There are two stats that I feel are often neglected in favor of looking at a basketball player’s points per game, rebounds per game, and shots blocked/steals per game (depending on whether we are considering a center or guard). Those two stats are field goal percentage and free throw percentage. Free throw percentage might have been the reason that Memphis lost to Kansas in last year’s NCAA Championship.
Sports Illustrated has a great piece coming out in its next issue that informs you of everything you ever wanted to know about the free throw. Included, on page 3 of the article, is a passage about Dynasty client and trainer of Dynasty’s Basketball Division players, Ed Palubinskas.
IN THE space of a second Eddie Palubinskas faced a choice: head for the icy river or take his chances with the bridge abutment. Negotiating the bend of a back road in Utah, where he was coaching high school hoops seven years after an All-SEC career at LSU, Palubinskas felt his car spin out on a patch of black ice. He chose the bridge abutment. The crash essentially shattered the right side of his body, leaving his shooting arm with a compound fracture.
Palubinskas had been a superb free throw shooter in college: 87.5% at LSU in the ’70s. But during rehab he became obsessed with closing what he calls “the imperfect gap,” those seven or eight percentage points between his personal best and perfection. First in his hospital bed, then in a wheelchair stationed beneath the basket, and finally back at the line, he fiddled with such variables as the spread of his fingers on the ball, the orientation of the grain and the alignment of his elbow. He decided that the likeliest “culprit” in any missed free throw is lateral movement of joints or muscles that leads to a deviation from a straight line.
Palubinskas essentially rebuilt his mechanics from scratch, and for the quarter century since—whether horsing around in his driveway in Greenwell Springs, La., or playing in his men’s league—he has made 99 of every 100 he takes. “The ball responds to one message, and that’s the physical force given it,” says Palubinskas. “The ball doesn’t care about psychology. Once you master the mechanics, there is no choking. The game is almost 120 years old, and we’re still operating at a level of mediocrity.”
Palubinskas believes that foul shooting would improve if TV commentators pointed out when a player moves the gun barrel at the end of a shot. (“See, Jim, lateral movement of the elbow!”) Instead it has remained stuck around 68% for a half century. “If you make 18 of 18 and lose by one, that’s a legitimate loss, but others are illegitimate,” he says. “They say defense wins games, but how do you defend a free throw? If you lose by two and miss six free throws, that’s the Number 1 statistic you should attack.”
Among squandered NCAA titles, Houston in 1983 (missed nine, lost by two), Syracuse in ’87 (missed nine, lost by one), Kentucky in ’97 (missed eight, lost by five) and Kansas in 2003 (missed 18, lost by three) all failed the Eddie P. Test. That 2003 Jayhawks loss was particularly egregious; they trailed Syracuse by 11 at the break and, given multiple chances to catch up, bricked 13 of 17 free throws in the second half.
Statistics tell us that foul shooters improve by 5-to-7 percentage points per level as they advance from high school through college to the pros. Palubinskas proposes that a player at any level simply accelerate his date with destiny by getting the coaching, and putting in the work as soon as possible after puberty, when most players are strong enough to reach the hoop with replicable, adult form. Yet to hear him tell it, college coaches are too busy recruiting, addressing Rotary Clubs or screaming at their guys to “Rebound!” to do the teaching that would transform a 66% freshman ahead of schedule. Former Florida star Joakim Noah offers an example of how individual and team improvement can go hand in hand: A year after shooting 57.7% as a freshman, Noah improved to 73.3% as the Gators won the first of back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006. Florida coach Billy Donovan has credited the very thing that Palubinskas pines for: “relentless commitment.”