Why don’t NBA players make a higher percentage of their free throws?

ESPN’s John Hollinger, expounding on the Sloan Sports Conference:

Nonetheless, a major highlight was meeting best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell and hearing his thoughts on, among other things, the mediocre free throw shooting in the highest ranks of basketball. He noted that "if I were a Martian" and came to Earth, it would deeply puzzle him how otherwise great basketball players could scarcely outperform the general church-league population from the free throw line.

This has puzzled me, too, and I’ve always believed that it’s because free throw shooting simply isn’t a differentiating skill for NBA players. They’re selected on the basis of quickness, length, leaping and, above all, height, but even among high-skill players, the free throw is rarely a separator.

That’s what Hollinger thought before his Sloan panel. After more thought, he changed his explanation:

I think the "negative" position is the better one: The very things that tend to make somebody a better basketball player also tend to make that person a worse free throw shooter, and only with a lot of work can the best players overcome that countervailing tendency.

Besides height, the physical trait that marks most NBA basketball players is that they have unusually long arms and, in many cases, enormous hands. This is tremendously useful on a basketball court in general, but at the free throw line it’s an active impediment. It’s very hard for a long-armed player to have a compact, quick shot release — instead, for many, they can scarcely get out of their arms’ way and end up with a slower, looping release.

I see a big hole in Hollinger’s revised theory (although, not necessarily a deal-breaker). As NBA players have become bigger over time, they’ve become better free-throw shooters:

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My theory: NBA players exert themselves in such an exhaustive manner, their free-throw shooting slips. Ever watch NBA players shoot free throws in warmups? Even Ben Wallace makes most of his.

Put the average church-league player through a workout that’s the equivalent of playing an NBA game and have him shoot free throws throughout.

Put the average NBA player through a workout that’s the equivalent of playing a church-league game and have him shoot free throws throughout.

I’d bet a fortune that the gap between the two would skyrocket, with the NBA player ahead.

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