On the decline: Free-throw shooting is becoming lost art in prep basketball

(CNJ staff illustration: John Eisel)

By John Eisel: CNJ sports writer

During his 13 years as Clovis High coach in the 1970s and 1980s — and well before the introduction of the 3-point line — Jimmy Joe Robinson remembers players spending hours honing their free-throw skills.

He even created honorary clubs to reward players who made 50, 100 or even 200 in a row at practice — Kenny Ray Dickinson holds the record at 265.

Robinson, a New Mexico Hall of Fame inductee with more than 500 wins, instituted a similar program at Clovis Christian when he took over the program this year. So far, the best is 30 in a row.

Because year-by-year records for free-throw shooting at the high-school level are spotting at best, there’s no concrete data to show a dropoff in free-throw percentage. But nearly every coach in the Clovis area says they’ve witnessed a decline.

Free-throw percentages hover in the mid-60s for girls and around 60 for boys, according to area coaches. The Muleshoe girls topped the list at 69 percent while the Muleshoe boys at 52 percent were at the low end.

“That’s not to say there’s not some great free-throw shooters,” Clovis boys assistant coach Mike Hankins said. “Overall, I don’t think it’s near as good as it used to be.”

Form and practice are the two key ingredients in becoming a good free-throw shooter, coaches say.

Case in point: Clovis senior post Tigg Bunton was a 58 percent free throw shooter two years ago. Hankins said Bunton used to lean to the left when he shot free throws. Coaches helped fix his form. He’s improved to 73 percent this season.

“You get a simple motion, you practice it, and you repeat it over and over,” Hankins said. “It becomes such a rhythm to them it’s habit. They don’t think about it anymore.”

“When I make it, I just don’t concentrate as hard,” said Bunton, who is averaging close to 20 points a game. “I concentrate on everything.”

Clovis junior post Brittany Blackmon said the pressure of the game will sometimes get to her. “In a game, I can’t shoot them, but at practice I’ll make them,” the Lady Wildcats leading scorer said.

The reasons given by coaches for the decline range from lack of fundamentals, players unwilling to practice on their own, the introduction of the 3-point line and AAU basketball.
Coaches also shouldered part of the blame because they haven’t made it a priority.

“Basketball has gotten a lot more complex in a lot of areas and (coaches) spend a lot less time shooting free throws and I know we’re guilty of that,” said veteran Clovis girls coach Miles Watters, whose teams shoots close to 64 percent from the line.

The 3-point line has not only changed the way the game is played — just watch pre-game warmups and see how players how many players shooting from behind the 3-point line compared to the free-throw line.

“It seems like we’re either going to try to shoot 3s or we’re going to try and dunk and there’s no in-between, and a free throw is in between right at 15 feet,” Hankins said.

Grady coach Jim Kneipp feels talking about the problem only makes it worse.

“The more you harp about it, they more they think about it and the worse they get,” said Kneipp, whose team makes 64 percent of their free throws. “We don’t put a lot of pressure on them.”

Melrose coach Casey Pack said players have many more distractions keeping them from practicing free throws than in the past.

“The old school can tell you that they shot so many free throws at their house … now they’re playing Nintendo or playing PlayStation at their house,” Pack said. “They get to be Michael Jordan through Nintendo, but reality is a self-check.”

Night after night coaches point to free throws as the difference between winning and losing close games
Pack said his team has lost its last three games because of its inability to convert at the free-throw line — the Buffaloes are shooting 58 percent from the line for the season.

Clovis Christian beat Bible Heritage earlier this season in double overtime. The Eagles were 15 for 20 from the free throw line while Bible Heritage went nine for 26.

“It just shows you right there that we beat you from the free throw line,” Robinson said. “If you’re an equally matched team, the difference will be the free throw line.”

Take Portales’ 40-39 win over the New Mexico Military Institute on Friday. The Rams made nine of 11 free throws. NMMI hit 10 of 15.

“Sometimes I think kids don’t understand the importance of free throws. I know my kids sometimes don’t,” Texico boys coach Richard Luscombe said. The Wolverines hit about 62 percent of their free throws.

“They don’t understand until they miss it and they lose a ball game,” he said. “I guess that’s a tough lesson to learn.”