLL's Best Marksmen

by Patrick Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Chesapeake Bayhawks midfielder Kyle Dixon is the MLL's most prolific two-point shooter with 11 this season.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

When Major League Lacrosse debuted nearly a decade ago, it brought with it a few developments unseen in the sport.

There was a shot clock, the absence of which was a growing source of aggravation in the college game then and remains so today.

There was the mere presence of an outdoor league with a limited national television contract to provide something for the sport to spotlight after Memorial Day.

And, of course, the MLL added the two-point shot as an infusion of both incentive and novelty as the league established itself.

As the MLL approaches the end of its 10th season, both the value and uniqueness of the shot remain intact.

The line, once at 15 yards, has settled in at 16 yards. And with players entering the league with a powerful outside shot (Chesapeake’s Kyle Dixon and Boston’s Paul Rabil), an effective sense of opportunism (Denver’s Drew Westervelt) or a mix of both in recent years, the two-pointer is an entrenched part of the league’s product and style.

“It’s a special shot for special players,” Denver coach and general manager Brian Reese said. “You can kind of count on that guy.”

It often takes a while, though, for a player to grow comfortable with the line.

That was evident early in the MLL’s history, when less than one two-pointer per game was converted in the league’s inaugural year. Players accustomed to the setup of the field at other levels — notably, the restraining line — needed time to adjust to a new line that could mean so much.

It wasn’t much unlike the NBA’s addition of the three-point line in the 1979-80 season, something initially new that eventually became fully integrated in the game. As time passed, the MLL found a way to further perfect the rule.

“I think it’s a fair yardage,” said television analyst Quint Kessenich, who calls games as part of ESPN’s broadcast package. “I think a good shot goes, but not many of them go. The league average is slightly up because shooters are getting better at footwork, being able to hop, step and land right on top of the line. When the two-point shot came out, it was awkward for players to worry about the line.”

That’s an adjustment younger players still must make. Westervelt quickly realized it wasn’t a high-percentage shot, and it was a while before he consistently made attempts.

Even now — after making three outside shots early this season for Denver — Westervelt isn’t so much a free shooter as a guy who will capitalize on favorable chances.

“Without the two-point line, I don’t think people would ever shoot from there,” Westervelt said. “The goalie can make you look like a fool. It’s a risk-reward there.”

The length around the arc is the same, but location matters for someone taking a two-pointer. From a tight angle, a goalie has far less room to protect from someone trying to double their production with a single shot.

Up top, though, the odds might not necessarily favor the shooter, but the chances improve considerably with a better view of the entire goal.

“It’s simple math; from top center, the goal is 36 square feet, and from goal-line extended it is zero square feet,” Kessenich said. “From the top of the key, the shooter has the ability to use all four corners. From a wing spot, a 45-degree spot, between the goalie’s width and girth, the goal is shrunk and you’re probably working with only two corners to hit. That’s a big deal.”

Of course, who is doing the shooting matters as well.

Dixon is the league’s foremost outside threat, which comes as no surprise given his history of powerful shots during his college career at Virginia. After acclimating to the MLL as a rookie, his two-point totals have risen from two to five to 10 in his first three full seasons.

He was even stronger in the first half of this season, rolling up eight in the first six games. He finished with 11 on the season.

Yet a blistering shot isn’t the only thing needed to be effective from long range. Versatility means a lot, too.

Not every shot will be buried as part of a catch-and-shoot process. Instead, Dixon is dangerous in large part because he can score while dodging — and create chances for teammates when opponents respect his considerable skill.

“They don’t need to have their feet set,” Reese said. “Both Rabil and Dixon can do it off the dodge, split dodge from either hand and score from the two-point line. They force you to extend and even slide quicker to them. That can hurt a little bit.”

Arguably the greatest impact of the two-point shot, though, has little to do with where to take it or who is the most accurate from the outside.

Instead, it is a vital piece of late-game strategy and can turn a near-blowout into an overtime-bound game in just a couple possessions. Witness Rabil’s two two-pointers during a 12-1 run that helped Boston rally from a 13-5, third-quarter deficit to Long Island to score a 17-14 win June 26.

With the help of the other MLL innovation (the shot clock), a team down four in the final minutes of the fourth quarter at least has some hope of rallying.

If a Dixon or a Rabil or another sharpshooter gets hot, the game can change quickly.
There’s also the defense’s response to that situation. Typically, defending the perimeter wouldn’t be a priority beyond simply minding a dangerous outside shooter. But late in games with a modest lead, a defense has incentive to spend as much time (if not more) trying to
stop a two-pointer and perhaps yield a better look for the more traditional one-point shot.

“I think for 55 minutes, it’s business as usual,” Kessenich said. “But late in a quarter or before the end of a half, if a team is going to go for one shot, you want to call the two. You’re not going to back off a guy shooting at 16 yards because it counts twice. To me, the strategy kicks in late in games.”

But that’s not the only time a two-pointer will be unleashed.

It can happen on extra-man, when quick passing can create an open look — such as those Rabil got during the Cannons’ comeback over the Lizards. It can occur in transition off a botched clear, when a goalie is scrambling back and the opportunity is too irresistible to pass up.

Or it can happen in a routine possession. Just don’t count on it as an every-minute occurrence.

“Sometimes it happens in the flow of the game,” Reese said. “For us, it doesn’t have to. You [might] have one guy who can hit that shot. You don’t want too many guys standing outside the arc firing away.”

One thing seems clear: The only high-profile place it will be seen in the near future is the MLL.
For a lot of people connected with the pro league, that’s just fine.

“I think it’s a thing to have at the professional level,” Westervelt said. “I don’t think it plays well under the college game. The pro game is much more fast-paced and kind of a run-and-gun style and has got guys that can shoot the ball. In college, I don’t think it’d be in the natural flow for people to shoot the two-pointer.”


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