Free Throws Under-Valued

According to a report in the New York Times, free throw percentages at all levels of basketball have been remarkably consistent for the last fifty years. The reason may be a simple matter of priority.

Here's the most relevant passage...

Since the mid-1960s, college men’s players have made about 69 percent of free throws, the unguarded 15-foot, 1-point shot awarded after a foul. In 1965, the rate was 69 percent. This season, as teams scramble for bids to the N.C.A.A. tournament, it was 68.8. It has dropped as low as 67.1 but never topped 70.

In the National Basketball Association, the average has been roughly 75 percent for more than 50 years. Players in college women’s basketball and the W.N.B.A. reached similar plateaus — about equal to the men — and stuck there.
(Full article is on

This level of consistency seems remarkable on the surface, but might not be once you consider that the act of taking a free throw hasn't changed all that much... ever. The ball and hoop and distance are (mostly) the same. Athletes are bigger and stronger... but even the weakest baller can hit a free-throw flat-footed; strength doesn't really come into play. And aside from Rick Barry -- whose method probably never caught on because it looks goofy -- there's never really been a major change in technique that would impact performance significantly.

The author of the story thinks it comes down to coaching... that coaches decide what level of free throw shooting they'll tolerate and only spend practice time on freebies when the team's percentage falls below "tolerable" level.

This got me to thinking... could free throw shooting become one of those under-valued commodities that smart teams look at when building teams?

Consider this... if a team -- at any level of basketball, but let's talk NBA just for the sake of the argument -- made free-throw shooting a particular focus... either by selecting naturally superior free throw shooters when building the team, or by devoting extra coaching/practice time to the skill... such that they shot, say, 10% better than the league average -- how many points would that represent in a year? How many wins?

Obviously, you'd need the team to be at least average in other areas of the game... and you'd need players who are able to get to the line to have it be a significant advantage...

Anyone want to poke holes in this theory?


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