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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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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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