Public Shaming: A college player shows NBA free throw failures how it’s done

DeAndre Jordan. Andre Drummond. Dwight Howard. These and other NBA big men aren’t failed basketball players by any means.

They are, however, failures as free throw shooters.

It’s a pretty big deal when — under NBA rules that are likely to be revised in the coming offseason — Team B can purposefully foul so that Team A will get only one point (maybe none) on a possession. Team B can use “Hack-A-Player” to trade possessions and gain points. If Team A doesn’t want to risk this exchange of possessions and the attached loss of points, it can sit the poor foul shooter. However, given that the subjects of Hack-A-Player are generally big men, the act of benching the player will often cost Team A in terms of rebounding, overall defense, and rim protection in particular.

Being bad at foul shooting — no matter how much one might practice the normal goose-neck stroke — can be very costly in a billion-dollar business.

Surely, then — surely — NBA organizations and their foremost decision makers would mandate that their chronically poor free-throwers do whatever it takes to get better.

Nope. We’re not there yet.

Maybe, however, a college basketball player will become the messenger of change.


You can read all about Chinanu Onuaku’s free-throw journey here (and you should). The Louisville Cardinal big man is not a finished product at the charity stripe, but he’s made substantial progress this season by shooting an underhanded foul shot. That Onuaku has worked with a Rick Barry-style free throw technique is not new.

What is new? Barry’s well-known technique carried Onuaku through a crunch-time crucible on Tuesday night.

College basketball’s most pressure-packed in-game moment is arguably the front end of a 1-and-1 in the final minute of a close game. National titles have been decided by front ends. Tuesday, in Louisville’s game against a Georgia Tech team trying to play its way onto the NCAA tournament bubble, Onuaku was purposefully fouled when Louisville couldn’t get the ball to one of its better free throw shooters.

The big guy walked to the free throw line for a front end with his team leading by three (52-49). Only 30 seconds remained in regulation.

It is one of the fundamental realities of sports: Athletes repeat a technique and its muscle motions in the hope that said technique won’t break down under pressure. This is true for every athlete: Repeat the motion so that it becomes part of the body’s muscle memory, an un-thought and entirely natural act which can be called upon in a moment of extreme stress.

Onuaku’s granny-style foul shot did not break down when his team needed a front-end make:

The Los Angeles Clippers, Detroit Pistons, and Houston Rockets (among others) should all be embarrassed today. They have not forced their highly valuable post players to at least try underhanded foul shots.

Let’s emphasize one word from that last sentence: TRY.

It’s not as though a player must use one method to attain a higher level of success or consistency in any endeavor. Not TRYING, however, is a competitive sin. The idea of not trying alternative methods when current approaches fail is, itself, the way of the coward.

So what if other people might snicker or laugh at a granny-style free-throw motion? If it makes more shots and wins more games, it’s serving its purpose. Isn’t that what we’re all here for? Isn’t that a professional athlete’s job? Isn’t winning supposed to be an athlete’s first priority, the goal which is the focus of all his actions, all the food he eats, all the sleep he gets, all the exercise he puts into a day?

Why should a shooting technique be different, somehow exempt from everything else?

If the Rick Barry approach doesn’t work, fine — shooters shouldn’t persist in being uncomfortable if a method doesn’t work. That, however, is not the discussion being conducted here. Failing to try, failing to at least explore the possibility that the Rick Barry method is the right way to shoot foul shots, represents the triumph of fear over wisdom. It is a victory for a harmful kind of stubbornness, over and against a helpful openness to new ideas.

Doc Rivers, Stan Van Gundy, Daryl Morey, listen up: Chinanu Onuaku — with help from Louisville coach Rick Pitino — has shown that underhanded free throws can make a difference. Are you going to finally force your big men to at least try something new?

You can’t say you weren’t warned.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.