The NBA’s referee whisperers

His fourth quarter ended with 53 seconds to go. Atlanta HawksThe brink of exclusion Onyeka OkongwuMakes a crucial defensive play against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

His team was able to close the halftime gap by 10 points. He also filled in for injured starters. Clint CapelaOkongwu has been assigned to Cavs centre Jarrett AllenWho is playing off of the ball as Caris LeVertPick-and-roll with Evan Mobley. Allen glides along the baseline to clear Mobley's lane. Okongwu is reading the play. Allen falls to the baseline as LeVert releases the lob to Mobley. Mobley is well past his man and in position at the alley-oop until Okongwu enters the frame.

Okongwu transforms a sure-thing dunk to a Hawks possession with perfect verticality. Atlanta's win chance increased by 75% with Okongwu's single play Probabilitywin) up to 93.2% (a nearly-certain win), per website Inpredictable.

Okongwu admitted to having had trouble with foul trouble in his rookie year. However, he may not have been able perform such a physically demanding play one year ago. It is possible that he had difficulty going up vertically or making contact with Mobley via his momentum. His arms may not have been straight enough to avoid any foul risk.

He is clearly now capable, and he says that there's a big reason. He works with Don Vaden, a Third Side Coaching consultant and referee whisperer.

Okongwu's per-possession foul rate has dropped by just below 10% during his second season working with Vaden. Atlanta's play-in win over the Cavs was aided by his ability to remain on the court. He played for nearly 29 minutes which was a top five figure this year. With him on the court, the Hawks outscored Cleveland 21 to 21. Okongwu plays a greater role in the game against the Hawks, with Capela out. His ability to keep out of foul trouble is crucial. Miami Heat.

Former hackers are hired by major corporations to gain insights into cybersecurity. The Third Side Coaching is a program that helps NBA teams learn more about referees. They assist players and coaches to see the game from the perspective of a referee. This includes the mechanics and angles, as well as how to minimize foul risk and the practical applications of this study. They help clients maintain respectful relationships, avoid technical fouls, and create positive relationships.

Third Side has had the Hawks as a client throughout the 2021-22 season. Vaden was introduced to the players and staff early in 2018, quickly building trust within the organization. Vaden consults with coaches on everything, from communication with refs to how to use challenges.

His contributions to Hawks players are perhaps even more remarkable, with stars such as Trae YoungAnd John Collinslowering the roster. Many in the team recognize his direct impact on their growth by working with bigs such as Collins and Okongwu. Okongwu spent many hours on the court with Vaden and Matt Hill, working on his positioning, physicality and how to avoid foul trouble.

Okongwu said that he sometimes does all of this while playing with his hands and trying to get guys to do the same thing,” Okongwu shared with ESPN. “After practice, when Hill is working with me, [Don]I will sometimes come onto the court and show me how I can use my hands and what I should do with them, as well as what the referees think.”

The Hawks is just one of many Third Side Coaching clients. A Rolex that also includes NBA stars such as Damian Lillard, Donovan MitchellAnd Jaren Jackson Jr.; championship-winning coaches, such as Nick Nurse; or even some of the best broadcasters and media personnel in the game.


DON VADEN WAS OUT OF WORK FOR ABOUT 15 YEARSAs a NBA referee and then for 15 more years in the officiating sections of the NBA as well as the WNBA. Shelley Russi was already a friend of Vaden's, and he met her while still an active official. Russi was just 30 when he met Russi. Russi impressed Vaden with her court presence at a summer ref camp 2000. Russi then went on to a 20-year stint as a NCAA women's referee. Vaden eventually helped Russi to be hired into a position at the WNBA after he moved there in 2015.

Both leagues have advanced a lot in the last decade, both in refereeing and in areas such as ref analysis, training and development. Russi and Vaden are responsible for at least some of this success. Kiki VanDeWeghe is the former NBA executive VP of basketball operations. She says they spent a lot of time discussing “themes of consistency, transparency, and simple, repeatable processes that everybody could understand”. Shelly also made an impact in referee training, particularly on the WNBA side.

Vaden quit the WNBA in 2017 for his own consulting company. Third Side Coaching was founded after Russi's departure one year later.

Third Side works in a variety of ways depending on the client's requirements. Some teams, such as the Hawks opt for the complete package. Vaden and Russi visit coaches and players all season and work with them to determine the best communication methods with officials and how to communicate with them.

Verticality is a key focus for Vaden during much of this season. Collins, Atlanta's top big man, has made verticality a main point of Vaden's attention. On-court sessions were held with Vaden and Hawks assistant coaches Chris Jent to fine tune the details of this vital area. Collins stated that the natural tendencies referees will look for when making a call are what Collins described. “We've done a great job of allowing my athleticism to play vertically and without fouling.

The 2020-21 regular season saw Collins serve as primary rim defender. Collins' opponents shot 62.6%, according to tracking data. This is a very low number for someone his size (6-foot-9 and 355 pounds). It's now at 59.8%, which is minor improvement from the last regular season. However, this playoff season it has dropped to 50%. This is an impressive result based on a very small sample.

Swingman Bogdan BogdanovicVaden's ability to help Bogdanovic build relationships and trust with referees is a highlight of his life. Bogdanovic, who was a top EuroLeague player when he entered the NBA, struggled to adapt to a new league's officials. Third Side worked closely with him.

“I knew” [the referees]Bogdanovic stated that although Bogdanovic didn't know me personally, he wanted respect for him that he didn't yet deserve. “It was probably a habit, maybe too much complaining at the beginning. [Don worked with me on]Relationships with referees Talk to them and not get too emotional.

Sharpshooter Kevin HuerterHuerter praises his work with the consultant. Huerter, who is usually one of the Hawks players left on the ground during practice, looks to Russi & Vaden for assistance in a variety of officiating-related areas. Huerter explained that Shelley is a tactile person in many ways. Huerter said, “How to draw fouls are things you can look out for in the play of golf.”

Huerter also thanks Vaden for improving his interaction with court officials, just like Bogdanovic. “In many ways, [it's]Huerter stated that the goal was to bridge the gap between ref and player. Huerter said, “If you disagree about a call. How to approach them. You will be able to argue your point and provide facts.


DAMIAN LILLARD ISOne of the best pick-and-roll masters in the game. Russi and Vaden wouldn't take a dime of credit for this, but maybe they deserve a little.

Lillard developed a close relationship with Vaden when he started working with the Trail Blazers in 2018. Lillard quickly referred to Vaden's helpful instructions on on-court communication and referee dialog during their initial conversations.

Lillard stated that he shoots a lot threes on pick and roll and men are reaching out to hit my arm and arm. These things were not always obvious to officials. “Don't show me the angles where referees stand. Referees stand at their designated spots on the floor. He would show me angles – what were the implications? [refs]They can see what they cannot see.”

Second Spectrum tracking data showed that the Blazers averaged 1.03 points per opportunity on Lillard pick-and roll ends in a shot, foul or turnover during the 2017-18 season. It was Vaden's last season with the Blazers. This is a poor score for a star like Dame.

After working with Vaden over a few years, the number was 1.13 points per shot. Lillard's foul rate on such plays increased significantly by the 2019-20 seasons. This gap might not seem significant, but it is the difference between an elite pick and roll ball handler (83rd%) and one that is slightly below average (33rd%).

Lillard is well-known for his offensive skills, but Vaden also helped him on the other side — primarily in pick-and-roll situations.

“How can you get into their bodies to move past a screen?” [a foul]? What is the best position I can be in so that a screener doesn't screen me ?…? Lillard says that it helped me to become a better pick&roll defender and made me more aware on the offensive end of pick&roll.

A comfort level developed quickly. During those first few years, Lillard and Vaden would speak almost every day. Lillard, who was a gym rat like many stars, found Vaden's accessibility to be a major factor in his success. “Before practice starts, [I'd]”Come onto the court, see Don, and ask him questions — before you know it, we'll be standing on block and walking through stuff,” Lillard said.

Third Side was an intimate connection for Lillard. He has maintained contact with Vaden up to today. He will often send him plays after a match and then spend some time on the phone breaking down those plays. Lillard has not worked with Russi as closely on the court, but is well-versed in some of the non-profit, equality and officiating programmes she's supported in Oakland, including a partnership for the Women's Premier Basketball Association. “We remain connected,” he said.

“[Don's]I was able to see his character through, and he truly shined through. didn'tLillard stated, “I always agree with you.” NBA superstars such as Lillard are often surrounded in yes-men. Dame appreciated someone who was honest with him. “That's what told me the story.


WHERE HE WAS A HEAD COACHThe Orlando MagicThird Side was hired by Steve Clifford as a preseason refresher to help his team prepare for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.

Clifford, a consultant at the, stated that “it would begin with new rules, areas for emphasis which happen every year.” Brooklyn Nets. “[Don]Would you come in to spend some time with us and go over the first things?

Vaden helped the Magic to focus on travel calls one year. Vaden set up stations on the practice courts, each with a different assistant coach. They went over specific footwork themes or calls from the previous season in an effort to familiarize players with what referees were looking for. Clifford said, “I think that he helped a lot to me in that way.”

Clifford did not know much about Vaden prior to hiring him. But, fellow head coaches Terry Stotts & Dwane Cayy highly recommended him. Clifford, his assistants, and Vaden all spent time together. Don would visit a player who was having a problem with a specific type of foul play or play and discuss film. Then, Don would apply the film to their court.

Alvin Gentry, who hired Third Side for consultation with the organization, said, “I just think that the information they provide is priceless. Really.” Sacramento KingsFor the 2021-22 season. “A call here, or a non-call there can win you a game. It's amazing to see how they explain things, and how they prepare film and clips for players and coaches.

Third Side was more involved than Gentry and the Kings. Vaden and Russi, who still live in Northern California, would often get on the court during practice or officiate team games. They would often stop mid-game to correct an infraction or explain why.

Kings stated that “The eye in the sky does not lie” referring to film. Harrison Barnes. “Having people like Shelley and Don who can take that film and break down the details to you — and also how can you improve upon that? It's that special. That's why I got so much out of this season.”


A COMMON KENY KEY TASK FOR THIRD IDEIt is helping players to accept their fouling tendencies. NBA fans are familiar with players who claim they did not commit fouls but argue with officials, even though replays showed an obvious and clear infraction. It turns out that people in high-level competition aren’t always the best self-narrators.

Third Side often takes on this role. They are “truth-tellers” and won't sugarcoat anything for any client.

Russi and Vaden both specialize in different areas as they are a two-person unit. Both Russi and Vaden are natural experts in call adjudication, as well as simple “right or wrong,” distinctions. Don is the leader here. His game notes for Hawks teams will contain any close calls in either direction. Don will then go over the details with coaches and players to ensure that they have accurate information the following day. Third Side wants players to be able to tell when a call was made against them so that they can correct the behavior. They also want them to know when it was wrong so that they don't try to fix something that isn't there.

Shelley has a more extensive role. It will likely include extensive on-court work, particularly for groups such as the Hawks that bring Third Side in full-scale. Russi also discusses themes such as mindfulness, communication, and staying present. She focuses on player mindsets to help them overcome any negative patterns that may be hindering their performance.

“The benefit was Don's ability to not only break but also grow. [things down]”It was, but Shelley would ask me questions that helped my get there on my feet,” said Shelley. Jaren Jackson Jr., star fourth year big man for the Memphis GrizzliesTheir co-worker from 2019 to 2020 was a woman named Judith, who helped them to reduce some of the over-aggression that was causing foul trouble. “It helped correct a lot. “I learned the mental and strategic sides of the game that I was desperate to learn.”

Russi and Vaden both agree on one thing: It is not about manipulating referees or gaming, but helping their clients to understand the situation from an official's point of view. Vaden states, “We don't teach embellishment or flopping. We teach about exposing illegal defenders.”

Collins says, “It is not about tricking a referee.” “It's not about tricking the referee. It's about being savvy and being crafty. It's all about understanding the legalities and the pitfalls… How can I get an advantage legally?

Not only are missed calls wasted, but also on unnecessary tasks. Why?How to react if they are missed What is the angle of the referee? What could the referee have done differently to take advantage of an opponent's mistake? To learn more about the reason for a particular call, can the player approach the official with respect? Common advice to players is to wait for a timeout to file a grievance. This gives both the official and player some time to process the call.

“There [are]”There are so many nuances that we don't all get the whole process of being an official. Utah JazzQuin Snyder was the head coach; Third Side worked closely with Snyder and Mitchell. Rudy GobertIn 2021. You will be able to understand more about the actions of others. You can develop empathy for certain situations or calls. It's easy to see the things that your men are doing so they can adapt easily to help you.

When Toronto RaptorsNick Nurse, the Canadian National Team's head coach, was organizing training camps for them. He had coached the team in the summer 2021, during Olympic qualifiers. Third Side Coaching was called up to help him. Nurse was an assistant to Casey in Toronto and had previously worked one-on-one with Vaden the season before.

However, what he needed to be a national team member was completely different.

Nurse relates that Shelley had a lot FIBA experience. “We tried to put together a seminar for our NBA players, who were playing under FIBA rules in Canada. The similarities, the challenges and the differences.

“For our guys that was a film-session and then some scrimmages ref they did, all those things helped give our guys a brief, three-day minicamp about the differences in the rules and how to play those different rules. It was amazing.”

Nurse also incorporates elements from Third Side's approach to his coaching with Raptors. Their achievements in particular areas have been notable.

Nurse stated that nurses talk a lot with patients about angles and positioning. “Why [a play]You can see one angle depending on what angle I have and the angle that the referee has.”


FANAnyone who watches NBA basketball and its analysis will know that Vaden and Russi have taught them a lot.

Many of the best and most prominent broadcasters in the game rely on Vaden as a resource. Mike Breen is a longtime NBA Finals play-by-play analyst who met Vaden during his time as an official on the court. Their relationship was based on Vaden’s desire for all parties to be informed.

Breen said that Breen was “always really good at explaining why this happened or what the rule was.” Breen said, “He had a simple and great way of explaining things so that you can understand them.”

Vaden and Breen remain close to each other to this day. Breen calls Vaden often after broadcasts that contain unusual or unique calls, to gain insights and make sure he's ready for the next one.

Bob Rathbun, the TV voice for the Hawks, has been using Vaden for more than 25 years as his friend and best officiating tool. Lamar Hurd is the color commentator. Portland Trail BlazersVaden was drawn to, by his rules knowledge, when Vaden consulted the Blazers several years ago. The two continue to talk frequently.

Ryan Ruocco from the NBA and WNBA, said that the broadcasters have helped him to understand the importance of each official's work. If you want to dive into Star Wars analogies, “They all must be Yoda when a burning inferno Sith is rising around them.” They need to be Zen. They must be technically proficient and be able to compete with the best athletes around the world in a fraction of a second.

Ruocco was introduced to Russi and Vaden by the WNBA while they were trying to increase media outreach. He is passionate about getting the broadcast right. Sometimes he will text the other during commercial breaks for games he calls to make sure he can accurately talk about them.

Russi and Vaden don't make a lot of money as broadcasters. This is a way for Russi and Vaden to grow their brand. They are always on the lookout for ways to improve everyone's knowledge of refereeing, one of the most important and least discussed areas in basketball.

Third Side Coaching is also involved in NASCAR. Vaden has deep roots with this sport. Over the years, he has served as both a spotter or team manager for several teams. Third Side, in collaboration with Russi's non-profit, Blast Equality Colllab (which aims to foster diversity and inclusion when officiating sports), sponsors a NASCAR pit crew that is made up of an eclectic staff of up-and coming talent.

Russi's message? It is simple. The principles they teach in officiating also apply elsewhere. She says, “Refereeing could be a training for you life.”

Both have the same guiding principle: pay it forward. Vaden said, “I was so lucky to have the opportunities that I had.” “To be in a position to give back to others, that's really my goal.”

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