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Sounds of Thunder: OKC Thunder SG Andre Roberson has a problem

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He’s a shooting guard that can’t shoot free throws.

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What do you call a bee who is having a bad hair day? A Frisbee. What do you call a shooting guard that can’t shoot free throws? Andre Roberson.

In game 4 in round one of the 2017 Western Conference Playoffs, the Houston Rockets neutered the most potent crunch time player last season, Russell Westbrook, for one whole minute by intentionally fouling his free throw shooting challenged teammate, Andre Roberson, on four consecutive possessions (Roberson went 2-8 from the stripe).

The end result doesn’t appear that devastating when one looks at the play-by-play recap unless you take into account that only a desperate heave from Westbrook to draw a shooting foul call (a play the NBA has addressed and will be called a non-shooting foul in the future) allowed Coach Billy Donovan the opportunity to sub Roberson out with 3:02 remaining.

Had the same scenario played out under the new rules, Robes would have left the game with the Thunder down 5 points. Had the ref not blown the whistle, Donovan would have been forced to use a valuable time-out or risk losing another 4 possessions before reaching the 2 minute mark and the hacking rule going into effect.

Further, the hacking sequence did much more than just keep the ball out of the eventual MVP’s hands. It demoralized Roberson. After being re-inserted in the game with 1:28 remaining, Robes wasn’t the same player. The Rockets scored 7 points and won the game, 113-109.

The NBA’s new anti-hacking rule, enacted in July of 2016, prevents teams from intentionally targeting weak free throw shooting opponents for the final 2 minutes of each quarter. No matter how distasteful hacking may be, hypothetically, that still leaves 40 minutes of regulation playing time that teams could target Roberson. With the offensive potential the new look Thunder possess in win at all cost league like the NBA, a glaring weakness such as Robe’s FT shooting will prove too big a temptation and see theory turn into practice. Especially when the next playoffs roll around.

Quicksand

Robes is without doubt one of the finest defensive players in the NBA, but he is drowning in quicksand right before our eyes. Not the shifting sands of the Sahara desert variety, but the kind an athlete can find themselves mired in when they lose confidence and struggling only makes them sink deeper. The kind Andre Roberson is stuck in up to his neck.

Most call it the “yips,” but that is too cutesy for something this debilitating. In the comment section of WTLC’s David Scott’s post on Roberson, J.A. Sherman offered this YouTube clip of St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Rick Ankiel:

Like free-throw shooting, pitching is a repetitious athletic motion and, if you’re too young to remember, Ankiel was good. Really good. Note the sequence of pitches in the video came in Game 1 of the NLDS.

In 2000, at just 20 years old, Ankiel was the second youngest player in the league and posted an 11–7 record in his first full season in the Majors. His 3.50 ERA finished tenth in 30 starts and his 194 recorded strikeout was 7th best. Only Randy Johnson posted a better number than Ankiel’s 9.98 strikeout rate per nine innings in the National League, and only Chan Ho Park topped his 7.05 hits per nine innings. And yet, quite suddenly a talent nicknamed “The Phenomenon,” pegged by many as the next great left-handed fireballer, seemingly out of nowhere, couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat.

Ankiel never made it out of the first inning in his second start of that disastrous post season and was eventually sent to the minors to work out his “problem.”

From Wikipedia:

Ankiel returned to the majors in 2001 but again had issues controlling his pitches, walking 25 batters and throwing five wild pitches in 24 innings, and was sent down to Triple-A. His problems in the minors became dramatic. In 4 13 innings, Ankiel walked 17 batters and threw 12 wild pitches, accumulating a 20.77 ERA. He was demoted all the way down to the Rookie League Johnson City Cardinals, where he was successful as both a starting pitcher and a part-time designated hitter (sporting a .638 slugging percentage with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs in 105 at-bats). He was voted Rookie Level Player of the Year, Appalachian League All-Star left-handed pitcher, Rookie League All-Star starting pitcher, Appalachian League Pitcher of the Year, and Appalachian League All-Star designated hitter.

In 2002, Ankiel sat out the season due to a left elbow sprain, and was not cleared to throw until December. He returned to the minors in 2003, posting a 6.29 ERA in 10 starts before undergoing season-ending ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (Tommy John surgery) for his left elbow in July. In 54 13 innings, he walked 49 batters and threw 10 wild pitches.

Ankiel returned to the majors in September 2004, posting a 5.40 ERA in five relief appearances. Ankiel's control problems appeared to be gone, as he walked just one while striking out nine in ten innings. In the minors, he walked only two batters in 23 23 innings, while striking out 23. However, on March 9, 2005, after a successful winter pitching in the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League, Ankiel announced that he was switching to the outfield, after a spring training game in which he threw only three strikes out of 20 pitches. He slugged .514 in Single-A, and .515 in Double-A, with 5 outfield assists in 55 games.

From Rick Ankiel himself:

and

Like Robes hoping he at least hits iron when he steps up to the free throw line, one of the most promising young pitchers of all-time had come to a point where he just hoped the catcher could catch the ball.

Future Hall of Fame coach, Tony LaRussa, the St. Louis Cardinal’s manager at the time, called starting Ankiel in game 1 of the 2000 NLCS "a decision that perhaps haunts him more than any he has ever made."

Nowhere to Run

Unlike Ankiel, who revived his major league career by leaving the mound and becoming a position player, Roberson can’t just say he won’t shoot free throws any more. Even if he starts refusing to take open shots, eventually defenses will target his inability to hit his free throws and put him on the line anyway.

Once Westbrook, PG, and Melo find their rhythm, coaches will be forced to decide between facing open jumpers from Melo or Paul George, Westbrook attacking single coverage from the perimeter, or putting a 42% free throw shooter with a tendency of choking at the line. In a close game, most will opt for door #4, Monty.

Faced with the choice of losing one defensive player or losing multiple possessions with 3 of the top offensive players in the league, Donovan will have to bench Roberson.... and he doesn’t want to bench Roberson.

This team has set a goal to be the #1 defense in the NBA, and that doesn’t happen with Robes picking splinters out of his behind. There is nowhere for Roberson to run, for Billy Donovan to run, or the Thunder organization as a whole for that matter, Robes needs help.... now.

Quit Trying to Wish it Away, Fix the Problem

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”

Whether the above quote truly came from Albert Einstein or not is immaterial, it’s still one of my favorites. But if doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results is the definition insanity, then what is doing nothing and expecting different results? Total delirium?

Waiting for Roberson to come around hasn’t helped, and as we saw against the T-Wolves, ignoring the problem all summer and hoping it would simply go away didn’t do much good either.

Neither will NewsOk’s Berry Tramel’s method of bitching and moaning it away.

Tramel’s NewsOK sports department partner, Jenni Carlson, has a better idea. Fix the problem.

Meet Dr. Jim Poteet:

Inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame in 2014, Dr. Poteet is a free throw master. When you think of “the Force” think Yoda, but if you want to talk charity shots, think of Dr. Jim Poteet.

In the aftermath of the Houston series, Jenni Carlson asked:

He needs to be able to make them [free throws]— but can he? Can he be consistent? Can he be passable or even reliable? Can Roberson be fixed?

"Yeah," said the master, "He can be fixed."

The Doc has worked with thousands of athletes of all age and at every skill level. If anyone would know, he would, so there is hope.

"He probably needs to take 30 days and shoot 500 free throws a day. I promise you, if he shot 500 free throws a day and did it correctly and worked till he grooved that shot, all of sudden instead of being a 40 percent free thrower, what if he just moved to be 65 percent?"
emphasis mine

There’s the rub. In order to improve, Robes can’t just chunk 50 or 60 incorrect free throws a day and fix anything. They must be shot in volume and shot correctly.

Here was the basic plan Dr. Poteet laid out for Carlson to get Roberson to the point of free throw viability. It starts with getting Andre’s mind right:

  1. Forget the past, eliminate any negative thoughts, make a fresh start. (sounds easy, but how?)
  2. Develop a mental routine. On every shot, say in your mind, “"Feet to the line. Bounce the ball three times. Thumb in the channel. Bend your knees. Eye on the target. Shoot and follow through.”

The purpose of the mental mantra is not to tell Robertson what to do. Thirty days at 500 shots a day equals 15,000 shots so he should know what to do. The purpose is to keep the mind active and positive. As Carlson put it, “an idle mind is fertile ground for extraneous thoughts.”

I’m sorry, those aren’t “extraneous thoughts” running through Roberson’s mind between his first and second shot. It’s panic. There is a doubt demon hovering over Robertson as big as a Oklahoma thundercloud. It’s quicksand.

It’s interesting to note the things Roberson does right. Feet to the line, bounce the ball 3 times, and bend the knees. Unfortunately, everything falls apart from that point on.

Professional shooting coach Collin Castellaw breaks down the break downs in Andre’s shooting motion:

Let’s look at Andre’s first free throw against the T-Wolves:

Andre has completely expended his lower body energy. Look at the ball position. Now compare that to Reggie Miller’s ball position as his legs reach their apex:

What Coach Castellaw fails to explain is why this is relevant. As any coach teaching a repetitive athletic motion will tell you, it is easier to control the larger muscles of the body than the smaller ones.

Larry Bird:

Same thing. The large muscles of the legs and torso control the shot while the small muscles of the arm and wrists continue the momentum and guide it. That is why the hand behind the ball is so critical and why Andre’s hand having to shift is so detrimental to his shot.

  1. It separates his shooting motion into two parts, a wasted lower body motion followed by an arm shot.
  2. By calculating the distance from the free throw line to the basket, the size of the rim and the size of the ball, we discover a minute 1.353 degree margin of error when Andre shifts his hand position. In Andre’s case, the shooting coach is right. Keep it simple and have the hand angle established from the get-go.

Basically, Andre is trying to both guide and control the shot with the small muscles of his arms and wrists while simultaneously trying to get his hand set at the perfect angle rather than doing it all in one motion. It’s no wonder he struggles being repetitive and his free throws fail under pressure.

When Jim Poteet earned his doctorate, his dissertation was on free throw shooting and aptly called The Paradox of Free Throw Shooting. He spoke about it a few years ago:

Interesting side note — when Dr. Tom Amberry set the record for consecutive free throws made at the age of 71 in 1993, his total of 2,750 didn’t stop because he missed. It stopped because they had to close the gym.

When Poteet spoke with the Medium’s Martin J. Smith in 2015, he explained the meaning behind the title of his dissertation:

Think about it, there’s this hectic basketball game going on. Then there’s a foul. All of a sudden, the player in that hectic pace is, in fifteen seconds, asked to change his whole mental and physical approach to the game and shoot a free throw. It’s tough physiologically because his heart is racing. But it’s even tougher psychologically.”

Martin adds that “Poteet and sports psychologists agree that no other sport offers the full-speed-to-dead-stop mental challenge of a free throw.”

“Football comes close with the field goal, but the field goal kicker is a specialist. He’s not in the flow of the game before he does his thing. But every player on a basketball court is going to have to shoot free throws.”

Sounds familiar.

I likened free throw shooting to baseball, particularly the pitcher. He stands alone at the mound with all eyes on him until he releases the ball. A repetitive athletic motion designed to hit a precise target 60 feet 6 inches away. The paradox Dr. Poteet describes shooting free throws just makes proactively correcting Roberson’s problem that much more imperative.

The bad news for Ankiel in the example above was that he already had the mechanics down pat. The problem was completely psychological. The good news for Robes is that at least 50% of his problem is a mechanical glitch, which means that it is a repairable one. That is, if he is willing to put in the time and work.

That is the paradox Dr. Poteet didn’t mention. The work. Free throws are anything but free. Mastering them takes hours of tedious and boring repetitions.

When asked by Coach Rick Penny of One Motion Basketball what it takes to be a good free throw shooter, Dr. Poteet replied:

“Several factors: great technique, consistent routine, positive mindset, ability to focus, learning to deal with the boredom of repetition, and practice, practice, practice …

As Jenni Carlson pointed out

Making an investment to fix this problem would be money and time well spent by Roberson and the Thunder.

And added

If the Thunder called the free-throw guru seeking help for Roberson, if they pledged a real desire to improve, Poteet would be a willing teacher because he would have a teachable student.

Hey Sam, pick up the phone and give the Doc a call, at 66.7% and currently sitting dead last in free throw percentage, Roberson isn’t the only player needing attention. The entire Thunder roster should benefit from a house call from Dr. Free Throws.

Think of it as a sure bet value investment in the future, the very near future. More PT for your best perimeter defender and more points overall in the not too distant playoffs. Could be the best money you spend all year.

Poll

Can Roberson’s free throw shooting be salvaged?

This poll is closed

  • 67%
    Yes
    (216 votes)
  • 32%
    No
    (106 votes)
322 votes total Vote Now