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Most NBA players grew up from a young age dreaming of playing in the pros. New Phoenix Suns center Jock Landale is not most NBA players.
Although he played in basketball camps in Melbourne, Australia, when he was younger, Landale had no interest in the sport, preferring the Australian Football League and cricket instead.
“My parents threw me into basketball for no reason,” he said. “We have no history of basketball in our family, nobody in our family is really that tall, nothing. So they were just like, ‘You should try it out.’ And I used to hate it. Like, I used to kick and scream and be like, ‘I don’t want to go, I don’t want to do this.'”
In Melbourne, high school basketball wasn’t really a thing like it is stateside. Landale didn’t start playing competitive, organized basketball until his sophomore year, when he was 14 or 15 years old.
But it was his freshman experience at boarding school that led him on the path back to basketball. At Geelong Grammar School’s mountainside campus on Mount Timbertop, Landale and his classmates learned to fend for themselves in the wilderness, crammed with 12 people to a “unit.”
“You’re literally up on that mountain, cutting wood to heat the water for your hut,” he said. “Like, that’s what we’re doing. So we had 12 guys, and we would rotate through a job list.”
Among those jobs for the week? Aside from being the lucky one who got the week off, there was cutting firewood and bringing it back to the hut, as well as the person who had to wake up every morning at 3 a.m. to stoke the boiler that heated the water for everyone’s showers three hours later.
Landale described himself as “fat” when he arrived, but he learned to love physical activities because of all the hiking. The group started off hiking once a week over weekends, up to three days and 40-50 miles. By the end of the year, Landale said they were hiking for six days at a time, around 120 miles.
“The whole idea is they want to teach you how to love physical activity and be independent, work within a team at the same time,” he explained. “You can’t have phones, you can’t have computers, you shut off from the world on the side of this fucking mountain, just like, fending for yourself.
Hiking was just the start, because running was also involved.
“Your first term and your fourth term, you’re running twice a week,” Landale said. “One of them’s a short run, which is probably like two miles tops. Other one’s a long run, which kind of works its way up to probably like 6-7 miles, and as you progress through the year, you do three runs in the second and third term a week. And by the end of the year, you run a half-marathon up and down a mountain.”
The broken wrist
All that physical activity in the wilderness was not without its setbacks. In their third term, students would learn cross-country skiing, taking the bus down from Mount Timbertop and back up the nearby Mount Buller, one of the best ski resorts in Australia.
However, there wasn’t as much powder on the mountain; it was mostly ice. And in the last 20 minutes of the last ski run of their last week, Jock Landale was going down the easiest run when he clipped a boulder of ice in the middle of the runway and got turned around.
“I fell back, and my pole got caught between my wrist and my bone,” he said. “It hurt, and I went to push off to get up, and my arm just kind of caved and my bone came out — like fully, just like, compound. Actually, it wasn’t compound, but my arm was at an angle.”
Years later, it’s still one of his mother’s favorite stories to tell — not because of the gruesome injury, but because when it happened, she had just been on the phone with her friends telling them how thankful she was that Landale had made it through ski season unscathed. Twenty minutes later, she got the call, as Landale put it: “Hey, your son’s cooked his arm, he’s gonna have to come home and get surgery.”
The doctors put him in a cast and realigned his bones, but when he went back six weeks later for an X-ray, Landale was told his wrist was “screwed up.” If they didn’t fix it, the doctors feared his arm would seize up and he’d end up with a completely curled-up wrist. They re-broke it, inserting a plate and screws.
It was another four weeks before he’d fully heal and return to school, but that time away lined up perfectly with trials for the Geelong Supercats, an NBL team based in Victoria. Landale popped in to say “g’day” to the late coach Rod Boone, but Boone saw something in him.
“He was the one who was like, ‘Hey, let’s take this guy on and give him a real chance,’ at the top level of my age group,” Landale said. “I’d never really played before, and he was like, ‘Let’s do it. You look like you got potential, give it a crack.’ So yeah, he really opened up the door for me for basketball. I walked onto the court with a broken arm, and he was like, ‘Yeah, you look athletic, we’ll give you a go.’ And that’s kind of how it started.”
Growing from new experiences
Landale hit a growth spurt around that time and had narrowed his options down to basketball, “footy” and rowing. After cutting his hands on the oars and realizing he hated rowing five minutes in (“I’m never doing that shit again,” he recalled), and because he simply got too tall for footy, basketball was his choice.
“That was the year that I just shed all this weight, and that’s when I kind of started to hit puberty and have these crazy growth spurts,” he said. “I was like, ‘Shit, I’m pretty big. I gotta do something with this height.’ So then we were like, ‘What about basketball? We’ll try that again.'”
Landale grew almost a full foot from his freshman year to his senior year, earning a scholarship to St. Mary’s in California. Under coach Randy Bennett and a fellow Aussie in assistant coach Marty Clarke, Landale realized he’d need to prepare to expand his game as a floor-spacing big man.
“At that time, I wasn’t really thinking too far ahead, ’cause I was just so engulfed by what we were doing in college, and that’s kind of the way it is when you’re there,” he said. “But I really feel like he had more of a long-term plan going forward, which you don’t really realize until you get out and you’re like, ‘Oh crap, that’s what he was saying.'”
His senior year in college, Landale attempted 10 3-pointers in 36 games. He went undrafted in the 2018 NBA Draft, which was devastating at the time. He then had to make a decision about how he could further his career and keep his NBA dreams alive.
“I knew that trying to keep up with these guys athletically and coming up through the G League or something wasn’t going to work for me,” Landale said. “I needed to break the game down more and learn how to outthink guys and outsmart players on the court and just read the game at the best level possible, because I knew that was pretty much my only and best chance of making it at this level.”
Landale knew he had the fundamentals to succeed in Europe and that he had a shot before anyone else did. He felt confident his post play would translate overseas. But playing in Serbia for KK Partizan head coach Andrea Trinchieri, Landale discovered that he could be effective running the floor and operating in pick-and-rolls too. Most importantly, he learned the game on a deeper level.
“He really focused and honed that craft of understanding how to think the game,” Landale said of Trinchieri. “So that really helped me, and that was kind of my thought process. I didn’t realize I was gonna be lucky enough to play for such a legend in Europe and really have one of the best coaches in Europe kind of teaching me how to do what I was setting out to do.”
Between that more cerebral approach, working to evolve as a 3-point shooter against stingy defenses and the “bloodbath” practice schedule that entailed two practices a day for 3-4 hours each, Landale was sharpening every weapon in his repertoire.
The result was a drastically different Jock Landale comparing his first NBA Summer League in 2018 to his second outing in 2019. With the Atlanta Hawks in his first go-round, Landale averaged 5.0 points per game on 37 percent shooting. The following year with the Milwaukee Bucks, he put up 18.3 points per game on 55.3 percent shooting.
“The stats didn’t even really matter, it was more just like, ‘Wow, there’s so much more space on this court than I realized,'” he said. “Last time I felt swallowed — it just felt like I had nothing to do, and it’s ’cause I was frantic. But then coming from Europe, I built up a lot of confidence. I knew that I was really good out there, and it just felt like the whole game slowed down and I was like, ‘Holy shit, there’s so much space for me to operate here!’ You’re not dealing with the tight defensive schemes you are in Europe and how people kind of operate out there, so that really, really helps me, and I can honestly say I wouldn’t be here had I not chosen to go to Europe.”
Fine-tuning the 3-ball
All signs pointed to Jock Landale needing to prove himself as a pick-and-pop big, and his upward trajectory overseas reflected it too. In his first season with Partizan, the 6-foot-11 big man attempted 62 3-pointers in 47 games. The following year with Zalgiris in Lithuania, he took 91 3s in 48 appearances.
He only shot 33 percent from long range that season, but he expanded his skill-set in the process. Zalgiris had him coming off pindowns for the first time in his career, and although it was a bumpy transition, Landale was fully confident the following season when Melbourne United coach Dean Vickerman asked him where he liked to get his shots.
“When I got to Melbourne, I was like, ‘Hey, you should run me off some pindowns,'” Landale laughed. “Like, ‘That shit’s fun.'”
In 41 games for Melbourne, Landale attempted 149 triples — about 3.6 per game — and made 38.9 percent of them. His experience with three different teams in three different countries taught him the value of learning the system, finding where he’d get his shots and then working to perfect them.
“Honest to God, it’s just repetition, day after day,” he said. “I like to figure out where and how I’m gonna get my shots on the team I’m on, and then just hone that craft. So for the most part, I really try and fit into the system, ’cause it’s like, that’s where you’re gonna get most of your shots, so you might as well be good at that that year. And then it kind of all just compiles, and you just gradually get better and better as a shooter in general.”
Playing for the San Antonio Spurs last season, Landale had to endure yet another adjustment process: the NBA’s longer 3-point line. He started off hot the first two months on a limited number of attempts, but joked that he felt like he was throwing the ball at the rim for the first half of the season.
Landale wound up taking 89 3s in his rookie year, making up nearly 44 percent of his field goal attempts. He only made 32.6 percent of his triples, but these were smaller sample sizes; had he made just seven more, he would’ve shot a 40 percent clip.
Most of his attempts were above-the-break 3s (67 of them, to be exact), but he did go 9-for-21 (42.8 percent) from the corners. For Landale, getting that first season under his belt and understanding where he’ll get his shots from remained as critical as ever.
“It’s just transitioning into new stuff each year, and that’s how I get better is just by adding a piece every year,” he said. “I think Dirk [Nowitzki] talks about it a lot is just the one percent — adding one more thing each offseason. So that’s what I try and do, but I base it on the team I’m at and how they’re going to operate with me. Because there’s no point in me going and practicing a step-back if a team’s gonna be like, ‘Hey, what the fuck are you doing?’ So that’s how I operate.”
Jock Landale’s role with the Suns
We’ve covered what the Suns can expect from Jock Landale before, but all of this begs the question: What does Landale see his role being in Phoenix?
On the PHNX Suns Podcast on Wednesday, Landale acknowledged the old cliche of “doing whatever they ask of me.” But in conversations with assistant Mark Bryant, and just by surveying the roster, he’s acutely aware of where he can make an impact alongside guys like Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
“[Bryant]’s talking to me about, they’re going to have me operating up from the top of the key and kind of facilitating and shooting 3s based off of that.” Landale said. “The thing that I look forward to the most is there are so many lethal scorers on this Suns team. Because they’re a championship-contending team — I should say we are a championship-contending team — there’s just going to be so much room because everyone’s gonna be focused on Book and CP and all those guys that it’ll just leave a lot more room for me to kind of operate out of pick-and-pop situations.”
Landale will be wearing No. 11 for the Suns this year, and despite only being in Phoenix for a week now, he’s already been down to the practice facility to meet some of the guys. They’ve already dubbed Landale with his first nickname (“Young Jock”), his Golden Retriever, Navy, just joined him out in the Valley, and his fiancee is set to join them soon. On and off the court, he’ll have to settle in quickly once again.
But as much as a title contender like the Suns represents a new challenge, the last few years — and his entire basketball upbringing — reflect a tough, unorthodox road to the NBA that’s prepared him for success. There are plenty of bigs on the roster between Deandre Ayton, Dario Saric and Bismack Biyombo, but Landale’s growth as a connector and floor-spacer provides an opening to continue pursuing something he never dreamed of as a child.
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