Baseball players spend hours upon hours watching film of themselves to make tweaks to their technique; but most basketball players aren't like that at all, instead relying on what comes naturally.
Some of the greatest shooters of all time can't even describe what makes their mechanics so successful. And, of course, some of the league's worst shooters fail to recognize what doesn't work because of their lack of interest in watching film, and they never improve.
That's why it's so encouraging to hear top NBA draft prospect Aaron Gordon accurately describe what was wrong with his free throw form and how he is fixing it.
"I overhauled my free throws," said the 6-foot-9 forward. "My free throw was disconnected from my jumper; it was a different shot. I would get to the peak of my shot, then shoot it. Now what I've done is [connect all my shots to make them] one shot. It feels great."
Yeah, that's easy to say, especially after shooting 42.2% from the free throw line as a freshman at Arizona. His poor shooting has been written about plenty of times, and so many lazy comparisons have been made, and whether or not they're accurate doesn't matter, because there's no where to go but up from here for the 18-year-old Gordon.
Film of an Aaron Gordon workout has been released by Draft Express, and a handful of his free throw attempts are there to see. His form is new and improved, just like he said it was, which is why he'll likely find greater success as soon as next season.
The Upper Body
With the Wildcats, Gordon would stand at the line like Quasimodo with his body hunched over and the ball extended out by two-feet. Even when he shot, it'd look like that he was leaning towards the basket, which likely created stress in his sides and shoulders, and therefore lowered his chances of success.
Now, Gordon is keeping the ball closer to his body as he starts his attempt, which relaxes the muscles. As he said, he has "connected his shots."
Most jump shooters, including Gordon, have a natural "dip" that creates momentum and results in a shot with better arc. Successful free throw shooters also start the ball low to create the same "dip" effect, and Gordon is now doing that.
He also stands upright as he shoots. This stance looks better and it probably feels much better to him. Once again, this is similar to his jumper, and will lead to more consistent results.
The Feet and Release
Gordon probably has a spectacular free throw trainer considering the knowledge he dropped at the NBA Combine. When describing why his free throw was broken, he said, "My free throw was disconnected from my jumper. What was happening is, I would get to the peak of my shot and then shoot it."
That basically nails it. With Arizona, Gordon had trouble timing his feet with the release of the shot for that exact reason.
To avoid drowning you in technicalities, the most successful free throw shooters let go of the ball as they reach their "tippy toes." This creates flow and momentum, but most importantly, it allows the maximum amount of power possible to come from the legs, which gives the ball better arc and distance.
Gordon would sometimes shoot the ball like that in college, but usually he'd get to his "peak" (or his "tippy toes") and then he'd follow through with his shot. There was absolutely no momentum and the ball would typically come out flat.
He's still not perfect, but Gordon's shot looks very natural now. He's getting to his peak and the ball is coming out almost immediately. With his high, upright release, and the connectivity between his feet and hands, his results should automatically improve drastically.
While it's difficult to tell on the footage, it also appears that Gordon is tilting his feet slightly more than he did in college. Most people think players should "stay square" to the rim, but this is poor technique, and is a main reason why they struggle on jumpers or free throws. Keeping your feet straight, or "aligned" with the rim, usually results in the elbow sticking out, which is terrible technique.
If Gordon is tilting both of his feet, like it appears he is, it will always keep his elbow aligned with the rim, leading to consistency from his feet to his hands.
The Psychology of Shooting
Karl Malone was a 48.1% free throw shooter in 1986, 59.8% in 1987, and 75.7% for the rest of his Hall of Fame career. In order to be as terrible as Gordon was last year and Malone was in '86, there aren't just problems with your mechanics, but there is also something going wrong in your head.
Or maybe too much is going on, because the best free throw shooters are able to stay relaxed at the line without a thought in their mind. Often times, analytical players are thinking about everything else in the game and forget to let it flow from the line like they do with any ordinary jumper.
Which is precisely why Karl Malone went to a sports psychologist after the '86 season, where he was taught how to stay calm and confident at the line by using a "trigger word." As a result, is percentages improved and he became an average free throw shooter.
Gordon had the same problem at Arizona. He'd look distraught, often frustrated, after his free throws, and he knows it.
"My weaknesses are getting down on myself. I let mistakes compound and I'm getting better at that," the methodical Gordon told DX. "What I'm doing with that is having a ‘next play mentality.' If I miss a shot, I'm going right onto the next shot."
On one of the three free throw clips from the Draft Express video, Gordon missed a shot and laughed afterwards. This might seem meaningless -- maybe someone just made a joke -- but the point is that this never happened at Arizona. Something is changing mentally for Gordon, not just physically.
In a sense, it's Gordon incorporating his "next play mentality." Teammates give daps to each other after both makes and misses, because it psychologically signals that it's time to move on, and that mental aspect of the game will help Gordon on top of his new and improved technique.
"I'm getting better at [free throws] and it's improving everyday," Aaron Gordon told DX. Some people might call him a liar, but the film doesn't lie: Gordon is already getting better at his biggest weakness. At this rate, he might even surprise everyone and shoot very well from the line during his rookie year in the NBA.