With 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter and his Atlanta Hawks on the brink of elimination, Onyeka Okongwu makes a game-saving defensive play against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After helping his team erase a 10-point halftime deficit while filling in for injured starter Clint Capela, Okongwu is assigned to Cavs center Jarrett Allen, who is playing off the ball as Caris LeVert runs a pick-and-roll with Evan Mobley. Allen slides along the baseline to clear the lane for Mobley’s roll. Okongwu reads the play, leaving Allen just as LeVert releases a lob to Mobley, who’s well past his man and in position for the alley-oop — until Okongwu flies into the frame.
With perfect verticality and no illegal contact, Okongwu turns a sure-thing dunk into a Hawks possession. That single play from Okongwu increased Atlanta’s win probability from 75% (a likely win) all the way to 93.2% (a near-certain win), per the website predictable.
Okongwu, who admits to struggling with foul trouble as a rookie, may not have been capable of such a physical play like this a year ago. He might have struggled to go up vertically, or made contact with Mobley’s body via his momentum; he may not have been disciplined enough to keep his arms straight up, avoiding any risk of a foul.
He’s clearly capable now, and he says there’s a major reason why: He’s working with Don Vaden, a consultant from Third Side Coaching, and a referee whisperer of sorts.
Okongwu has decreased his per-possession foul rate by just under 10% in his second season while working with Vaden. His ability to stay on the floor was big for Atlanta in their play-in victory over the Cavs. He logged nearly 29 minutes (a top-five figure for him this year), and the Hawks outscored Cleveland by 21 points with him on the court. With Capela sidelined, Okongwu’s ability to stay out of foul trouble is paramount as he plays a larger role against the Miami Heat.
Major corporations hire former hackers for insights on cybersecurity; NBA teams hire Third Side Coaching to learn more about referees. They help players and coaches see the game through the eyes of a referee: angles and mechanics, how to minimize foul risks, and on-court applications of that study. They also teach clients how to maintain a respectful dialogue, avoid technical fouls and build positive relationships.
The Hawks have been among Third Side’s clients throughout the 2021-22 season. Vaden was introduced to players and staff early in the year, quickly building rapport within the organization. He consults with the coaching staff on everything from challenge usage to effective communication with refs.
His work with Hawks players has perhaps been even more notable, spanning from stars like Trae Young and John Collins on down the roster. Many around the team point to his work with bigs like Collins and Okongwu for its direct impact on their development. Okongwu spent hours with Vaden and assistant coach Matt Hill on the court this season working on his physicality, positioning and how to avoid foul trouble while on the court.
“Sometimes I do all this playing with my hands, trying to body guys,” Okongwu told Sportzshala. “After practice, when I’m working with Hill, [Don] will come on the court sometimes and show me what I can do with my hands, what I should do with my hands, and what the referees see.”
The Hawks are just one name on a growing list of Third Side Coaching clients, a Rolodex that includes NBA stars like Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell and Jaren Jackson Jr.; championship-winning coaches like Nick Nurse; and even some of the game’s most famous broadcasters and media members.
DON VADEN SPENT NEARLY 15 YEARS as an NBA referee, then another 15 years in the officiating departments of both the NBA and WNBA. Vaden had already met Shelley Russi, the eventual founder of Third Side, while he was still an active official; Russi, just 30 at the time, impressed him with her court presence while officiating alongside future NBA referees at a summer ref camp in 2000, then enjoyed a 20-year career as an NCAA women’s referee. Vaden would eventually help hire Russi into a position with the WNBA when he transitioned there in 2015.
Both leagues have come a long way from a refereeing standpoint in the last decade in areas like training, development and ref analysis; Vaden and Russi deserve at least some share of the credit here. Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA’s former executive VP of basketball operations, says they “spent a lot of time talking about themes of consistency, transparency and simple, repeatable procedures that everybody could understand” and that Shelly made an impact on referee training, especially on the WNBA side.
Vaden left the WNBA in 2017 to start his own consulting business, and when Russi departed a year later, Third Side Coaching was born.
The work Third Side does vary based on the client’s needs. Some teams, like the Hawks, opt for the full package: Both Vaden and Russi make regular visits and stay in touch with coaches and players alike throughout the season, working with them on everything from how refs make certain calls to the best ways to communicate with officials on the floor.
For Collins, Atlanta’s star big man, verticality has been a major point of emphasis with Vaden through much of this season. In on-court sessions with Vaden and Hawks assistant coach Chris Jent, they honed the details of a vital area for many of the league’s biggest players. “The natural tendencies that referees are going to look for when they make the call,” Collins said. “We’ve been able to do a great job of allowing me to use my athleticism and play vertically without fouling.”
Opponents shot 62.6% against Collins as the primary rim defender during the 2020-21 regular season, per tracking data — not a great number for a guy his size (6-foot-9 and 235 pounds). That’s down to 59.8% over this past regular season, minor progress. But in his four playoff appearances this postseason, it’s down to an excellent 50% (on an admittedly small sample).
Swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic raves about the way Vaden has helped him build relationships with referees. When Bogdanovic entered the NBA as a top EuroLeague player, he struggled to adjust to a new league’s officials — something Third Side has worked with him closely on.
“I knew [the referees] didn’t know me, but I wanted respect that I didn’t deserve yet,” Bogdanovic said. “I was probably complaining too much at the beginning, just a habit maybe… [Don worked with me on] relationships with referees. Trying to talk to them, not getting too emotional.”
Sharpshooter Kevin Huerter, meanwhile, raves about his work with the consultants. Typically one of the last Hawks players on the floor during practice, Huerter looks to Russi and Vaden for help with the nuances of several officiating-related areas. “Shelley, in a lot of ways, she works with the tactile,” Huerter said. “How to draw fouls, things you can look for within the play of the game.”
Huerter, like Bogdanovic, also credits Vaden with improving the way he interacts with officials on the court. “In a lot of ways, [it’s] just bridging the gap between player and ref,” Huerter said. “If you disagree on a call, how to approach them about it. Knowing the rules about it so you can argue something and use facts behind your argument.”
DAMIAN LILLARD IS one of the game’s premier pick-and-roll maestros. The last thing Russi or Vaden would ever do is take even an ounce of credit here, but they might deserve just a little.
Lillard formed a bond with Vaden in 2018 when he began working with the Trail Blazers, one of his first clients. Initial conversations about things like communication and referee dialogue rapidly progressed to on-court work, where Lillard is quick to point to some of the nuances Vaden was instrumental in instructing him on.
“I shoot a lot of threes on pick-and-rolls, and guys are grabbing around my waist, guys are reaching out and hitting my arm and stuff like that,” Lillard said. The issue: Those things weren’t always visible to the officials. “Don would show me literally the angles that referees stand at. Referees have their spots on the floor where they’re supposed to be as opposed to their partners. He would show me angles — what [refs] can see what they can’t see.”
Per Second Spectrum tracking data, the Blazers scored 1.03 points per chance on all Lillard pick-and-rolls ending in a shot, foul, or turnover in the 2017-18 season, his last before working with Vaden. That’s a middling number at best, especially for a star of Dame’s stature.
By the 2019-20 season, after working with Vaden for a couple of years, that number rose to 1.13 points per chance, and Lillard’s rate of fouls drawn on such plays rose significantly. That gap may not seem huge, but it’s the difference between an elite pick-and-roll ball handler (83rd percentile) and a slightly below-average one (33rd percentile).
Lillard is best known for his offensive exploits but also credits Vaden with helping him on the other side of the ball — primarily in those same pick-and-roll alignments.
“How can I get into their body to get over a screen without getting [a foul]? What position can I be in that a screener can’t screen me before it becomes an illegal screen?… That really helped me become a better pick-and-roll defender, and also made me more aware of things on the offensive end when I was navigating pick-and-roll,” Lillard says.
A comfort level developed quickly. Vaden and Lillard would talk constantly during those first couple of years. Vaden’s simple accessibility was a huge factor for Lillard, a gym rat like many other stars. “Before practice starts, [I’d] come onto the court and see Don and ask him a question — and before I know it we’ll be standing on the block and walking through stuff,” Lillard says.
Lillard’s connection with Third Side was a personal one in some ways. He’s stayed in touch with Vaden to this day; he’ll regularly send him plays after a game, then spend time on the phone breaking them…