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A Tale of Two Halves: Joel Berry’s Free Throw Shooting

The free throw line is the loneliest and most pressure-filled place on a basketball court. Some basketball players thrive on this moment. Others? Weeeeeelllll, not so much.

Two players in NBA history have shot over 90% for their careers (Steve Nash, 90.4% and Mark Price, 90.4%). Stephen Curry (90.4%), though still active, shares the same distinction. Coming in just behind these three is Rick Barry who famously shot his free throws underhanded (and technically rounds up to 90% free throw shooting himself).

On the other side of the coin are the “not-so-much-ers”. We all know about the “Hack-a-Shaq” tactic of fouling an opponent even when he doesn’t have the ball. Why? Because he’s so awful at shooting free throws that the percentages say you are better off giving that player two free shots from 15 feet rather than letting the opposing team run their offense. It’s become so rampant that the NBA has been forced to employ rules discouraging the use of this tactic. As you would imagine, this strategy is so named because teams started doing this to Shaquille O’Neal. While Shaq is a poor free throw shooter, and believe me, he is bad, the Big Aristotle actually more than half of his free throws (52.7%) for his career.

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Believe it or not, there are actually several NBA players with worse free throw shooting percentages than Shaq. One of the most famous players of all time – Wilt Chamberlain – shot just 51.1% from the charity stripe. Several NBA players have shot under 50% – Chris Dudley (45.8%), DeAndre Jordan (42.1%), and Ben Wallace (41.4%).

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Finally, coming in under 40% free throw shooting is Andre Drummond at 38%.

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When it comes to the best free throw shooters in North Carolina basketball history, Shammond Williams leads the way at 84.9% (292-344). As recently as last year, it looked as though that Williams’ career record would fall. Entering his senior year, Marcus Paige had actually eclipsed Williams in career free throw percentage at 86.5% (275-318). Paige, as you might recall, had an “off year” (by his standards) in the 2015-16 season, shooting “just” 77.4% (72-93). When all was said and done, Paige wound up fifth on the all-time list for UNC at 84.4% (347-411), behind Williams, Kim Huband, Marvin Williams, and Danny Green.

Shammond Williams also holds the single-season record for free throw percentage at 91.1% (133-146) in 1997-98; the only Tar Heel to shoot above 90% for an entire season. Marcus Paige holds two of the top nine single season free throw percentage marks. He hit 87.7% (128-146) in 2013-14 (third place) and 86.5% (96-111) in 2014-15 (ninth place).

This brings us to Joel Berry. Berry did not begin his Tar Heel career as a candidate to be one of the best free throw shooters in North Carolina history. During his freshman year, Berry shot 75.7% (28-37). Things changed, though, in his sophomore year when Berry shot 86.7% (91-105), which is the eighth best single-season mark in Tar Heel history. This incredible sophomore year allowed Berry to begin his junior year at 83.8% (119-142) for his career, which is seventh on the all-time list.

Joel Berry entered his junior year with great possibilities of continuing to move up the career free throw percentage list as well as having one of the best single seasons of free throw shooting in UNC history. Right out of the gate, that’s exactly what Berry did. Oddly though, Joel Berry’s free throw shooting in 2016-17 has been a tale of two halves.

Let’s use the natural dividing of non-conference schedule and conference schedule to create those two halves.

First, the good. In non-conference, Berry hit 39 of 42 free throws over the course of 11.5 games (he missed most of the second half against Radford after suffering an ankle injury and the subsequent games against Davidson and Tennesee). That’s a 92.9% clip during roughly the first third of the season. That free throw percentage would give Berry the best single season number in Carolina history; beating Shammond Williams’ 91.1% mark for a single season by almost two percentage points. This hot start also propelled Berry to 85.9% for his career, a full percentage point above Williams’ career record.

As the conference part of the schedule began, everything changed. Let’s call this part the “not-so-good”. The Tar Heels have played 17 conference games (and have one more to go against some team from eight miles down the road). In those games, Joel Berry has shot 35-47 from the free throw line, which is 74.5%; a drop of 18.4 percentage points from the non-conference portion of the schedule. This is a respectable number, but not an “all-time-best-in-program-history” type of number. The worrisome part is that things have continued to get worse. Over the last 11 games, Berry has shot just 68.8% (22-32) from the line. Remember, this is statistically one of the greatest free throw shooters in Carolina history.

Here’s a telling way to look at things. In the non-conference schedule, Berry shot free throws in nine of the 11.5 games he played in. In those nine games, he hit every free throw he took seven times. By contrast, Berry has shot free throws in 11 of the 17 conference games. Of those 11 games, he’s made every free throw he’s taken just twice.

It’s also troubling to notice the discrepancy in the number of free throws Joel Berry has attempted when comparing the non-conference and conference. In his 11.5 non-conference games, Berry shot 42 free throws. In the 17 conference games, he’s shot 47, just five more. That means that in non-conference games, Berry 3.65 free throws a game, which dropped to 2.76 per game during the conference schedule. In the non-conference schedule, there were three games when Berry didn’t shoot any free throws. In conference, there have been six such games.

It’s hard to say exactly what is causing the drop in Joel Berry’s free throw percentage. Perhaps it’s the fatigue of playing point guard for Roy Williams over the course of a grueling season. Perhaps it’s a problem of shot mechanics. Perhaps Berry is in his own head. Perhaps the hot start was an anomaly. Perhaps it’s a lack of focus.

Whatever the reason, while Justin Jackson has been the most consistent scorer this year for North Carolina, Joel Berry is the heart and engine of the team. In order for this year’s version of the Tar Heels to reach, and possibly exceed, what the 2015-16 team achieved, Berry will have to continue to be that driving force as the regular season gives way to postseason tournaments. And it wouldn’t hurt if he hit a couple more free throws along the way.

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