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Do-it-yourself analytics helped Ahearn build NBA coaching credentials

Do-it-yourself analytics helped Ahearn build NBA coaching credentials

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CBC vs. De Smet basketball

De Smet basketball coach Blake Ahearn directs his players during the Class 5 District 6 Tournament championship against CBC on Thursday, March 2, 2017 at Parkway South High School in Manchester, Mo. Paul Kopsky, STLhighschoolsports.com

In fourth grade, he started journaling every shot he took. His dad would drop him off at the Brentwood YMCA on the way to work, and Blake Ahearn would stroll into the gym with his basketball diary, ready to chart every 2-pointer, 3-pointer and free throw.

“It was my poor man’s version of analytics back then,” Ahearn joked.

He kept written records of his shooting percentages at every workout for the rest of his playing career — from De Smet to Missouri State, from his brief stints in the NBA to professional teams in Europe. When he transitioned to coaching, Ahearn brought his stack of 20 books to every job interview to demonstrate his detail-oriented nature.

This year, Ahearn, 36, faced a new challenge: interviewing without his books. They were left behind at his home in Austin, Texas. But describing them was still enough to convince the Memphis Grizzlies that Ahearn was worthy. On June 20, he was announced as the Grizzlies’ newest assistant coach, with an emphasis in shooting development.

It’s Ahearn’s first NBA coaching job after three seasons as head coach of the Austin Spurs, whom he led to the G-League championship in 2018. Before that, Ahearn spent the 2016-17 season coaching De Smet and the 2015-16 season at Clayton High.

Benjamin Litteken, who played for Ahearn at Clayton, was on a committee of players that sat in on interviews with coaching candidates in 2016, which is when he was introduced to Ahearn’s journals.

“The visual aid was proof that he wasn’t just talking,” Litteken said. “It was impressive. He had endless shooting drills ready to try out.”

Shooting development might be the perfect role for Ahearn. Especially free throw shooting. He still holds NCAA records for career and single-season free throw percentage (94.7 percent and 97.5, respectively). The NBA’s all-time career leader is Steph Curry (90.6%).

Ahearn planted the seeds for that record-setting career at gyms in St. Louis. He made exactly 102 foul shots every day, another tradition that started in fourth grade. But why the extra two?

“Even the last workout I ever did, when I would finish the 100, I would picture myself at the end of a game where I’ve got to make two free throws to win the game,” Ahearn said. “The biggest thing for me was I loved being in at the end of the game. And if you could make free throws, you figure out that a coach always appreciates those guys who can step to the line and handle the pressure.”

Ahearn learned to chart his percentages from Rich Grawer, a former St. Louis University and De Smet coach whose youth camps Ahearn attended. Grawer thought giving players a visual of their makes and misses would incentivize them to notice the misses more. He also set goals for consecutive makes.

“In another drill, we strived for the perfect free throw,” Grawer said. “Not just to make them. The perfect free throw hits the back part of the net and spins right back to you. If you shot the perfect free throw, you didn’t have to walk to get your rebound.”

That idea guided Ahearn toward his flawless percentages. In Grawer’s drill, the “perfect free throw” was worth five points. An ordinary swish was four. If it touched any part of the rim and went in: three. Rim, backboard and in was two. Banking it was one.

Ahearn used many of Grawer’s drills and theories while coaching at Clayton. There was a team-wide competition to see who could make the most shots over a three-month period, with phone notes replacing journals. Litteken still charts his shots every day at Miami (Ohio) University.

“I guarantee you that’s going to be a big thing he imparts on those players in Memphis: tracking your shots,” Litteken said. “Tracking your progress so you know you’re getting better every day, and it holds you accountable.”

Ahearn will join a Grizzlies team that qualified for the NBA’s fan-less restart in Orlando and is currently the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, which would make them playoff-eligible even in a normal season. It’s a young team; Ahearn will train emerging standouts including Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson and Dillon Brooks.

“I’m excited for this because there’s no better place to learn how to coach than the G-League,” Ahearn said. “So many times you go over your game plan, and then you get a call, and Pop (San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) wants your best player in San Antonio because someone’s hurt. You’re learning on the fly.”

As for whether he has the experience for an NBA job, Litteken’s favorite Ahearn story should settle any debate. It was the moment when Litteken realized Ahearn had worked out with NBA legends like Ray Allen, the all-time 3-point leader. During a Clayton shooting drill in summer 2015, everyone got one minute to make as many NBA-range 3s as possible. A couple of players tied with 18.

“And now Blake comes over, and he hasn’t shot a ball besides messing around in practice,” Litteken said. “So he’s gotten no work in, and he steps up and hits 34, or something like that, something crazy. And he goes, ‘Hmm. That was Ray Allen’s record.’”

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