Jericole Hellems is a 6-foot-7 forward from St. Louis who has played a key reserve role for the N.C. State men’s basketball team during his freshman season. While averaging about 15 minutes of action per game, Hellems has contributed six points and nearly three rebounds.
He also produces the rarest of rare shots: a knuckleball.
Like the soft-tossing pitcher in baseball who relies on wind currents to haphazardly direct a pitch toward home plate, Hellems’ shots -- from the field and the free-throw line -- have little to no spin on the ball. His shots float toward the basket, and are more likely to find their target sans outside influences that cause fluttering to a baseball.
The unusual shot has resulted in Hellems connecting on 39 percent of his field-goal attempts, one-third of his 3-point tries and a 68 percent clip from the free-throw line. While those numbers are not particularly dazzling, they might also be greatly attributed to Hellems adapting to his first season of college ball.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“With Jericole, his biggest adjustment is with the 3-point line moved a little bit further back from high school to college,” says N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts. “It’s taken him a little bit of time to adjust to that. But he’s certainly capable of making shots.
“I’m not one of those guys who likes to change shots unless he is shooting absolutely horrible from the 3-point percentage.”
For Hellems, who had 14 points Sunday in N.C. State’s 94-74 win against Wake Forest, shooting knuckleballs is all about doing what comes natural to him. Generally, the lack of spin comes from having too much of the guide-hand thumb involved in the release. The right-handed Hellems guides the ball with his left hand.
“I’ve been working on just trying to get reps up because at this point it’s not really about changing it during the middle of the season,” Hellems says. “I was going to work on it this (coming) summer to try to improve on things and have a little bit more rotation. Right now, it’s about repetition.”
Dave Odom, the now retired coach whose 43-season career included the head jobs at East Carolina, Wake Forest and South Carolina, cannot recall encountering a single knuckleball shooter.
Odom is of the belief that a knuckleball shooter would be recruited and accepted to any club if that player brought other high-quality skills to his game. He used as examples Duke’s talented freshman Zion Williamson and Oregon’s injured, 7-foot-3, shot-blocking freshman sensation Bol Bol.
“If they shot knuckleballs, you would take them,” Odom says.
Odom also believes that corrections can be made to an unorthodox shooter between the ages of 16 and 19. He says once a player gets to age 20, not much can be done to revamp a player’s delivery. Hellems is 19.
Wesley Iwundu arrived at Kansas State as a knuckleballer for the 2014 season. The Wildcats coaching staff broke down Iwundu’s technique, going so far as to paint stripes on basketballs so Iwundu would create backspin on his shot.
Iwundu’s 3-point shooting percentage dropped from .412 to .316 to .200 over his first three seasons at Kansas State. He rebounded to make 37.6 percent of his 3-pointers as a senior and now is in his second season of shooting basketballs with spin (24 percent on 3-pointers) for the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
For the most part, good shooting technique involves putting proper backspin on a basketball. Chad Orzel, an associate professor in the Physics and Astronomy department at Union (N.Y.) College, recently conducted a study on the effects of backspin on basketball shots.
His conclusion was that backspin softens the bounce off a rim or backboard by reducing the horizontal velocity of the ball after the rebound. Thus, with backspin, your shot is more likely to fall in the basket.
What Orzel also found in his experiments was that it was virtually impossible to teach his two volunteers to shoot a knuckleball. To shoot a knuckleball requires a virtual shot-put motion with no follow-through with the wrist.
Upon hearing of Hellems knuckleball, Orzel studied video retrieved from the internet of the N.C. State player’s shooting.
“The kid’s obviously a pretty decent shooter, so as you can tell, shooting a knuckleball isn’t a career-ender by any stretch,” Orzel wrote via email. “Like a lot of things in sports, the most critical factor is not that your shooting form meet some abstract standard, but that you consistently do the same thing every time you shoot the ball. If you’re consistent, you can put the ball in the basket in any number of odd-looking ways.”
That certainly has been true of several knuckleball shooters over the years. Big man Tom Owens was an outstanding long-range shooter without spin on the ball for South Carolina in the early ’70s. Ernie DiGregorio was the same kind of shooter as an All-American at Providence and during a four-season NBA career in which he was a 90 percent free-throw shooter. Anfernee Hardaway played six NBA seasons while shooting a knuckleball.
At least for now, Hellems is poised to be next in line.