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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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Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?

Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.

Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.

The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.

What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.

Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.

Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.

Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.

We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.

Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.

As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.

Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.

Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.

Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.

Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.

Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.

If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?

It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.

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2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players

Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.

Mike Yaffe

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The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.

But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.

The Top Dogs

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).

To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.

Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.

With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.

While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

Solid Potential

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.

Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.

Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.

Best of the Rest

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.

Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.

Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.

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NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers

The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.

Steve Kyler

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Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers

While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.

It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.

So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.

Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.

The Potential Future All-Stars

DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players

Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs

The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust

Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs

Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.

If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.

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, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau.

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