Quick single: 99.3% precision
As Shannon Gabriel struggled with his run up in the 2nd Test in Grenada, a commentator noted that he was starting his run-up from a different spot each delivery. On twitter, I saw an exchange that concluded that Gabriel’s imprecision wouldn’t be tolerated in US sport.
I thought I had come across the archetypal example of American sport’s attention to detail in Ed Palubinskas, who featured in Planet Money’s episode The Free Throw Experiment – about the introduction of skill-based games to US casinos. Palubinskas claimed a free throw (1) conversion percentage of 99.3%. More credibly, and validated elsewhere, Palubinskas coached Shaquille O’Neal at the LA Lakers and in the course of one season helped lift ‘Shaq’s’ free throw percentage from 39% to 68%. Despite being “an absolute ringer” – a term I didn’t know Americans used – Palubinskas didn’t win the casino free-throw contest.
A few minutes of research revealed something notable and unexpected about free throw percentages. For the last 50 years, the conversion rate in professional basketball has remained close to 75%. In that same period, the conversion rate of shots in open play (field goals) has increased from 34% to 46%. For some reason, one that doesn’t relate to any notion of balance between teams as the shot is uncontested, professional basketball players are not getting any better at this simplest endeavour.
Free throws should mean free points. But, perhaps seduced by more complex tactics and skills of other areas of the game, US basketball coaches seem to have settled for a three-quarters return from the free throw.
Shannon Gabriel bowled 29 overs in the 2nd Test. Six no balls gave him a 96.66% front foot precision rate. It’s not Palubinskasian, but neither is it a departure from the disciplines of modern society. Avoiding no balls, shooting free throws – are they the uninteresting details of sport that if given too much focus by coaches would leave too little time for the skills and tactics that win matches?
Note 1: A free throw is an unopposed shot, like a penalty in football, awarded against a team responsible for a foul. The throw is taken from a line just under 5m from the basket.