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Why the Lakers solving their free throw woes this season will be difficult, but not impossible

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Movement and learning science is clear when it comes to what will or won’t work for the Lakers when making mid-season changes at the free throw line.

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Through 39 games this season, the Los Angeles Lakers have been utterly terrible at the free-throw line, shooting a league worst 69 percent from the charity stripe. Their free throw issues are headlined by LeBron James, who is shooting 68.5 percent, but they don’t end with him. Brandon Ingram is shooting 63.4 percent and Lonzo Ball is making ....*take a deep breath, let it out*...42.9 percent of his shots from the line.

By numerous accounts, the players and coaching staff are aware of the issue. Most recently, Lakers head coach Luke Walton spoke on it and also Lonzo Ball gave the full mea culpa, pointing the finger squarely at himself. The players do work on this. They do care.

However, what we’ve regularly heard are themes like “we just have to step up and hit” or “have to keep getting the reps in.” Admirable sentiment, but the reality is self-evident — that approach and mentality isn’t working. So what can be done?

Let’s go through the options:

1 - Work explicitly on mechanics

It’s really difficult to make impactful mechanical changes during the season. There’s a couple reasons for that:

First, learning and implementing new mechanics is expedited by a stress-free, non-pressure filled environment where the player is able to make mistakes — trial and error is critical to learning and retention — and learn from that variability.

Shooting free throws on a LeBron James-led Laker team with relatively little margin for error is the farthest away you’re going to get from stress and pressure free. That pressure cooker only turns up as the season progresses and the playoffs start (yes, the Lakers are making the playoffs).

Secondly, working on and calling out explicit mechanical flaws and changes creates an internal focus, aka “internal cueing.” The research is crystal clear on this: when a player is focused on their internal mechanics (“ok, I need to get my feet here, elbow here, come up in sync”), it screws up their shot even more.

That’s compounded by the likely reality that most of the Lakers players are already over-focusing on their mechanics (“in their own head”) while at the line. Most people default to thinking about mechanics when they have poor confidence in their jumper. The thought is that doing so will help “re-align” their shot, when in fact it does the opposite.

So working explicitly on technique isn’t a good strategy for the team, with one potential caveat: Lonzo Ball. His free throw mechanics and results are so consistently poor and his shooting confidence so sensitive to misses/makes that it’s become a situation of “we gotta try something new here man.”

2 - Free throw routine and external cueing

The reason why many players have a set free throw routine that involves bouncing the ball a certain way or for a certain number of times is to “prime” their system for the free throw by focusing on an external movement or object (in this case, the ball). This takes focus away from internal mechanics and replaces it with an external focus.

Instead of “feet set, elbow in, come up with the ball and onto my toes, hold the follow,” you have “bounce, bounce, bounce, shoot.” This is known as external cueing and has been shown to significantly improve shooting. You even see players doing something similar on wide open shots. For example, Steph Curry, when afforded the time, will take a quick dribble before a three. CP3 takes a side-step to his left even if he has plenty of space to get the shot off. It’s a rhythm movement that primes them through an external focus and feel.

To add onto that, you can use specific external cues to help players with specific deficits. Let’s use Ball as an example. Two key issues you see with his free throw shooting are that he’s unbalanced (evidenced by only one of his heels coming up off the floor when he shoots) and there’s a disconnect between his lower and upper body as he’s already falling back onto his heels prior to releasing the ball. That’s akin to shooting on the way down, hustling backwards.

A good external cue for Lonzo could be: “Fall forwards as you release the ball.” This may (I say may because not every cue works the same with every person) result in him naturally coming up onto his toes, remaining there as he releases the ball, and then following through with forward momentum.

If you don’t believe me, just try it. It’s nearly impossible to fall forwards when on your heels. There was actually a stretch during the season where LeBron was doing something similar and falling forward at the line. It coincided with an uptick in his free throw shooting, but he went away from it. Not sure why but it may have been a comfort level thing like when Kyle Korver suggested he stagger his feet — which worked but he ditched it.

Getting back to the point, the beauty of an external cue is that not only does it potentially improve mechanics, but it improves them WITHOUT having to explicitly think about them, resulting in the aforementioned internal cueing problems.

The other thing I would try to implement is...

3 - Shooting free throws to mimic game situations, not simply reps

The reality is getting 100 free throws up is completely different than shooting two free throws at the line. In the former, there’s time to get into a rhythm, each free throw matters less due to sheer quantity, and you can just zone out at the line.

Then you factor in game-specific variables like fatigue, stress, scoreboard, pressure, having a bad game already, etc. and you can imagine just how different “getting in reps” is from a game free-throw situation.

So, instead of just shooting 100 free throws, shoot two at a time at different times throughout practice. This can simulate a higher level of fatigue, introduce game-like distractions, and force the players to get their focus and composure sorted out like they need to be doing prior to shooting their free throws in the game. This technique is referred to as “contextual interference” and has been shown to lead to increased learning and carry-over to the games.

In other words, the Lakers should try to mimic the context of the games.

All in all, improving free throw mechanics during the season is never an easy task because it’s not an environment conducive to changes and learning. However, you can try to create routines at the line, use specific external cues to address deficits without explicitly mentioning the mechanics, and mimic an in-game free throw environment to keep the player out of their own head. In the case of Lonzo Ball, I’d work on exploring and figuring out a routine that he’s comfortable with, implementing external cues, and then if that doesn’t work, explicitly work on shot and body mechanics.

Dr. Rajpal Brar has a doctorate in physical therapy from Northern Arizona University, and runs his own sports medicine and performance business, 3CB Performance, in West LA and Valencia, CA. He also works at a hospital — giving him experience with patients in the immediate healthcare setting and neurological patients (post stroke, post brain injury) — and has been practicing for 1.5 years. Brar is additionally training at UCLA’s mindful awareness research center (MARC), and analyzes the Lakers from a medical perspective for Silver Screen and Roll.