A free throw is an unguarded, straight shot to the hoop. The conditions are the same every time for every player. So, why are the Connecticut Sun missing so many?
History of the Sun’s Free Throw Issues
Connecticut has ranked at the bottom of the league in free throw percentage for six of the last eight seasons. In 2018, the Sun had a .2 percentage advantage over the last-place Atlanta Dream. Four years earlier in 2014, Connecticut ranked 11th by one percent, also above the Dream.
In the last eight seasons, the Sun have had two head coaches: Anne Donovan and Curt Miller. Prior to that, the Sun were led by Mike Thibault.
During Thibault’s last season in Connecticut, the Sun ranked first in the league in free throw percentage (82.7). Thibault would go on to coach the Washington Mystics and clinch the 2019 Championships, ironically over the Sun.
When Thibault joined Washington, he told ticket season holders that free throw shooting would be a priority in making the Mystics relevant in the league. Keeping to his word, since 2013, the Mystics have ranked in the top half of the league in free throws, including first place from 2016-2019. Washington also has Elena Delle Donne to thank for these stats, as she is a 93.8 percent career free throw shooter and became the first woman to join the 50–40–90 club in 2019.
Anne Donovan’s strategy for the Sun differed from his predecessor. The late Hall of Famer, who passed away in 2018, led the team to a 38-64 overall record from 2013-15. In addition to poor free throw shooting, Connecticut found themselves at the bottom half of the league in almost every statistical category. Not sinking free throws was just one piece of a bad shooting team.
In 2016, Donovan resigned and current head coach Curt Miller took over in Connecticut. Since then, the Sun have reached the playoffs for three straight seasons and advanced to the Finals in 2019. Despite their success, Connecticut’s free throw troubles have followed them into Miller’s reign.
Shooting Troubles in the Wubble
Down in Bradenton, the Sun are struggling at the charity stripe. They’ve taken the second-most attempts in the league (182), but have completed just 128 shots. Despite numerous opportunities, Connecticut cannot score those ‘free’ points.
This season’s troubles can be attributed to multiple things. One, Miller coaches high energy teams. Connecticut’s aggressiveness and high power can make it difficult to quickly slow it down, stop, and take a shot.
Two, teams this year do not have extra time to practice free throws due to the shortened season.
Three, the Sun aren’t shooting well in general in the wubble. The team currently ranks 10th in field goal percentage (43.8) and three-point percentage (31.8).
A combination of these three factors has prevented the Sun from improving their eight-year free throw slump.
Is Alyssa Thomas the Underlying Cause?
Alyssa Thomas began her WNBA All-Star career in 2014 with Connecticut shooting 75.7 from the charity stripe. Since then, Thomas’ free throw performance has significantly decreased through seven seasons.
|Year||FT %||Rank out of Starters / Team|
|2020||67.3||4 / 4|
|2019||49.6||5 / 12|
|2018||54.7||5 / 11|
|2017||56.7||5 / 12|
|2016||63.4||4 / 10|
|2015||69.2||4 / 10|
|2014||75.7||2 / 5|
Thomas has attributed her poor free throw percentage to two torn labrums. AT has played with tears in each of her shoulders for years. She injured her right side in 2015 and missed 10 games. In 2017, AT hurt her left shoulder while playing abroad.
The following year, AT made the decision to switch shooting hands from left to right to improve her shooting.
“I’ve been leaving a lot of points at the free throw line,” Thomas said to the New Haven Register in 2018. “It is kind of one of the reasons why I have decided to switch over. It just feels more natural and comfortable.”
Since then, her field goal shooting has continually increased. However, AT cannot seem to find rhythm at the charity stripe. This season, Thomas has accounted for about 30 percent of the Sun’s free throw attempts. Her low success rate at the line has a direct effect on the Sun’s team percentage.
Nevertheless, AT has always been a big contributor in Connecticut and adds plenty to Miller’s system. However, Miller should either work with AT more on her shot or try to avoid having her in situations where she could be fouled, replacing her with a better free throw shooter on the team.
Why Free Throws Matter
In a tie game down to the final minutes, a free throw can be the deciding factor between a win and a loss.
Critics of free throws say that games decided by foul shots are not earned wins. However, James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, does not agree with this ideal. In his book, Basketball: Its Origin and Development, Naismith states, “I have often overheard some spectators express the opinion that a game was won by free throws. I have always taken the attitude that the game was lost by fouls.”
Why Free Throws Don’t Matter
It didn’t matter that the Sun ranked last in free throw percentage last season, as they advanced to the Finals. However, Connecticut is a different team this year.
The Sun currently stand at 2-6 in the wubble. In every loss, Connecticut has been able to stay competitive and keep the deficit to single-digits. It’s hard to not assume that if the team, especially AT, made a few more free throws some of those games could have ended in their favor.
We’ll see how the Sun’s shooting performance plays out this year, but it may be time for Miller and his coaching staff to start focusing on those ‘free’ shots.