Researchers Matthew Goldman and Justin Rao discovered that, contrary to what may be the popular belief, players at home tend to struggle more in clutch moments on “concentration tasks” like free throw shooting, while visiting players are rarely affected by such moments. Goldman and Rao hypothesized that because of the increased “self-focus” involved in shooting free throws in close and late situations and the lack of distractions like crowd noise, NBA players playing at home concentrate too much on making their free throws and fail more often than they normally would.
Craig Smith has been playing for Hapoel Jerusalem this season after 6 years in the NBA, and it has been nothing short of glorious. Though the team has struggled to the tune of a 3-4 record in Israeli league play and 1-2 in the Eurocup, Smith has been completely unstoppable against the smaller bodies overseas. He’s stronger than any big man who dares challenge him, and yet is somehow quicker, and even such presumed weaknesses such as dealing with double teams and pick and roll defense have looked much better against weaker competition and in a slower game setting. As a Hapoel Jerusalem fan, I have no idea how we lured the Rhino into captivity – he’s an NBA player amongst those who don’t exist on an NBA radar, and it shows.
One area where Smith has struggled, however, has been from the line. Smith is so strong that opponents are pretty much resigned to fouling him as soon as he gets position, but he’s been struggling to make opponents pay, with the nadir being a 5 of 13 performance against Bnei Herzelia on November 11th. That night dropped him to 59% on the season.
And then, in Hapoel’s next game, at home against Czech squad Nymburk, something funny happened. Whenever Smith went to the line, the entire crowd started clapping throughout his entire pre-shot routine. When Smith made his shot, the ovation only grew louder, and when he missed, the crowd moved onto the next freebie.
We are now four games into the new strategy. In that first game, Smith went 7 of 10. Next came an away game, with only a small contingent of Hapoel fans in the stands; Smith went 3 of 5. Then 2 of 4 in a home game, and this Sunday, in a loss to Elizur Ashkelon – an amazing 14 of 14. (He was also 7 of 7 from the field, giving him 28 points with no missed shots. As I said, glorious. And yet, Hapoel lost, because we have no outside shooting or point guard play).
Now, this “evidence” is anecdotal at best. It’s possible that the applause is helping Craig because it’s easier to concentrate with white noise, or that it’s boosting his confidence at the line. It’s just as possible that he’s a 66% career free throw shooter who started the season at 59% and has regressed to the mean with a single perfect night. This hardly proves anything.
But it’s pretty darn cool. Just like Craig Smith.