Like Father, Like Son, Like Granny? A Case for Underhand Free Throws
Canyon Barry remains an outlier, but he is no longer alone. Rick Barry said he was encouraged to see the Houston Rockets rookie Chinanu Onuaku make two free throws underhanded on Dec. 26, the first time an N.B.A. player had attempted an underhanded shot in years.
But Onuaku, who began shooting underhanded last season at the University of Louisville, has appeared in only two games with the Rockets.
And while he is shooting 71.6 percent on free throws during his more frequent appearances with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the N.B.A. Development League, Rick Barry — ever the perfectionist — argues that Onuaku has flaws in his shot that he could help fix.
“The way he does it, it would be virtually impossible for him to be able to perfect it to the point where he can become a great free-throw shooter,” Barry said. “But I admire tremendously the fact that he wasn’t worried about somebody making fun of him. He wanted to try something to get better.”
The technique has long inspired mockery. Barry said that when he began shooting free throws underhanded in the late 1950s, opposing fans made fun of him. Many female players used to shoot underhanded, he said, so fans would ridicule male players if they also shot that way.
What Barry does not understand is why players today who shoot under 60 percent on their free throws do not at least try the technique. When his father introduced him to the underhand shot as a child, Barry initially balked at the idea. He finally switched during his high school years in New Jersey, and he hasn’t stopped preaching the positives of the shot since then.
Barry mentioned Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (50.7 percent), Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard (55.8) and Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (43.8) as three players who could benefit from the underhand technique. And he places part of the blame for their unwillingness to try something — anything — else on coaches and executives unwilling to force them to do so.
“Why should a player be able to tell his boss, the people who are paying him multimillions of dollars, that he’s not willing to try to do something to make himself better, which is going to make the team better?” Barry said.
Canyon Barry, his father proudly boasts, put aside any concerns about aesthetics and reactions and dived in to the subject. Canyon, who majored in physics and minored in math at the College of Charleston and is now taking graduate courses in nuclear engineering at Florida, said he even had read papers on free-throw shooting published in scientific journals. In doing so, he came across the work of Larry Silverberg, a professor in North Carolina State’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department.
Silverberg found that releasing the ball above the head increases the chance of making shots compared with shooting underhanded — if players have the same consistency with both techniques. However, he said, the conventional overhead shot is more complicated, has a higher margin of error and requires players to move their knees, elbows, wrists and other body parts in sync.
“The beauty of the underhand shot is that the underhand shot is a smooth motion, and it’s easier to become consistent with it if you want to change your habits,” Silverberg said.
He added: “If the person is maybe a 40, 50 percent shooter in the free throw, changing to an underhand can make a lot of sense. The underhand has that advantage that it’s not a bad option for a coach with a player who is really a bad shooter.”
And yet, it remains almost impossible to sell the shot as a serious option. Canyon and Rick Barry have reached out to a few N.B.A. players asking if they would like to learn to shoot underhanded and possibly use the technique in games.
So far, they have had no takers.
“I don’t know whether it’s their egos or they’re just not willing to change,” Canyon Barry said. “It’s crazy.”
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