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Ben's free throws a risky, wristy proposition
by Dennis Hans / May 25, 2006

For four years I’ve been explaining to Ben Wallace and various coaches and executives with the Detroit Pistons that he can’t get better at the free-throw line merely through countless repetitions of his longstanding, tried-and-failed, all-wrist method. Little did I know that Ben has a chronic injury to his right wrist that makes his flawed delivery even more problematic. It’s a horrid shooting style with a healthy wrist, and it’s even worse given Ben’s condition.

More on that wrist in a minute, but first let’s consider the frightening free-throw facts.

In the regular season, Ben basically matched his career average of .418 by draining free throws (FTs) at a .416 clip. This postseason, through two rounds and 12 games, he’s 10 for 42. That’s .238.

His 0 for 7 in Game 5 vs. Cleveland was instrumental in the Pistons’ two-point loss. His 2 for 6 in Game 6 nearly cost Detroit, who squeaked by with a two-point win. Fortunately, his 0 for 4 in Game 7 was inconsequential, as the Pistons won handily.

My purpose is not to denigrate Big Ben. Prior to the 2004 Finals, I explained how his ability to do a respectable job on Shaq all by his lonesome (with just a little help from his friends) and without getting into foul trouble would enable the rest of the Pistons to play their game and defeat the mighty Lakers. In a 2005 essay I placed Ben tied for third in the 2004-05 MVP competition and Number One by a landslide when I factored in salary for my “most bang for the buck” award. So I appreciate what he brings to the table.

Still, there is no good excuse for his ineptitude at the line. There are, however, some rather silly explanations.

Here, for example, is Flip Saunders’ analysis, as reported by Chris McCosky in the March 29 Detroit News:

“Saunders said that Wallace's free-throw shooting is baffling because he has decent form on the shots and in practice, he makes 70 and 80 percent of them. ‘My theory is, he plays so hard defensively and he's so intense, his body gets so wound up that when he gets to the free-throw line, he can't get that calmed down. You need to be relaxed to shoot free throws. But he is so intense on the one end, that when he goes on offense, it's like he just stepped out of the weight room.’”

Saunders is wrong about Ben’s form and unaware that most every bricklayer shoots decently in practice, where you take shots in bunches rather than two at a time a couple times a game with an hour or even two days between trips to the line. If you shoot 50 FTs after practice in the space of eight minutes while a flunky retrieves the ball, it’s nearly impossible to sink under 70 percent. Sinking 70 or 80 percent under these ideal, completely unrealistic conditions tells you nothing about how well you’ll perform in games; it provides no carryover for
your next meaningful FTs.

Saunders confusion on this point is common among coaches. A few years ago it led Gregg Popovich to send Bruce Bowen another fellow whose practice marksmanship at the line didn’t translate to games to a
psychologist. No breakthrough materialized.

As for the intensity argument, that’s ridiculous. Funny how it didn’t affect Moses Malone, Paul Silas or Dave Cowens, to name three guys who, like Ben, have never been outworked in their lives yet managed to shoot
FTs at least as well as one would suspect judging from the rest of their offensive game. For their careers, Moses finished at .769, Silas at .673 and Cowens at .783.

As for Ben’s form, back in 2002, in an analysis of Ben’s delivery that I sent to Piston coach Rick Carlisle (in which I suggested Ben sue all of his college and pro coaches for non-support), I compared Ben's release to two fine shooters who Ben resembled somewhat in form, but not in substance:

“Whereas Reggie Miller and Doug Christie’s wrist-based release and follow through are the culmination of a simple, unified, rhythmic, whole-body delivery, Ben’s wrist snap is an abrupt, isolated movement largely divorced from his body.”

I also noted that his “unorthodox, minimalist leg action creates a bobble-head effect. Immediately prior to and during his shot, Ben has a hoppy, bouncy leg action that consists of a series of mini-flexes. That is, there is no significant downward bending of his knees, just this succession of mini-flexes. Sometimes he finishes the leg action before he releases the ball. Whether he does or not, the legs are essentially along for the ride, making no discernible contribution to the stroke.”

I first wrote about Ben’s bobblehead effect in an April 2002 essay, “Shaq Passes the Brick to Baron and Big Ben,” where I correctly predicted that Shaq would be a free-throw hero in the 2002 playoffs.

Returning to that troublesome right wrist, Ben recently told Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom that it has bothered him for years, and that surgery during his Orlando Magic years to alleviate his carpal-tunnel condition left him with severed ligaments. Ever since, he has had a trick wrist that can go out on him at any time, just as a trick knee will buckle unexpectedly.

Here’s how he put it to Albom:

"That's what happens when I'm shooting free throws," he says, flopping the right hand now the one that has been injured for years. "I can shoot 10 straight good ones. On the 11th, it just slips out. I don't know when it's gonna happen."

"And you have to fix it," I ask, "right there on the free-throw line?"

"Yeah."

"You just pop it back in?"

"I just pop it back in."

Ben wasn't making excuses to Albom, just matter-of-factly describing a condition he intends to put up with until his playing days are over, rather than risk missing part or all of a season recuperating from complex reconstructive surgery, the success of which is far from guaranteed.

Here, in my view, is why that injury should not be considered the root of Ben’s FT woes. First of all, he shot .407 and .374 at Virginia Union, which presumably was long before the carpal tunnel was a serious problem. Secondly, even today the wrist slips out only occasionally, and then Ben just pops it back into place and goes about his business. So it’s not like he’s worried that his next shot could be his last. Thirdly, there are so many different ways to be a respectable FT shooter, some of which incorporate the legs and/or the arms to a far greater degree than Ben does with his delivery. For example, Jamaal Wilkes (.759 career shooter) had a distinctive style that resembled a baseball pitcher’s windup; it relied more on the motion of his arms and
legs rather than the snap of his wrist.

Granted, a righthanded shooter can’t avoid using his right wrist to some degree in his shot. But Ben needn’t stick with a FT style that is based solely on the weakest joint in his body. He has a world of options, ranging from tweaking and fine-tuning to a major makeover.

Who knows, somewhere trapped inside that chiseled body there might very well be a fine shooter from the floor and the stripe just dying to get out.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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