This article was written by South Alabama assistant men's basketball coach Russ Willemsen. Coach Willemsen has been a part of the Jaguars staff since 2013. Before that Russ was a part of the Tennessee Tech program. Russ is one of the top mid major recruiters in the country and is also known for his player development as well.
When we think of guys who are elite scorers in the NBA and NCAA, we think of guys that can flat out put the ball in the bucket. This usually consists of scoring from the three-point line, the mid-range game, and getting all the way to the paint. One area I think that separates good scorers from elite scorers is the ability to get to the free throw line.
We can argue that LeBron James is the best player in the NBA. This season he ranked third in points per game, averaging 25.3 ppg. However, this season’s output was actually the second lowest of his career. Only his rookie campaign of 20.9 ppg was lower. What also sticks out about his production this season is that he had his second lowest free throw percentage of his career at 71%.
Another area to look at are his free throw attempts per game. He came in at at 7.7 attempts per game, which is the fourth lowest since he’s been in the league. If you go back to his 05-06 season where he averaged 31.4 ppg; you will see that he shot 10.3 free throws per game, which ties a career high. It is no secret that there is a correlation between scoring increases and free throw attempts.
At South Alabama we had a sophomore this year that increased his scoring as he got to the FT line more. Through the first 10 games of the year, Ken Williams was averaging 12.5 ppg, attempting 1.8 free throws a contest, shooting an abysmal 31% FG and 32% 3FG. He was not being aggressive enough attacking the basket. Something clicked mid way thru the season and the last 21 games this year he averaged 17.1 ppg and increased his FTA per game to 4.8 a game.
As his FTA per game increased, so did his scoring. Ken “Juice” Williams finished SunBelt Conference play fourth in scoring at 18.0 ppg, ninth in free throw percentage at 79%, first in 3-point field goals made at 56, and fourth in 3-point field goal percentage at 40%.
The Numbers Don't Lie
Below is a chart of the top 10 scorers in the NBA this season as well as the NCAA. It shows their points per game, free throws made, free throws attempted and what percent of their overall scoring comes from the FT line. If you look at the top five scorers in the NBA combined, they average 8.7 FTA per game, while the next five only average 4.8 FTA per game. That is a HUGE discrepancy!
If you look at the percentage of points that come from the FT line, 21.3% by LeBron James is the lowest in the top five. That still ranks higher than 21% by Blake Griffin who is the highest in next five. These numbers do not lie! The two outliers in this group are Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Their FT numbers are the lowest in the top 10.
They are also talked about as being one of, if not the best shooting duo in NBA history. Not many players shoot the ball with their precision, which is why I consider these two outliers. If you look down at the NCAA numbers, there is only one player in the top 10 in scoring that has less than 20% of their overall points per game coming from the FT line. This is no coincidence. Guys that get fouled more, score more.
% OF PPG
|1) Russell Westbrook||28.1||8.1||9.8||28.8%|
|2) James Harden||27.4||8.8||10.2||32.1%|
|3) LeBron James||25.3||5.4||7.7||21.3%|
|4) Anthony Davis||24.4||5.5||6.8||22.5%|
|5) DeMarcus Cousins||24.1||7.9||9.2||32.8%|
% OF PPG
|6) Steph Curry||23.8||3.9||4.2||16.4%|
|7) LaMarcus Aldridge||23.4||4.3||5.1||18.4%|
|8) Blake Griffin||21.9||4.6||6.4||21.0%|
|9) Kyrie Irving (tie)||21.7||4.2||4.9||19.4%|
|9) Klay Thompson (tie)||21.7||2.9||3.3||13.4%|
% OF PPG
|1) Tyler Harvey||22.9||4.7||5.6||20.5%|
|2) Zikiteran Woodley||22.6||4.7||5.8||20.8%|
|3) Denzel Livingston||22.0||7.0||8.7||31.8%|
|4) Tyler Haws||21.9||6.0||6.9||27.3%|
|5) Damion Lee||21.4||6.4||7.2||29.9%|
|6) Saah Nimley||21.2||6.0||7.3||28.3%|
|7) Amere May||21.0||4.0||4.9||19.0%|
|8) D.J. Newbill||20.7||4.6||6.1||22.2%|
|9) Chavaughn Lewis||20.6||5.1||7.7||24.8%|
|10) Corey Hawkins||20.4||4.6||5.6||22.5%|
Added Benefits of Shooting Freethrows
Getting to the free throw line does a lot to increase scoring. First off, if you shoot a high percentage from the FT line, getting fouled and seeing the ball go through the net on your FTs can give you confidence. This can become the catalyst to a big scoring outbreak. This can also help a scorer get into a rhythm.
So much of scoring is being in flow, and getting fouled can assist that. It also helps your team out. The more you get fouled the quicker your team gets in the bonus and double bonus. It can also help get one of the other team’s players in foul trouble. Lastly, it gives your team an aggressive mindset. It puts your team in attack mode.
DNA is the core of who someone is. Great scorers have the mindset of being aggressive and getting to the free throw line. There are always going to be fluctuations in shooting percentages, but the fundamental key to becoming an elite scorer is getting to the free throw line. As your FTA increase, so will your scoring!