NC State

NC State to face Louisville’s old-style free throw shooter

Duke defenders forward Justise Winslow (12), center Marshall Plumlee (40) and guard Matt Jones (13) converge on Louisville center Chinanu Onuaku (32) in the first half of play. Duke upset Louisville 63-52 at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., last January.
Duke defenders forward Justise Winslow (12), center Marshall Plumlee (40) and guard Matt Jones (13) converge on Louisville center Chinanu Onuaku (32) in the first half of play. Duke upset Louisville 63-52 at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., last January. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The best part about watching Chinanu Onuaku (pronounced “granny-style shooter”) and Canyon Barry (pronounced “shoots like father”) attempt free throws is seeing the reaction of opponents.

Barry has heard many opponents taunt him about shooting “like a girl” during his three-season career at College of Charleston, and Onuaku is likely to hear the same talk as he begins his road tour in the ACC for Louisville tonight against N.C. State at PNC Arena.

Barry and Onuaku are really, really old school. They shoot free throws underhand.

“I think everybody gets a kick out of it,” says Louisville coach Rick Pitino, “but we’re just looking to shoot a higher percentage.”

Onuaku took up the old-style, new-look free throw this off-season on the recommendation of Pitino, who tired a season ago of having to remove his 6-foot-10 center from late-game situations because of a dismal shooting percentage (.467) from the line. Onuaku’s shooting has improved slightly to 52 percent this season, but Pitino believes his marksmanship will increase as the player further hones the underhand technique.

Barry, a 6-foot-6 junior guard, began shooting underhand free throws in high school at the insistence of his Hall of Fame father, Rick, who believes his technique is much more natural than the conventional overhand style.

The elder Barry was one of the most proficient free-throw shooters in pro basketball history shooting underhand. In 14 NBA and ABA seasons from 1965 through 1980, Barry sank free throws at an .893 clip, including one season (1978-79) with the Houston Rockets in which he missed only nine of 169 attempts.

“That’s the only part of the game where nobody is trying to prevent you from doing what you’re doing. That’s the only part of the game where every single time it’s exactly the same,” Rick Barry says. “Same size ball, same size basket, same distance to the basket.

“How in the world do you live with yourself if you can’t make four out of every five and be an 80 percent shooter? I don’t understand it.”

I don’t care what people say as long as the ball goes in.

Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku, who shoots free throws underhand

A pair of N.C. State University mechanical and aerospace engineering professors – Larry Silverberg and Chau Tran – co-authored a study of free-throw shooting for the Journal of Sports Science in 2008 titled “Optimal release conditions for the free throw in men’s basketball,” and concluded that underhand is a more natural motion than overhand.

The study found a tradeoff in techniques, according to Silverberg: There is less wrist motion in underhand shooting vs. overhand shooting, thus a lessened chance for error; and there is a disadvantage to shooting underhand because the release point is lower, thus creating more margin for error in the trajectory of the shot.

Silverberg says, from a practical standpoint, he would recommend a switch to underhand free-throw shooting under two conditions. First, the player must be receptive to the switch. Second, the player must be a poor free-throw shooter using the overhand technique.

Louisville’s Onuaku fit the bill on both counts.

During the offseason, Pitino started thinking about changing Onuaku’s free-throw shooting style. Pitino must have figured that poor free-throw shooting runs in the Onuaku family. Chinanu’s brother, Arinze Onuaku, was a 39.5 percent free-throw shooter for Syracuse from 2006-10.

So, Pitino spliced together videotapes into a highlight reel of Rick Barry shooting free throws, and showed them to his player.

“Nanu, I think you should do this,” Pitino recalls telling Onuaku.

“I’m fine with it,” Onuaku replied, according to Pitino.

Now, Pitino says, Onuaku has taken a liking to the recognition that comes with shooting in such an unorthodox manner. The chiding that naturally comes from opposing players and fans does not seem to bother Onuaku.

“I don’t really care,” he says, “because I know what I am trying to accomplish. I don’t care what people say as long as the ball goes in.”

Being different has its rewards, according to N.C. State’s Silverberg.

“I think it’s great to mix it up a little bit. You don’t see a lot of change like that in style,” Silverberg says. “Any fan of sports, when they see something that is altogether different and is competitive at this level, always thinks this is great.”

Unless the granny-style shooter is sinking free throws for the opposing team.

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