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Why don’t NBA players make a higher percentage of their free throws?

ESPN’s John Hollinger, expounding on the Sloan Sports Conference:

Nonetheless, a major highlight was meeting best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell and hearing his thoughts on, among other things, the mediocre free throw shooting in the highest ranks of basketball. He noted that "if I were a Martian" and came to Earth, it would deeply puzzle him how otherwise great basketball players could scarcely outperform the general church-league population from the free throw line.

This has puzzled me, too, and I’ve always believed that it’s because free throw shooting simply isn’t a differentiating skill for NBA players. They’re selected on the basis of quickness, length, leaping and, above all, height, but even among high-skill players, the free throw is rarely a separator.

That’s what Hollinger thought before his Sloan panel. After more thought, he changed his explanation:

I think the "negative" position is the better one: The very things that tend to make somebody a better basketball player also tend to make that person a worse free throw shooter, and only with a lot of work can the best players overcome that countervailing tendency.

Besides height, the physical trait that marks most NBA basketball players is that they have unusually long arms and, in many cases, enormous hands. This is tremendously useful on a basketball court in general, but at the free throw line it’s an active impediment. It’s very hard for a long-armed player to have a compact, quick shot release — instead, for many, they can scarcely get out of their arms’ way and end up with a slower, looping release.

I see a big hole in Hollinger’s revised theory (although, not necessarily a deal-breaker). As NBA players have become bigger over time, they’ve become better free-throw shooters:

My theory: NBA players exert themselves in such an exhaustive manner, their free-throw shooting slips. Ever watch NBA players shoot free throws in warmups? Even Ben Wallace makes most of his.

Put the average church-league player through a workout that’s the equivalent of playing an NBA game and have him shoot free throws throughout.

Put the average NBA player through a workout that’s the equivalent of playing a church-league game and have him shoot free throws throughout.

I’d bet a fortune that the gap between the two would skyrocket, with the NBA player ahead.


  • Mar 7, 20116:17 pm
    by gordbrown


    There are also the screaming fans, pressure to make free throws with the whole world watching, opposition coaches calling time outs to rattle you, opponents trying to get in your head (ok that happens in Church leagues as well) and the presence of Ben Wallace (all those cut muscles are an impediment to free throw shooting remembering my friend from college who had a sweet, sweet shot and threw it away to be on the rowing team). Like most things, overdetermined and multivaried.

  • Mar 7, 20119:23 pm
    by DetSports1


    One counter to your theory…if it’s truly exhaustion/fatigue that is hindering the players, why don’t they shoot better in the 1st quarter than the 4th?

    • Mar 8, 201110:13 am
      by Tim


      @Dan: Could you show a graph of how free throw shooting percentages vary over different points in the game? If your theory is at least part of the explanation, there should probably be a trend downward in accuracy throughout the game with a bump up after halftime.

  • Mar 7, 201110:38 pm
    by Rodman4Life


    I actually buy the bigger bodies over time argument, long arms, etc.  But I also believe that if these big men could swallow their egos, underhanded free throw shooting could be the “cure” that they’re looking for.  At least, I think they would find more fluidity of motion and therefore more overall accuracy.

  • Mar 8, 20112:59 am
    by Jakob Eich


    I also always wonder why big men nowadays rarely have a refined postgame. How many American 7-footers with sweet postmoves do you know? It’s like none of them exist anymore. Freethrow shooting still requires lots of practice and I believe most NBA players don’t want to spend an extra-hour in the gym to work on it. After all, they have a rigorous schedule and ought to be lifting weights and getting enough rest as well. The only solution is how OKC has solved it, namely by practicing it during practices. Ingenious approach, right? haha

    • Mar 8, 20119:31 am
      by Patrick Hayes


      One theory I’ve heard: most of the youth coaches at the high school level and below in America are former guards. Because there are so few skilled big men, there are even fewer skilled big man coaches out there, so kids who are tall don’t always get the schooling in technique and footwork they need until they get to the college level.

  • Mar 8, 20118:00 am
    by Cliff


    is it true that ben wallance makes most of his free throws in shootarounds?

  • Apr 9, 201311:40 pm
    by hair chalk


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