Jay Cipoletti of Hoopalytics is a freelance contributor to The Season. Jay works closely with coaches to help them improve upon core tactics in order to win more games.
As we continue to examine the Four Factors of basketball success (if you missed the article on the first factor click here), we now turn to the most misunderstood variable - Free Throw Rate.
When most coaches talk about foul shots, the focus is on making more. Free Throw Rate is about earning more trips to the foul line. The reality is that foul shot volume is more important that free throw percentage, within reason.
Free Throw Rate is the ratio of foul shots to field goal attempts, expressed as FTA/FGA. As of this morning, the NCAA D1 Free Throw Rate is 37.3%, meaning that for every 100 shots from the field, college teams are taking just over 37 free throws.
Now let’s compare improving percentage versus volume. A team that averages 40 shots per game would shoot roughly 15 foul shots per game, on average. Shooting 60% from the line, that is 9 points. Improving free throw accuracy to 70% results in 10.5 points per game from the line. An increase of 10% in FT% nets 1.5 additional points per game.
If the same team increased its Free Throw Rate to 50%, that would result in 20 free throws per game, on average. Shooting the same 60% from the line would result in 12 points – a 3 point improvement, twice as much as increasing free throw accuracy by 10%.
This very simple comparison shows that increasing Free Throw Rate has a greater impact than improving free throw accuracy, although that’s not to say developing a reputable foul shot routine that holds up under pressure isn’t important as well. The key is getting to the foul line more often.
Now the question is: How do you work on increasing the number of times you get to the foul line?
Approximately 90% of all shooting fouls in the NBA occur in the paint. The percentages are similar at the high school and college level. The simple answer then is to get more shots in the paint, even if it means putting subpar foul shooters at the line.
Remember – a 60% free throw shooter is going to average 12 points on 5 trips to the line. That’s 1.20 points per possession scoring rate, which would rank among the top 10 college offenses year in and year out.
Because Free Throw Rate also carries with it the added benefit of opponents’ foul trouble, it should be clearer why free throw volume is more important than free throw accuracy.
From a teaching perspective, finishing drills that force your players to power up through contact in the paint will train them to play through contact, and eventually initiate it. From a game management perspective, coaches should not hesitate to take advantage of a physical mismatch on the block, even if your player is a mediocre foul shooter. Additionally, because Free Throw Rate is higher in transition, you will want to push tempo as much as your personnel allows.