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2/12/2007 02:17:00 PM
Free (Throw) Advice From The Masters
Butler's A.J. Graves puts his sweet stroke on full display when he gets to the foul line.
For all of the more obvious labels one could slap on this season -- the Year of Florida's Reign, the Year of the Freshman, the Year Bruce Pearl Painted his Chest -- it is also, quietly, the Year of the Free Throw. The NCAA's greatest charity-stripe artist of all-time, Missouri State's Blake Ahearn, is in his final season after winning three straight free-throw percentage crowns. As a freshman, he set the single-season record at 97.5 percent. Midway through February, Ahearn has a respectable percentage of 93.6 yet still trails three players in the national standings: Butler's A.J. Graves, Utah Valley State's Ryan Toolson and Gonzaga's Derek Raivio. The oft-lamented decline of free-throw shooting may have been greatly exaggerated.
Free-throw stats are almost like referees, in that we tend to pay the most attention to them when they're negatively affecting a game -- when a team shoots in the 60-percent range and suffers a close loss, say, or when a player pulls a Nick Anderson and chokes from the stripe in crunch time. But the masters of the art are invaluable weapons for protecting leads in late-game, bonus situations, and Graves and Ahearn are both proven mid-major giant-slayers in part because of their abilities from the 15-foot line.
In an effort to examine what makes these experts tick, Graves and Ahearn were asked to share trade secrets, from how they learned to shoot free-throws, to the minute details of their pre-shot routine. While they differ in technique, their styles were both inherited from fatherly sources.
A.J. Graves, Butler
2006-07 Percentage: 96.3 (105 of 109)
Graves is such a renowned marksman in the Horizon League that he often gets harassed at the line. "They'll say, 'Just give me one. Just miss one. How bout you give us a break?'" Graves recalls. "I enjoy it; it gets me chuckling as I'm backpedaling away from the line."
How he learned: "We had a few basketball goals set up in the backyard of our house [a rural home in Switz City, Ind.], and when I was young, my dad used to rebound for me and my brothers [former Butler players Matt and Andrew Graves] all the time. He told me what he used to do, and that's what I've done since. Also, growing up, Michael Jordan was my hero, and seeing that he put in the time to become a good free-throw shooter motivated me. Free-throw shooting can win games at the end, and there's no one guarding you, so you might as well put in every one you can."
The technique: "My dad always told me, 'Don't play around with it. Just get lined up and shoot it in.' Once I got really serious about shooting free-throws, which was probably in middle school or junior high, I got the routine down. There's a dot on the free-throw line, and I put that in the middle of my body. I don't say anything. I don't spin the ball. I don't think about any thing else; if you think about other stuff, who knows what will happen? I just line up, take three dribbles and shoot it in. It's the way I learned it, and the way I've always done it. Free-throw shooting and shooting in general are all about routine and muscle memory."
Blake Ahearn led the NCAA in free-throw percentage each of the last three seasons.
G. Newman Lowrance/WireImage.com
Blake Ahearn, Missouri State
2006-07 Percentage: 93.6 (88 of 94)
Ahearn, who is gunning to become the only four-time free-throw champ in the history of Division I basketball, is a meticulous marksman. He's been tracking his practice shots in a black book since the fourth grade, and has a younger cousin, Sumner Ahearn, who serves as his unofficial statistician in his assault on the NCAA record book. (The following quotes are taken from a 2006 interview I did with Blake for SI.)
How he learned: "My dad [former Washburn University player Daniel, who also coached Blake in AAU ball] always harped on one thing, free throws, as easy points. He said never to give away easy points. Ever since the fourth grade, he had me make 100 free throws every day. Actually, I make 102 every day -- the two extra is a 1-and-1 that I do to put myself in a game situation. I believe my dad took that drill from Steve Alford."
The routine: "Once I get fouled I go straight to the line. I find the nail on the floor, and being right-handed, I put my foot on the nail. Right before the ref throws me the ball, I think "heel to toe, and arch" -- because the free throws that I've missed, always come down to me falling back on my heels or not getting high enough on my toes, which causes the ball to be flat. If I put arch on it, I get a batter chance to get a bounce on the rim, or a roll, rather than a line drive. When I get the ball, I take three dribbles, then spin it out in front of me, wipe my hands on my shorts, and let it come back to me. Then I find the valve on the ball, which is the center. I put my index finger as close to that as I can, and let it fly."