Chinanu Onuaku's free throws have inspired Instagrams and Vines and jokes, but they're also going in way more often
Videos of Louisville forward Chinanu Onuaku shooting underhanded free throws have been clipped, tweeted, posted, Instagrammed and Vined all season long. So it's no surprise they made it to Rick Barry's screen. Barry, of course, is the man who perfected that unorthodox method, a 12-time NBA All-Star who still owns the league's third-highest alltime free throw percentage (89.3). Game after game, year after year, Barry would step to the line, hold the ball with both hands, drop it between his legs and flick it softly towards the rim. Swish. The technique was highly unusual and highly effective.
That method, which has long been referred to as "Granny style," has long been dead and buried, but Onuaku has exhumed it this season. Barry notices some subtle differences between Onuaku's technique and his, but he is impressed with the young man's decision to go Granny. "God bless him for having the courage to do something that's unorthodox," Barry says. "I admire the fact that he's attempting it."
Onuaku had heard of Barry, who played in the ABA and NBA from 1965–80, but he didn't realize Barry shot free throws underhanded until his coach, Rick Pitino, showed him a video of Barry doing it. This was a year ago when Onuaku, a 6' 10", 230-pound sophomore from Lanham, Md., was finishing a freshman season in which he would convert just 46.7% of his free throw attempts. After practicing all summer, Onuaku unveiled the Granny method when this season began. He has raised his percentage nearly 13 points, to 59.6%.
Sure, Onuaku gets teased by other players. He hears the snickers from fans. He understands he has become a curiosity, drawing quips from broadcasters and piquing social media. Yet, the ball is going in more than it used to, and for him that is what matters most. "I don't really care what people think," he says. "I know they're going to make fun of me. I just brush it off. It's all about getting better."
Adds Pitino, "He actually likes the recognition. He's not embarrassed by it. He likes the fact that everybody gets excited when he goes to the line."
Onuaku's rapid improvement comes as no surprise to Barry. "It's so much more natural to shoot this way," he says. "Who walks around with their hands over their head?" As Barry has often explained, the primary benefits of Granny style are that it increases the likelihood of a straight toss, and it produces a much softer landing on the rim. Onuaku is also able to generate more backspin, which gives him more breaks on errant throws. He still misses his share, but he is no longer laying bricks. Rather, his misses tends to bounce a couple of times softly on the rim before dropping to the floor.
What really vexes Barry is that so few players have attempted to switch, especially the pros who are awful free throw shooters. He disdainfully points out that when Detroit Pistons forward Andre Drummond missed 23 free throws during a game against the Rockets last month, that was more than Barry missed during his final two seasons in the NBA (19). Players like Drummond and the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan might think they look silly shooting underhanded free throws, but they look a lot sillier when opposing teams repeatedly foul them because they're so awful from the stripe. "Why do these guys have an issue with this? Because it's unorthodox?" Barry asks. "Physicists have done all kinds of testing and said it's the most efficient way to shoot because there are fewer moving parts. Drummond is shooting, what, 35% for the season? That's freaking embarrassing."
Barry understands the reluctance, but only to a point. He felt the same way when his father, Richard Jr., first suggested he make the switch when Barry was a junior at Roselle Park (N.J.) High School. Though underhanded free throws were common in the early days of professional basketball, at that time the method was being used mostly by high school girls. When Rick told his dad he was worried he'd be teased, his father replied, "They can't make fun of you if you're making them."
Barry improved almost immediately and stayed committed to the style for three years at the University of Miami, where he made 84.7% of his free throws, and during all his time as a pro. Toward the end of his career, Barry altered his technique, eliminating the cock of his wrist to make the motion more repetitive. That led to even greater improvement his last two seasons, during which he posted the highest percentages of his career (94.7 in 1979 and 93.5 in '80). To this day, he claims he could make 80% with his eyes shut because he never lost the feel he acquired from all that practice.
It is not just the fear of looking silly that prevents today's players from making the conversion. It's also the lack of available teachers. Barry recalls seeing just three other NBA players shoot underhanded during his entire career. The shot has long ago disappeared from the women's game. If no professional players are shooting underhanded, it's hard to convince a college or high school player that he or she should give it a try.
That's a shame, because there are countless players who might have benefited. Former Oklahoma State point guard and current CBS broadcaster Doug Gottlieb was a very good free throw shooter while playing for Tustin (Calif.) High School, but when he got to college, he was overcome by stage fright. Though he remains in 11th place on the NCAA's alltime career assist chart, Gottlieb shot a woeful 45.7% from the foul line during his college career. His coach at Oklahoma State, Eddie Sutton, tried to coax him through his issues, and at one point Gottlieb visited with a sports psychologist. Yet, no one said he should try underhanded. "If someone did suggest it, they did it in jest," Gottlieb says. "Who wants to shoot Granny style? It had all these negative connotations to it." Asked if he wishes he had tried it, Gottlieb replies, "In hindsight, absolutely. It might have solved my free throw problems, which would have solved so many other problems."
That stubborn pride—Who wants to shoot Granny style?—is keeping some of the world's best players from getting better at this very important facet of the game. Several years ago, Barry worked with an NBA player (he prefers not to say who), only to see that player abandon the idea when the season came around. Barry has encountered a similar disinclination in his own family. He has five sons who played Division I basketball and four who played professionally, but the only one who became fully committed to shooting underhanded was his youngest, Canyon, a senior at College of Charleston whose free throw percentage improved to 84.5% from 72.2 last season after he made the switch. (Canyon had season-ending shoulder surgery two weeks ago.)
Onuaku started working on the technique as soon as Pitino suggested it, but he did not try it in a game until last summer, when he played for Team USA at the 2015 FIBA Under-19 World Championship in Greece. After his first attempt, many fans lifted their cell phones so they could make videos. NBA journeyman Leandro Barbosa, a Brazilian native, posted a video on Instagram. Onuaku admits there have been moments along the way when he considered giving up, but he pressed on. "There's no point in going back, because I know the old way is worse," he says.
Like a lot of big players, Onuaku's large hands make it hard for him to acquire the requisite feel using traditional form. He is further plagued by an inability to set his elbow at a 90-degree angle. "I don't know why, because I never broke it or anything, but it's been a problem all my life," he says. The more Onuaku repeats the underhanded motion, the better he gets. Pitino says he routinely makes around 70% in practice, and Onuaku says he once made 23 in a row.
To be sure, Onuaku does not see himself as a trendsetter. If the great Rick Barry couldn't unleash a generation of Grannies, then he certainly won't. He also understands that years from now, Louisville fans might remember him mostly as the guy who went Granny. "That's fine with me," he says. "At least they'll remember me for something good." Swish.