There isn’t one particular way to shoot free throws. Ray Allen, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry, three of the league’s best from the line, have three distinct motions. There are ways to control shot accuracy and techniques to minimize issues of balance, but you either have a feel for how the ball should travel into the hoop, or you don’t.
Despite averaging 9.5 free throw attempts per game last season, which was a function of both his physicality near the rim and his propensity to miss free throws, Dwight Howard just isn’t a natural free throw shooter. Some teams fouled him to prevent dunks; others intentionally and away from the ball. He shot 39 free throws in a game against Golden State, tying his own NBA record for attempts in a single regular season game.
Mark Price, Ed Palubinskas and Chuck Person have all tried to mend Dwight Howard’s broken free throw mechanics, yet Howard has watched his percentage dip from a 59 percent career average to just under 50 percent in each of the last two seasons. Though each of the coaches have tinkered with his stroke in some way, fundamental flaws in his technique persist. So the question, as it has always been, is what’s wrong with his shot?
The Slingshot Release
To properly appreciate the current state of Dwight Howard’s shooting mechanics, it’s important to understand their evolution over the past few seasons – particularly during the rapid state of decline from 2010-present. In 2010-2011, when Dwight was on the Orlando Magic and a consistently below average 59 percent shooter, he relied on a stunted, slingshot release – which is to say that his shooting elbow was bent back well beyond a 90 degree angle, leading to two separate hitches in his shot.
The problem starts at the point of gather. See here, for instance, as Stephen Curry and Dwight Howard prepare their free throw strokes:
Notice the difference in the degrees to which each player’s shooting elbow is already bent: Curry’s is close to 90 degrees, while Dwight Howard is nearly at 45. Therefore, as Curry transfers from preparation to release, his shoulder continues moving fluidly until it’s time thrust forward and shoot the ball. Howard, however, has a hitch: once his upper arm is parallel to the floor, the ball is at his ear. Should he raise his shoulder any farther, the ball would be in an awkward position behind his head. This forces him to freeze his shoulder and only bend forward at the elbow.
Curry’s unlocked shoulder allows him to angle his upper arm upwards, while Howard’s points straight towards the rim. It’s not difficult to guess, then, which player’s shot will have more arc.
With this in mind, here’s Howard and Curry from gather to the point of release:
Howard is shooting in two mechanical steps: raise the shoulder, unbend the elbow. His entire body moves, comes to a complete stop, and restarts only from the elbow through fingertips on both hands. Curry is smooth all the way through.
It should be mentioned that a severe elbow bend isn’t necessarily an issue: Steve Nash rocks his elbow back nearly as far as Howard, but shoots at a 90% clip. So what is he doing differently?
It’s all about the point of gather: Nash (and Curry) begins his shot sequence with the ball closer to the floor due to less initial elbow bend, and subsequently moves from low to high.
And now video:
Because Howard’s early elbow bend naturally brings the ball higher at its starting point, his shooting motion is more backwards to forwards and leads to a line drive shot.
In slow motion:
But a line drive shot on its own isn’t the worst thing; it’s the other consequences of Howard’s frozen shoulder that prove problematic. Because it has been neutralized, it’s the responsibility of his elbow and wrist to create shot arc, adding further stress to his right arm joints and taking away from shot accuracy. The lack of shoulder height also requires a release point while the elbow is still bent backwards, in order to ensure that the ball has at least a little arc.
Curry, meanwhile, can continue to use his shoulder to create height for his elbow and wrist, therefore limiting the arc and distance burden on those joints. This also leaves little opportunity for either his wrist or elbow to deviate and throw the shot wide left or right because they’re following the path of the shoulder. Notice how Curry’s arm finishes high and straight, whereas Howard’s is both low and bent:
But where Howard’s arm finishes isn’t the true end point of his shot: there’s actually a hitch halfway through his follow-through, as he consciously extends his arm and flicks his wrist after he’s done following through. Curry, however, is smooth from start to finish. It becomes more apparent if we slow the video down:
These two freeze frames, therefore, are the true follow-throughs of Dwight Howard and Stephen Curry:
While the hitch is undoubtedly a funny Howard quirk he developed to appease his shooting coaches, what does that mean for his shot as a whole? Howard’s outward arm extension, as opposed to upwards, decreases shot arc, and therefore the ball’s chances of falling into the hoop. But the bent elbow on the follow-through is actually symptomatic of the same problem: by releasing forward instead of high, he’s creating a lot of momentum towards the rim. For a man the size of Dwight Howard, 15 feet isn’t a long shot and doesn’t require much power. The under-extended elbow, then, is a counter. He’s essentially stopping his own momentum in its own tracks in order not to overshoot the ball, and this is why it appears he’s shot-putting/slingshotting the basketball. It also causes extra stress in the shooting arm, particularly in the elbow and wrist, giving them a greater chance of wobbling and throwing off accuracy. Not to mention of course, the inherent shot distance problem created by having to stop your elbow at a specific point, counter to all momentum. If Howard’s release were higher, he could stretch his elbow out fully without worrying about countering his own strength.
Knicks shooting coach and longtime shot-making wizard Dave Hopla specifically advocates the elbow above the eyebrow technique, emphasizing the same high release concept. In the photo above, you can see exactly that with Curry’s elbow. Same here with Steve Nash:
But, again: it all starts before the shot is taken: the height of the gather and due to initial elbow bend.
The Guide Hand
The slingshot release isn’t the only obstacle standing between Dwight Howard and made free throws. Right before the ball leaves his fingertips, take a look at where his guide hand is on two different shots:
It’s actually blocking the ball’s path from Dwight’s right hand to the rim. Howard, of course, doesn’t shoot it through his own hand. Upon release, he moves the guide hand away to provide a proper path for the ball to travel through. Except in a mechanically proper shot, the guide hand doesn’t move; it keeps everything steady up to and through release. In Howard’s case, it propels sideaways to get out of the way, but in the process stops doing its job. Howard, therefore, is momentarily balancing the ball with one hand in the most crucial moment of shot – which lends itself to extra wrist strain and possible imbalance, possibly leading to poor shot accuracy.
Notice where the guide hands finishes relative to the right hand: they’re well separated, as if Howard has intentionally detached the guide hand from the ball.
It’s also properly angled sideways, even though it doesn’t function in the manner its positioning suggests.
Do free throws require bend at the knee? That’s difficult to say. Nash and Curry, as we saw above, generate power from their lower bodies by transferring weight from low to high. Ray Allen doesn’t bend his knees at all.
The arguments go like this: by bending the knees the shooter creates shot power, which limits the upper body’s burden and allows it to focus on shot accuracy. Or you’ll hear that that a 15-foot shot, particularly for NBA players, doesn’t require much power to begin with. By involving the legs, you’re forcing the upper body to overcompensate for extra shot distance and therefore adversely affecting shot accuracy. Ultimately it’s a matter of comfort and preference – what works for Ray Allen or or Steve Nash or whoever doesn’t work for everyone else.
For most of his career, Dwight Howard has been a knee bender – in all of the Howard free throws above, he bends slightly at the knee, straightens out, brings the ball back, and shoots while straight up and down. He’s really not using his legs whatsoever, because the momentum generated from his lower body is halted before he actually starts guiding the ball forwards.
But in the summer of 2011, Howard hired shooting coach Ed Palubinskas to fix his free throw stroke. As for the particular solutions Palubinskas tried to implement with Howard, we can only rely on observation. But what became readily apparent at the start of the 2011-2012 season was that Howard moved away from the backwards/forwards motion, and instead began his gather at his waist. Finally, he was moving low to high. (We can sort of see this type of instruction in this video interviewk Howard and Palubinskas did.) But there’s more: Howard also scrapped the knee bend and mimicked Allen’s top-heavy approach.
And now video:
Except he only hit 28 out of 67 free throws to start the season, and 12 days later on January 6th (the season began on Christmas in the lockout year) he reverted back to his old knee-bending ways.
Why? At least in part due to Mark Price, a career 90.4 percent free throw shooter in 12 NBA seasons and the man hired by the Orlando Magic before the season began to fix Howard’s free throw woes.
Here’s how he planned on attacking the Howard free throw problem:
“For example, Price now has Howard starting his shooting form higher rather than lower, reducing the margin of error when he brings the ball to its release point. He wants Howard to use the same stroke repeatedly. He wants Howard using his legs more.”
While Price’s fix was conceptually sound, it didn’t address the severe Howard elbow bend that he naturally recedes towards – whether that’s on Price or Howard, we’ll never know. But just a day after he brought back the knee bend, Howard brought back his backwards/forwards release.
And that, as you might have guessed, looked eerily similar to his 2010-2011 free throw technique – post-release hitch included.
(2010-2011 on the left, 2011-2012 on the right)
Save for one clear difference: in 2011-2012, Price helped Howard ditch the two-step process of his free throw. The transition from gather to release point is one smooth motion, and his knees bend in tandem with the upper body process. Though the release is still too low and hitched, the entire mechanism is, at the very least, smooth.
From that January 6th, 2012, until February 8th, 2012, against Miami, Howard used the Price method and made 112 of 225 free throws – good for just a shade under 50 percent. But then came another switch, this time back to the technique he used to start the season: no knee bend, low gather point, low and stunted release (Palubinskas, I presume). Still, no improvement: 135-270 on his free throws for the rest of the season for another 50 percent mark.
New team, new shooting coach, new technique. This time Chuck Person, Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach. Via the Los Angeles Times:
“Person has already changed two things.
Howard used to set up at the line with the ball at his waist. Now he starts a bit below his chin. Person also worked to change Howard’s unorthodox release.
‘He would start low and come up and stop the ball in front of his eyes. He only had one eye on the ball so he would move his head to the left, which would make his right elbow come out,’ Person said. “He was basically shooting sideways. He would put his thumb on the ball so his rotation was improper every time.”
Sounds like a problem.
‘We lifted the ball straight up, his elbow just below his eye level, so now he clearly has both eyes on the rim,’ Person said. ‘It relaxes his upper body.'”
TV camera angles make it difficult to see Howard’s head lean, but here’s one screenshot that illuminates the problem he’s discussing.
It’s difficult to see, but Howard’s release point does sneak above his forehead, freeing up his right eye. Still, some shooting coaches actually advocate the one-eyed shot. The argument is this: the elbow naturally slides inwards because shooting the ball lined up straight is awkward. (Think Matt Bonner’s release.) This is why JJ Redick, among others, actually lines up his right foot six inches to the right of the center of the free throw line – he’s properly lining up his shoulder and accounting for the natural elbow flare.
Anyway: here’s the new and Chuck Person-improved Howard:
What Person’s two changes accomplished was creating a viable technique to manufacture shot arc, something Howard had previously lacked throughout his entire free throw shooting career.
But as the photo on the right shows, two fundamental problem persist: Howard’s release is still low and hitched because his elbow starts in that severely bent position, and his guide hand still blocks the ball. And, by bringing the ball closer to Howard’s chin, Person re-created the same problem that plagued Howard in Orlando: the backwards/forwards motion as opposed to up and down. Though it’s slightly better here because Howard’s arms are above his head, it’s not ideal.
That first game of the season against the Mavericks, Howard shot 3-14 from the line. As the season wore on and the Lakers found themselves in turmoil, Howard’s free throw issues became a national story. And with that intensified focus came Howard slowly devolving his form. Ethan Sherwood Strauss sniffed out this release problem in a piece written early last season, but it’s important to realize that this is a recurring Howard problem that has its roots in Howard’s most intrinsic free throw instinct: the over-bent elbow.
There are lots of portions of the free throw that are immune to TV analysis: foot placement, finger technique on release, (Palubinsksas prefers to center the ball on the index finger), and ball placement on the hand. Was the ball flat in Howard’s palm all the time instead of on his fingertips?
But the notion that Howard hasn’t worked on free throws is false. The real problem is that he hasn’t normalized the techniques, or at least hasn’t stuck with them long enough for them to truly sink in. You don’t re-learn how to shoot a basketball in a few months. By the end of this past season, Howard was once again slowly cutting out the knee bend and lowering his release point. But if he really wants to fix this problem, he can’t keep relying on tweaks and minor changes: he has to throw out everything he’s ever been taught about shooting a basketball and start from scratch.