With all the attention focused on Blake Griffin, it’s somewhat amazing that he has been improving one of his worst weaknesses and there hasn’t been much notice. At the beginning of the season, if you would have asked anyone what Blake needed to improve, they would have said defense and free throws.
John Hollinger wrote about the paradoxical nature of free throws, saying that the physical gifts that allow players to become very good basketball players (height, long arms, big hands) are the same things that prevent players from being really good free throw shooters. However, Blake Griffin doesn’t have an incredibly disproportionate wingspan for a big. Blake is tall at 6’10”, but his reach is a proportional 6’11”. So he may have two of the physical detriments to good free throw shooting, but at least wingspan doesn’t seem like one (maybe the reason why DeAndre shoots so poorly, 7’6” wing spans are awkward).
Now, ramped up defense hasn’t come to fruition (he’s challenging slightly more shots but he’s not blocking more) and guys like Boris Diaw still carve him up, but Blake’s free throw percentage has made huge progress. Strangely, this progress hasn’t been because of a change in technique. Blake still has the hitch, more pronounced in his free throw shot than his normal shot, and he doesn’t simply hinge his wrist to load the ball, but sort of rolls it into position.
However, Blake has made his shot work and the importance of a higher shooting percentage for the team’s leading free throw shooter is hard to understate. Back on January 6th, Jason Kubatko of the New York Times’ Off The Dribble Blog wrote with statistical specificity of the potential impact of enhanced free throw shooting percentages for Blake:
Griffin’s primary weakness is one that has been shared by many other big men: free throw shooting. He is shooting 59.0 percent from the line, the fourth-worst free throw percentage among qualified players. That figure falls right in line with what he did in college, where he shot 58.9 percent in his two seasons at Oklahoma.
Griffin averages 8.4 free throw attempts per game, the sixth-best figure in the N.B.A., so any significant improvement in his free throw shooting would pay noticeable dividends.
For example, if Griffin were able to increase his free throw percentage to 67 percent — a mark that would still fall well below the league average of 76 percent — his scoring rate would increase from 1.10 to 1.14 points per scoring attempt.
That may not seem like much, but for a player who plays such an active role in his team’s offense it is a meaningful difference. In Griffin’s case, those extra points would be worth about two additional wins over the course of a full season, a number that could easily be the difference between a team making the playoffs or falling into the draft lottery.
While Blake hasn’t pulled his season average all the way up to the 67 percent mark that Kubatko gave, the Clipper rookie now averages 64 percent shooting from the charity stripe. Since Kubatko’s article came out, Blake shot 182 for 262 (69 percent) from the line, but looking more closely, the increase is even more stark. In Blake’s last 13 games he shot 89 for 116 from the line (77 percent) and, even better, 47 for 55 (85 percent) in the last 6 games.
Through 64 games, Blake Griffin has now earned 7.9 win shares, putting him on pace for 10.1 Win Shares, a rarity in the last 30+ years of basketball. Kubatko lists only David Robinson (15.1), Michael Jordan (14), Tim Duncan (12.8), Larry Bird (11.2), Magic Johnson (10.5), Shaquille O’Neal (10.4), Chris Paul (10.4) and Hakeem Olajuwon (10.2) as players that would have bettered Blake’s numbers. Conspicuously missing are some of the games current elite like Kobe, LeBron, Wade, Dwight Howard, Durant, Deron Williams, KG, etc.
These are huge leaps for a player still in his first year. Even though the free throw improvements have gone largely unnoticed (I mean unless you’re Chuck Hayes or DeAndre Jordan, no ones watching your free throws on YouTube and that’s for comedy purposes only), Blake Griffin’s progress gives statistical evidence of his will to improve. Whether that is to the point that the Clippers improve greatly still remains to be seen, but Blake is taking better advantage of the free ones now.
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