Wisconsin’s Ryan Evans is possibly the first person to forget how to shoot free throws. Evans has gone from shooting 73% as a junior to 38% as a senior. I have data going back to 2005 and there are just two cases of a player seeing even a 20% decrease in their free throw shooting in consecutive seasons (minimum 100 FTA’s in both seasons). Nobody has done worse than a 22% drop.
Normally, I’m rather reluctant to accuse a player of being in a slump. In any of the shooting stats where there’s always a significant chance of success or failure in any single attempt, there’s the potential for stretches of good and bad shooting that have little to do with a change in a player’s form. So reviewing a player’s stroke after a 1-for-10 night isn’t usually the best use of a coach’s or player’s time.
But Evans’ case is so far from the norm he established over the previous three seasons that it’s clear something is wrong. As a dispassionate outsider, I expect that Evans has functionally become Prince Ibeh at the line and will finish in the 40-45% range. (My track record on forecasting a player’s FT% is limited, but flawless.) Actually, at this point, Evans might aspire to be Ibeh since Ibeh recently overtook Evans and has hit 40% of his free throws season. But what fascinates me more is determining what action to take if you’re within the Wisconsin program. There doesn’t seem to be any precedent for this case, and it’s a problem because Evans has a large role in the Badger offense.
Over a month ago, I suggested Evans see a sports psychologist. It seemed obvious back then that something was wrong with him. (Evans has made 15-of-32 (47%) since that day, showing a slight improvement. Although whether that improvement is real is somewhat dubious.) There are drawbacks to this approach, too. It would be somewhat terrifying for someone to suggest to you that your struggles in something are beyond your mental control. Additionally, if the problem is psychological, the prospects for curing it are rather bleak.
But I doubt more practice is going to help, either. The free throw motion is quite complex and what if there isn’t any difference in Evans’ shooting motion between his junior and senior seasons? His stroke has never been what one would call pretty, anyway.
One also has to consider that it’s not mental at all, and that he statistically fooled everyone in past seasons. Maybe he’s really a 50-60% free throw shooter that has shown unusual variance. That figure wouldn’t be inconsistent with his lack of perimeter-shooting ability. But given the number of shots he’s taken each of the last two seasons, we are stretching the bounds of plausibility with that theory.
Evans is actually having a decent year considering he’s dragging around the anchor that is his free throw shooting. His usage rate leads the team and his two-point shooting is where it was last season. His turnover rate is down and he’s rebounding better. And he’s getting to the free throw line more than ever.
Of course, given the FT%, he’s probably attracting more fouls as much as drawing them. Still, Evans is playing as well as you might have expected given what he did last season. The difference in his offensive rating between the last two seasons, dropping from 102 to 93, is entirely due to the FT% difference and his 1-for-16 performance from beyond the arc. He’s never had much range, so I wouldn’t chalk the three-point shooting up to being mental or even being a true slump.
But I’m not sure what one could do about the free throw woes. Maybe acceptance is the best approach. Accepting the new baseline of being a 40% shooter and suggesting a change in pre-shot routine would be a harmless approach. More harmless still would be to simply accept that Evans is a once-in-a-generation case, and expect that he’ll do enough good things on the court to offset the bad things he does at the line.