PREP BASKETBALL: Can somebody make a free throw?

Rick Barry is 74-years-old, almost 40 years removed from the NBA and still is preaching about the under-handed free throw — the granny style for old guys like me.

Barry shot 89.3 percent from the free throw line in his 14-year career. He led the NBA his last three seasons in the league, with a shooting percentage of 92.4 (378-for-409), 94.7 (160-for-169) and 93.5 (143-for-153).

But, after his retirement following the 1979-80 season, his free throw form never was seen again at the game’s top level.

That was until three years ago when former University of Louisville player Chinanu Onuaku decided to give it a shot.

In a 2016 story by Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post, “As a freshman at Louisville, Onuaku made 46.7 percent of his free throws. After the season, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino showed him video of Barry shooting underhanded and suggested he copy Barry’s technique. Onuaku debuted the form in Greece, while playing in an international under-19 tournament for Team USA, to snickering, bewildered teammates. When he returned to Louisville as a sophomore, his percentage rose to 58.9 percent.”

There wasn’t a free throw style I didn’t try back in the day — Barry’s, Henry Bibby from the elbow, Pete Maravich, Jerry West, Kareem and Oscar Robertson.

I did stay away from Wilt Cham-berlain because he was utterly terrible.

Although, Chamberlain used the underhand style during the 1961-62 season and shot 61.3 percent from the line, the best of his 16-year NBA career. Included in that was his 28-for-32 performance from the stripe the night of his 100-point game in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Barry was encouraged by his father to give the style a shot, but didn’t want to back in high school because he was afraid of what people would say about him.

He ultimately decided to ditch that attitude and he never looked back.

Now-a-days, free throwing shooting is different.

“Low numbers from the free throw line just might be a lack of priority, we spend so much time trying to work all of the areas of the game; transition, full- half-court defense, basket cuts, ball handling, passing and the list goes on, that we as coaches and players don’t spend enough time on free throws,” veteran Elizabethtown boys coach James Haire said.

His squad is shooting 63.1 percent (310-for-491) from the line and that’s a little above the average for the teams in our coverage area.

“We try and spend time shooting free throws everyday — we play free throw games, shoot with oversized balls, put players in pressure situations as they shoot,” Haire said. “The disappointing aspect about this low statistic is that I know I have guys who can make this shot, but either through lack of consistency or focus, we are not shooting at high percentage from the line.”

Every coach at every level works on free throws, but the numbers are the numbers.

The current statistics show numbers that just aren’t good at all.

The eight boys’ teams are 2,282-for-3,633, which is 62.81 percent.

“Shooting overall is down from years past. I think there are multiple variables to that,” LaRue County boys’ coach Paul Childress said. “I do believe the 3-point line has really impacted shooting, more from probably a developmental factor. Young players in elementary and middle school develop poor shooting mechanics early on because of wanting to make threes. So what you end up getting is poor mechanics that lead to poor shooting later in high school.”

Meade County boys’ coach Jason Tripure agrees.

“I think it has affected shooting a lot,” he said. “Most younger kids try to get behind the 3-point line and start shooting them up there. They don’t take the time to develop the fundamentals of good shooting form. I think this hurts both free throw and mid-range shooting.”

Childress added, “Shooting in high school would benefit greatly if the elementary and middle school gyms do away with the three-point line. I’ve said that for years. Also the so-called importance of making threes.”

The 3-point line was universally adopted through the National Federation of High Schools prior to the 1987-88 season.

The thought was that it would make the high school game more exciting — teams that were behind late could jack up some 3s and if enough of them went in, a double-digit lead could quickly evaporate.

But, when that happened, people stopped shooting the elbow jumper.

“The mid-range shot is not important to players anymore,” Childress said. “They would rather step back and shoot a 3, so most of their emphasis in practicing will be shooting a majority of their shots behind the line. Also, AAU basketball has hurt shooting overall. There are no retributions often for taking bad shots, especially 3’s. Unfortunately players become reinforced by fans, players, and coaches that missed shots happen and just keep shooting them. So, shot selection also plays a role in percentages. Bad shots usually don’t go in very often.”

Please excuse the “back in the day references,” but taking a 20-footer before the 3-point was instituted was an awful shot.

We were never allowed to shoot those and when we did, outside of tossing one up at the end of a quarter, we quickly found a seat next to the coach.

Our outer limit was the 15-footer from the elbow or the short corner.

“While I think the 3-point line has impacted free throw shooting, I think that impact is minimal,” LaRue County girls’ coach James Slaven said. “Good shooters make shots, from any distance. As far as mid-range shooting, that part of the game has decreased significantly. I, for one, am OK with this change. Mathematically, it just doesn’t make sense to emphasize shooting from 16-feet when I can take two steps back and get an extra point. We strive to make all of our shots in the paint or wide open threes. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.”

There is no doubt the 3-point line has made some late-game situations rather exciting and brought a gym full of people to their collective feet.

Yet, it’s free throws than can win and lose games.

Such was the case Thursday night at Central Hardin.

The Bruins went 10-for-12 from the line in overtime to eventually win, 74-72.

But, they were 11-for-22 during regulation. South Oldham, meanwhile, was 9-for-10 for the game.

“I’m not sure how much the 3-point line has contributed to the lack of emphasis to effective free throw shooting,” Haire said. “I know it has contributed to effective mid-range shooting because the television media mainly shows highlights of dunks or long-range 3-point shooting. I’m not only blaming the media, but in coaching strategies, if we have the players who can make those shots, our offenses will tend to favor a 3 or a 2.

“Like anything you do, it takes repetition and consistency. I don’t believe the work is put in to making free throws a priority. I do recall several players in the area prior to the 3-point line shooting in high 80 percent and even in 90 percent range from the free throw line.”

Grayson County senior Spencer Sharp is the leading free throw shooting for those shooting a minimum of 50 free throws. He is 83-for-100. LaRue County junior Mark Goode is at 79.3 percent (88-for-111), while Meade County teammates Chris Armstead (76 percent, 38-for-50) and Peyton Cole (75.5 percent, 40-for-53) are next.

Ten players are at 70 percent or better on the boys’ side, while five girls are 70 percent or better.

“Honestly, I think that boys shoot a better percentage from the line simply because generally they are taller and stronger than girls,” Fort Knox girls coach David Armes said.

That opinion is not in the minority as I have talked to coaches in the profession about this subject over the past dozen years.

North Hardin junior Addison Sutton leads the girls who have shot a minimum of 50 free throws at 80.4 percent (41-for-51). She is followed by Whitney Hay (Elizabethtown, 105-135, 77.8), Natalie Gentry (LaRue County, 88-for-115, 76.5), Kendal Wingler (Meade County, 118-for-159, 74.2), Sydney Clark (Elizabethtown, 76-for-108, 70.4), with Emily Bryant (Central Hardin, 101-146, 69.2) just outside the mark.

“Point blank, players do not practice shooting free throws enough,” Lady Bruins coach Kristina Covington-Jones said. “During the season, we as coaches, or maybe it is just me, there is so much to work on and emphasize with the game that I do not set aside free throws. I do not forget them and we shoot them every day, but it’s not something I critique or evaluate during practice. This is usually the time my coaches and I are discussing practice plans and strategies.

“I consistently say make free throws, focus, put the ball in the hole. Hit a free throw and get a drink or things of that nature and then during the game expect players to hit free throws. To me, it’s a focus thing when getting to that line.”

One thing I was taught from the start was that with good form and a repetitive routine, free throw shooting is an attitude.

I was not a good shooter from the floor as a point guard, but was 85 percent or better from the line because I loved making free throws as much as making a great pass.

“We try to emphasize shooting the basketball,” Slaven said. “We set aside a significant portion of practice for becoming a better shooter. We use drills that the players can use when they are in the gym without us. We sometimes have a practice — usually on a Sunday — where we do nothing but work on our shooting for the entire time. There are ways to be a good player without being a good shooter, but ultimately you have to put the ball in the basket.”

The best free throw shooter in the NBA is Steph Curry, and that should come as no surprise.

He’s not a great shooter by accident, but how many kids are working on their free throws as much as him?

They’re working on those 3s from just inside the half-court line.

At the same time, with what James Harden is doing right now in the NBA, how many kids are working on their step-back 3?

“I don’t think that the 3-point line has hurt the game, I think that it has hurt the players and the intermediate shot,” Covington-Jones said. “The majority of the time, good 3-point shooters are also good free throw shooters. I will say, I do not think players work on shooting free throws as much as they do 3s and other shots.

“It is more exciting to players to hit a 3 than a pull-up jumper. The 3 is also a more animated shot. Players hit a 3 you have the pull-back sling shot to the crowd, you have the three to the head, and you have the three fingers waving.”

Team free throw shooting for the girls is not good.

They are a collective 1,8767-for-3,254 for 57.74 percent.

Elizabethtown is just under 70 percent (416-for-598, 69.6) and is the best free-throw shooting team in the area. It is followed by Meade County (192-for-316, 60.8) and LaRue County (264-441, 59.9).

In my opinion, the best free throw shooter in the area is Lady Panthers senior Leikyn Walker. She is not on the stat sheet because she does not have enough free throws under her belt due to the recent return from her ACL injury.

She was 10-for-11 in the win over Bardstown Friday evening.

“I still don’t know how I missed that one,” she said.

Walker is 30-for-35 (85.7 percent) since her return. In the game, the rest of the team was 14-for-25.

“Most kids don’t work on free throw shooting, real free throw shooting,” said Tripure, whose team is second in the area at 66 percent (248-for-376). “There is a difference between just shooting free throws and doing some running to be fatigued and then shooting them. Being fatigued is more game-like. Also, working on them outside of practice. I am sure most coaches work on shooting free throws during practice, but it is the extra work after practice that will really boost someone’s free throw percentage.”

I found nine girls games where the losses totaled 31 points and collectively those teams were 109-for-198 from the free throw line.

I found eight boys games where the losses totaled 23 points and they were 98-for-176 from the stripe.

It is all on free throws?


There could be unforced errors late, missed bunnies and other intangibles throughout those games, but there is no hiding the fact that shooting a collective 55 percent in both instances didn’t help at all.

“Free throws, mechanics and repetition also plays a role in percentages,” Childress said. “Players don’t practice them on their own as much. I know coaches have their creative ways of incorporating free throw practice, but ultimately it comes down to the individual player. And I truly believe a lot of free throw shooting is mental toughness, the ability to concentrate and focus during stressful game-time situations.

“Many coaches believe that free throw shooting has to do a lot with mental toughness. So, it takes mechanics, repetition, and mental toughness to be a great free throw shooter. Take one of those out, and it impacts percentage.”

The five best free throw shooters in the NBA right now are: Malcolm Brogdon (113-for-120, 94.2), Marco Belinelli (90-for-98, 91.8), Steph Curry (188-for-205, 91.7), Rodney Hood (104-for-114, 91.2) and Danilo Gallinari (228-for-251, 90.8).

The five worst are: Ben Simmons (175-for-296, 59.1), Steven Adams (119-for-216, 55.1), Andre Drummond (134-for-244, 54.9), Willie Cauley-Stein (101-for-184, 54.9) and Hassan Whiteside (83-for-189, 43.9).

“Free throws are a combination of repetition, confidence and being mentally focused,” Lady Panthers coach Donnie Swiney said.

I also think the game in general has suffered because no one plays pick-up games anymore.

You know, choose up sides on the first five and the next five to make free throws, call your own fouls, no whining, learn to set back screens, switch, talk, run the break, playing zone is not allowed, fill the lanes and look for back-side cuts without any coaches around.

“I think a big part of the decline in free throw percentages is the massive increase in AAU and travel team play,” Slaven said. “When I was a kid, players had time to get better as an individual. When your season ended, you had to shoot on your own a lot more and there were occasional pick-up games. But for the most part, you were at home shooting on your goal and that gave you more time to become a better shooter.

“Now, when a player’s season ends, she/he goes straight to AAU/travel ball and continues playing games. Most, if not all of these situations, require less practice. The player goes from practicing with a high school coach every day during the week to practicing 1-2 times and playing anywhere from 4-8 games on a weekend.

“That has hurt the shooting component of our game.”

Mike Mathison can be reached at 270-505-1758 or

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.
Terms of Use. The complete terms of use policy can be found at the bottom of this page.