Free throw shooting is up but Jayhawks still can do better
For a team that has struggled to get to the free throw line for most of the 2017-18 season, seeing a single player get to the stripe 13 times in one game certainly qualifies as noteworthy.
The fact that Kansas senior Devonte’ Graham made all 13 of his trips to the free throw line was an added bonus. But KU coach Bill Self is not fully convinced that the Jayhawks’ team free throw woes are fixed because of Graham’s high-volume game.
“He did great,” Self said at his weekly press conference on Thursday. “The things that Devonte' did really good are things he needs to do the entire game. To me, it's too much pressure on him to be the only one to do it, though.”
Self then pointed out how Lagerald Vick and Marcus Garrett both could do much more in that department and how Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman, could as well, even though those two are known more as shooters than guys who drive the ball to the rim.
Regardless of who’s doing it and who’s not, what Self would like to see most is those free throw attempts come from his team’s offensive sets, not just from a senior trying to make a play to bring his team back from a big deficit.
“Somebody asked a question the other day, 'Were you happy getting to the line 23 times?' The answer is, ‘Yes, we're happier doing that,’” Self said. “But it wasn't real. It was in a comeback effort where you just drive it, put your head down and drive it. You're not running good offense. I'd like to see us be able to do that in the first half as well as the second half.”
Through the first 14 games of the season, Graham leads the team with 57 trips to the free throw line. That’s as many as the second and third-place free throw shooters on the roster combined. So, clearly, Graham needs help.
And one of the better candidates to do more in the way of getting to the free throw line is 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike, who ranks second on the team with 33 free throw attempts thus far. Lagerald Vick is third with 24.
One of the biggest issues with Azubuike and the free throw line is his percentage. The sophomore big man is shooting just .424 from the line this season and has missed the front end of several one-and-one attempts that not only cost the Jayhawks an extra shot but also points.
That exact scenario unfolded early in Tuesday’s loss to Texas Tech and Self explained Thursday how Azubuike’s issues at the line impacted the team after a perfectly executed half-court set that got him the ball down low and put him on the line.
“ You're struggling,” he said. “Even though it's early, 5-0, you're struggling, you get the ball right where you want it, you come away empty. Is it deflating? Yeah. There's nothing more deflating than when you're making a comeback and you miss a front end. I think you're much better off being there than not being there. …I still think it's a win for the offense. I do. It puts you in the bonus sooner.”
Even though KU's free throw attempts are up seven a game since the start of Big 12 play — from 11.8 per game to 19 — the free throw issue remains just one of the many things with this team right now that is not quite right.
As is the case with several of the other issues, — defense, depth, execution and understanding — it’s not as if things are completely broken. But KU's ability to get to the free throw line both at the rate and how Self would like definitely is not clicking on all cylinders and that is costing Kansas in the areas of consistency, confidence and production.