The Art of the Free Throw
NBA players, coaches, sports psychologists explain how to master the shot.
Lots of other players take three dribbles to establish a rhythm, but Boren likes Curry’s one-dribble technique.
“I don’t want you standing there for a long time,” Boren said. “I want one or two dribbles and then shoot.”
Barry Wolfson, a New Jersey-based free throw coach who’s coached Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson and New Orleans Hornets forward Trevor Ariza, said that he incorporates breathing techniques into a pre-shot routine. There’s a moment between breaths in which a player can shoot, he noted.
“They inhale and exhale and before the next inhale, that’s when they shoot it,” Wolfson said. The goal is to achieve a meditative state of mind.
Trained in sports psychology and formerly a college women’s basketball coach at a slew of colleges, including at Quinnipiac University, Wolfson is a believer in optimizing a player’s mindset.
He practices visualization techniques, such as helping players repeatedly envision the ball going through the hoop. He also insists that players think of it as free throws, not foul shots.
“Foul connotes a bad odor,” he said. “I like the idea of a free throw. You’re uncontested; it’s free. I want them to feel free at the line.”
Wiener, the New York City-based sports psychologist, has had his NBA clients take mental free throws. They’ll relax in an arm chair to think of a hoop or to look at a basket on a video screen. From there, they’ll attempt five-to-10 mental free throws as they practice breathing and other relaxation techniques.
“For players with really frayed nerves, I’ll hook them up to some bio-feedback machinery to make sure their muscles aren’t all that intense,” Wiener said.
It seems like every NBA player has a trick to calm himself at the line. New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony licks the fingers on his right hand before dribbling once and spinning the ball once prior to his shot.
“One day in college, the ball slipped out of my hand—I forgot what game it was—and then I just started licking my fingers and wiping them on my shorts,” Anthony said.
Anthony’s teammate, Jared Jeffries, and Warriors forward Dorrell Wright, said they find the nail that exists at the middle of every free throw line. The right-handers line up their right foot at the nail, which helps them center their shots. It’s worked to varying levels of success for them; Jeffries holds a 58 percent mark from the line during his career while Wright maintains an 80 percent mark.
Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert, a 73 percent career shooter from the charity stripe, recites the mantra of Billy Keller, the team’s director of player development: “Lift, bend, lift, push.” In other words, lift up the ball, bend the arms and legs, lift the ball over the head and push it by shooting the ball.
Hibbert should listen given that Keller was an 87 percent free throw shooter during his seven seasons for the Pacers in their ABA days.
Before he attempts a free throw, Corey Maggette forms a fist with his right hand, blows once into that fist, taps his chest with the fist, then repeats that process a second time. Touching his chest with his right hand is a testament to God, said the Charlotte Bobcats forward. As for why he blows in his hand?
“My hands get cold,” said Maggette, who’s knocked down 82 percent of his career free throw tries. “I’m trying to get them warmed up [laughs].”
Hit the reset button
Many of the players explained that they tire themselves out in workouts or practice before shooting, as Curry referenced earlier. Boren said that in 15 years of charting practice free throws for the Mavericks, he’s found that players typically shoot 10 percent better during practice than in games.
Boren said practice makes it tough to get into a game-like repetition at the line. Players often rebound for each other, and each player shooting will often back away from the line only every two or three shots. Boren and Wolfson advise that players reset themselves at the line for every free throw.
Ex-NBA player Mark Price, now a shooting coach for the Orlando Magic, is famous for backing away from the line after every shot to reset himself. His 90.4 career free throw percentage is the highest in NBA history, so he knew what he was doing. So did Reggie Miller, the ex-Pacers guard, whose 88.8 career free throw percentage is good for ninth all-time.
“It’s mental,” Miller said. “You have to mentally see yourself making free throws.”
In what will surprise no one who watched him during an 18-year career filled with devastating opponents in the playoffs, Miller said he relished knocking down free throws in front of big crowds.
“To me, there’s nothing better than sinking free throws on the road with 18,000 [people] screaming your name and [yelling] obscenities,” said Miller, who’s now an NBA analyst for TNT. “And you go to the free throw line calm, cool and you’ve done this a million times, literally, in your sleep. There’s nothing like that.”
Miller never wanted the ball to stick to his fingers, so he would go to the scorer’s table to put rosin on his right hand. Once at the line, he would eye the rim, dribble six times, take a deep breath and shoot.
Talk to virtually any player, any coach, any sports psychologist, and that person will say that the key to free throws is to develop a routine. That sparks confidence, it calms the nerves and it creates an expectation of what the player should do before every shot, no matter the game situation.
“The mental state of repetition is key,” Miller said. “You have to do something the same way every time.”