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Monday, November 10, 2008

High Flyers and Free Throw Shooting

High flying Hall of Famers from Elgin Baylor to Julius Erving to Dominique Wilkins--and future Hall of Famer Michael Jordan--are remembered fondly for their sensational swooping moves to the hoop, but an important part of their greatness was that when teams fouled them those players consistently made the opposition pay by sinking their free throws. Even if they were not good shooters when they entered the NBA, the game's most renowned aerial artists generally shot .800 or better from the free throw line in their primes and finished with career free throw percentages in the high .700s or better.

Among active high flyers, Kobe Bryant's free throw shooting numbers track very similarly with Michael Jordan's, Tracy McGrady improved steadily in his early years but has strangely regressed in the past few seasons and LeBron James has not made the free three shooting improvement that Wilkins and Clyde Drexler did in their first five seasons.

My newest article for Pro Basketball News looks at the free throw shooting numbers of several high flying players who are either already in the Hall of Fame or will most likely be inducted as soon as they become eligible (2/25/09 Edit: the link to my PBN story has been disabled, so I have simply pasted the text of that article into this post):

Slam dunks are exciting plays that can whip home fans into a frenzy, turn road fans into begrudging admirers and simultaneously elevate the spirits of one’s teammates while having a deflating effect on the opposition. From a purely technical standpoint, the value of being able to dunk is that a player can take the highest percentage shot possible and thus force the defense to either foul him or get out of the way. Obviously, if a player is a great dunker but an unreliable free throw shooter the defense is definitely going to try to commit a foul before he can dunk, forcing that player to earn his points at the free throw line.

When you think of the game’s great high flyers, the image in your mind’s eye is not of two free throws being made but rather of powerful and inventive dunks being slammed on the heads of hapless, helpless defenders. However, as the accompanying chart shows, many of the game’s most accomplished and renowned aerial artists made defenses pay for fouling them by shooting well from the free throw line; each of the listed players not only flew through the air with the greatest of ease but has either already been inducted in the Hall of Fame or has put together a good enough resume that he will likely be inducted in the Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible.

Although some of the NBA’s earliest players possessed good jumping ability, dunking did not become an accepted part of the game until the late 1950s/early 1960s; prior to that, leaving one’s feet was a dangerous maneuver that invited being undercut by an opposing player. Elgin Baylor was perhaps the first great NBA player who regularly played above the rim. While Baylor’s aerial feats inspired awe even among his fellow competitors, he had a fundamentally sound all-around game: he could rebound, pass and shoot. He shot .777 from the free throw line as a rookie, improved that to a career-high .837 in his fifth season and finished his career as a .780 free throw shooter. Baylor ranked in the top ten in free throw shooting percentage three times (1963-64, 67). Baylor averaged nearly nine free throw attempts per game and he made the opposition pay for fouling him.

If Baylor was the “godfather” of hang time, he had a pair of worthy successors in forwards Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving, each of whom first played in the ABA before enjoying successful NBA careers. Hawkins’ free throw shooting almost mirrors Baylor’s, as does Erving’s. In fact, there seems to be a template for the free throw shooting numbers of high flying, athletic players: they often shoot in the mid .700s as a rookie, improve into the low to mid .800s by their fifth season and then finish their careers with free throw percentages in the .780-.800 range.

Early in Dominique Wilkins’ career, his jump shot just was a means to create an opportunity for a spectacular putback dunk and his free throw shooting was equally erratic (.680 as a rookie) but he rapidly improved his shooting touch to become a solid .800 free throw shooter. After he ruptured his Achilles tendon late in his career, Wilkins even added the three point shot to his repertoire to compensate for his diminished hops. As Wilkins often mentions, he scored more than 20,000 career points and they weren’t all on dunks.

James Worthy shot almost as well from the field (.579) as the free throw line (.624) as a rookie but he quickly improved his free throw percentage to above the .750 mark and in his prime scoring years he shot close to .800 from the free throw line.

Clyde Drexler shot .728 from the free throw line as a rookie but by his fifth season he shot better than .800 and his free throw percentage stayed at or around that mark for most of the remainder of his career.

Unlike most of the high flyers, Michael Jordan was an excellent free throw shooter as a rookie (.845). For most of his career he shot in the .840-.850 range, but his career average dipped to .835 due to some lower shooting percentages that he posted during his two comebacks.

Kobe Bryant’s free throw shooting almost mirrors that of Jordan’s, the player to whom he is so often compared. Bryant started out with a good number as a rookie (.819) and has consistently shot above .830 since that time.

Tracy McGrady’s free throw shooting has followed a counterintuitive pattern. At first his numbers looked similar to those posted by Wilkins and Drexler, increasing from .712 as a rookie to .748 by year five and then peaking at .796 in year seven but since that time McGrady’s free throw shooting has gotten progressively worse, bottoming out at a career-low .684 last season.

Free throw shooting is perhaps the biggest weakness in LeBron James’ skill set (along with his midrange and three point shooting, though those skills are obviously related). James’ career percentages are following a disturbing downward trend, from .754 as a rookie to .698 in 2007, with a slight improvement to .712 last year, his fifth season. As indicated above, most of the high flying, all-around greats who preceded James hit their strides as free throw shooters by their fifth seasons. James does an outstanding job of drawing fouls and that creates free throw opportunities for his teammates by putting the Cavs in the bonus but if he does not show marked improvement in his shooting this year it is unlikely that he will become an .800 or better free throw shooter in the mold of Wilkins, Jordan and Bryant; note that except for Worthy, every player on the chart shot better from the free throw line in his fifth season than he did overall during his career.

James’ weakness as a free throw shooter is important not only in the last second shot situations that people focus on so much but also down the stretch of close games: everyone remembers the free throws or shots that are taken in the final two minutes but missed free throws during the course of a game—particularly the fourth quarters of playoff games—are also significant.

High Flyers and Free Throw Shooting







Player Rookie FT% 5th Year FT% Career FT% Career FTA/G Years Played






Elgin Baylor .777 .837 .780 8.74 1959-72
Connie Hawkins .764 .807 .779 6.74 1968-76*
Julius Erving .745 .801 .777 6.48 1972-87*
Dominique Wilkins .682 .818 .811 6.93 1983-99
James Worthy .624 .751 .769 3.44 1983-94
Clyde Drexler .728 .811 .788 5.49 1984-98
Michael Jordan .845 .850 .835 8.18 1985-93; 96-98; 02-03
Kobe Bryant .819 .853 .839 7.74 1997-
Tracy McGrady .712 .748 .747 6.38 1998-
LeBron James .754 .712 .728 8.65 2004-






* Includes ABA stats



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posted by David Friedman @ 4:57 PM

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