Why Aaron Gordon will never shoot better than 62 percent at the line

It's an open look. Knock it down.

Statistically speaking, this is unlikely to go well.

We typically think of bad free throw shooters as all alike. Either a player makes a normal number of free throws or he falls short of that standard, and we all know that guys in the latter category represent a special case. We sit up and pay attention when they’re at the line, we shake our heads when they miss, and we applaud a little too enthusiastically — like parents at the school play — when they make one.

Basically we define “really bad” as anything under 60 percent because, well, that is really bad. An average shooter will make something closer to 70 percent of his attempts. But in terms of measurable harm to your offense, there’s a significant difference between shooting, say, 58 percent at the line and connecting on just 42 percent of your free throws. And in his one and only season as a college player, Aaron Gordon shot 42.2 percent at the line. 

A 58 percent foul shooter who’s given two free throws will, on average, score 1.16 points per possession for his offense. Gordon, conversely, would be expected to net his team just 0.84 points per trip in that situation. This is of course an “other things being equal” projection. (Maybe Gordon’s shooting an and-one free throw. By the same token it’s conceivable Gordon’s team could rebound the miss on his second attempt — conceivable but not likely. The offensive rebound percentage on missed free throws in the NBA this season was a minuscule 12.3.) Still, the material point here is rather straightforward. The purpose of giving Gordon a free throw is to penalize the team that committed the foul. That penalty’s severity is lessened if Gordon misses the freebie.

And, make no mistake, it’s likely that Gordon will indeed miss that free throw. Here are the worst career free throw shooters produced by the major conferences over the last 10 years (among players with at least 150 attempts):

                                            FTM-FTA   FT%
Lakeem Jackson (South Carolina, 2010-13)     75-215   34.9
Arinze Onuaku (Syracuse, 2007-10)           152-385   39.5
Dallas Lauderdale (Ohio St., 2008-11)        82-200   41.0
Aziz N'Diaye (Washington, 2011-13)          129-312   41.3
Aaron Gordon (Arizona, 2014)                 76-180   42.2
Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky, 2013+14)      72-169   42.6
Lorenzo Mata-Real (UCLA, 2005-07)            67-153   43.8
Jayson Obazuaye (Colorado, 2003-06)         117-260   45.0
Vernon Macklin (G'town/UF, 2007-11)         115-253   45.5
Justin Jackson (Cincinnati, 2011-14)        124-267   46.4
Nasir Robinson (Pitt, 2009-12)              141-297   47.5 
Montrezl Harrell (Louisville 2013+14)       103-216   47.7

True, Gordon’s “career” was just one season, but note that the freshman packed more free throw attempts into that single campaign than Willie Cauley-Stein has recorded in two seasons. I therefore declare this particular sample size worthy of our discussion.

We’ve seen free throw shooters even worse than Gordon in major-conference ball before (cf. Lakeem Jackson and Arinze Onuaku). We’ve even seen NBA prospects who are just as bad at the line as Gordon (Cauley-Stein). But what we haven’t seen for a very long while is someone this drop-dead awful at the line who’s also about to be selected as high as No. 5 in the lottery.

If I’m seeing this glass as half-full, I’m rejoicing that defensive attention deficit is at last a thing of the past and that a defender as superb as Gordon is being so highly esteemed by the NBA. That may be what’s happening here. Then again it may be the case that people who work in NBA front offices, like everyone else on earth, find free throws to be incredibly boring. And when something bores us we may not be sufficiently cognizant of the extent to which these mundane misses can hurt an offense.

Analytically speaking, my list of terrible collegiate free-throw shooters has at least one convenient feature. Major-conference players who miss a a very high number of free throws tend, by definition, to be very good at other aspects of the sport — otherwise their coaches wouldn’t let them miss all those free throws. As a result, several of the players named above went on to have professional careers of one sort or another in places as varied as Idaho, Mexico, and Slovakia. Vernon Macklin even grabbed a quick cup of coffee with the Pistons in 2011-12. And thanks to the universal sameness of free throws (though it’s true the ball itself is slicker in some international leagues), we can compare all those professional shooting percentages to what these same guys did when they were in Division I.

It turns out that terrible free throw shooters reliably stay very bad, though, granted, there is some improvement to be seen. To the extent that I’ve been able to find trustworthy stats from places like Qatar, the guys listed above have collectively made 52.9 percent of their free throws professionally. That’s a huge improvement over what this same group did in college. It is also, of course, still really bad.

If bad FT shooters can become average, can historically terrible ones can become bad?
To be sure, Blake Griffin is demonstrating before our very eyes that poor free throw shooting at the college level can be overcome professionally. Griffin made just 59 percent of his free throws in two seasons at Oklahoma before improving all the way to 71.5 percent this past season with the Clippers.

Yes, but what of the players who were even worse — and in some cases much worse — at the line than Griffin in college? The ceiling here would appear to be lower. Lorenzo Mata-Real connected on 63 percent of his free throws last season while playing professionally in Mexico. To my knowledge that’s the best season of FT shooting — at any level, college or pro — recorded by any of the players listed above.

Perhaps it’s instructive that our greatest bad FT shooters of the past — Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal — also topped out in this same neighborhood. Chamberlain made 61 percent of his free throws in 1961-62. Shaq made 62 percent of his free throws in 2002-03. For the time being I’m going to label this as Gordon’s best-case scenario, the demon in the sky for very bad free throw shooters.

Speaking of Shaq, back in the day he was a career 52.7 percent foul shooter as a pro, and he gave us the very term “hack-a-Shaq.” More recently, opposing teams have at times been willing to hack Dwight Howard (a career 57.4 percent foul shooter) or, for that matter, DeAndre Jordan (42.5 percent for his career — yes, with all due allowance for the particular situation and defender, hacking Jordan should likely happen even more often than it does).

My hunch is that Gordon will shoot in the low 50s from the line in his NBA career, though he could break 60 percent once or even twice. If on the other hand he carries his college FT percentage into the pros more or less intact (a la DeAndre Jordan or Ben Wallace), he will comprise an even more inviting target for opponents’ fouls.

Gordon will never be another Steve Nash at the line, of course, but for the franchise that expends a precious lottery pick on the Arizona star there will be a lot riding on whether he can make the jump from “historically bad” to just plain “bad” on his free throws.

And that goes for you too! Replace every “Aaron Gordon” in this post with “Mortrezl Harrell,” and let’s take another look at this question in a year. Perhaps the Louisville star will have rendered the subject moot with near-60-percent shooting at the line in 2014-15. If not, this will be a topic worth revisiting.