The price of shooting FREE THROWS
Focus, , practice. And practice. And practice ...
For The Dominion Post
Take a look at any Top 10 basketball highlight show and you’ll see an array of high-flying monster jams, gravity-defying blocks and crazy-sick dribble-drive moves.
But basketball lifers like Morgantown High boys’ coach Tom Yester would likely get a bigger bang out of something that would never show up on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” but probably has a greater impact on winning than any skill that might be on display in some viral YouTube hoops clip.
Free throws. That simple, unguarded shot from 15 feet (13 feet from the front of the rim), almost 5 feet inside the 3-point distance of 19-feet, 9 inches, for high school basketball, with a ball small enough to almost fit two at once through the 18-inch diameter hoop.
And yet …
“Give me a kid who steps to the line with a one-point lead and drains both ends of a one-and-one,” Yester said with a laugh, “and I’ll take that over a dunk any day of the week. That’s fundamental basketball. That’s the real beauty of the game, and I’m afraid that it’s becoming a lost art.
“I’ve read that it takes 21 consecutive days of doing something with the absolutely correct technique in order to change the muscle memory enough to improve a skill. That’s a lot of concentration, a lot of hard work, and it’s not necessarily as much fun as playing the game, so players just aren’t dedicating themselves to it as much.”
Locally, the numbers seem to support Yester’s fears, at least so far this season. A year ago, 10 boys (topped by Trinity’s Cody Triplett, at 89 percent) shot better than 72 percent, and 10 girls (led by University’s Mariah Callen, at 79 percent) were more than 66 percent from the line.
This year, Mohigans’ sophomore Steven Solomon (79 percent) and University’s Grant Gutmann (74 percent) are the only players shooting better than 70 percent from the line. Morgantown’s Brie Giuliani leads the girls at 83, and only seven area girls are canning two-thirds of their free-throw attempts this season.
So what does it take to be a good foul shooter? Are good shooters born, or can they be made? Just how much can foul shooting ability be improved?
“It can always be improved some by learning the correct technique,” Yester said, “but there’s no doubt that innate ability — it’s called kinesthetic awareness — plays a role.
“Look, LeBron James is a much more technically sound shooter now than when he first entered the NBA, and Magic Johnson really improved over the course of his career. The best thing to do is to learn how to shoot correctly as early as possible, because bad habits are so very, very hard to break. After that, it’s all about concentrated, hard effort, and thousands of attentive, mindful shots.”
Yester has been pleased with Solomon’s performance. The coach is impressed with his consistency and serious approach to refining his technique, especially so early in his career.
“I try to repeat the same sequence every time I step to the l i n e, ” Solomon said. “Spin the ball, dribble one-two-three, deep breath, and shoot it. I tried it one day in practice, and it felt good, so I’m going to stick with it. For me, I’ve always been pretty good at it, but I think as I’ve gotten older, my ability to focus has improved, and that’s helped me shoot better.
“It’s all about staying focused and staying confident,” he continued. “It’s definitely a huge part of the game, and makes the difference between winning and losing so many times. So if you show your coach that you’re confident, and you hit some shots, he’ll have the confidence to put you in the game at crunch time, which is what every player wants.”
Hawks senior Shae Chico loves having the ball in her hands late in games, and believes every time she steps to the line that she’ll bury the big shots.
“When I was a freshman or a sophomore, I definitely was more hesitant to have the ball in my hands late in games,” she said. “But now, I want it, and the challenge of having the game on my shoulders is really exciting and fun. It’s why we play, really. So you have to experience those pressure situations to figure out how to handle them, and that’s why older players are usually out there late in games.
“If you’re good enough to play varsity basketball, you know the correct technique, so in the end, it comes down to focus and confidence. And while lots of players get nervous going to the line, for me, it’s relaxing. I don’t have to worry about making a mistake in the moment during play. I know exactly what to do, and the same thing happens every time you take a free throw, so I can take my time and just go about my business.”
So what’s been her secret to free-throw shooting success this season? Is it some special sequence that gets the job done?
“Actually, my set routine this season is to not have a set routine,” she said. “As long as I get myself focused, I know I’ll put a good shot up, and they’ve been going in.”
Plenty of players can make shot after shot in practice, but it can be tough to replicate the pressure of late-game conditions. Still, coaches try.
“We make them shoot after running drills,” Yester said. “We group them into teams, and make them shoot and give one point for a make and take two points away for a miss. Let me tell you, it’s pretty tough to get to 70 percent with that scoring system. We make them hit either three or five in a row, and if they don’t, they run, or they make their teammates run. Anything to make them really concentrate and focus on what they’re doing.
“It’s tough sometimes to get a young kid’s attention away from the flashy stuff. But if you can install the fundamentals early, get them shooting the ball and playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played, that’s the player I want on the court in the last minute of a game. That’s a player I can win with.”

Ron Rittenhouse/The Dominion Post
Morgantown High’s Steven Solomon

Chelsi Baker/The Dominion Post file photo
University High’s Shae Chico