Every Monday during the high school basketball season, I take a moment to look at the week that was for area teams. That being said, this week’s column is going to stray from that mold a bit as I climb aboard my soap box.
It’s become a dirty word in the modern era of basketball: Free throws.
Everyone likes to talk about just how important they are, but far more high school basketball teams across the country find themselves struggling at the foul line than not, and most of the teams in the area certainly fall in the first category this season.
That’s not to say that free throws aren’t being practiced. In fact, most teams have made a big effort to shore up their foul shooting issues.
Players are told, “bend your knees, elbow at 90 degrees, cleansing breath before you shoot, aim for the back of the rim.” Those are all certainly important, but they are not the most important. Consistency, above all else, is what separates great free throw shooters from everyone else.
The foul line is always going to be 15 feet from the hoop and the rim is always going to be 10 feet off the floor. That doesn’t change, so neither should a shooter’s stroke.
Great free throw shooters are machine-like, repeating their exact motion time and time again.
Watch Steve Nash shoot free throws some time. The Laker guard has the best free throw percentage in NBA history (90.4 percent), and he is one of the only one that takes “practice free throws,” without the ball in his hand, the same way a golfer takes practice swings before stepping up to the ball. He is reminding his hands, arms and legs exactly what they are supposed to do. It’s not a very complex routine, either, and that is what sets it apart from area high school players.
This is one of those things where simpler is better. Passing the ball around your back, spinning it in your non-shooting hand (which I admittedly still do), serves no purpose other than to look cool. But the more complex your whole routine is, the more it takes focus off the actually stroke, and the harder it is to repeat.
You know who wasn’t concerned with looking cool? Rick Berry, and he managed to hit a measly 90 percent of his underhanded free throws over the course of his NBA career. He offered to help Shaquille O’Neal with his foul shooting, but when Berry told Shaq he would have to start shooting “granny style,” Shaq declined the offer. Underhanded free throws weren’t going to help the 7-footer’s image as a budding rapper (anyone who has suffered through one of Shaq’s raps will get that joke).
To sum up my long and rambling point, simplify your free throw routine. Find a way to put the ball in the hoop and repeat it.
At a high school I covered in Radcliff, Ky., a post player named Roosevelt Emerson went from one of the worst free throw shooters in the area to a 75 percent shooter in one season. When I asked his coach what happened, he said all they did was simplify Emerson’s shot. He wasn’t focusing on having a perfect bend in the knees anymore. He didn’t spin the ball in his hand. He didn’t dribble it. He just stepped to the line, took a breath and shot. When I asked him what he was thinking about when he was shooting, he said, “touching the fingernail of my right index finger to my right eyebrow and then releasing.”
He had found a way to put his arm in the same position for every single shot. Then it just became a matter of applying the correct amount of force.
Emerson’s new shooting style didn’t look nearly as cool as his old one, but it helped his team make it to the state tournament that year (keep in mind only 16 teams in the entire state of Kentucky reach the state tournament since every school, regardless of size, competes for one state title).
So, I pose this question to area high school basketball players, who currently find themselves struggling at the foul line: Is it better to look cool while you miss them or look vanilla while you make them?
Take a few moments to ponder that before you get back to me.
Greg Crews is sports editor of The Duncan Banner. He can be reached at 580-255-5354 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.