What Is a Free Throw in Basketball? The Ultimate Guide

A youth basketball player shoots a free throw.

Free throws are one of the most common occurrences in a game of basketball. It seems pretty simple, right? You get a free attempt to make a basket – what could be easier? In reality, there are quite a few intricacies surrounding free throws that can make them challenging, and learning their true impact is very important.

So, what is a free throw?

A free throw is an unguarded shot attempt that is awarded after a foul occurs in a game of basketball. Free throws are worth one point, but there can be multiple free throws taken in a row. The defense is not allowed to impede the shot in any way but can rebound the ball if the shot is missed.

Free throws are pretty similar throughout different levels of basketball, but it usually takes players a long time to master the skill. Through effective coaching, practice, and knowledge, players can utilize free throws to their advantage, rather than being afraid of the pressure that comes along with them. Let’s take a look at all the details together.

What Is a Free Throw in Basketball?

A free throw is a shot that occurs after a foul in a game of basketball. There is a lot of pressure associated with free throws – they are common late in games and can be the difference between a win and a loss.

When a free throw(s) is awarded, a single player gets a shot at the basket with no guarding from the other team during a stoppage in play. This can happen during a variety of circumstances, and there can be multiple free throws taken in succession.

Why Is it Called a Free Throw?

You might wonder where the name “free throw” comes from. In fact, it couldn’t be simpler.

It’s called a free throw because the shot is “free” in that it is uncontested by the defense, and throw is simply another word for a shot. The free throw sometimes goes by other names, including ‘foul shot’ or ‘free shot’. They all mean the same thing in the context of a basketball game.

Free Throw Rules

Despite what the name might imply, free throws aren’t “free”. There are some important rules that govern the attempts and the rest of the players within the game.

First, each individual free throw is always worth one point. This is the same no matter what type of foul elicits the free throw attempt.

Second, free throws are not allowed to be guarded or contested by the defensive team. After all, they are “free” throws!

Finally, every free throw is taken from the same spot on the court – the free throw line.

What Is a Free Throw Violation in Basketball?

There are several different types of lane violations that can occur during a free throw attempt in basketball. The violations can be committed by the shooter or the non-shooter.

Free throw violations are rule infractions that result in the shot either being reattempted or forfeited. They can be incurred by either team.

The first type of violation is committed by the shooter themselves – they have to stay behind the free throw line until the ball hits the rim. If the shooter doesn’t follow this rule, they forfeit their shot attempt.

The second type of violation is the most commonly called violation and can be committed by any player on either team. The rules state that players can’t attempt to go for a rebound until after the ball is released by the shooter.

A common instance where this specific violation is called comes when two big men are jockeying for position down low on an important free throw attempt. Eager to get a better position, the two players begin to try and box each other out early. This is a violation and results in a penalty.

The final type of violation is a violation of free throw positioning. There are certain rules governing where players can stand during a free throw attempt. Read on to find out more about the rules of free throw positioning.

If a violation is committed, it either results in the forfeiture of a free throw attempt if by the offense or an option to redo the free throw attempt if by the defense. If the free throw is made on a play where the defense commits a violation, play continues as normal. If both teams commit a violation on the same attempt, it results in a jump ball between the teams.

What Is the Free Throw Line in Basketball?

A look from the free throw line on an outdoor basketball court.

The free throw line is the spot from which every free throw is taken. It’s located in the same place on every basketball court and is a part of the key.

Free Throw Line Distance

The free throw line is located 19 feet away from the baseline and 15 feet away from the bottom of the backboard. It is approximately 12 feet wide, but generally, players line up in the middle of the free throw line.

How to Lineup for Free Throws

When lining up for a free throw, the shooter will stand alone on the free throw line. Along the sides of the lane (a part of the key), there can be as many as four players from the defending team and two players from the offensive team.

These players are positioned along with dashes on the lane that mark their allowed position. These dashes are present on all regulated basketball courts.

The two players closest to the rim along the lane are generally the two best rebounders on the defensive team. Behind them are the two players from the offensive team – these are also typically the best rebounders for their team. Finally, the other two players from the defensive team are positioned along the lanes closest to the free throw shooter.

The rest of the players (besides the free throw shooter and the six players lined up along the lane) must remain behind the free throw line until the ball is released.

Sometimes, the free throw shooting team will not position any of their players along the lanes. Although they’re giving up the rebound opportunity by doing this, they end up being better prepared defensively after the free throw is over.

When Are Free Throws Awarded in Basketball?

Free throws can be awarded in several different situations. Most commonly, teams get free throws as a result of a foul occurring during a shot attempt. However, fouls are also awarded when a team is in the bonus, as well as when a technical foul is assessed.

How Many Free Throws Do You Get?

How many free throws you get depends on the situation when a foul occurs, as well as a team’s total number of fouls.

If a foul occurs in a shooting situation, the player who is fouled gets either two or three free throw attempts. If the shot was missed and was from inside the three-point line, they are awarded two shots, while if it was outside the three-point line they get three shots.

If the shot was made despite a foul occurring, no matter where it was taken from on the court, the player who was fouled gets one additional free throw attempt.

If a team is within the bonus when a non-shooting foul occurs, they will also be able to shoot free throws. In the NBA, any foul when a team is in the bonus results in two free throws.

In college, there are two tiers to the bonus: the bonus and the double bonus. In the first bonus, a fouled player gets a ‘one and one’, in which they get one free throw attempt initially and another one if they make the first one. In the double bonus, they get two free throws no matter if they make the first one or not.

Technical fouls also lead to free throws. In the NBA, a technical foul leads to one free throw and possession of the ball for the team that was fouled. In college, however, the rules are different again. For a Class A technical foul, teams are awarded two free throws, while for a Class B technical foul teams are only awarded one free throw.

How Do You Get Better at Free Throws?

Lebron James shooting free throws.

Getting better at free throws isn’t as much about technique as you might think. After all, a free throw is a set, wide-open shot from a manageable distance. There are many other more difficult shots in basketball.

The main thing that is important to remember in order to improve at free throws is to be consistent. This consistency should extend beyond the technique of each individual release of a shot, but also to what comes before that.

Good free throw shooters have one thing in common – they do the same thing prior to shooting, every time. This means setting up in the same place along the free throw line, doing the same pre-shot routine, and keeping consistent timing in the release of the shot itself.

What are some common pre-shot routines? Upon receiving the ball from the referee, players do a wide variety of things that may include taking a couple of dribbles, taking a deep breath or two, doing a unique gesture, or repeating a mantra to themselves.

The important thing is to do the same routine consistently and develop a comfort level with it. In free throw situations, the time before the shot is the main difference between actual games, and what you do with that time is important in making your free throw shooting as consistent as possible.

Finally, the mental aspect of free throw shooting is extremely important. The best thing that a player can do is to block out their thoughts, and just shoot like natural. However, this is often hard to do with the pressure of each individual shot, the noise of the crowd, and the focus of the whole arena.

Players should practice their mental routine in free throw shooting just as much as they practice the physical act of shooting the ball. In practice, coaches and teams sometimes simulate real game situations by making lots of noise, standing in front of or behind the free throw shooter, or incentivizing made shots.

All of these techniques give free throw shooters the opportunity to develop mental toughness and to prepare mentally so that they can be ready for big moments. After all, a free throw may end up being the difference in a game or a season.

What Is a Good Free Throw Percentage?

Like anything else in basketball or life, what constitutes a ‘good’ free throw percentage is subject to opinion. However, there are some commonly accepted benchmarks in free throw shooting.

At all levels of basketball, a good free throw shooter is someone who can consistently make 70% or more of their free throws. As with any other basketball-related skill, the expectations only get higher at higher levels of the game.

For example, in the NBA a good free throw shooter is someone who can consistently make 80% or more of their free throws. This makes sense because the pool of players gets smaller, while their skill level goes up.

Still, it is very difficult to make a high percentage of free throws. Even the best NBA players don’t make 100% of their free throws – in fact, only three NBA players in league history can stake a claim to beating the 90% mark on free throw shooting for their career.

Best Free Throw Shooters of All Time

Free throw shooting is valuable to NBA teams, especially in late-game scenarios. So, who are the greatest free throw shooters in league history?

Unsurprisingly, the greatest overall shooter in the history of the NBA is also the best free throw shooter in league history. Steph Curry has been excellent throughout his career from the charity stripe, and this great foul shooting has helped his teams to win several NBA championships.

There have been plenty of other great free throw shooters in league history. Many of these players are superstars and hall of famers but there are also several sharpshooters who played important roles for NBA teams.

Steve Nash, Ray Allen, and Rick Barry were all excellent free throw shooters in their day, and all of them currently have a hall of fame bust to their name. However, other players like Mark Price, J.J. Redick, and Scott Skiles were also great free-throw shooters who had lower profiles.

Redick and Skiles didn’t even make any all-star teams during their NBA careers, but their accurate shooting propelled them to long NBA careers.

Best Free Throw Percentage in NBA History

Steph Curry lining up near half court.

Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors holds the best free throw percentage in NBA history with a 90.78% career average. He is still an active player, but his lead is so large that he likely will remain at the top of the list for the foreseeable future.

Longtime Suns guard Steve Nash (90.43%) and four-time all-star Mark Price (90.39%) are the only two other NBA players with a history of shooting over 90% from the free throw line. Rounding out the top five are sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic (89.48%) and prolific point guard Chauncey Billups (89.40%). Hall of famer Ray Allen is just off the pace in sixth place with a career mark of 89.39%.

Best Free Throw Percentage in a Season

Being a consistent free throw shooter throughout a career is no doubt an impressive feat. However, the list of players with the best free throw percentages in a single season is very different.

In fact, the top five list of the best career free throw shooters in NBA history doesn’t share any players in common with the best single-season free throw shooters in the history of the league.

Keep in mind that the statistical minimum to qualify for free throw percentage in the NBA is for a player to make 125 free throws in a single season.

The best free-throw shooting season in NBA history belongs to Jose Calderon, while he was in his fourth season with the Toronto Raptors in the 2008-09 season. Curiously, this was the only season in which Calderon even qualified to be a league leader by meeting the statistical minimum number of free throws made.

In 154 free throw attempts on the season, he made a staggering 151 of them for an astronomical percentage of 98.05% made free throws, still the best ever by a considerable margin. Hall of fame Rockets guard Calvin Murphy was another great free throw shooter, posting a mark of 95.81% in the 1980-81 season.

Close to his numbers are Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf with a 95.63% free throw shooting average in the 1993-1994 season, hall of famer Ray Allen with a 95.18% mark from the line in 2008-09 with the Boston Celtics, and Utah Jazz guard Jeff Hornacek with a 95% average in his final season in 1999-2000

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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