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"You've got to trust your technique": Mason Plumlee is getting help at the line from one of the NBA's greatest free throw shooters

Christian Clark Avatar
October 5, 2018

Free throws aren’t as much of a foregone conclusion as the name suggests. Even at the highest level of basketball, sinking an uncontested 15-footer isn’t a given. Miss a few in a row, and a player’s confidence can erode like a cliffside during a downpour.

In 2017-18, no NBA player struggled more at the free throw line than Mason Plumlee. The Nuggets’ 6-foot-11 backup center shot 45.8 percent on 2.4 attempts per game. He was the only player in basketball to attempt at least 100 free throws and make less than half of them.

So it was cause for muted celebration Sunday when Plumlee got fouled late in the first quarter and sunk his first two free throw attempts of the preseason. Assistant coach Jordi Fernandez turned around from his spot on the Nuggets’ bench and fist bumped fellow assistant Mark Price, seated on the row behind him.

Price, who shot 90.4 percent from the free throw line in his 12-year career, the second-best mark in NBA history, was brought on board in September as a shooting specialist.

In his post-playing days, Price has gained a reputation for helping players with crooked strokes become better shooters. Price worked with Rajon Rondo when the wiry point guard was still in Boston and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for two seasons as an assistant in Charlotte. Kidd-Gilchrist showed marked improvement from the mid range under Price’s tutelage in 2014-15, converting 50 percent of his looks from between 10 and 16 feet away and going 37.1 percent on long twos.

Typically, Price only tries to tweak one or two parts of a player’s shot.

“You don’t want to make it complicated,” Price said. “Especially with guys who are professional players who are really talented. They can pick up things quickly. I just look for an adjustment or two here. Maybe it’s something technique-wise, maybe it’s mental, maybe it’s footwork. There are a lot of things that go into a shot. You’re trying to pick up on one or two things you feel like can help them get over the hump.”

With Rondo, Price emphasized his right elbow needed to stay under the basketball instead of flailing out to the side when he rose up. Kidd-Gilchrist was unique in that his shot needed to be totally revamped.

“Mike was a project who had a lot of flaws in his technique, so we had to do a lot more technique-wise just trying to break things down,” Price said. “Starting with one-handed shots and working your way up to get him to a place where he could make shots on a consistent basis. Each individual player is different in how you approach.”

The mental aspect of shooting is as important as the physical aspect. Not getting in your own head after a couple misses is vital. To remind himself of that,  Steve Kerr, the three-point sniper who now coaches the Warriors, used to write the letters “FI” on the tops of his sneakers. The initials stood for “f— it.”

“I needed a reminder to myself to stop thinking and just shoot,” Kerr said in Chris Ballard’s “The Art of a Beautiful Game.” “You have to find ways to lose your self-consciousness. If you’re self-conscious as a shooter, you’re doomed.”

Kerr is the most accurate three-point shooter in NBA history. He converted 45.4 percent of his looks from deep in his 15-year career. Price, a 40.2 percent three-point shooter, is 34th on the all-time list.

“You’ve got to be just as confident if you’ve missed four in a row as you are if you’ve made four in a row,” Price said. “You’ve got to believe when you shoot that it’s going in. I think that’s the mentality most good shooters have.”

One of Price’s core beliefs at the free throw line is trusting your routine. Price liked to stand several feet off the stripe until the referee threw him the ball. Once it was in hands, he’d line his right foot up with the nail mark that’s exactly 15 feet from the basket in the middle of the floor, settle into a stance shoulder width apart, take three dribbles and let the basketball go.

“It wasn’t complicated, but that routine helped you relax,” Price said. “It was something you could focus on no matter if you were down one, up one, how many people were in the stands. You’re just focused on that thing you’ve done thousands and thousands of times. You’ve got to trust your technique. Free throw shooters need to have their routine somehow create rhythm for a shot because it’s probably the one shot in basketball that’s not really a rhythm shot.”

Price has only worked with Plumlee for three weeks. It’s far too early to tell if Plumlee, a career 56.6 percent free throw shooter, has experienced some sort of breakthrough. But Sunday was a small step in the right direction for Plumlee, who went 5-for-5 at the line, even though he followed it up by going 1-for-4 two nights later.

“I think he’s doing great,” Price said. “We’ve just made a couple little adjustments. We’ve talked about being consistent from how you start to how you finish. The more consistent he becomes, the more improvement he’ll see in his shot. I’m pleased with where we’re at.”

Moving on after misses is easier said than done. It’s difficult to think about your routine when there are 18,000 sets of eyes on you. As a player, Price always thought his shot was going in. The hardest part about his job now is getting other players to believe that.

“It’s a process,” Price said. “Hopefully, he’ll continue to gain in his confidence. I feel like he already is doing that. That’s the biggest thing. Anything I can do to help a guy’s confidence, when they step up and feel like they have a good chance to make this shot, that’s half the battle.”

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