In basketball, free throws are a key part of the game and can be the difference between a win and loss. Those extra shots from the charity stripe are critical when the game is on the line as they are free uncontested shots after a foul, and they also allow you to score points while the clock is stopped. This is great if you are making a comeback but, sinking those shots is just as important if you have a lead.

While the free throws at the end of a game are what we mostly focus on, those foul shots during the early parts of the game are just as vital to your team’s success. If your team loses by 1 point you can usually look back and find a couple of free throws that were missed in the first quarter which would have turned your game around.

The importance of making foul shots means that players with a high free throw percentage are a great asset to any team. They can almost give you guaranteed points when they are at the line. Let’s take a look at the current top shooters in the NBA

2020 Current Top Free Throw Shooters by Percentage

RankPlayerTeamCurrent FT %
1Brad WanamakerBoston Celtics92.40%
2Kyrie IrvingBrooklyn Nets92.20%
3Devin BookerPhoenix Suns92.10%
4Khris Middleton Milwaukee Bucks90.70%
5JJ RedickNew Orleans Pelicans90.20%
6Bojan BogdanovicUtah Jazz90.20%
7Danilo GallinariOklahoma City Thunder90.00%
8Kawhi LeonardL.A. Clippers89.90%
9Paul GeorgeL.A. Clippers89.90%
10Alec BurksPhiladelphia 76ers89.60%
11Chris PaulOklahoma City Thunder89.50%
12Malcolm BrogdonIndiana Pacers89.10%
13Damian LillardPortland Trail Blazers88.90%
13Jamal MurrayDenver Nuggets88.90%
15Damion LeeGolden State Warriors88.20%
16D.J. AugustinOrlando Magic87.80%
17Rudy GaySan Antonio Spurs87.30%
18Jeff TeagueAtlanta Hawks87.20%
19Tomas SatoranskyChicago Bulls87.00%
20Terry RozierCharlotte Hornets86.90%

Statistics are taken from teamranking.com

Why is Free Throw Shooting Important?

As we mentioned above, making these theoretically “easy” shots are important. It often seems like it’s no big deal as they only represent a couple of points here and there. During the game they really add up and trust me they do make a difference.

In all of my experience with basketball, I have never heard a coach say “don’t worry about free throws”. In fact, the opposite is always the case as coaches stress the importance of making them and many end practices by making the players practice them.

If you still don’t believe me lets take a look at a real game example where free throws won or lost the game. Some of us may remember an Eastern Conference Semifinal game between the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks back in 1995. At the end of this game, Reggie Miller scored 8 points in 9 seconds to lead the Pacers to an improbable comeback.

This comeback would not have been possible without some misses from the foul line. After Miller hit two 3-pointers to tie the game, the Pacers fouled John Starks with only seconds remaining. Starks could have sealed the game at this point by making both free throws, but instead, missed both of them.

The Knicks then inexplicably fouled Reggie Miller, a career 88.8% free throw shooter. With the extreme pressure mounting, Miller hit both shots from the line and the Pacers went on to win the game. Without the misses by the Knicks and key makes by the Pacers, the probability of the Knicks winning this game was very high.

Players that are bad shooters from the stripe can also be a liability to the team. If the other team knows they are a bad shooter, they may begin to intentionally foul the player, knowing that they will miss the foul shots and in turn keeping them from scoring on the possession while also stopping the clock. Smart coaches looked at putting certain players at the foul line like a turnover for the opposing team.

This is a strategy that was once called “hack a Shaq” because it was often used against Shaquille O’Neal who was known to be a very bad free throw shooter. Teams used it to slow the opponents scoring while also slowing down the clock and allowing the team to get back into a game when they are down.

Another aspect of free-throw shooting has to do with the momentum of the game. When a player or team can’t get things going from the field, they can change the momentum by scoring points from the line. This will usually get them back in the swing of things and they start making shots again.

Also when a team is on a run or trying to stop an opposing team’s run, there is no bigger momentum changer than an “and-1”. An “and-1” is when a player fouled while making a shot from the field and then gets a free throw in addition to the made shot. This creates the possibility for a 3 or even 4 point play and often changes the direction of the game.

Career All-Time Best Free Throw Shooters

The best shooters from the line will often vary over the season but many of the great shooters are known for having a high percentage throughout their career. They are usually top-notch players who consistently play fundamental basketball and have learned the importance of sinking as many as possible. The following is a list of the all-time greatest free throw shooters in NBA history.

Some of these are still active players so their percentage may still change.

RankPlayerCareer FT %
1Stephen Curry90.53%
2Steve Nash90.43%
3Mark Price90.39%
4Peja Stojaković89.48%
5Chauncey Billups89.4%
6Ray Allen89.39%
7Rick Barry89.31%
8Calvin Murphy89.16%
9J.J. Redick89.13%
10Scott Skiles88.91%
11Damian Lillard88.89%
12Reggie Miller88.77%
13Larry Bird88.57%
14Bill Sharman88.31%
15Kevin Durant88.26%

Career-best free throw shooters of all time NBA/ABA
Stats taken from Basketball Reference

Final Words

Making foul shots is key to winning basketball games. The great ones are usually “automatic” from the line. They are players that you usually don’t want to foul and when you do, they will make you pay for it.

What is your opinion on the importance of free-throws? We’d love to hear from you, so please leave your comments.