Free-throws can make or break a game, but shooting them not as easy as it looks|[01/25/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 25, 2007

Any basketball player who’s been around the game long enough has been in this situation. A few seconds left, game tied or close, and they are on the foul line with nothing but the ball, a hoop, and 15 feet of air standing between victory and defeat.

It’s called a free throw, yet when hundreds of people are doing everything in their power to encourage failure, and that 15 feet suddenly looks as wide as the Grand Canyon, it’s anything but.

&#8220Like I heard somebody say one time, they call them free throws but there’s nothing free about them,” Warren Central girls coach Donny Fuller said.

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Free throws are an oddity in a sport designed around agility and reflexes. For a few seconds, the game grinds to a halt and repetition takes over.

Dribble, dribble. Bend knees. Extend arms. Release.

It’s rarely that simple, though. A good team hits about 70 percent of its free throws, a good individual 75 to 80 percent. On any given night, however, even the best can go into an abysmal funk that costs their team a game.

Whether it’s tired legs, a slight hitch in their arms, or just a momentary lapse of concentration, a bad night is enough to drive a coach or player crazy trying to figure it out.

More often than not, all they have to do is look in the mirror. Blocking out the screaming voices in a noisy gym is easier than blocking out the one in your head, players say.

&#8220To me, it’s all in your head,” said Warren Central’s Brittany Willis, an 80 percent shooter from the line. &#8220If I’m going to the line and thinking about it, I’m going to miss. I say a prayer to myself and just shoot.”

Vicksburg’s John Qualls, a 68 percent shooter at the line, agreed. He said the biggest part of shooting a good free throw is concentration, but added it’s easy to lose the necessary focus – and that misses tend to feed on each other.

&#8220If you’re constantly shooting and missing, it’ll break your spirit. You don’t have confidence in yourself. You have to learn to block that out,” Qualls said.

While concentration is the biggest component in a good free throw, physical factors also come into play. Fatigue can lead to tired legs, which in turn leads to less force and distance on a shot. Players who are short on one shot may overcompensate and send the next one long.

Bigger players, such as centers and forwards, rarely work on the longer jumpers that are equivalent to free throw distance, or have bigger hands that make it hard to get a good grip on a foul shot. Not surprisingly, guards who handle the ball tend to be better foul shooters.

Most of the physical factors can be overcome with practice, yet many coaches don’t stress free throws. It’s just another part of practice, like a rebounding drill or layup line.

Vicksburg High boys coach Dellie C. Robinson said each member of his team shoots about 50 free throws a day during practice. That’s as many as time will allow, but not as many as he’d like.

&#8220I don’t think it’s enough, but with the time frame it’s all we can do,” Robinson said.

To compensate for the overall lack of actually shooting free throws, Robinson employs a common tactic – the &#822070 percent drill.”

Each day toward the end of practice, his players must hit 7 of 10 free throws in one session. For each miss, every player runs what’s called a line drill, where they go from the baseline to the foul line and back, then the baseline to the 3-point line, and so on, until they’ve hit every mark on the floor.

The object, Robinson said, is to show that there are consequences for failure and, hopefully, to make players concentrate more the next time. The Gators also use the drill for each miss after a poor game performance.

&#8220If you just let them shoot with no consequences, the concentration level isn’t there,” Robinson said. &#8220Knowing they have to make them makes them concentrate a little more.”

At Warren Central, both Fuller and boys coach Jesse Johnson opt for a more practice-oriented approach.

Between every drill in practice, Fuller has his players shoot free throws before they get water. Hit both ends of a one-and-one, and the player gets a water break. Miss, and they run. The tactic has helped the Lady Vikes shoot 68 percent as a team this year, a percentage Fuller said is &#8220the best in years.”

&#8220We spend time working on it. We’ll take several sessions during practice and do nothing but shoot free throws,” Fuller said.

For the Vikings to leave practice, they have to hit at least five free throws in a row. The idea, Johnson said, is to have them shoot plenty of foul shots and work on the routine and repetition, even if they’re missing.

&#8220I just make them stand there and shoot five. That’s just more repetition instead of wasting time and making them run,” Johnson said.

As a player at Jackson State, Johnson learned the hard way the value of practicing free throws. A 48 percent shooter, he missed two at the end of a game against Florida A&M that cost the Tigers a victory. Johnson was so upset, he vowed to improve. He shot about 200 free throws a day from then on and, while he didn’t become a great shooter, he did improve.

That’s a lesson he passed on to one of his players, Mario Luckett.

Luckett started this season in a deep funk, shooting around 50 percent in the Vikings’ first six games. Realizing he was leaving a lot of points on the table, Luckett took Johnson’s advice and started shooting after practice.

The extra effort helped Luckett increase his accuracy to a respectable 75 percent by midseason.

&#8220I saw that I wasn’t making them like I should be, so I stayed and practiced. I wouldn’t leave until I made 50 in a row,” Luckett said.

Cases like Luckett’s are rare, however. Most players who aren’t good shooters can improve with practice, but rarely become great. That’s part of the mystery of the free throw – even the best players can have their ability come and go, and some never have it at all.

&#8220Some people do and some don’t,” said Vicksburg guard Jonathan Phelps, whose percentage has dropped from 70 to 62 percent following a recent slump. &#8220It all depends on how much you love the game and are willing to work at it.”