Why Is It so Hard for NBA Players to Shoot Over 90% From the Foul Line?

Every player has the same conditions for a free throw. The player stands 15 feet from the hoop, which is 10 feet off the ground. It’s a chance to make a basket without any running and without any defensive pressure. But even with these conditions, players still don’t often put up impressive numbers. Why not? Robbie Gonzalez at WIRED looked into why no WNBA or NBA players have ever shot 95% of their free throws.

The average NBA player and the best

Looking at the NBA, WNBA, and NCAA, players average 70 to 75% from the charity stripe. A few reach the upper 80s, and the best average around 90%.

Steve Nash is one of two NBA players who retired with better than 90% career averages. He shot 3,384 free throws during his career and made 3,060 of them. He has the highest rate of any retired NBA player with 90.43%. Mark Price is the other player in this group. He retired with an average of 90.39%.

Along with current player Stephen Curry, they are the only three in the NBA who currently have career records over 90%. Steph Curry had a record of 90.5% at the end of the 2018–2019 season.

However, the best pro basketball free throw shooter is Elena Delle Donne, of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. She is a career 93.4% free throw shooter. Steph Curry and Elena Delle Donne are both early in their careers, though, so their numbers will continue to change (up or down).

Free throw science

To figure out what happens scientifically during a free throw, Robbie Gonzalez interviewed Larry Silverberg, who studies the science of free throws as a dynamicist at North Carolina State University. He’s found that great free throw shots have four important parameters:

  • Initial velocity of the ball
  • Ball is lined up to go to the center of the hoop
  • Backspin on the ball
  • Ball release angle of 45 to 53 degrees

Since being a great free throw shooter is partly a mechanical question and partly a question of hard work, the best free-throw shooter turns out to be Bob Fisher, a 62-year-old soil-conservation technician in Kansas.

Fisher started practicing free throws every day and set his first world record in January 2010. He now holds 25 Guinness World Record titles for speed and accuracy and shoots with about 99% accuracy.

He attributes his success to hard work, saying: “All it takes to become good is three things: knowledge, practice, and time.” All that practice allows for reproducibility.

Nash agrees, but adds the mental component, saying to be a great free-throw shooter, you’d need to have good technique, take pride and practice a lot, and keep your emotions under control. 

Mental component

It can be difficult to perform under pressure when the entire crowd is watching you alone perform. The mental factor means that even if free throw shooters can make close to 100% of their shots in practice, the percentage drops during a game performance.

Gonzalez spoke with Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. She pointed out that it’s easy to overthink your movements, especially if you haven’t practiced enough.

One difference between practice and games is the conditions, which could include lots of people or important people watching. The Sloan Sports Science Conference found that the home team free throw shooters did worse when shooting during the last five minutes of a game, while the road team wasn’t affected by the pressures from the noise and waving towels of the crowd.

NBA players also have to contend with extra pressures, which Nash pointed out. These include travel, time zone changes, multiple games per week, and playing with injuries.

What could be possible for NBA players?

Players do sometimes have a stellar season, and a number of players have had one season of shooting over 90%. The one-season NBA record is held by José Calderón, who shot 98.05% during the 2008–2009 season. That rate hasn’t been sustainable though. Steph Curry recently passed Nash as the NBA’s career free throw leader, but only by a couple of hundredths of a percent.

While players could beat today’s records with more practice and better mental preparation, they do focus on many more aspects of the game than just free throws. So, while future players could post an impressive free throw percentage, it just isn’t likely.