Underhanded free throws work, so why don’t players shoot them?

Underhanded free throws have proven effective at the highest levels of basketball. So, why don’t poor free throw shooters employ them?

Andre Drummond has shot 1,793 free throws in his NBA career. He has missed 1,110 of them.

He leaves as many as 2.88 points on the floor every night because of missed free throws. During the 2016-17 season, free throws are converted 77.2% of the time, the highest rate in league history. If Drummond had shot at even that rate, the league standard, he would have made 1,384 free throws, 701 more than he actually has, an increase of roughly 1.82 points per game. That doesn’t even include the points lost because Drummond is made to sit on the bench at the end of games due to his inability to score free points. Since Drummond became a starter in 2013-14, the Pistons have lost ten games by one point or in overtime in which Drummond missed at least one free throw.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN wrote Drummond an open letter in 2013. He suggested to the Detroit Pistons’ big man that he might prolong his career by shooting his free throws underhanded.

Drummond responded the next day by tweeting, “Let me make this clear…. I’m not shooting free throws underhand..”

Why not?

Underhanded Free Throw Shooting Works

There is historical precedent for Strauss’ suggestion. There are only a few examples of players who have employed this technique, but every one of them has seen results.

Rick Barry has become synonymous with the underhand free throw, making 89.3% of his career attempts—which was the record when he retired in 1980—and shooting over 90% from the line seven times in his career.

Barry is the world’s leading underhanded free throw apologist. He even convinced his teammate, George Johnson, to use the technique, and Johnson’s free throw percentage increased from 41.2% in his rookie season to a 69.4% career mark. He shot over 70% from the line eight times.

Perhaps the most famous example of a player making the switch to an underhand technique was Wilt Chamberlain. In 1961-62, Chamberlain increased his free throw percentage by nearly 11% from the previous season, up to his career high, 61.3%. He used the technique during his historic 100-point game on March 2, 1962, setting an NBA record which still stands by scoring 28 points from the line.

However, despite the clear improvement he made, Chamberlain eventually switched back to his regular technique. It didn’t go very well.

Chamberlain ended up with a career free throw percentage of 51.1%, shooting below 50% in seven different seasons after 1962, including 38% in 1967-68.

In modern basketball, there are just as few examples of underhanded free throw shooters. Chinanu Onuaku brought his underhanded shot to the NBA from Louisville, where it bolstered his shooting percentage from 46.7% to 58.9%. As a rookie with the Houston Rockets, Onuaku has made his only two free throw attempts and is the only NBA player to shoot this way.

Canyon Barry, Rick Barry’s youngest son, made his 39th consecutive free throw with the Florida Gators on Feb. 11, setting a school record. Barry made 88.3% of his free throws as a graduate transfer with the Gators and was second on the team in scoring, averaging 11.4 points per game in 2016-17.

Despite their parentage, Canyon’s four older brothers—three of whom played in the NBA—opted to shoot free throws the normal way throughout their careers.

If It Works, Why Don’t Players Shoot This Way?

Shaquille O’Neal, one of the worst free throw shooters ever, told Rick Barry he would never shoot his free throws the way Berry did.

“Sorry, can’t do it, Rick,” he says he told Barry, “I’d rather shoot zero percent, too cool for that.”

Chamberlain echoed this sentiment in his autobiography, saying “I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong, I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. I just couldn’t do it.”

Barry himself said in a 2012 SB Nation profile that the reason that players don’t shoot like he did is because “It’s all about the ego… They don’t think it’s macho enough for them, and that’s fine.”

Sport is oftentimes pragmatic, perhaps inherently so. In the NFL, straight-on toe-first kickers gave way to the European-imported soccer style. Fosbury’s awkward flop changed track and field forever. Route-one soccer apologists insist that—although it’s not pretty—long direct passing provides more opportunities for scoring. Function precedes form. If it works, coaches and players tend to do it. Barry has said that his father told him not to worry about what people thought, telling him, “Son, if you’re making them, they can’t make fun of you.”

In basketball, however, that pragmatic mindset is not always inherent. There is a “coolness” and an individuality embedded in basketball culture that limits pragmatism, especially when it manifests itself in something as ridiculous-looking as shooting free throws like your grandmother would; which is why O’Neal and Chamberlin and Drummond feel they way they feel and ultimately shoot the way they shoot.

On his podcast “Revisionist History,” in an episode titled “The Big Man Can’t Shoot,” author Malcolm Gladwell sat down with Barry to talk about free throws and realized that Barry genuinely does not care what people think about him. Barry developed a reputation for being insufferable during his career and never successfully worked his way back into basketball after his retirement, in large part due to that reputation.

Gladwell connects Barry’s lackadaisical attitude regarding his public perception to his willingness to use an unpopular free throw technique. If he doesn’t care what people think, Gladwell argues, then he won’t care that people think he looks silly as long as his technique is effective.

He also notes Barry’s disdain for what he calls “the social part of the game, players paying attention to each other’s feelings as opposed to their own performance,” such as when players slap hands with their teammates after missed free throws. Barry got in fights, made enemies and was entirely focused on the result of the game, not what the game looked like.

While being a jerk is not necessary for someone to shoot free throws more effectively, Barry’s experience demonstrates a necessary quality for innovation: the willingness to step out and be perceived as ridiculous.

If players they play strictly to win, it makes sense that they would start shooting underhanded as it has been proven to be more effective. Perhaps, however, players in the NBA aren’t as concerned with winning as they are with doing something people want to see. It’s the same reason artists experiment and why film and TV critics decry formulaic enterprises designed to be popular.

Basketball offers much more opportunity for individual achievement and expression, which is seen in many facets of the game, from the way players dress to their custom shoes and dunk contests. This kind of expression is an inherent part of basketball and might give us a glimpse into why players are loath to play the game in a manner that lacks style.

Of course, there will always be someone like Rick Barry who takes the road less traveled by.

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“I remember in the first game that I was doing it on the road in high school,” Barry has recalled, “I remember a guy yelling from the stands, ‘Hey, Barry, you big sissy, shooting like that.’ And the guy next to him, I heard it loud enough, ‘What are you making fun of him for? He doesn’t miss.’”