Reports of Free Throw Shooting’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

It must be fun to talk about the “lost arts” in the three major American sports. It must be an ego-boost to wistfully lament the disappearance of good, old-fashioned, fundamental athletic skills. I suspect these things because broadcasters have been doing it for as long as I can remember. In football, we often hear about how contemporary running backs prefer to avoid contact, or how wide receivers just don’t go over the middle with the same fearlessness as their historical counterparts. Baseball is a gold mine for these sorts of things too. The bunt is a lost art. A properly-executed hit-and-run is rare. Players are too focused on hitting home runs instead of just putting the ball in play, pitchers nibble at the strike zone too much, and so on.

Basketball is what I want to briefly discuss today, and it, too, has in-game components that many believe are dead. The mid-range jump shot is a popular choice of analysts. Ambidexterity around the basket is believed to be gone too. Criticizing current players’ willingness to play defense seemingly never goes out of style. But I would argue that the most popular lament in basketball is about the death of free throw shooting. Especially in college basketball, where it is easy to latch on to youth and laziness as reasons for the skill’s theoretical demise, broadcasters love to complain about how kids just can’t hit their free throws like they used to.

I was reminded of this perpetual fad during Saturday’s Vanderbilt-Arkansas game. You know you were watching it. An Arkansas player was at the free throw line – Michael Washington, if we’re playing the odds – and bricking his shots. The SEC Network broadcasters, who might well have been beer vendors pulled from the crowd if the telecast’s production value was any indicator, instinctively sunk their teeth into the matter:

Broadcaster #1: “It seems like free throw shooting is at an all-time low. No one seems to want to practice shooting free throws anymore.”

Broadcaster #2: “It’s a basketball-wide epidemic, is what it is. And there’s a simple cure for it: hard work, getting into the gym early, and practicing your free throws. But nowadays, kids just want to run up and down the court in the summertime and play pickup games.”

Broadcaster #1: “And dunk and shoot three pointers.”

Broadcaster #2: “You’re exactly right.”

Even for a condemnation of modern free throw shooting, this seemed pretty strong. What’s more, there’s not just a statistical argument going on here. Most obviously, there’s glaring ageism in this exchange. This is essentially the basketball equivalent of “when I was your age, we had to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow,” a defense mechanism for former players and coaches against the superior athletes in today’s game. That’s one non-statistical aspect of their exchange that makes it difficult to take seriously. The other part of this exchange is more troubling. Whether they meant to or not, their comments played on common stereotypes of black athletes specifically (lazy, favoring style over substance), and black males in general. And to say this while covering a sport that is overwhelmingly black is problematic. Like I said, I have no idea if these broadcasters knew how their comments would come across. But if their complaint was truly and only with the modern state of free throw shooting, I’m sure there was a better way to word it.

The major problem, as you might have guessed, is that these guys are simply wrong. I hopped on to Kenpom.com and looked at college basketball’s free throw shooting since 2004 (I would have looked further back, but for some reason it’s impossible to find season-by-season free throw shooting percentages for the entire NCAA). Here’s what I found:

  • 2010: 68.8%
  • 2009: 68.9%
  • 2008: 69.1%
  • 2007: 69.1%
  • 2006: 69.2%
  • 2005: 68.7%
  • 2004: 68.8%

These numbers are shockingly consistent, but as a fan of sample size, I was somewhat wary of relying on such a small set of data to disprove the broadcasters’ assessment. Luckily, however, I discovered this story from The New York Times (almost exactly a year ago, coincidentally). It’s worth a full read, but the pertinent facts are the following:

  • since the mid-1960s, the free throw percentage for each season has been roughly 69%
  • the lowest free throw percentage for a season was 67.1%
  • the free throw percentage for a season has never been higher than 70%
  • the free throw percentage for an NBA season has been roughly 75% for 50 years

For whatever reason, it’s been impossible to break the 69% plateau in college basketball. It’s also been impossible to sink below the 67% mark. So, you see that the exact opposite of what our broadcasters said is true. Free throw shooting isn’t worse than it’s ever been. It’s exactly the same as it’s always been. And as is too often the case, perhaps the people who are being paid to analyze the game should spare us their clueless declarations of the sport’s deterioration and focus more on truly educating their audience.

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2 Responses to Reports of Free Throw Shooting’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

  1. Jeff says:

    I assume that Jimmy Dykes was not one of the announcers, because if he were, it is reasonable to assume you would have taken him to task by name. So who were the announcers?

    I remember reading the Times article when it came out, and being amazed.

  2. Kevin says:

    I honestly don’t know who they were. They were between 40-60 years old, Southern, and white. Since we’re talking about the SEC Network here, that should narrow it down to everyone.

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