I’ve tweeted about this a couple times, but it’s worth documenting in a more permanent location: This season, free throws were shot at a better rate than in any previous season in the history of college basketball. To date, my calculations indicate that D-I teams have made 69.82 percent of their attempts from the free throw line. According to the NCAA record book, the previous best was the 69.7 percent made in the 1979 season.
It’s an odd phenomenon, but analysts, journalists, and coaches appear to be programmed to bash fundamentals. That’s another subject deserving of its own article, but criticizing modern free-throw shooting has always been a dubious exercise within that realm. After all, that’s one fundamental we can measure, and free-throw percentage has essentially been constant for the last 50 years.
But my perception is that most people in the game feel like free-throw shooting was better way back when. And if people can’t get that right, one should be skeptical when other fundamentals are criticized. Are players really worse at setting screens, or scoring with their off hand than they were 30 years ago? I think it’s reasonable to wonder whether we’ve been lied to all along about those things as well.
An interesting issue regarding the free-throw record is that there was a fairly significant rise from last season, when hoopsters made a respectable 69.31% of their attempts, the fourth-best season ever. One might wonder just how much the new rules interpretations were responsible for the increase in free-throw accuracy. After all, shorter players tend to be better free-throw shooters, and if guards were getting fouled more often due to increased hand-checking calls, it stands to reason that free-throw percentage will increase as a result.
As it turns out, guards did get fouled more often, but the difference only explains a small amount in the rise of free-throw percentage. First, here’s a comparison of the percentage of all free-throw attempts taken by players of various heights over the past two seasons.
Plyr 2014 2013 Ht FTA% FTA% <6-0 6.3 6.1 6-0 5.1 5.0 6-1 6.3 6.1 6-2 8.1 7.7 6-3 9.6 9.7 6-4 10.3 9.8 6-5 9.7 9.7 6-6 10.7 10.5 6-7 10.0 10.5 6-8 9.4 10.5 6-9 7.6 7.4 >6-9 6.8 6.9
Slice that data up a bit and you’ll see that players standing 6-7 and taller took about 1.5% fewer free throws (in absolute terms) than last season. Now, here’s the data on free-throw accuracy by height.
Plyr 2014 2013 Ht FT% FT% <6-0 76.6 74.4 6-0 73.6 74.5 6-1 72.7 74.4 6-2 74.2 74.0 6-3 72.9 72.2 6-4 72.5 72.1 6-5 70.9 69.7 6-6 68.4 67.5 6-7 66.6 67.1 6-8 66.3 64.8 6-9 64.0 64.6 >6-9 64.1 63.9
This is kind of noisy – 6-0 players shot worse this season, yet 6-5 players shot better – but one way to estimate the effect of the new rules is to assume last season’s distribution of FTA% and this seasons FT% for each height. Do that and you’ll see that the rules interpretation were responsible for a 0.1 percent increase in free-throw percentage*. We would still be talking a record even under the old rules interpretations. (Or at least a virtual tie with ‘79 since for some reason the NCAA only lists the values back then to tenths of a percentage point and not hundredths as they do for more recent seasons.)
Some teams will always be worse than the average, so feel free to continue criticizing them. But just know that N.C. State’s woeful late-game free-throw shooting against Saint Louis was not representative of the state of free-throw shooting as a whole, because no year, ever, since Naismith came up with his 13 rules has been better than this one.
And please remember that even great shooting teams must have off days. An 80 percent shooting team is not going to make eight out of ten every game. And the fluctuations will have much more to do with random variation than choking or being clutch, although I get that random variation is not fun to write or talk about.
At least in one respect, the modern player is more fundamentally sound than he’s ever been. And that might be the one subject that’s more boring to write or talk about than random variation. Even in the short time we have left this season, we may hear someone else lament about the state of free-throw shooting. This is one case where that person will not just be wrong, but as far from the truth as one could possibly be.
*If you are bored enough to do that, note that the data in the previous two tables come from my player database which doesn’t include players who played fewer than 10 percent of their team’s minutes and ignores games against non D-I teams. Thus the free-throw percentages are slightly inflated from the record-setting value cited in the first paragraph which is calculated using team level data that included every free throw shot by every D-I player in the land.