Unheralded Underhanders

Canyon Barry will miss the remainder of the season to receive surgery on his non-shooting shoulder. Despite that unfortunate news, his free throw form is rather rare.

Once considered a novelty, the underhanded free throw is making a resurgence in college basketball.

The man who is most popularized shooting underhand from the charity stripe was Rick Barry. The Hall of Fame small forward ranks third in NBA history as a 90 percent career shooter from the charity stripe over his 14-year NBA career. Yet despite his success, and the success of those like him, few have tried to emulate his “granny-style” shots anywhere other than the playground.

When the College of Charleston upset LSU in late November, the national spotlight shined onto Rick Barry’s youngest son, Canyon Barry. Prior to sustaining a season ending shoulder injury last week, the junior guard was the team’s leading scorer with 19.7 points per game. He ranks third in the CAA in free throw percentage after he knocked down 60 of his 71 free throws this season. Yet despite the success of the Barry family, the traditional free-throw technique still dominates the game.

“That’s something that has surprised me and my dad for a long time now,” Canyon Barry said. “Especially when you have people shooting 40 or 50 percent. Why not give it a shot? There is no harm when you are shooting that poorly. I’m not sure if it’s a pride thing or people just don’t think they can do it.”

Canyon Barry utilizes his father's famous form. Photo by Michael Wiser

Canyon Barry had to overcome his own bias to the “granny shot.” (Michael Wiser/Staff)

Though he claims there is no harm, Barry recalls having his own bias against the shot as a child, as he told his father, “I can’t do that. That’s the way girls shoot. It’s a sissy shot and everyone is going to make fun of me.”

In Charleston’s victory over James Madison, Barry had his worst game of the year, missing all 12 of his shots from the field. But when he hauled in a rebound off a potential game-tying free throw with 5 seconds remaining, he guided both of them home to ice their 65-62 road victory.

Dr. Larry Silverberg is a mechanical and aerospace engineer at North Carolina State, but he has long studied the art of shooting a basketball. In his 2008 article, “Optimal release conditions for the free throw in men’s basketball,” Silverberg explains that “In an overhead shot, the motion of the body starts with the legs, torso, arms, hands, in a complex sequence of motions,” Silverberg says. “The beauty of the underhand shot, although you’re releasing it farther from the basket in a sense, because you’re releasing it lower, is that you have one smooth motion. So when you perfect it, you’ll end up with a release speed that has lower statistical variation than the overhead.”

This concept is not new, yet, those who have adopted it are few and far between.

Louisville’s 6-foot-10, 245-pound center Chinanu Onuaku has been garnering attention from NBA scouts. DraftExpress ranks the sophomore as the #35 prospect for the 2016 Draft, however, Onuaku shot a dismal 47 percent from the line during his freshman campaign, and it cost him playing time during Louisville’s run to the Elite 8 last March.

When he returned for preseason workouts this year, Rick Pitino took a page out of the Barry book of basketball and suggested he make a change. As the little brother of former Syracuse Orange center, Arinze Onuaku, who was a career 39 percent free throw shooter, Chinanu is trying to shake the thought that bad free throw shooting runs in the family by emulating the Barrys.

Though his shooting percentage is up 5 points from last season, Onuaku highlights why more players are not changing their technique: attention.

“The first time you could hear a big whoa (from the crowd) and then the next time everybody just got out their phones.”

Though Onuaku feels the extra points are worth it, he will most likely continue to be an outlier in the world of basketball until its stigma as a “sissy-shot” is removed.

NBA personality and longtime bricklayer from the line Shaquille O’Neal once said, “I will shoot 30 percent before I shoot underhanded, I can promise you that.” With all of his bravado, if he does not have the pride to try to improve his career 52 percent mark from the line, will we ever see it adopted as a mainstay in the game?

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On a cold January evening in the winter of 2004, Sam Oleksak realized his dream. As a mere fourth grader, he had the chance to announce a high school basketball game for his hometown television station. In the hopes of one day becoming a sports pundit, Sam began at Cisternyard News in Fall 2014. He now serves as the Sports Editor on staff and also makes frequent appearances on Cisternyard Radio.

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