UNC Basketball Summer Stats Series: Free Throw Percentage

Part four of the 2022 UNC Basketball Summer Stats Series, looking back at a specific stat category from last season and projecting what to expect for 2022-23. Today’s category: free throw shooting.

Here’s the bottom line: under the direction of first-year head Coach Hubert Davis, one of the Greatest shooters in NBA history, the 2021-22 North Carolina Tar Heels achieved the second-highest team free throw percentage (76.4%) in program history .

The coaching staff can’t come out and make free throws for the team, but at least some amount of credit is due to Coach Davis and Coach Jeff Lebo, both of whom shot over 80% in their Tar Heel Careers and are top-20 all-time in the program.

The only team with a better percentage on the freebies is Coach Davis’ first team? The 1983-84 Tar Heels, who hit 78.3% of their free throws.

Part of the reason for UNC’s success last season is that three of the starters (Leaky Black, Caleb Love, and RJ Davis) each shot over 80% from the free throw line. In fact, if I asked you to name the Tar Heel with the highest free throw percentage on the team (min. 10 attempts), you would likely guess Love or Davis. I wouldn’t blame you for doing so, however you would be wrong. The correct answer is Leaky Black, who made 86.8% of his 38 free throw attempts.

Love was just behind Black at 86.1% (136-158) with Davis trailing in third at 83.3% (105-126). While Black’s percentage was higher, Love and Davis’ Achievements were more impressive given their higher number of attempts.

Not only was last year’s team the second-best free throw shooting team in program history, they had the biggest leap in percentage points from one year to the next in Carolina history. The season before, 2020-21, was the third-lowest team free throw percentage of the Roy Williams era (66.8%), ahead of only 2009-10 (65.3%) and 2013-14 (62.6%). The 2021-22 Tar Heels jumped up 9.6 percentage points from that 66.8% to their 76.4% total.

My assessment of the reason for the immediate jump above all 18 of Roy Williams’ teams, aside from the Coach Davis / Coach Lebo aspect, is the lineup shift away from two bigs to one traditional center. This shift gives you the opportunity to have more good shooters taking a higher percentage of the team’s free throws, since traditional bigs are typically lesser free throw shooters.

PROJECTING 2022-23

As we look to the 2022-23 season, perhaps the most interesting piece of free throw shooting news is that Pete Nance is essentially the same free throw shooter as Brady Manek, with their career free throw percentages separated by four-tenths of a percentage point (73.3 to 72.9 in Manek’s favor). However, in the most recent season, Nance shot just over seven percentage points higher than Manek on more attempts.

I’m looking to see a big leap from Puff Johnson this season. They shot “just” 72% last year but was 13-18 from the line, missing just five free throws in a small sample size. I expect him to have many more attempts this season and connect on a higher percentage of them.

Armando Bacot’s free throw percentage has finished in the 60s in each of his three college seasons (64.5, 66.1, and 67.0). I believe he has the ability to get to 70% this season. It wouldn’t take much to get there. To help you visualize what it would take to do so – had Armando made just seven more of his 218 attempts last season, he would have been at 70%.

Perhaps the biggest x-factor is Leaky Black. Despite leading the team this past season, he shot 69.6% and 69.2% from the free throw line in his sophomore and junior years, respectively. My question is – can Leaky maintain what he did last year OR does he revert to the high 60s of the previous two seasons?

Ultimately, there is no reason Carolina can’t be just as effective from the free throw line this coming season as they were in 2021-22. Leaky Black, Caleb Love, and RJ Davis shot a combined 85.2%. What does that mean? Those three need to get to the line even more. Make teams foul you. Force the action. Doing so puts those three in position to get easy points while saddling the opponent with foul trouble.

BOLD PREDICTION

My bold prediction? Black, Love, and Davis combine to once again shoot in the mid-80s, Pete Nance is in the mid-70s, and Armando Bacot cracks the 70% threshold, while the backups also shoot a strong percentage. All that adds up to the 2022-23 Tar Heels not only outpacing last season’s 76.4%, but also passing 1983-84’s 78.3% to set a new UNC team free throw percentage record.

SUMMER STATS SERIES TRIVIA QUESTIONS

Here is this week’s summer stats series trivia question: There are six Tar Heels who have made 87% or more of their free throws in a single season (minimum 50 makes). Who are they? (Bonus points if you can name the season and percentage.) You’ll find the answer below the Locked On Tar Heels Episode that lines up with this article.

Trivia answer:

6. Darrell Elston | 1973-74 | 87.1% (81-93)
5. Steve Hale | 1984-85 | 87.6% (85-97)
4. Marcus Paige | 2013-14 | 87.7% (128-146)
3. Jeff Lebo | 1987-88 | 87.8% (86-98)
2. Joel Berry | 2017-18 | 89.3% (108-121)
1. Shammond Williams | 1997-98 | 91.1% (133-146)

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