Do basketball players tend to improve at shooting free-throws over the course of their career?

Today on Khan Academy there was a probability tutorial on how to figure out the likelihood of a given player making 10 consecutive free-throws.

Apparently Lebron's career FT% is right around 75%. A great free-throw shooter like Chauncey Billups is just short of 90% for his career, while Shaq and Ben Wallace can shoot as low as 40% to 50%.

Are free-throws something that NBA players spend a considerable amount of time practicing? And if they do practice a lot, does their FT% tend to reflect that and get higher over the course of their career?

1 Answer

Like almost everything in life practice makes perfect, but the questions is if the player indeed practice of his free throws..

you can read the following very interesting post written by Kevin Pelton‬ (NBA analyst for Basketball Prospectus and ESPN Insider) that did research about free throws - http://www.basketballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1611

His conclusion was:

To answer the question of whether practice helps at the line, I looked for pairs of seasons where the same player shot at least 100 free throws both years, then used statistics to evaluate how often the change in their percentage was larger than would be expected from random chance alone. As it turns out, players do seem intrinsically different at the line on a fairly regular basis--but this is true in both directions.

We would expect, based on the normal distribution, that 2.5 percent of players would either improve or decline by at least two standard deviations from one year to the next. In fact, nearly three times as many players made such a big jump (7.2 percent). But more than twice as many (5.5 percent) saw their shooting decay at the line. Free throw shooting, for whatever reason, is more random than chance would suggest.

There are more players taking sizeable leaps forward than backward, which suggests that practice is paying off for some players. However, the difference between the two groups is relatively small. We're talking about 90 players over the last three decades--about three per year. This is not something that is happening on a routine basis.

• Thanks for the response and the link. It's fascinating to see the amount of thought and research that goes into these kinds of things. May 3, 2012 at 15:50
• These 'studies' also need to factor in work ethic & 'practicing the right way', which is hard to measure/track. We don't know how serious these players were about improving. A lot of it depends on the player's work ethic. But there is obvious/overwhelming evidence that practicing a skill (the right way), will eventually pay off & net results. Basketball is a game of focus & composure too though, and sometimes players can make it in practice but freeze up during the game. Players who have the right composure, practice of a skill the right way, work ethic, + natural ability will no doubt improve
– A D
Jun 13, 2020 at 10:07