Johnathan Loyd slowly dribbled the ball up the floor and stopped around half court, “massaging the clock,” as ESPN’s play-by-play announcer Roxy Bernstein described it. The Moda Center fans rose to their feet. The Ducks held a 65-62 lead over Illinois with less than a minute remaining in the game.
Mike Moser set a screen for Loyd with 11 seconds left on the shot clock. As the senior Loyd dribbled to his right, Illinois’ 6-foot-11 center Nnanna Egwu switched onto him. Egwu held his ground against Oregon’s 5-foot-8 point guard, not letting Loyd drive past him.
Loyd backed up with six on the shot clock, took two quick steps forward with five left, then rose up for a long two-pointer.
“There was a time last year about the midway point when Dominic Artis was out with a stress fracture and Johnathan Loyd was thrusted the role of having to play 40 minutes a night as a point guard,” Bernstein said during the timeout. “His confidence struggled. But then late in the year, something clicked for him. He would go on to be the most outstanding player in the Pac-12 Tournament, and that confidence has carried over into this season.”
A spike in Loyd’s minutes last season started on Jan. 26, the day Artis was ruled out with an injury. For the next eight games, Loyd shot 12-of-47 from the field, or 25.5 percent.
“Last year, the guys would just step all the way into the paint or double-team somebody and if I got the shot, I would miss it most of the time,” Loyd said. “They’re living with percentages.”
But something did indeed change after that eighth game, a 48-46 loss to California in which Loyd shot 0-of-6 from the field. Loyd made 46.3 percent of his shots in the final 10 games of the season.
Of course, the endpoints in these two chunks of games are arbitrary. Loyd only shot 36.7 percent from the field and 31 percent from three all season. But the evidence sure does seem to indicate that something clicked after the Cal loss because Loyd’s shooting numbers this season are the best of his career, and it’s not even close.
Loyd’s shooting percentages through the first 17 games this season are 48.4/39.4/86.5 (field goal percentage/three-point percentage/free throw percentage), on a career-high number of attempts per game. In his previous three seasons, Loyd never eclipsed 74 percent from the free-throw line and his career-highs in the other two categories were 36.7 percent (field goal) and 31.0 percent (three-point) from last season.
So what changed?
Loyd said this season (and the offseason) is the hardest he’s ever worked on his shot. He didn’t drastically change his shooting mechanics or learn one key trick to shooting more efficiently. He just shot. Constantly.
“I was just in here (Matthew Knight Arena) every day, twice a day sometimes,” Loyd said. “I was just in here getting it in and it paid off.”
Head coach Dana Altman echoed those comments and said Loyd has been smarter with his shot selection.
“There’s no shortcut on being a better shooter,” Altman said. “You’ve got to take good shots, put a lot of work in, and he’s done that.”
It’s no coincidence that Oregon’s offense has ascended this year, as well (third nationally in points per game at 87.4 and tied for 22nd in field goal percentage at 48.4). Loyd’s improved shooting hasn’t single-handedly improved the Ducks’ offense, but when the primary ball-handler is a threat to score from anywhere on the floor, a ripple effect occurs.
“If they (defenders) help off too much, I’m gonna knock it down, so you can’t really help off me like that,” Loyd said. ”It opens up lanes for everybody else.”
Plus, when Oregon players set screens for Loyd, defenders guarding him have been forced to take different routes around those picks than in years past.
“Teams can’t go under screens,” sophomore guard Damyean Dotson said. “They have to go over and we can run our plays more.”
Oregon, of course, is far from a perfect team. They’ve lost four in a row, struggled mightily on defense and don’t get much offensive production in the post. But Loyd’s improvement has turned a good offense into one of the nation’s best. If he had another 35/30/70 season this year, Oregon’s current 13-4 record would almost certainly look worse.
After his first three seasons, it seemed like Loyd would never shoot well. But he took a meteoric leap at the end of last season and is now one of Oregon’s best shooters. The formula for his improvement, he said, is pretty simple.
“After last year, my confidence was high,” Loyd said, ”so confidence plus hard work, that’s all it is.”
Follow Victor Flores on Twitter @vflores415