Over the last season many people concerned with the Utah Jazz have been concerned with the free throw shooting. And there's good reason to be concerned. The front office, team bigwigs, coaches, and players all want the Utah Jazz to be the best they can be -- no one currently in a decision making position with this team wants to just be average. And in order to go beyond just being average you have to aim for excellence. And in order to be excellent you have to sweat the small stuff. In the game of basketball there's nothing smaller than free throws. And while we broke it all down on the individual level yesterday, we have to go deeper.
Today I was listening to an interview Karl Malone gave with Huffington Post. That was the interview he gave back in early February where everyone just went to the automatic hot take of Karl saying he has given Kobe Bryant a 'standing off' to 'knuckle up'. Sadly, there were many more important things from that interview. (You can watch it all here or just below. But remember that this is a rambling Karl interview with just a throw away line in the middle of it that even relates to this research piece. You don't have to watch ANY of this video at all.)
The main point for THIS post is that Karl was taking about the All-Time Scoring record. He points out that he could have had it without having to play more seasons -- he just needed to hit more free throws. Effectively, sweating the small stuff. I did the math, and yes. Karl missed 3,401 free throws over his career, and if he did a better job, especially early in his career, it's likely that he would have finished #1. Karl isn't the only bigman to lament about free throws after his playing career ended. Shaquille O'Neal did the same during his retirement press conference years ago. Two Hall of Famers (Shaq will be there) who did almost everything were honest enough to point out just how crucial free throws are. Which brings me back to this seasons' Utah Jazz team.
Utah has two really good, young, promising bigmen with all-world potential: Derrick Favors (23 years old) and Rudy Gobert (22 years old). In the changing NBA where more and more bigmen survive because of a developing face up game which extends to the three point line I find that the future of these two guys will be determined much close to the basket. In specifics, from 15 feet. And to be fair, the only thing that can stop them on the court will be their ability to make free throws.
For the season Derrick is 210-314, 66.9% from the line; and Rudy is 132-216, 61.1%. Collectively they've left 188 points at the free throw line in a season where the Jazz offense that can't afford to leave points on the table. You can't expect perfection. And you really shouldn't from two very young bigs who did not come into the NBA with a shooting stroke. (No one is confusing them for Chris Bosh, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, or even DeMarcus Cousins.) Both players have improved over their NBA careers though. Rudy has gone from 49.2% to 61.1%, bringing his cumulative average up to 58.4%. Derrick has shot 59.5%, 64.9%, 68.8%, 66.9%, and 66.9% over his career. Going from 59.5% to 66.9% is less impressive, and while his cumulative average is not 66.0%, the fear is that it has stagnated in improvement. (Which was the generalized non-specific fear for Favors over the first three years of his career as well.)
|Derrick Favors||Rudy Gobert|
They need help. They are hard workers, but they really do need help. They work with the assistant coaches on this all the time, but there's on thing that I think we are overlooking: physics. A 6'2 guard can help a bigman shoot better, but a bigman has a different height, shoulder height, release point, potential arc, and hand size. At some point we have to agree that we now have good enough bigmen who are retired that can make free throws that they should be used to help up and coming bigmen get over that hump.
Two exist in recent Jazz history. Mehmet Okur is already PART of the team in some capacity, and Karl Malone has an open invitation to work with the Jazz bigs at ANY TIME FOR FREE. One of them is a pure shooter who stands 6'11. The other is a dude who came into the league shooting 48.1% as a rookie, and moved his free throw making all the way up to 79.7% during his mental concentration peak.
Karl Malone: Hard Work Pays off
Let's take a look at Karl's journey at the free throw line.
Yeah, over his first 10 or so seasons he was leaving about 200 points at the line, and all of that adds up when you are chasing a dude like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But for the Jazz that's a lot of points to give up during the course of a season. Of course, those teams played defense, got out on the break, and scored a lot of points. That's not where this Jazz team is quite yet.
Can Karl coach? We don't know. But we do know that Karl had the work ethic to get better every off-season. Maybe our young guys could self-motivate themselves by losing to a 50 year old man in FT shooting contest? I don't know. But I do know that Karl had to get over insecurity to build up that mental toughness to go out there and make a lot of free throws in the fourth quarter. Casual fans only remember the 4th quarter misses -- but in order to get to the FT line in the deciding moments of NBA Finals games you have to make a lot of FTs during games and by yourself in the gym first. The FT shooting did hold Karl back, and as hindsight is 20/20, he now realizes that it was the one "easy" thing that prevented him from being the #1 All-Time scorer.
In general I think having Rudy and Derrick hang around Karl is useful in general, because he has certain intangibles that I would wish our young studs had. One of those was the ability to find a rhythm at the line that helped him -- and the Jazz -- win a lot of games.
No one else Karl's size, and physical level, became an okay-ish free throw shooter. The closest thing we have today is possibly Blake Griffin, but he's still in the low 70s. There's no magic potion that would make Derrick and Rudy better. It's about hard work. And I don't think that anyone worked harder than Karl.
Physically he's shorter than both guys, but his release point, trajectory, arc, and shoulder height is much closer than anyone else who has ever worked on FT shooting. Mechanically it could help, but I'm sure mentally and mentality-wise would be the major benefits.
Mehmet Okur: A pure shooter's touch
Memo, even taller, could shoot all day. After a certain point I trusted him at the line more than a lot of the guards he played with. Most of us remember him for his ability to space the floor, trail plays, and hit big threes. But he was one of the best bigmen the franchise has ever had, and finally allowed Jerry Sloan to play 5 on 5 on offense. At the end of games Memo could be kept in there with his defensive rebounding ability, occasional skill at hedging on pick and rolls, and his steady and dependable shooting from the FT line.
Derrick and Rudy can't shoot like Memo. But there's no reason why they can't shoot WITH Memo. With apologies to Armen Gilliam and Antoine Carr, Memo was the best face-up center in Jazz history. Of the many things our young bigs could possibility benefit from working with him in, I can't stress enough how improved their face up games would be. Favors is a great jump shooter from midrange right now. I love it. He needs to be able to be stead like Memo at the line though.
Rudy has great ideas with the ball, and is always looking to make the smart pass. Memo was underrated in this department. He was also clever enough to learn how to be a threat from the high post with more than just drives or passes. One thing we rarely give Memo the credit for was how he became someone who just got to the line, period. For the majority of his career in Utah our main man Okur got there 4+ times a game. That's at LEAST drawing two fouls on the defense. And when combined with his free throw making ability, it was very effective.
I don't expect Favors or Gobert to get to the line like The Mailman did. But learning the offensive tricks to at least get to the line 5ish times a game (Memo went 5.5 times a game in his 2nd year in Utah) would be good. Also, you know, if he could help them to SHOOT from the line too, that would be great.
Other bigmen of this era:
Karl was a hard worker. Memo was a pure shooter. They both had rookie years were they were 22 and 23 years old. Favors, in his FIFTH year, is 23. Rudy in his second is only 22. They are young, and while more experienced in NBA ways, have a long way to go still. It's very possible for them to improve. If you look beyond two Jazz greats you can see that this era is filthy with solid FT% bigmen. There are some other bigmen who are just filthy bad at the line too. Here's the Top 50 (min 130 FTA, and not an overt three point shooter, unless you are a super star).
For the entire group (n=50), you have a big that averages 2.3 FTM / 3.1 FTA, for the tidy rate of 76.4 FT%. If you rank them from most FTs missed this year (leaving points at the table), things aren't great. Yes, DeAndre Jordan has left 229 points at the line, Andre Drummond 187, and Mason Plumlee 145 -- but our guys aren't sitting pretty. Derrick Favors (104) is #6 on this list between Dwight Howard and Josh Smith. Rudy Gobert is #9, between DeMarcus Cousins and Greg Monroe. Cousins is shooting 80.2% from the line, and Monroe 74.3%. Rudy's 61.1% shows that while he does get to the line a bit -- he's missing a lot of them, while the other two guys in his range are not.
And that's the long and short of it. I want our bigs to not leave points at the line. They want that. The coaches want that. Everyone from the event coordinator to the GM wants that. Our bigs aren't the worst FT shooters out there. But they are far from the best. Getting to the line and making the other team pay is what will really help the Jazz young bigs, and the team in general, down the stretch of games.
The sooner they start the better. Memo knows the shots you remember are the ones you miss. And Karl knows that all the misses add up over a quarter, game, season, and career. Use their experience, knowledge, and practical game preparation methods to help unburden Derrick and Rudy from the line. I know they both can be 70+ FT% guys for most of their careers. And with Karl and Memo being a part of their development, I know that they will be.