NBA Draft
Feb 4, 2017; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies guard Markelle Fultz (20) dribbles against UCLA Bruins guard Lonzo Ball (2) during the first half at Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

By Mike O’Connor

Jump shots are tricky. Their fickle nature strains the narrative forming parts of our brain. The level of variance that a single player exhibits over time frustrates our desire to classify players based on their shooting ability.

This variance can also be peeled back several layers thanks to advancements in stats that allow us to track things such as defender proximity, areas of the court, and even the events leading up to the shot.

For that reason, we need hundreds, even thousands of shots to truly quantify a player’s shooting ability.

…and sometimes even that isn’t enough.

Now, imagine taking the complicated factors I listed above and trying to cross-project data across an entirely different league, with a different distance from the basket, different defensive schemes, and players of different size and speed. You can see how it may get cloudy.

It’s that reason that college 3-point percentages are interpreted with such caution. It raises the importance of studying things such as form, footwork, the source of their shots, and last but not least, free throws.

Free throw percentage has become a common benchmark for evaluating a player’s jump shot. It has been used to validate, or invalidate, a player’s 3-point percentage. After all, college free throw percentage is historically a better indicator of future NBA three point percentage.

But the dependability of this pattern has resulted in an over-reliance. It’s important to remember that correlation does not always equal causation, and that there are many factors at play here.

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The sheer admittance of correlation implies the similarity of the two situations. After all, that’s why we use one to project the other. By that logic, these two situations are not entirely foreign to each other. A player with a high 3-point percentage and a low free throw percentage is not simply performing a Jekyll and Hyde act. There is a source of why one is different than the other — even if we find that the majority of cases trace back to variance and small sample size.

And because we generally trace that difference back to small sample size, it has stopped many from asking the simple question: “Why is [player X’s] free throw percentage relatively different from his 3-point percentage?”

Interestingly, three players in the top five of this year’s draft are facing this dilemma. Those three players are Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Jackson. Two offer a differing case to the norm — a technical reason that appears as the provenance of their difference — while one offers the normal case that we expect: variance.

Markelle Fultz

Let’s start with Markelle Fultz. Fultz shot 41 percent from three on 126 attempts this season — including an elite efficiency off the dribble — despite shooting just 65 percent on 168 free throw attempts. So, the question we haven’t dared to ask: why?

Futlz has a high release, which in turn necessitates a lot of energy coming from the lower half of his body. Compared to a lower, gunslinger release a la Stephen Curry, Fultz requires a great deal more lift. Not only in a sense of needing power, but also for timing. Fultz uses his jump as a means of finding his apex and releasing his shot at that point.

But at the free-throw line, things become much more difficult. Without the benefit of his lift to dictate his power, he struggles to find his apex, and the shot becomes much more of a flick. His release point also changes, as he tries to make up for lost power with extra arm motion.

For this reason, Fultz’s low free throw percentage should not serve as a negative indicator of his NBA 3-point percentage. In his case — but not all — the differing environment of free throws vs. 3-pointers leads to a change in his form that alters his success rate.

Lonzo Ball

Let’s now look at Lonzo Ball. Ball shot 41 percent from three on 194 attempts, but only 67 percent from the charity stripe on 98 attempts. So, what, if anything, could lead to this discrepancy?

Lonzo’s shot utilizes an extreme turn. Notice on this shot how his shoulders face nearly parallel to the sideline. It’s a necessary move to square his shooting elbow up to the hoop since he brings the ball up from his left side.

As I started to look into Lonzo’s free throw clips, I realized Coach Nick had already hit the nail on the head on this issue. I’ve linked to the part in this video where he explains the remedy for Lonzo’s free throw struggles:

If Lonzo is able to adjust his alignment and alter his wrist placement, I see no reason why he can’t be a respectable free throw shooter. Again, this is an example of vastly different habits that are exclusive to one setting. Therefore, putting a great deal of stock in Lonzo’s free throw percentage as it relates to his NBA three point percentage is unwise.

Josh Jackson

The last player we’ll look at is Kansas Forward Josh Jackson. Jackson shot a respectable 38 percent on 90 3-point attempts compared to just 57 percent from the foul line on 173 attempts.

In addition to a smaller sample size, Jackson’s jump shot offers several technicalities from a form standpoint that bring the legitimacy of his percentage into question. Jackson has a major hitch in his shot, where he starts with his elbow angle far too open, and brings his elbow to a very closed angle at his release point.

The loose energy and extra motion makes his shot extremely predicated on timing. When he misses his small window where his energy syncs up, it results in a brick like the shot above. And it’s likely that he just had a hot streak during the season where his shot maintained its rhythm and didn’t unravel. Where the unconscious rhythm and timing wears off is at the free-throw line, where Jackson struggled mightily.

At the line, Jackson’s loose, throw-like shot is more on display. With a more controlled setting, Jackson struggles.

But the question remains: is this a sign that the free throw percentage is a more accurate indicator, or is it just a less ideal shooting setting for this particular player?

The answer with Jackson is that it lies somewhere in the middle. Jackson legitimately benefits from situations where he can shoot on the hop because it allows for a quicker and tighter energy flow of his shot. But the idea that Jackson will be able to maintain that level of rhythm with a shot that allows such small room for error is slim. In this sense, free throws are a sign of what happens to Jackson when his shot fails to maintain perfect rhythm.

The difference between a case such as Fultz and Jackson’s is that Fultz’s lift helps him achieve a picturesque finish. Jackson’s helps him mitigate the risk of multiple unnecessary motions that involve conflicting energy. Jackson’s free throws highlight a problem whereas Fultz’s just indicate a new complication in a unique setting. Fultz’s problems are unique to one, whereas Jackson’s show through both.

So, is free throw percentage a good indicator of NBA 3-point percentage? Yes, in the sense that the data supports that claim in most cases. But that shouldn’t stop us from asking “why” in each case, and combining our findings with the data to make an educated guess of a projection.

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