Why are free throws so gosh-darn hard?

Fifteen feet of space is all that has separated the free-throw line and the front plane of a backboard for more than 100 years. During that time, the objective of every basketball player on every team shooting a foul shot has remained the same: Put the ball through the hoop.

Sounds simple enough, right? 

“The ideal scenario is, ‘I want to shoot an uncontested shot from a standardized distance without anybody interfering,’ ” said Bruce Kreutzer, a shooting instructor for the Mark Price Shooting Lab at the Sewanee Sports Academy in Georgia. “What better shot can you have than a free throw?”

In theory, human performance is supposed to improve over time. Players become bigger, faster, stronger and smarter. Yet the difficulty of consistently making a free throw has endured despite advancement in training for the sport. Statistics among Division I men’s college basketball teams offer proof.

In 1964-65, free-throw shooting across Division I was 69.0 percent. During the 2011-12 season, it hovered at 69.1 percent. Accuracy has not fallen below 67.1 percent or risen above 69.7 percent in any season in between.

Some coaches suggest limited practice time during the season hinders free throw development in the college game — the NCAA allows for 20 hours per week. Others point out the proliferation of AAU basketball and an emphasis on highlight-reel plays has stalled improvement from a younger age. 

“While you’re growing up, the most basketball I ever played was in my backyard,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “And guys aren’t that way. They’re searching out a game all the time instead of searching out just a goal and a ball to go out there and work on their free throws and work on their skill level.”

Added Michigan State coach Tom Izzo: “I think everything is skewed to AAU play and not enough fundamentals. Guys will go out and shoot, but they won’t go out and shoot free throws.”

The factors contributing to stagnant free-throw statistics are numerous. The one certainty is this: Free-throw shooting isn’t as easy as it looks.

Fickle free throws

Two years ago, Wisconsin’s men’s basketball team nearly set the NCAA record for free-throw accuracy in a single season, averaging 81.8 percent. One subpar game in the NCAA Tournament prevented Wisconsin from overtaking Harvard, which still holds the record of 82.2 percent set in 1984. 

This year, with some of the same players, the Badgers rank among the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country — 336th out of 347 Division I teams — shooting 61.5 percent. 

How to explain such a precipitous fall?

“It’s the 6 inches between your (ears),” said Wisconsin forward Mike Bruesewitz, who is shooting 67.5 percent from the line. “That’s what it is. That’s the struggles. Everybody’s got a good stroke. You put somebody in an empty gym, put our worst free-throw shooter in an empty gym, and I guarantee he’ll hit 80 percent. 

“It’s a lot like golf. You mess up, you’re thinking about the next shot. You’re thinking about the next free throw. You’ve just got to mentally get over it and knock stuff down.”

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan noted his team doesn’t practice any differently than it did two years ago. Players still participate in free throw drills in which a losing team faces consequences of sit-ups or running.

Ryan is among the majority of coaches who agree that simulating pressure moments while players are fatigued is the best way to practice. Still, the most essential component to shooting a high percentage in games is making sure the best players on a given team take the majority of free throws.

Wisconsin forward Ryan Evans, for example, began his senior season as a 71.1 percent career free-throw shooter. This year, he is inexplicably shooting 40.4 percent while toeing the line more than any other player on the team. His arc has flattened despite hours of practice, and his confidence has sagged as a result.

When Wisconsin nearly broke the NCAA record two years ago, the Badgers didn’t have a regular starter who shot worse than 75.9 percent. The team’s two most frequent free-throw shooters didn’t shoot worse than 83.2 percent (Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor).

“They were just two guys that believed every time they walked up there, they had their routine and nothing ever entered their mind anything other than saying the other team is going to take the ball out of bounds because it’s going to come through the net,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to be confident.”

South Dakota ranks third in the nation in free-throw shooting this season at 77.9 percent. Coyotes coach Dave Boots said his team uses a spread-motion offense that allows his guards — the best free-throw shooters on the team — to attack the rim and draw fouls.

“Most of our free-throw attempts come from our guards,” Boots said. “Big kids I feel have always struggled. If you’re fortunate enough to get a really good free throw shooting big kid, you’ve really got something because they do go to the free-throw line a little bit more. Getting the right people is the key to having a successful season shooting free throws.”

How to improve

Excellent free-throw shooting form isn’t something that occurs overnight. It requires hours of repetitions. And even then, a player may still reach his limitations.

Kreutzer, the Mark Price Shooting Lab instructor, said many players who are willing to put in the time to improve practice with the same poor shooting habits, which compounds a negative rather than creating a positive. He also pointed out that just because athletes are bigger or stronger now has no bearing on the steps necessary to shoot free throws well.

Kreutzer, a former shooting consultant with the Philadelphia 76ers and the NBA’s Developmental League, noted the key to improvement starts with the feet.

“That eliminates an awful lot of upper-body movement,” he said. “Our shoulders are really weak. They’re one of our weaker joints in our body. We’re relying on that when we shoot.

“If you take a look at players who don’t shoot free throws well, their forms are very rigid for the most part. Most players are bringing the ball backwards to bring it forward, which becomes counterproductive. It’s harder to control.”

James Pauley lives in San Diego and serves as executive director and founding member of the National Basketball Shooters Association. Pauley is a 97 percent free-throw shooter who routinely competes in national-shooting competitions.

He teaches players that, when shooting a basketball, four actions take place.

“You shoot it in a certain direction, with a certain amount of force, at a certain angle and with a certain amount of rotation or backspin,” he said. “All four of those things affect shooting percentages. Probably the one that is most lacking is arc.”

Pauley is a proponent of the Noah shooting lab — named after the biblical character who built an ark (in this case, it’s arc). The Noah basketball system is an electronic piece of equipment that offers verbal cues on the degree of arc from a player’s shot, as well as the depth of the ball hitting across the basket.

According to Pauley, National Association of Basketball Coaches chairman Jerry Krause conducted a study of 40,000 free throws using the Noah shooting lab in Alabama. The results indicated the arc for a successful free throw needed to fall in the range of 43 to 47 degrees when the ball entered the basket. A free throw also needed to hit deep in the basket, roughly 11 inches into the 18-inch diameter hoop.

For those who question the use of advanced technology to hone a seemingly simple shot, Pauley said even the best players in the world have taken to the Noah system.

Miami Heat All-Star guard Dwyane Wade, for example, discovered his magic number to be 45 degrees after using Noah. Wade was shooting 71 percent on his free throws last season, but his accuracy increased to 82 percent when Noah became a practice tool, and the Heat went on to win an NBA championship.

Pauley believes a willingness to put in the work — coupled with using proper mechanics — could go a long way toward increasing free throw percentages across college basketball in the future, even without a computerized system. Players generally tense up in the heat of the moment and abandon some of the principles they have been taught, so muscle memory becomes vital. 

Of course, players must also embrace the importance of free throw shooting in an era when fundamentals garner less attention. According to the NBSA, 21 percent of all points scored in a basketball game come at the free-throw line. In the final minute, 68 percent of points are scored there.

“The game has become more complex in terms of offenses and defenses that most coaches — because it’s not something they’ve studied themselves — they just assume players can shoot or they can’t shoot,” Pauley said. “And they recruit players to shoot. They don’t recruit somebody and expect to teach them to shoot. But wherever you’re at, it can get better. It can be taught.”

And, as Kreutzer notes, when it comes to free throws, there is always room for improvement.

“Free throw shooting is definitely a fundamental skill,” he said. “It’s a lost art, and we’re in the art restoration business. The art restoration business has been good.”

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