On the decline of fundamentals

Once I reached 8th grade I could no longer dominate the hardwood with my size (which was suddenly average), my speed (where did that go?), or my freakish athleticism (hello!). In one summer I went from a budding star to a role player, and it was entirely due to other kids hitting puberty. So it goes.

Once this happened I realized that my fundamental grasp of the game was tenuous. I didn’t have a good handle. I didn’t have good footwork. In short, I didn’t know how to play.

But I loved to play. That’s all I wanted to do (sorry about those grades, mom). So I worked on it. I learned the drills. I listened to the coaches. I developed a solid connection with the ball as well as a solid understanding of the game’s geometry.

This is where I’m supposed to tell you how my hard work caught the eye of a recruiter. But it didn’t. I’m not that guy. I’m the guy who was just good enough to be trusted to move the ball. I set screens. I defended.

In 12th grade a friend challenged me to a free throw contest in my driveway. Best of 20. He made 15 and I made 13. We went again: 18-14 bad guys. 16-15. A three time loser.

Later, I tried a bunch of free throws in front of a mirror. Look at that form! The finish! Why had I only made 70% on a loose rim (which was 3 inches low) with my ball on my home-court? Because I didn’t practice free throws. Technically I did. But not for real. Not the type of practice it takes to embed fundamental muscle movements into your brain.

And so I did. I got better. I turned into roughly an 80% free throw shooter, which meant I occasionally had practice streaks of 30+ in a row.

I return to this memory for this reason: it’s a new year which means that college football is ending. With that ending a whole slew of fans will be turning to basketball simply because it’s the only thing on. It happens every year. And every year when it happens, the conversation shifts to one about fundamentals. I have no idea why, but it’s true. Just pay attention.

Every year the game, people claim, continues to decline. It’s the one and done rule! It’s AAU! WHERE ARE THE FUNDAMENTALS?!

And every year I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Sure, there are some years which are better than others in college. It’s natural. There are 4,000 Division I players. The NBA is comprised of ~450 of the world’s best players over nearly a 20 year age span, so the game remains consistent. The college game is decided by a gene pool which is only four years wide.

Regardless, it’s impossible to prove that any one year is better or worse than another. Arguing Mitch Richmond vs Ben McLemore might be fun, but it’s meaningless.  Which I guess is why the “skill level” argument rapidly devolves into a “fundamentals” argument this time every year.

But fundamentals can’t be ‘proven’ either. One person sees Matthew Dellavedova draw the defense, kick to the shooter, and then seal his man so that the shooter can pump fake and drive. Another person sees the opposition with a terrible close out complicated by no rotation. And both people are right. But that doesn’t say anything about the game 25 years ago.

We do, however, have one thing that never changes. The basket (discounting the one in my childhood driveway) is ten feet high. The free throw line is 15 feet away. And when someone gets hacked they get to shoot free throws. It’s the same today as it was 20 years ago. It’s the same today as it was when my grandfather was a forward at Army (well, there were no one-and-ones, the lane was only 6’ wide, etc… but you get the point).

The success rate players enjoy may not be a perfect surrogate for fundamentals, but it’s pretty damn close. To be a good free throw shooter you need good mechanics. You need to be able to repeat those mechanics with your adrenaline pumping, or when you’re tired, or when you’re hurting. And to do that takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. Some players are better than others. There is always going to be a bell curve. The important part, in terms of approaching the fundamentals question, is how that bell curve has shifted in the college game.

Let’s start with this season. I’m not sure exactly how many free throws have been attempted, but it’s somewhere north of 75,000. That’s a pretty significant data set. And of those free throws 68.9% have gone in. Is that good?

Ten years ago that number was 69.0%. Twenty years ago it was 68.1%. Thirty years ago it was 68.6%. Forty years ago it was 68.6%. Fifty years ago it was 67.9%.

Since 1960 the figure has been between 67.1% and 69.7%. Every year. Here’s the chart:

What does this say about back cuts and brush screens? What does it say about pump fakes and shot mechanics? I don’t know. But I do know that the same thing is required to be good at free throws as to be good at back cuts or pump fakes. That’s practice, and lots of it.

So before you join Bobby Knight and Charles Barkley in decrying the loss of fundamentals, maybe you just take a deep breath, tune them out, and enjoy the game.

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