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NBA AM: Why Some Guys Are Bad Foul Shooters

It is easy to say some guys don’t put in the work to be better free throw shooters, but there may be some very real reasons that so many big guys are bad from the line in the NBA.

Steve Kyler

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If you have been watching the NBA playoffs, it’s hard not to notice that there are some really bad free throw shooters around the league and the majority of them seem to be big guys.

Detroit’s Andre Drummond went 32.4 percent from the foul line in the Pistons’ series against the Cavaliers. Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan has shot 32.5 percent from the line versus the Trail Blazers. Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson went 33 percent versus the Pistons, while Houston’s Dwight Howard went 35.3 percent from the line versus the Warriors.

In fact, of the 35 players classified as center who have logged playoff minutes, only 13 of them are shooting above 60 percent from the line.

There are a lot of theories on why these guys struggle so much from the charity stripe. Some try to say that they don’t work hard enough to improve. Some say they are too tall to make the shooting trajectories smaller players can make. Some point to hand size. There is even data saying foot size may play a factor too.

The problem with a one-size-fits-all story is that some big men are actually very good free throw shooters. So to get a better handle on what’s going on, Basketball Insiders reached out to a couple of people for their insight.

One is noted NBA skills trainer Dan Barto of IMG Academy. The other is a well-traveled coach who played professionally, has worked with hundreds of NBA players and currently works for a Western Conference team in the playoffs. His particular team wouldn’t look too kindly on him being on the record on this topic, so we’ll just call him a “source.”

The debate about how to fix a bad free throw shooter has raged on for years. Some of the best big men in the game’s history were terrible free throw shooters, so this is nothing new. But with an ever-growing understanding of biomechanics, human physiology and a lot of new technology there might be a better understanding for how some of the guys in the current crop can get better.

“If you watch Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Hassan Whiteside and obviously Andre Drummond, they usually have oversized plus-15-sized feet and they do not get the energy off of the ground,” Barto said. “If you watch all of their free throws, they do not… When you shoot, you have to step in and you basically push your toes into the ground; your heel comes up and then you lift off the ground and that sends the energy up through your body. You then just kind of control the energy, keep your elbow in and science sort of takes over.”

That’s not happening for many of the NBA’s best big men when they are shooting free throws.

“They don’t even get up onto their toes,” Barto said after watching hours of bad free throws looking for trends to help his current group of players. “They’re taking their two or three dribbles and every single time they create energy a different way. Sometimes they come up a little bit and create a little bit of energy. If they don’t come up at all, then the energy doesn’t start until the knee bends. You don’t know what percentages of your muscles are being used there. So as the energy goes up the chain, they are constantly doing different things. Their arms have to be tight and they end up just throwing the ball, even though if you moved them over to the elbow and had them shoot jump shots [from the same distance], they would be way more consistent because they would be leaving the ground and the energy would be coming off the ground the same way every single time.

“If you go and pull all of their free throws, you can literally see them never push up onto their toes and use their calf muscles at all. If you could attach things to measure the energy, every energy reading would be different… Moe Harkless [who trains with Barto at IMG Academy] did the same thing. Moe would go up really, really quickly and then come down quickly. He wouldn’t go up and hold on his toes, so the energy wasn’t controlled. He would go up and down, he would shoot the energy up and only in the last three weeks, basically since he became a starter, has he been able to make the adjustment. He’s gone from the mid-50s to over the low 70s percentage wise in those three weeks.”

Harkless has improved from 52 percent prior to making changes to his free throw process to just over 72 percent from the line after making leg energy adjustments around the All-Star break. Those changes did not come easy, since changing long-installed habits in the heat of a game is tough.

“You can’t stand there next to the guy after he’s been fouled hard and convince him that staying up on his toes is going to make the difference,” Barto said of installing a new free throw shooting process.

Barto has been a long-time proponent of bio-mechanical analysis and he incorporates a lot of bio-science into his basketball training techniques at IMG, but the free throw issue is more than just a scientific problem.

Our Western Conference coach said that big men often point to their hand size as the biggest reasons for their struggles from the line.

“The classic answer has always been about hand size,” he said. “The size of their hands makes it a little more difficult to comfortably hold the ball. That’s not to say that I think that is a great assessment, because there are some big guys who have a soft touch as far as free throws go, but that’s the main complaint I have heard about big guys being poor free throw shooters.”

Understanding the physiology is important, but our West coach also pointed out that a player’s approach to the free throw concept matters too – especially for many of these guys who make a ton of shots in practice, but can’t replicate it in games.

“I think it’s about how you approach the moment,” the coach said. “I think that’s where these guys become really self-conscious about what’s already transpired, like for instance the percentage they already have. It’s kind of like being so far in the hole that you feel like you can’t dig your way out. You feel like you are that number. If your free throw percentage is 45 percent, you feel like you are a 45 percent free throw shooter, even though earlier that day maybe you knocked down 20-of-20 at one point in time. Now, you are going to the line and you are like a golfer trying to make a putt and any sort of negative energy is going to alter that shot.”

The mindset of the player matters too.

“You can’t go to the free throw line and tell yourself, ‘Make it. I’ve got to make it.’ You have to be more focused on the functionality of what you are doing,” the coach added. “The positive self-talk should be, ‘Just shoot it straight. Shoot it straight.’ What I personally always told myself at the free throw line, and I was like a 90 percent free throw shooter for my career, was, ‘If I shoot it straight and trust my work, the rest is going to fall into place.’ You can’t be result driven. You have got to be driven on your mechanics and whatever your form is.”

In what has become something of an annual NBA tradition, as soon as a player has a dreadful playoff showing at the foul line, someone points to Hall of Famer Rick Barry and his legendary underhanded shot as the answer. None of the experts seemed to agree, mainly because of the impact it would have on a player both in the media and among his peers.

“I don’t think physiologically you could ever get them to do that,” Barto said. “I think when Rick Barry did it, he had probably done it so many times; you know, thousands and thousands of times before that so he figured out how to control the energy and had really good awareness. By the time a guy got enough reps that way where he could control it, it wouldn’t be worth the time and energy.”

Barto’s belief is that most of the bad free throw shooters have poor or subpar body control, and changing the action likely wouldn’t yield appreciably better results because the core problem would still exist.

“I don’t think you can take a bad free throw shooter and make him over 70 percent [shooting underhand]. I do think you could take a good free throw shooter and teach him how to shoot underhand and he could be nearly as successful.”

Our veteran coach believes that shooting underhanded might not be the answer, but a change in shooting hands might be. This is something Thompson tried awhile back and it made plenty of headlines.

“I think before going to a ‘granny-style’ shot, a guy would switch from being a right-handed shooting player from the free throw line to a left-handed shooting player,” the coach said. “I think that’s less embarrassing. These guys have delicate feelings and that certainly plays a part in whether you go to a granny style shot because that will put more focus on it.”

Our coach also conceded he wouldn’t advocate any of his players taking up the underhanded shot.

“I don’t necessarily think I would,” the coach said. “I do think there is a solution for these guys. Teams have spent God knows how much money to work with them on this particular skill. I mean, there are guys who are feeding their family just off being shooting coaches, particularly free throw ‘experts.’ But the reality of it is there is still always an answer.”

There is another concept that’s gaining momentum in the decision to send bad free throw shooters to the line: analytics. More and more teams are tracking points per possession, or the points scored every time the team touches the ball. Bad free throw shooters are dragging down a team’s overall production, especially when so many guys are making less than one foul shot in four attempts. The truth is, if some of these players could even get to the 50 percent mark, that would be more productive than some set offensive plays in the points per possession department, which makes finding a solution to this problem all the more important.

The math says most of these guys don’t even need to be high-level free throw shooters, simply getting to the 50 percent mark negates the impact they have on the outcome of a game.

It’s easy to say that a particular player does not work enough. That’s an easy assertion to make, especially when fans don’t see the behind-the-scenes training. But, as many coaches and trainers will tell you, putting in the work is only part of the solution. Some of the problem is bio-mechanical. Some of it is a mental block that grows over time. Sometimes, it’s a combination of things.

What was clear in talking with coaches and trainers is that switching to an underhanded shot wouldn’t necessarily change anything because most players have never shot the ball that way in their life. So is it better to help a player refine a natural shooting action and help him correct flaws already there, or try to reinvent the entire process and potentially develop new flaws in his new form?

There are obviously some bad free throw shooters in the NBA, and a large many of them are tossing up bricks in the postseason. However, the reality is that there’s a lot more going on at the foul line than just not being focused or not putting in the work.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @eric_saar and @CodyTaylorNBA .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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