TORONTO – Bismack Biyombo knows what it’s like to have all eyes on you. Expecting failure, to feel your heart pounding through your chest, breath laboured, sweat stinging your eyes.
The Toronto Raptors centre knows the nightmare of all too many big men in the NBA: Standing on the free throw line with the game stopped and the whole arena watching you do what you do worst.
As a rookie with the Charlotte Bobcats Biyombo went to the free throw line 143 times and made just 69, or 48.3 per cent. The game was moving very quickly. He was trying to find his place in it. Focusing on hitting a 15-foot shot with no one covering him seemed like something he could push a little further down the priority list.
“When I came in the league people said I was a bad free-throw shooter,” said Biyombo. “But as with any part of your game, you have to work at it and put time on it and I don’t think I put enough time on it. That was the only thing I changed, was putting more time in on it.”
The results are evident. In his fifth NBA season, and first in Toronto, Biyombo is a notable success story in a season in which one of the major storylines has been the tendency of opposing coaches to exploit some historically bad free-throw shooting by some of the NBA’s best centres.
On Saturday night the poster child for adventures from the charity stripe, Andre Drummond, was at the Air Canada Centre with the Detroit Pistons, and he didn’t disappoint, if watching people struggle is your thing that is.
Drummond is a deserving Eastern Conference all-star selection as the NBA’s leading rebounder and among the league’s most powerful post players, but foul him and he turns into Bambi staring at the rim like it was the lights of an on-rushing 18-wheeler.
Nine times he stepped to the stripe and eight times he missed, the ball coming out like a peach pit squeezed out of a giant’s stubby fingers. The exception was a shot that was so far long it went in off the backboard. He didn’t call ‘bank’ and the crowd let him know it.
As it turned out, Drummond’s clumsiness at the line could have cost the Pistons the game as the Raptors hung on to win 111-107 to improve their record to 32-15 and extend their franchise-record winning streak to 11 games. They also swept a seven-game homestand for the first time in franchise history.
It didn’t look like Drummond’s misses would mean much when the Raptors were leading 98-78 with six minutes left, but a 22-7 run by Detroit made for some nervous moments although the Raptors hung on to preserve their streak.
“That last quarter wasn’t winning basketball,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. “Hopefully we learn from it.”
Even if Drummond had hit five out of nine on the night the Pistons might have pushed the Raptors into overtime, however, that seems like a mountain too high to climb.
Drummond is shooting 35.2 per cent from the line this season and 38.3 per cent for his career. He is on pace to have the worst season from the line in NBA history. Last week the Los Angeles Clippers were in Toronto and they featured DeAndre Jordan who is shooting 42.1 per cent from the line.
Of late, exploiting that weakness has been a tactic with teams fouling the likes of Drummond away from the ball when the Pistons are in the bonus to put him on the line and hope he’ll waste the possession. There has been talk of a rule change to prevent the tactic as it drags the game to a crawl.
But before any rule changes are made, Biyombo’s example should be examined. It proves that people can change.
In contrast to Drummond, Biyombo stepped up the line on the first two occasions he was fouled while shooting on Saturday and made both, looking perfectly comfortable in the process. He finished 6-of-8 on the night from the line, but being respectable from the line has been a theme for the defensive specialist whose offence is generally considered a bonus.
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Overall it was another strong performance for Biyombo, who has proven to be an essential piece for the Raptors since signing a two-year, $6-million deal as a free agent this past summer. The 6-foot-9 centre finished with 12 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots in just 21 minutes.
“He played huge, making free throws, rebounding and manning the paint,” said Casey.
After his early career struggles at the line this is the third straight year that Biyombo has improved – and this year more than ever before as he’s shooting 67.7 per cent from the stripe. It’s still a notch below the 75.6 per cent league average, but it’s good enough that fouling Biyombo on purpose isn’t a viable strategy.
His secret? Practice.
“It’s repetition,” he said. “I spent a lot of time in the gym after practice, a lot of time this summer, more than I have in the past but I have a long way to go. I want to get a good percentage that I am happy with, I want to be at least 75 per cent. That’s my goal. I will get there, but it’s a process.”
It’s probably not fair to say that big men are poor free throw shooters as a rule, but it is fair to say that some of the game’s worst free-throw shooters have been and are big men.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, of the nine men in NBA history to shoot less than 50 per cent from the line while making at least four attempts a game, only one, Johnny Green, wasn’t a centre or power forward. Some of the biggest names in the sport were awful free-throw shooters, including Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Shaquille O’Neal.
It makes some speculate if there is something about being so big – hand size, length of arms – that makes the free-throw motion awkward. The converse is that in the long history of the game only a small handful of players have ever shot that poorly from the line, so maybe it’s not something worth generalizing about.
“If you look by position, on average, the centres will be the lowest free-throw percentage guys, on average,” said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who can only grimace when Drummond steps up to the line. Van Gundy coached Dwight Howard (57.2 per cent for his career) and Shaq (52.7 per cent) so he’s seen this before.
“It’s not true of all of them, some of them shoot it really well – I don’t know. Some people say guys with bigger hands have less touch, I don’t have any idea. It’s an individual thing.”
The Raptors big men are all good free shooters, led by Luis Scola at 78.9 per cent, Jonas Valanciunas at 75.2 per cent and the improving Biyombo who would seem to put to rest any preconceived notions about what a solid free-throw shooter he is. He’s got never-ending reach, enormous hands and isn’t the most fluid shooter, but he’s put in his time and has improved.
On Friday, for example, he came to the gym early to lift weights and shoot before practice. He stayed after practice to get more shots up and came back in the evening for more shooting. He shoots at least 200 free throws a day, as many as possible in game-like conditions – with the heart racing and in sets of two.
“I wanted to get to the point where I want people to foul me and send me to the free-throw line,” said Biyombo. “I see what’s happening to those guys [Drummond and Jordan] and for me I want people to foul me, I want to be at the free-throw line, I want to get those easy two points. If you’re going to foul me, go ahead and do it.
“I think free throws are easy points, especially for us big men. We battle and they foul us. You don’t want to give the coach an excuse to take you out of the game. You want your teammates to trust they can give you the ball. At the end of the game they’re going to need your defence, so you want them to keep you in on offence too.”