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Layups: Good 3-Point Shooters, Bad Free Throw Shooters

Posted by Neil Paine on September 8, 2010

With a hat tip to TrueHoop, here's a post from NBA Playbook on an interesting phenomenon to those of us obsessed with stats -- players who are good in one "pure" shooting metric and bad in another.

"Doing a little college basketball stuff, I came across Obi Muonelo, who plays for Oklahoma State.  Looking at his stats, I was amazed to see that Muonelo was only a 58.9% free throw shooter, despite being a 42.6% three point shooter.  I took my amazement to Twitter, and the great Tom Haberstroh let me know that this happens in the NBA too:

Happens in NBA too… RT @SebastianPruiti How can someone who shots 42.6% from the 3 only shoot 58.9 FT%?

Tom’s list is an all-time single season list (and Bruce Bowen is featured a ton there), and it got me thinking.  I decided to use this past season and take a look at above average three point shooters with at least 100 attempts (35.6%) and try to figure out why they are below average free throw shooters (76.2%)."

I always felt that FT% is the best indicator of pure shooting form, since unless the player resorts to a gimmicky, Rick Barry-style approach, it's just him, his mechanics, and a basket 15 feet away. Meanwhile, 3P% can be influenced by so many more factors, depending on the player's style of play and/or role in the offense; for instance, look at Jason Kidd's magical transformation from a guy nicknamed "Ason" to a 43% 3-point shooter (!!!) in Dallas. FT% is far less dependent on contextual effects, which seems to make it a better indicator of a player's underlying skill.

17 Responses to “Layups: Good 3-Point Shooters, Bad Free Throw Shooters”

  1. bob chaikin Says:

    here's some career collegiate numbers:

    obi muonelo (4 yrs oklahoma state) - 245/633 for 39% on 3s, 197/304 for 65% on FTs
    antoine wright (3 yrs texas a&M) - 181/482 for 38% on 3s, 233/344 for 65% on FTs
    malik hairston (4 yrs oregon) - 145/367 for 40% on 3s, 275/428 for 64% on FTs
    demarcus nelson (4 yrs duke) - 124/332 for 37% on 3s, 266/454 for 59% on FTs

    and just for fun:

    ryan bright (4 yrs sam houston state) - 130/370 for 35% on 3s, 233/463 for 50% on FTs

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    Good stuff, Bob. I wonder if anyone has ever had a higher 3P% than FT%?

  3. Jason J Says:

    #2 - Plenty of guys have if you don't consider total 3 pointers attempted:

    That Jason Kidd example reminds me of how much 3 point shooting always made me wonder how crucial context is how we perceive players' skillsets. So many players seem to shoot dramatically better from three with lineup changes or increases to the volume of 3 pointers attempted.

  4. MyArvydas Says:

    Bruce Bowen once shot .441 from 3 and .404 from the free-throw line over a season, while meeting NBA's minimum statistical requirements for both! That's the result of practicing the corner 3 a lot, I suppose.

  5. Neil Paine Says:

    Right, I obviously meant among players who have sufficient 3PA and FTA.

  6. Neil Paine Says:

    Here's another good example for you, Jason: Shawn Marion was a .330-.390 3-point shooter in the Suns system, and hasn't even been a .200 shooter since leaving.

  7. Jason J Says:

    Good one, Neil. His attempts per game dropped from over 3 to under 2.

  8. Neil Paine Says:

    I don't have any numbers to back this up right now, but it seems like the "skill curve" effect doesn't apply as much to 3-point attempts/3P% in isolation... I think it may be a lot more about the system and what types of 3s you're taking (like Arvydas mentioned Bowen's penchant for open corner 3s).

  9. Matt Says:

    Lee Humphrey, 4 years Florida Gators

    288/649 on 3s for 44.4% and 46 of 73 on FTs for 63%

    The most makes and attempts of those listed for 3s and by far the fewest free throws. He rarely ventured inside the arc, preferring to take 3s in transition a lot.

  10. Anon x 2 Says:

    what's amazing is that FT shooting is pure muscle memory, so someone like Bowen is a crazy anomaly.

  11. Jason J Says:

    Neil, you know I'm not skilled in the arts of mathfu, but I did do some straight forward spot checking into this not too long ago and found a distinct relationship between 3 point attempts and 3 point accuracy.

    I ran game by game in 3 sets: 0-1 3FGAs, 1-3 3FGAs, and 3+ 3FGAs.

    Player 3PA3
    James 0.152 0.199 0.338
    Drexler 0.198 0.211 0.345
    Bryant 0.218 0.273 0.353
    Jordan 0.220 0.260 0.384
    Allen N/A 0.433 0.392
    Bird 0.368 0.369 0.394
    Miller N/A 0.322 0.395
    Kerr 0.346 0.464 0.478

    It proves nothing but shows that in these cases everyone except for Ray Allen improved with each jump in attempts made.

  12. Jason J Says:

    #11 - If that's not clear the columns are "less than 1 3ptFGA", "1 - 3 3ptFGAs" and "more than 3 3ptFGAs"

  13. Neil Paine Says:

    Interesting... Btw, did you account for the shorter line from 95-97?

    It would be intriguing if there was a positive relationship between 3-point attempts and 3-point %, because it could possibly feed into the hot hand research -- players shoot more 3s because they're open, obviously, but the 3 is also the main shot where players feel "hot".

  14. Jason J Says:

    Did not account for the closer line (didn't that run from '94 through '98?), and it does have a significant impact.

    For Jordan if we look just at games prior to '94 where he took 3 or more 3pointers, he shot 36.7% in 130 total games. Not bad. Still better than Bryant, James, or Clyde but shy of what LB, Ray, Reggie, and Steve did.

    From '94-'98 when he took 3 or more 3 pointers he shot 40.5% in 126 games (which is way more games per season considering he missed all of '94 and almost all of '95).

    I'm sure the shift did similar things for Clyde and Kobe. Probably less so for Steve and Reggie.

  15. Neil Paine Says:

    OK, I actually had to look this up: the line was a uniform 22 ft. in 1994–95, 1995–96, and 1996–97. Jordan's 3P% was always funny to me because it's basically a barometer for where the line was:

    94-95 - .500 (albeit on 32 attempts)
    95-96 - .427 (111 makes)
    96-97 - .374 (111 makes)
    ---> line extended to 23'9" < --- 97-98 - .238 (30 makes) That 1'9" made a big difference.

  16. Jason J Says:

    True but Michael also shot .376 in 1990 and .350 in 1993.

    Every season he averaged more than 2 3point field goal attempts per game, he shot very well. Every season he shot less than 2 3 point field goal attempts per game, he shot poorly.

    The shorter line also doesn't follow in the playoffs where from 91-93 he shot 38.7% from 3s in 58 games, while from 95-97 he shot 30.5% in 3s in 47 games.

    I always go back to the question of volume when I look at Jordan or Bryant as an outside shooter because it seems to have a profound effect on their ability, which again takes into consideration role. Is being asked to take this sort of shot more often creating a higher comfort level? Is some sort of action being run to make the shot easier? Are they "on" more from range so they are taking more because they feel like they can (hot hand again)?

  17. AYC Says:

    But how much of this effect is due to the possibility that players attempt more 3's if they start out hitting them? That certainly seems to be the case with a guy like D-Wade; if it's "there" he shoots alot of 3's, if it doesn't seem to be, he doesn't shot them. Maybe players just shoot more threes when they're "feeling it"? Or maybe they attempt more against teams that defend the 3 poorly?