Time to Retire the Granny Free Throw

Time to Retire the “Granny” Free Throw

(originally published at the late, great Hickory-High.com in August, 2013)

It’s seems like it’s free throw week here at Hickory-High.com.  Ian Levy and I discussed them as part of his inaugural podcast that he released this past Monday.  On Wednesday, Ian posted an article I’d written (with substantial input from him) which presented ideas on the controversial and suddenly hot topic of eliminating free throws from the game.  In it, reasons for NOT eliminating them were presented, as well as an idea that would help to speed up the process without hurting shooters’ chances for making the shot.

Before the “eliminate free throw” controversy got hot, however, Ian and I had discussed Ethan Sherwood Strauss’ open letter to the Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond  posted on ESPN.com last Friday.  In it, Ethan implored Drummond, a very poor free throw shooter, to adopt the “granny” method for shooting free throws.  This underhand method was used with great success by NBA sharpshooter Rick Barry during his illustrious career.  Barry is often interviewed about it and suggests it as an alternative for many chronically-bad free throw shooters.

Drummond is already on record, in response to Strauss’ letter, stating that he won’t shoot free throws underhand.  I believe that’s a wise decision for him.  For reasons that I’ll list below, I’m suggesting that the idea of shooting the “granny” be retired for good, at least as a suggested solution to chronically-bad free throw shooting.

Here’s an example of NBA All-Stars Rick Barry and Jamaal Wilkes shooting free throws in a video hosted by the great Boston Celtics Head Coach Red Auerbach. One big thing here is what both Barry and Auerbach say at the end: use what works for you.  Another big thing is that Barry demonstrates how to shoot the underhand free throw.  All this actually helps me make my case.

A major reason that people push the “granny” is that Rick Barry was so successful with it. This is actually a great qualitative reason not to use it.  The fact that Barry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, could hit a particular type of shot is not news.  We’d be hard pressed to think of a particular type of shot that he couldn’t hit and hit at a high percentage.  As we’ll see below, the “granny” is a much more difficult shot to execute than a typical free throw.  It was an easy shot for Rick Barry because, well, he’s Rick Barry.  He was named as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.  100 years from now, he’ll still be one of the greatest shooters to have ever played the game.  His shooting ‘touch’ was incredible.  So there’s no “if Rick Barry could hit it, anyone can hit it” argument to be made.

Why is the “granny” a harder shot to hit than a traditional free throw? Mainly because there are 4 pairs of opposing body parts that must stay in sync with each other throughout the entire shot or the shot will be off.  They are the left and right legs, the left and right arms, the left and right wrists, and the left and right hands.  Not only does the entire body have to flow – as it also does in a successful one-handed set shot free throw – but the left and right sides have to work in parallel as well.

As you can see in the video, Barry’s body is centered on the basket with his feet an equal distance to the right and left of the “dot” that is put in the middle of the free throw line with a nail. This puts his head, and the ball, directly in line with the basket at 90 degrees from the backboard.  He bends his knees and then begins moving upward.  His arms, fully extended with his hands below his waist, begin to move upward.  As they approach full extension above his head at about 45 degrees from his torso, he cocks his wrists and, as he hits full extension, releases the ball from both hands with a lot of backspin.

Barry did this to perfection, time and time again. But what would have happened if either of his legs pushed up harder or faster than the other?  His body would have gone off to the opposite side of the faster/stronger leg and that momentum would have been imparted to the ball.  What would have happened if one of his arms moved faster than the other?  Not only would the ball most likely have headed in the opposite direction from the faster arm, this would have begun to impart some side spin on the ball, as well.

Let’s say Barry’s legs and arms worked in parallel (and, for him, they did). What if one of his wrists cocked back more than the other?  What if one of them moved forward faster than the other?  Or imparted more of a backspin than the other?  What if one of his hands released the ball a fraction of a second earlier than the other?  You guessed it: the ball would have moved off toward the opposite side with some side spin imparted.

As we look at the shot in three-dimensions, we can notice that the term “it’s not rocket science” does not apply. To some degree, it is.  And, like launching a probe to land on the moon, exactly where any incorrect angles are encountered has a big impact on the success of the launch and the ability to eventually land the probe on the moon.  Be perfect until it’s almost to the moon and then be off by a few degrees and it would miss the moon by a few hundred miles – possibly a small enough amount to save the mission with a last-second fuel burn (or, in our free throw example, a fortunate bounce).  Be off by those same few degrees as the launch begins and the probe would miss the moon by thousands of miles.  Be on track for the entire mission, as Barry often was, and the probe lands safely on target and the basketball nestles softly in the net.

Today’s player isn’t used to making the type of motion that Barry demonstrated so easily, so there’s no existing muscle memory that can be tapped into. Almost every shot that today’s player takes is based on a dominant hand and a support hand.  If you’ve ever seen a jump shooter leave his support hand on the ball too long, you’ve seen exactly the kind of side spin I’m talking about.  Do this to the probe and it goes spinning out of control (see ‘Space: 1999’ on IMDB for a similar example.  It was the premise for the entire series.)

Today’s typical set shot free throw requires leg, arm, hand and wrist coordination, too. But, except for the two legs, it’s just one arm, one wrist, one hand.  There’s no coordination between opposing sides.  Assuming the player gets his support hand off the ball prior to the release, it’s just a matter of getting his strong side appendages to work in sync.

Many of today’s players are substantially stronger and more coordinated when they shoot with their dominant hand than with their other hand. The idea that, while trying to coordinate both sides, one side might move faster or stronger – or weaker or slower – is easily in the realm of probability.  It’s the rule, not the exception to the rule.  And even if a player learns how to coordinate both sides shooting the “granny” while healthy, what happens when he plays with an injury to his non-jump shooting arm or his non-dominant leg?  The injury itself could easily cause enough damage to the coordination and fluidity to throw off the shot significantly.  The impact of a non-dominant-side injury to a one-handed set shot?  Potentially none at all.

As Ian and I discussed in the podcast, fixing terrible free throw shooting is a lot easier than most people realize. As we also discussed, many of the techniques I’ve used successfully with my clients have involved changing their pre-shot routines or shot itself to make it more like what THEY do elsewhere on the floor and less like forcing them into the “perfect L” that’s described in many books on free throw shooting.  Remember what Auerbach and Barry said: “use what works for you”.  Unless someone has grown up with the “granny” shot, trying to change them to it because they’re missing when they shoot a set shot adds a level of complexity that isn’t really needed, won’t easily be adapted to, and is nothing like what they shoot the other 80% of the time on the floor.

In the video, Red Auerbach pointed out that “forty years ago”, everyone shot free throws by using the “granny”. But his video was probably shot in the mid-1970s.  So that means they shot them that way during the 1930s.  While the free throw hasn’t evolved at the same pace as the field goal – everyone would be shooting one-handed jump shots from the free throw line if it had – it’s evolved well beyond what was comfortable for players to shoot eighty years ago.  And, let’s face it, if everyone had shot free throws in the 1930s as well as Barry shot them in the 1970s, I wouldn’t be writing this article.  Everyone would have been shooting the “granny” for decades.

To date, the only person other than Barry whom I’ve seen shoot the “granny” was Ollie in ‘Hoosiers’.  It was an inspirational moment and one not likely to ever be duplicated – at least with that style of shot – by anyone playing the game today or in the future.  It’s time to give “granny” a rest.

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