Eisenberg: Examining Tim Duncan’s astounding FT improvement

For the past 15 years, Duncan has dominated the NBA. With four championships and career averages of 20+ points and 11+ rebounds a night, it is safe to anoint Duncan as the most unheralded superstar in league history. While he has been the epitome of consistency throughout his career with both high efficiency and unique durability for a big man (Duncan has never played fewer than 58 games in a full season), merely decent free throw shooting has always been the lone blemish on Duncan’s otherwise pristine resume.

Though he has never been a consistent albatross like Shaquille O’Neal at the line, Duncan has not exactly been Steve Nash when it comes to cashing in on his free shots either.

“Opponents have never fouled him expecting him to miss,” said third-year teammate Gary Neal. “For a big man, his free throw shooting has never been great but it is not like it has not been bad.”

But for stars of Duncan’s caliber, greatness is expected in all facets of the game. And if one were to nitpick on Duncan, his subpar free throw shooting is an easy target. Consider this: over his 15 years with the Spurs, Duncan has left nearly 2,500 points unfulfilled at the line.

This season, however, the script has been flipped. While teams have historically lived with fouling Duncan in the post and sending him to the free throw line, opponents now have to be extra careful in defending Duncan in the paint. If they guard him cautiously, he will score over you. However, if you defend him over-aggressively — more times than not — Duncan will reward his team with two points at the line.

The 82 percent Duncan is shooting is perhaps the biggest upgrade for San Antonio this season. After all, Duncan has not made over 73% of his free throws since the 2001-2002 season. This year, improved free throw shooting has led to Duncan scoring more points a game than he has since 2009-2010.

So why, at 36 years old, does it appear that Duncan has finally mastered the art of free throw shooting? The truth is, no one knows.

Or is saying with any specificity.

Tony Parker, Duncan’s longtime All-Star teammate, can only suspect that Duncan is shooting better from the line because he has changed his mentality.

“He is shooting with a lot of confidence. When I first came into the league, he was shooting great from the line too. He has had some off years recently but that is how it is. Free throws can come and go.”

Interestingly, Neal suspects that Duncan’s improvement at the line comes in direct relation with the 36-year-old’s aging body: “Free throw shooting is the one aspect of his game that he can improve without a lot of wear and tear in training. I think his improvement comes from practicing and working with the shooting coach Chip Engelland over the summer. He is focusing better at the line. He is shooting it great. It is just another credit to him being a Hall of Famer and having a great work ethic.”

While the Spurs have collectively noticed Duncan’s improvements at the line, no one ever doubted Duncan and his ability to become a strong free throw shooter. Head Coach Gregg Popovich said, “I think it is great. I am not surprised.”

So, come crunch time, does Duncan’s added efficiency at the line make him even more of a focal point in the offense? Not necessarily…

As Parker said with a smile, “I am going to feed Tim regardless of his free throw shooting. He is our go-to-guy.”

Still, the career-high free throw percentage has to add some confidence to the team’s morale toward the end of games. 

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