Decoding Free Throws

Why can’t some NBA players shoot free throws?

It seems simple. But when you dive in, you realize that it’s a much more intricate problem. We know that countless teams have had infinite time and money to solve this problem, but you still have superstars that can’t shoot any better than someone chosen at random in your neighborhood gym. 

Let’s rule out some arguments. 

It’s not because they are tall. The NBA is filled with tall people that can shoot. Look at Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki. 

It’s not genetics. We’ve already dug into genetics. Gene’s change over time, anyways. There may be some portion that is inherited, but it shouldn’t prevent anyone with twenty years of experience from shooting 70% from the line. 

It’s not the amount of practice they put in. These athletes have dedicated their lives to the sport, so it’s not fair to say that practice is the difference. I think it’s safe to say that Shaq spent at least as much time shooting free throws in practice as Steve Nash. 

Your best athlete is never your best free throw shooter. Unless, you just don’t have any above average shooters. The mindset of an athlete is fast. And the faster the mind, the better the athlete. But at the solitude of the stripe, accuracy and reproduction of the stroke are key, and just like pitchers are endurance athletes, your best shooters will be endurance athletes as well.

Think about it: LeBron, Kyrie, Iverson. Not to mention Russell Westbrook and John Wall, who are shooting under 70% from the line.  They certainly shoot at a higher clip than you or me, but they will never touch Steve Nash or Steph Curry.

Why couldn’t Shaq make free throws?

It’s because these strong guys typically have much more energy than the shorter guys. When they run the court, it takes them longer to settle in. Basically, he uses more energy to do the same amount of work, in part, because he’s big, but also because he’s quick. The faster his mind cycles during his dash down the court, the longer it will take it to slow down enough to shoot. And they don’t give him any more time to shoot just because he’s bigger or pushing himself harder than anyone else. So he has to shoot before he’s ready. Before he’s comfortably at rest. So he flips a coin. 

Shaq, Deandre Jordan, and countless others know only one speed on the court, and that’s full speed. Maximum exertion. The problem is the free throw line rewards those who play in the opposing mindset. We’ve explored how pitchers are endurance athletes. The best shooters are endurance athletes as well. Not because shooting free throws takes any kind of aerobic capacity, but the higher the capacity, the lower the energy of the player when he starts shooting. And that means a shot that’s easier to replicate, and more accurate. 

What is your typical rate of play? How much do you exert yourself to play at that speed? The more efficient and effortless your movement is, the less added strain you’ll have when you go to the line after getting fouled. And the less time you’ll need to settle in to a state of mind that can sink free throws with more precision. 

Sources:

  1. https://www.noahbasketball.com/blog/the-best-free-throw-shooters-in-nba-history
  2. https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.usatoday.com/amp/79174958
  3. https://www.mensjournal.com/sports/top-10-most-athletic-nba-players-millennium/2-blake-griffin-clippers/
  4. https://www.usab.com/youth/news/2010/01/the-science-behind-your-free-throws.aspx
  5. https://www.82games.com/random23.htm
  6. https://ftw.usatoday.com/2018/10/lebron-james-shocking-free-throw-stat
  7. https://stats.nba.com/player/2544/traditional/?Season=2018-19&SeasonType=Regular%20Season&Split=clutch