A few weeks ago, the Houston Rockets took on the New Orleans Pelicans in a pre-season game at the LeSports Center in Beijing. With 3:22 remaining in the 4th Quarter, Rockets rookie Chinanu Onuaku stepped to the free-throw line. He bounced the ball three times, bent his knees, and shot… underhanded. And it went in. Then, he did the same thing a few moments later. Swish.
The 19-year-old Onuaku has been shooting free throws underhanded (a.k.a. granny style) since the summer before his second and final season at Louisville. His coach Rick Pitino first introduced him to the art of the granny shot, a once-ubiquitous sight in basketball that has been relegated primarily to games of H-O-R-S-E. Thanks to Pitino’s persuasion and Onuaku’s open-mindedness, the 6’10’’ center saw his free-throw percentage improve from 46.7 percent as a freshman to 58.9 percent last season. He’s a perfect 2-for-2 in his NBA career.
It’s shocking that more players don’t shoot their free throws underhanded considering it is proven to work—in many instances, better than the now traditional overhand shooting (which we’ll circle back to in a moment). With nothing but 15 feet of air between players and the basket, why do so many utilize a free-throw form that was originally developed as a way of shooting up and over would-be defenders?
Back in 1952, a University of Colorado graduate student named John Kregel decided to test the efficacy of the two shots empirically. He took 40 adolescent boys with no prior basketball experience and split them into two groups—the granny shot group and the push shot group—and spent five days a week for eight straight weeks teaching and training them. Not only did he discover that the underhanded group performed better than the push shot group, but he also noticed that the underhanded shooters made greater strides over the course of the experiment.
we can estimate that DeAndre Jordan would score nearly 1,000 more points over the remainder of his NBA career if he chose to switch to the granny shot.
And this makes sense if you just consider the physics of the shot. Since a basketball is 9.5 inches in diameter and the rim is 18 inches in diameter, it stands to reason that the flatter the shot, the more likely it is to make contact with the rim on its way to the net. By shooting underhanded, the ball naturally follows a higher arched flight, and begins to come back down to earth closer to the height of the rim. This is important because the faster the ball’s downward velocity when it approaches the hoop, the more likely it is to clang off the cylinder should it make any contact. And all these factors are exaggerated further when we apply them to seven-foot tall basketball players shooting from closer to hoop-level to begin with.
In recent years, the idea of players adopting the unconventional (and largely extinct) shooting style has come into vogue, and for good reason. Two of the three worst free-throw shooters in NBA history are currently in the primes of their careers—Andre Drummond (worst, 38.0 percent) and DeAndre Jordan (3rd-worst, 42.1 percent). It has gotten so bad that this past offseason the league altered some of its end-of-quarter rules in order to cut down on intentional fouling, a.k.a. hack-a, on poor free-throw shooters. The game, at times, becomes excruciating.
But neither Drummond nor Jordan have been willing to swallow their pride and take a page out of the 19-year-old Onuaku’s book. To understand why two players who’ve displayed such an astounding inability knock down free throws, and therefore so little to lose, would refuse to employ an empirically supported method to solve their problems, it’s important to review the history of the granny shot.
Chamberlain’s free-throw percentage rose from 50.4 percent to 61.3 percent during his lone year shooting underhanded.
There was a time, though—from 1891 (when basketball was invented by gym teach James Naismith) through the 1950s—when the underhanded shot was pervasive throughout the sport, with players utilizing it from the line and even from the field. The game evolved dramatically during this half century, and it wasn’t until the early 1940s that the one-handed jump shot we know and love today was unleashed to the world by Wyoming senior Kenny Sailors. Until that point, most players shot the ball in much the same way they passed it; pushing out from the chest with two hands while adding a bit of back spin and arc. Think Shawn Marion’s shooting form. Sailors’ one-handed variation caught on quickly, and before long, most players were shooting jumpers and free throws with their strong hand placed beneath the ball and a guiding on the side.
But one player kept the shot alive long after it had fallen out of favor. Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry began shooting his free throws granny style in high school, when his father—a semi-pro player and high school coach—taught him the shot. Rick adopted the technique, utilizing it during each of his 14 seasons in the NBA and ABA. He ended his career in 1980 shooting 90 percent from the foul line, a mark that was then the highest in NBA history (now, Barry sits at seventh all-time).
So if science and application prove that Barry’s method of free-throw shooting is so effective, why didn’t anyone follow his lead in the ’60s and ’70s? The answer is simple: The granny shot looks stupid.
Take for example, Hall of Fame center Wilt Chamberlain, who adopted the underhanded method for a brief time during his third NBA season in 1961-62. Standing 7’1’’ and weighing 275 pounds, Chamberlain was unlike any player the league had ever seen before. In his first two pro seasons, he averaged an insane 38.0 points and 27.1 rebounds, along with an unofficial 10.6 blocks per game. Simply put, he was a monster. But he had one kryptonite: free-throw shooting.
In his rookie and sophomore seasons, Chamberlain converted on just 54.2 percent of his free throws, a mark that put him among the league’s worst shooters from the charity stripe. What made matters worse was that teams began fouling on-purpose because they couldn’t stop around the rim and he was such a liability from the line (sound familiar?). As a result, he led the league in free-throw attempts.
Before his third season with the Philadelphia Warriors, head coach Frank McGuire was able to convince the 25-year-old giant to give the old underhanded method a try. Chamberlain’s free-throw percentage rose from 50.4 percent to 61.3 percent during his lone year shooting underhanded, which ended up being a career high. Oh, and on March 2, 1962 (that same year), Chamberlain scored an NBA record 100 points in a game against the Knicks, knocking down 28 of the 32 free throws he attempted along the way. Granny style helped deliver the Philadelphia native a scoring milestone—50.4 points per game—that will almost certainly never be topped as long as the NBA is around.
But then, inexplicably, Chamberlain stopped shooting his free throws underhanded. As a result, his free-throw percentage dropped to new lows in the years that followed, bottoming out at an abysmal 38.0 percent in 1967-68. In retirement, Chamberlain explained the decision, saying that shooting granny style made him feel “like a sissy.”
Amazingly, since Barry’s retirement in 1980, only one player has consistently shot their free throws underhanded: George Johnson. Johnson was a teammate of Rick Barry from 1972 to 1977. Johnson was a fantastic shot blocker at nearly 7 feet tall, but was an abysmal free-throw shooter, so he decided to adopt Barry’s style. Barry even offered to impart his wisdom on Johnson, and over the course of his 14-year career, the big man turned his 41.2 percent conversion rate at the line into 81.5 percent. That’s essentially a two-fold increase!
George Johnson, over the course of his 14-year career, turned his 41.2 percent conversion rate at the line into 81.5 percent by shooting underhanded.
Assuming just half of Johnson’s degree of improvement, we can estimate that DeAndre Jordan would score nearly 1,000 more points over the remainder of his NBA career if he chose to switch to the granny shot. Andre Drummond, because he’s only 23 years old (and therefore has a lot of free throws left in him), could score 1,500 points more than if he stuck with overhand shooting. Finally, had Shaquille O’Neal, whose career 52 percent from the free-throw line makes him look like Ray Allen compared to Jordan and Drummond, had adopted the underhanded method as a rookie, he could have scored nearly a whopping 3,000 more career points.
Since George Johnson retired in 1986, we’ve seen exactly one player not named Chinanu Onuaku attempt an underhanded free throw in the NBA. In 2002, then-rookie Chris “Birdman” Andersen shot granny style because he was playing with a chip fracture in his shooting wrist. So the question becomes whether or not Onuaku can usher in a new era of free-throw prosperity. If he continues to find success with the granny shot on the game’s biggest stage, then perhaps guys like DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, and maybe even Dwight Howard will be more comfortable adopting. Time will tell. Until then, this secret formula will continue being one of the least-utilized, proven-to-work techniques in professional sports.