The Art of the Free Throw
NBA players, coaches, sports psychologists explain how to master the shot.
Shot mechanics are vital
The issue isn’t always mental, though. Shot mechanics are significant. Even though NBAers are technically experts at their craft, there are times when they struggle with their shooting form. (No Andris Biedrins jokes.)
The most common flaw that Gary Boren observes is a shot with a flat arc. In his 15th season as the free throw shooting coach for the Dallas Mavericks—his 18th season in the NBA—Boren knows a thing or two about shots from the stripe.
The authors of a 2008 study on the optimal release conditions for a free throw would probably agree. Two engineering professors—one mechanical, the other aerospace—from North Carolina State University recommended in the paper that the ball, at its highest point, should be less than two inches below the top of the backboard.
Published in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences, the report also states that players should release the ball as high above the ground as possible, and that the ball should make three complete backspin revolutions before it reaches the basket. (Backspin decreases the chance of the ball ricocheting hard off the rim.) The researchers made the recommendations with the assumption of a 6-6 player shooting a free throw.
No matter whether a player struggles with mental focus or physical mechanics, Dr. Nicole Lavoi said she can tell how a player will fare at the line based off his body language.
“You can tell a lot about a player if he is feeling confident and relaxed by watching his shoulders, eyes and facial expressions,” said Lavoi, who is a sports psychology professor at the University of Minnesota.
She said that the arm will look tight, which helps move the shoulders up toward the ears. The wrist and elbow lock up. A player’s eyes might dart around before the shot, an indication that he is taking in too much information for that moment.
“On the free throw line, your eyes should be focused only on a couple things—the ball and the rim,” Lavoi said.
Going back to the point about the tight arm and shoulder, it was noted to Lavoi that Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant makes a concerted effort to loosen up his shooting arm and shoulder before every free throw. Anyone who’s watched Durant at the line has likely noticed his pre-shot shimmy.
“Watching him shoot, that’s part of his routine,” Lavoi said. “I don’t know what he’s saying to himself; it’s probably so automatic now.”
Developing a routine
Therein lies the key to a free throw: The pre-shot routine. Every NBA player has one, and many have held the same routine for a big chunk of their basketball careers.
Robinson has had his since he was 10 or 11, he said. It’s a regimented routine. He kisses an ’8′ tattoo on his left wrist that represents his friends and family. He then rubs a basketball tattoo on his left bicep that bears the initials of his brother, Deron Isiah, who passed away from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in 1997.
In a quirk he picked up from an older cousin while growing up, Robinson rotates the ball counterclockwise around his body two times, waist-high, to calm him down. Finally, he dribbles three times and shoots.
“There are so many things that go through my mind, so [I do that] to take me away from thinking about everything else and to only about my friends, family and making my free throw,” said Robinson, who added that he makes sure to sink 10 consecutive free throws during each practice.
His teammate, Stephen Curry, has fewer steps to go through before taking his free throw. Similar to Durant, Curry loosens up his shooting arm. Ball in his left hand, Curry extends his right arm, briefly shakes it out, slightly bends his knees, dribbles once, bends again and shoots. Simple as that. Curry said it’s the fourth free throw routine he’s had since high school.
“It feels comfortable to get one dribble, to get a rhythm,” Curry said. “As long as I get my rhythm down and keep my pattern and my pre-shot routine, I feel really good. I don’t notice anything else because it’s just like practice.”
Curry, a 90 percent career free throw shooter who made “only” 80 percent of them in his first 20 games this season, takes free throws between drills during off-season workouts and after practices. He holds himself to making 10 in a row with one caveat—he has to swish at least five of them.