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Portraits of Empty Minds

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Quinn Comendant | flickr

Last week I diagnosed at length the mental and mechanical flaws of some of the NBA’s most infamous free throw shots—specifically those of Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, and Dwight Howard. I compared their anxious, twitchy missteps to the smooth, elegant shooting forms of legendary in-game shooter Kyle Korver and legendary out-of-game shooter Tom Amberry (the one-time world record holder for consecutive free throws made, a tally that reaches into the thousands).

This is, admittedly, an unrealistically high bar for these centers, their fourth quarter presences always so dubious, to clear. In the world of free throws, figures like Amberry and Korver are millionaire CEOs with offices perched atop skyscrapers. But there are plenty of enterprising small-businessmen who make a comfortable living indeed. Today I present to you three big men, hidden either in the standings or in their own team’s depth chart, who have nonetheless explored the free throw as spiritual practice, all of them shooting well above 10% better than their career averages. All three of the following centers have, in 2013-14, shot their free throws at a better percentage than feared marksmen Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Khris Middleton, Marco Belinelli, and even all-time great free-thrower Jose Calderon.

Footage of these three centers shows ample evidence of quieted, emptied minds—smooth, replicated motions, absence of fear when confronting the ever-unforgiving rim. These habits are not inborn instincts. They have been learned even after these players have arrived in the NBA, earnest off-season efforts to sand the rough edges out of one’s game.

As a rookie with the Orlando Magic in 2004-05, Dwight Howard made 67.1% of his free throws. As a rookie with the Orlando Magic in 2003-04, our first shooter only managed 64.4% accuracy from the line. Bricked free throws are hardly an irreversible sentence, condemnation to toil futilely for the rest of one’s career. No—the missed free throw is more like a fork in the road, and the two divergent paths might as well lead to the earth’s two poles.

Zaza Pachulia 

2013-14: 86%  

Career before 2013-14: 73.3%

Pachulia’s near-total lack of facial movements and tics is the perfect canvas to paint free throw makes on top of. An exhalation while appraising the target; three dribbles while focusing the mind; and a fluid push outwards from the chest on the balls of his feet. Efficiency need not equate to elegance.

Darrell Arthur

2013-14: 86.5%

Career before 2013-14: 73.7%

One man’s anxious twitch is another man’s tool for mental centering: the slight pause before the third of three dribbles in Arthur’s shooting motion is a mindful inclusion, just like every other element in this smooth, solidly grounded stroke.

Kevin Seraphin

2013-14: 87.1%

Career before 2013-14: 68.7%

I’m glad that Seraphin does not make the free throw look easy, or relaxing—or anything other than tortuous. Before receiving the ball Seraphin shifts his weight back and forth, subconscious nervousness that usually foretells free throw calamity. Once he receives the ball from the referee, Seraphin uses a quick spin/drop, which has the effect of immediately calming his self into stillness. The shooting motion is rapid, a deep knee dip and a long, full arm extension and the ball is airborne. The pre-shot routines of Pachulia or Arthur (or Korver) would only provide Seraphin with more time for intrusive thoughts to find their way to the surface. .

The lesson, here: a great free throw shooter uses every moment, from the whistle drawing the previous play dead, as a step to prepare for a made shot

Miles Wray