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On my best days, I like to think of myself as a free-throw connoisseur.
I once watched hours and hours of LeBron James at the charity stripe just so I could count how many times he changed his routine (he used EIGHTEEN variations one season). One time, I took a magnifying glass to my laptop screen just so I could determine precisely how often Stephen Curry swished his free throws (turns out it was 84 percent). There was that time I got a NASA astronaut on the phone and asked him, of all things, how to cure Andre Drummond’s yips at the free-throw line (he recommended that Drummond wiggle his toes—“Works like a champ. Try it some time.”).
To me, free throws—and the idiosyncratic, superstitious routine leading up to every one of them—are like a basketball player’s fingerprint, their own little written signature. No two free throws are the same.
Except, apparently, those in the Korean Basketball League.
My guy Joe Posnanski texted me this video on Thursday night and I didn’t even need to click the link before I knew I was all the way in.
One click later, I AM HOOKED.
Interesting trend from the Korean Basketball League where a number of players are 80%+ from the free throw line shooting exclusively bank shots. pic.twitter.com/OBKmVW3pfa
— Eric Fawcett (@EricFawcett_) August 31, 2023
Nearly 2 million people have watched nine different clips of Korean basketball players making free throws. Why’d it go viral?
Because they’re BANKING THEM IN. ALL THE TIME.
I reached out to Fawcett, who put together that video for the masses. He’s a basketball coach who consults with a few Division I teams, focusing on strategy and analytics. I asked him how the hell he stumbled upon this beautiful thing. His answer was lovely.
“I kind of have this FOMO where I’m scared there will be an offensive concept that’s revolutionary going on around the globe and me not knowing about it,” Fawcett told me. “So I’m constantly watching other leagues to see if there is anything innovative I can bring to the college game. So, this time I thought I’d check out Korean basketball.”
Good thing he did, because now I’m thinking the bank shot is poised to make a comeback.
I’m sure of one thing: Somewhere, Tim Duncan is smiling. He was called the Big Fundamental mostly because of the bank shot. The world’s shot guru Kirk Goldsberry once figured out that if you bottled up all the bank shots made by the 10 best scorers in the 2018–19 season, you’d barely reach Duncan’s total in just the 2006–07 season. Check out this chart Goldsberry made for a delightful 8-minute video on Duncan’s bank shot.
Over at the Ringer, Yaron Weitzman did a whole written feature about Duncan’s signature shot and found out that, in the 18 seasons between 2003–04 and 2020–21, the bank-shot conversion rate fell from 77 percent to 55 percent. Weitzman wrote, “The bank shot, like the skyhook, may be on a path toward extinction.”
Well, not if these Korean basketball players have anything to say about it. So what’s going on here? Why is this all of a sudden working in South Korea?
From a sociological perspective, I do not know these answers. But I know someone who might know the science of it. There’s a college professor that has studied—I kid you not—basketball bank shots. His name is Larry M. Silverberg, and he’s been teaching physics at NC State for about 40 years.
And guess what: I got ahold of him.
A quick look at Silverberg’s NC State bio page reveals research studies like “On a new field theory formulation and a space-time adjustment that predict the same precession of Mercury and the same bending of light as general relativity” and “Isotropic packing algorithm for particle simulations.”
And then, there it is: “Optimal Targets for the Bank Shot in Men’s Basketball.” He published a paper in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports about this very thing. Apparently, you can gain an advantage of 20 percent on bank shots in some areas of the floor compared with what they call “direct” shots. Duncan, the genius he is, already knew this, of course.
As for free throws?
After five years and millions of simulations on a court, Silverberg and his colleagues determined that the best way to shoot a free throw was to … not bank it.
According to Scientific American (!), here were the stats of the perfect free throw:
• 3 hertz. “It takes about 1 second for a ball to reach the basket, so 3 hertz equates to three revolutions in the air.”
• 52-degree launch angle.
• Aim for the back of the rim, not the front. And certainly not the backboard. “The back of the rim is more forgiving.”
Here is a photo from an article he wrote for the Conversation.
I shot an email to Silverberg with the viral video and asked him about his reaction.
“Very cool,” he wrote back.
Yes, indeed. So … can this work?
Silverberg weighed in. He corrected me to say that he found that the bank-shot free throw has about the same probability as the direct free throw. There’s a catch, though. “But most people are not strong enough to do the bank-shot free throw,” the professor says. “Some big guys find shorter shots too delicate so they would logically like the bank-shot free throw.”
[… nodding along …]
“Accuracy decreases with the effort of the shot, which is true for most of us, not being that strong,” Silverberg says. “So, you can see that there is an important exception to this, where it is the other way around.”
You can see where Silverberg is going with this. Bank-shot free throws aren’t a great idea for most people. But most people are not NBA players. And some NBA players are way bigger than others.
The big guys who can push around a three-bedroom house? This might just work for them. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
You might know Steven Adams. He’s a 270-pound center for the Memphis Grizzlies who has about a million interesting things about him, including the fact that he’s the youngest of 18 children who grew up in Rotorua, New Zealand, a town he says “smells like someone farted in your face all the time.” His family is legendary back in New Zealand; his older sister Valerie, for example, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the shot put.
I mention that because he’s really, really strong. And he’s really, really struggled to make free throws. Last season, Adams made only 36 percent of his free throws for Memphis—the seventh-lowest ever (minimum 100 free throws). You thought Shaq had a tough time making free throws? He never shot as low as 36 percent.
Adams is also a man of reason to the point that it sometimes cuts like acid. Here’s a quote from him that I just love, nestled inside a Royce Young feature at ESPN:
In New Zealand, you get the well-known people, but you won’t look at them for like a moral compass. Over here, some people look to these athletes to, like, solve their problems. It’s like, “Bro, we play basketball.” If you’re going through something serious, go see a psychologist. Like, f—! Don’t look to us.
Shooting 36 percent from the free-throw line is most definitely not serious, not in the sense that he’s describing here. But in my research on this topic, I’ve come to learn that free-throw yips are mostly psychological.
The solitary spectacle of a free throw can exacerbate the nerves and send the heart rate soaring. It’s especially true for big men who usually score on the move. DeAndre Jordan once said that all he thinks about at the line is don’t airball it. Some NBA players are terrified of publicly failing—showing up on Shaqtin’ a Fool or getting blasted on social media. And I get it.
After watching the video, I don’t get the sense that the humiliation factor looms large in the KBL. It just seems kind of normal. Not here. In America, attempting to bank a free throw might seem like an open invitation to be harassed relentlessly. Many probably aren’t cut out for it.
Maybe I’m wrong but I get the feeling that Adams doesn’t give a flying Kiwi about what you think of his free-throw style. Are you going to tell him he looks silly?
In my heart of hearts, I believe Adams is the perfect candidate to bring this to the NBA. He’s world-class strong, unconcerned about public opinion and traditional shooting methods are clearly coming up short. As Silverberg says, when it comes to banking in free throws, only the strong survive.