The Times West Virginian

February 22, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Free throws give WVU’s Harris added attribute

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — The most baffling thing in basketball is how the simplest thing to do in the game can be the hardest thing for some people.

We are talking, of course, about shooting free throws.

All you have to do is take a basketball, stand 15 feet away from the basket with no one guarding you, no one even moving, and throw it in the hoop.

You see guys stand 25 feet away and throw down 3-point shots with a hand in their face with the game on the line and seconds left to play who can’t hit a free throw with a 15-point lead and 12 minutes left.

Wilt Chamberlain, who well may have been the greatest player ever to play the game, finished his career with a 51.1 free-throw percentage, six years shooting under 50 percent and once finishing the season at 41.6 percent.

And it wasn’t that he didn’t get to practice much. One season he shot 1,363 free throws. In his career – and you might want to sit down for this – he missed 5,805 free throws.

Believe it or not, Wilt wasn’t even the worst in NBA history, Ben Wallace hitting 41.8 percent for his career average.

We bring this up because West Virginia University has the anti-Wilt in Eron Harris, who is blossoming into one of the greatest free-throw shooters in school history and doesn’t really see the big deal about it.

“I have to hit free throws, like a layup, almost,” he said.

It’s possible he is shooting free throws at a higher percentage than layups.

For the season, Harris is hitting 85.4 percent of his free throws, which ranks second in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma State’s Phil Forte, who is canning 88.5 percent. Harris’ percentage at present is 11th all-time for a season at WVU, surprisingly just behind No. 10 D’or Fischer in 2005.

The school record is 88.1 by Jonathan Hargett in 2002.

In just conference play, however, Harris has been incredible, hitting 46 of 48 free throws for a 95.8 percentage to lead the conference, Texas’ Isaiah Taylor a distant second at 86.1 percent, nearly 10 percent off Harris.

So, the other day, we pulled Harris aside to find out what is it that makes Harris so special as a free-throw shooter?

“Just like any shooter, some people got it and some people don’t. You’ve been taught all your life how to shoot, so you should know how to shoot by now. Some people get it; some people don’t. I guess I’m one of those people who got it,” he said.

Simple as that. Or is it?

There has to be more to it than just being blessed as a free-throw shooter.

“I just approach it like it’s something that’s a must,” he said. “Growing up, my Dad always stressed the importance of hitting free throws.”

If only other fathers and youth coaches would stress shooting free throws, make sure kids respected the points that come from them and understood how to make them.

Harris understands it all.

“Shoot it the way you shoot the ball,” he said, when asked what advice his father gave him. “When I was little, he made it important. Points are tough to come by, so when you get to the free-throw line it’s important that you make it.”

His coach now, Bob Huggins, also understands how important free throws are, and he pushes his team to be the best they can be.

He believes that the more you shoot, the better you get at it, so he makes each player shoot 100 a day.

“When I was a player, I tried to make at least 50, but it was better when I made a hundred. If I had to run to class or do something, I didn’t shoot as well,” he explained.

As important as shooting a lot of them is shooting them the right way.

“We try to get them to have the same kind of routine, the same kind of ritual when you shoot those 100. Sometimes they’re anxious to get out, so they don’t have the same routine. Most of the time they do,” Huggins said.

What, though, goes through the mind as you stand there getting ready to shoot a free throw?

“I don’t really think about anything,” Harris said. “I just get up there and shoot it. I go through my routine, and hopefully it goes in because I ain’t got no control after it leaves my hands.”

Huggins was asked what he teaches a player to think about.

“I tell them that there’s three eyelets (holding the net in place) in the front of the basket,” Huggins said. “If you shoot it over the middle eyelet, even if you miss it one way or the other a little bit, it’s going to go in.”

Huggins believes if a player does that, it intensifies his concentration level.

Harris was asked if shooting free throws early in the game and late in the game is different and, surprisingly, he said it is.

Most players try to tell you that they approach it all the same, but Harris has a different – and more honest – answer.

“Yeah, it is different because the importance of that point is magnified. It plays into the game more.

“When you’re just into the flow of the game, it’s, ‘OK, we need this point, we want to have this point, but if I miss it it’s not as important as it is as the end of the game when we need it,’” he said.

“I guess it is harder making them late in the game, but if you want to work on shooting it the same way every time, then it doesn’t matter what you think about.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.