Analyzing Kelsey Plum: Human T-shirt Cannon

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Kelsey Plum

I throw things. It is why as a child I had almost no interest in hitting a baseball, I just wanted to get back on the mound. While under center I wanted to roll out and hit a 10-yard out. At home you could (and can still) find me on my back, throwing pretty much anything at the ceiling, trying to kiss the paint ever so slightly. There is a grace in a well-thrown object that makes me stop and admire it. Below is a breakdown of one of the greatest throws I have ever seen.

When a friend posted the clip below on his Facebook wall I stopped and admired, and admired, and then admired some more. I could watch this all day, and honestly spent the better part of two hours watching this loop, adding in more comments and amazement at what I was seeing. Very quick background on the clip. Kelsey Plum, the #1 pick in the 2017 WNBA draft for the San Antonio Stars, was introduced to the San Antonio community during a Spurs game to welcome her to the city. As part of that promotion they were giving away T-shirts, which she happily helped distribute. While quite a few were tossed into the crowd, the video illustrates an amazing display of her form and mechanics. If you or your kids throw anything, you should watch this video.

Several things make this remarkable, which I will work through below:

  1. Context
  2. Overall form
  3. Her natural adjustments

Context

Kelsey was just introduced by the announcer, waved to the crowd, grabbed T-shirts and started throwing. In a longer clip online, you can see her fire a few, shorter-length bullets before she uncorks this beauty. However, let’s score that under very little warmup. She is also dressed casually: Take special note that she is doing this in what appear to be low-top Chuck Taylors, providing negligible support for her feet and zero for her ankles. Third, and most important, the foreign object. She is throwing a rolled-up T-shirt. Weight, aerodynamics, grip, etc., are going to be different on virtually every single toss. Anecdotal, but still important, this is happening inside a gym. While this would be more jarring for someone like me, more accustomed to throwing outside, I will say, given Kelsey’s years of basketball, that the wooden surface might be the most comfortable for her. Still, one is rarely rearing back and trying to toss a basketball down the court on a line. Scott Burrell did prove that when it happens, it’s special (and thanks to Tate George for hitting the shot). To summarize, Ms. Plum executes with almost no warm up, clothes not commensurate with the activity, and with an object that is only loosely designed for throwing.

Form and Mechanics

This is a near flawless throw. Let’s break it down piece by piece so I can hopefully pass along my sense of wonderment.

  1. Eyes – Why start here? You throw where you look. Little leaguers tend to need to be reminded of this for the most part. Where your head and eyes go, your body and the ball will follow. To that end, at frame one she has already spotted her target.
  2. Stance – Upright, knees slightly bent, beginning her movement forward for the throw. She already has a good flow in her body, meaning that nothing is locked and, therefore, losing too much energy. Her right shoulder is higher than her left, which is not normally ideal, but is part of the adjustments she makes on the fly that will be broken down later.
  3. Grip – Foreign object reminder: She grabs it in the way most suitable for the throw, like a football. Even better, her index finger is essentially perfectly placed towards the back and her fingers are wide enough to provide stability during the torque of her throwing motion.
  4. Stride length – This is a long throw, Kelsey does the appropriate thing by crow hopping into it like an outfielder. That momentum is critical to generating the force necessary to complete this throw. At 5’8”, she needs to maximize energy on something like this as there is only so much she will be able to generate within the confines of her own body. Once her crow hop comes down, her back foot is perpendicular to her, giving her the best push off angle to again maximize her force moving forward. Note that her back leg is still appropriately bent as well. When her front foot comes down you can tell her stride length is spot on because she is still on control of her body. Stride too far and your hips start pulling your torso, your shoulder flies open and you sail your throw. Stride too little and your momentum carries you too far over your plant foot, wasting energy.
  5. Hips and Shoulders – Fun with rotation. Translating all the energy generated by one’s legs comes down to how efficiently you can maximize the rotation of your hips and shoulders. As her plant foot comes down around :07, front knee slightly bent, her hips are already starting to rotate forward, translating that energy up her body and ultimately to her arm. Her shoulders are staged to start their movement as well, following closely, but not in concert with her hips. If you rotate both simultaneously you lose the fluidity of the whip motion that provides so much of the energy transfer. In the next second to second and a half her hips continue their movement with her shoulders squaring up just behind. These rotations give her gobs of energy into her throwing arm.
  6. Arm Motion – Arms should stay loose, yet purposeful, during a throw. Stepping back from grip to release, the arm motion might be the only nit I can pick. First, the positives. She lets her shoulder lead her arm, meaning her arm is staying loose, she isn’t gripping too tightly or trying to force accuracy. When any of those things happen, you tend to see a sort of “aiming” by whomever is throwing. It starts to look more like darts and less like a football or baseball toss. The forearm tends to seize a little more as you grip harder, trying to will the ball to the desired location. The good news here is, despite the foreign nature of the “ball”, there is basically none of that. The arm rotates naturally forward with the shoulder, coming square as her body does, right to release point. If she drags the arm, the ball sails wide left, if her release is too late, it heads low and to the right.
  7. Arm Improvements – Where there could be improvement is twofold, and these are pretty insignificant nits. First, her right arm could use a better tuck into her body. Between :06 and :08 in the video I would prefer if her arm was more engaged in the action of pulling her elbow back into her body. That motion generally helps to cleanup and quiet a throw, meaning it removes extra motion and helps repeatability. Second, her throwing arm does drop a little low from her grip point. This was one of the knocks on Tim Tebow’s throwing motion, as an example. It causes an ever so slight elbow hitch right before her arm starts moving forward in rotation. However, that breakdown is subject to my viewing this as a football throw, not a “toss a T-shirt” throw. I have zero problem with an outfielder using a longer motion to throw a baseball, so given the nature of this throw I can chalk that up to an adjustment. Basically, my nit is a firmer offhand body tuck.
  8. Back foot – Back foot? Yeah, I adore her back foot. Watch as it goes from push off to rotating forward with her toe down. I ruined the tops of plenty of nice shoes in my youth throwing pine cones in the church parking lot because of toe drag. It’s a good practice and helps keep your body’s motion on the same plane moving forward. If Kelsey were a pitcher, I can almost guarantee that by inning two, there would be a channel in the mound where her toe was dragging through. Think Tom Seaver here.
  9. Release – Right in line with her body. T-shirt is coming free of her hand right as it is whipping by her shoulder. Superb from that perspective. Even better, watch the follow through of her hand. Her thumb ends pointing down, indicating proper wrist pronation for this type of throw. Spirals in football are generated by your fingertips, most notably your index finger, not your wrist.
  10. Follow through – When you throw for distance there is a tendency to lose your mechanics somewhere along the way and end up stumbling way too far forward or off to one side. As the camera pans out, watch Kelsey between :09 and :12. She is in complete control of her body. Her back foot has come forward, she is balanced and already back over her center of gravity.

There is very little wasted motion in this throw. This is the kind of repeatable framework any athlete should want.

Her Natural Adjustments

There are two things, outside of the context of the throw (T-SHIRT?!?!) to which Kelsey makes on-the-fly adjustments: elevation and distance, and the two go almost hand in hand here.

  1. Elevation – There is a difference between throwing something far and throwing something up (or down) to someone. The former is part of most sports, the latter is mostly just weird and generally messes with us. There’s a new angle at play which makes the judgment of distance and translation into one’s throw more difficult. Go back again and look at her eyes. In frame one I mentioned she has spotted her target. As the video plays out you can see the elevation of her target in the lower deck. This helps account for her right shoulder being higher as the video starts. By raising her shoulder up Kelsey is already preparing her body to move slightly upward during her throwing motion. She essentially changes the plane of her body to account for the angle and trajectory she believes she needs to complete the throw. At release and follow through, watch how tall she is standing on her front foot. Most times throwing up at something, people become slightly unbalanced, but she has controlled this from the first moment, spotting her target and adjusting her angle of attack to compensate. If she were to toss that T-shirt down the court to Kawhi Leonard, I would be willing to bet that her shoulder would start on a horizontal plane. Her motion would then be the same throughout, except for release, where her body would not quite be as tall. A quarterback throwing downfield may have the same tilt in his torso to help the distance throw, but will generally follow through and reset to that horizontal plane. Outfielders will do the same. Basically, your follow through should follow on the plane to which you are throwing. Obviously, Kelsey is not going to float in the air to continue moving into the upper decks, but her standing tall at the end accomplishes the same thing: she keeps the plane in her follow through as long as she can before resetting.
  2. Distance – This is not a short throw. Pick up anything, and go try to throw it far. If you are like most people, you took a deep breath, slightly held it, gave yourself some sort of running start, uncorked the throw with a flourish and a growl, and likely stumbled on your follow through. Trying to throw really far, or really hard, is a great way to lose your mechanics. You tense up and become more rigid trying to summon every ounce of effort, when your best bet is to try and execute your mechanics and adjust your angles. Given the context it is amazing to me that Kelsey adjusted completely appropriately and executed. Fun little tidbit, watch again and see where she plants her foot. One could argue that her toe is a little too closed, until you see where her target is and realize she was on that line the entire time.

Putting it all together, this is an amazing display of athleticism and discipline. Anyone who throws should strive for a throwing motion like this. Having a fundamentally sound, repeatable throwing motion allows one to make on-the-fly adjustments without sacrificing accuracy, illustrated here by one Kelsey Plum. Nail down your strides, your rotations, your release, and you will find that adjusting to things like a damp ball, a faster runner, high winds, etc., become easier. It also helps to insulate you from injury as there is less random strain on muscles and tendons.

Next time you are out in the woods and wonder if you can hit that tree over there with this rock, remember Kelsey. Don’t sacrifice your form for a long toss, just make the adjustments and nail that throw.


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1 COMMENT

  1. Based on your analysis, I’m guessing you’d be the one to ask this. How far did she throw it? I know the target is elevated and had she made the same throw and it continued to the same level at which she was standing, it would have gone even farther, based on the arc. I’m just curious, as I know my students will ask me this when I show this video in my class. I’m unfamiliar with the size of the stadium and my math skills are just not up to par on this. 50 yards? 40 yards? 75 yards? Any ball-park guesstimate? Thanks!

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