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February 9, 2011
Getting to the Line
Derrick Rose's Development

by Kevin Pelton

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The framework of the story is common, almost to the point of cliché: Young player improves on a weakness to become a better player. Nonetheless, there is something interesting about what Derrick Rose has done this season as he has developed into one of the league's top point guards.

You might think I'm referring to Rose's improved shooting, which seems to neatly fit into our paradigm of player development, but I'm not. Instead, my concern is something ESPN Insider's John Hollinger considered earlier this season: Rose's middling free throw rate. Hollinger wasn't the first to point out that Rose could stand to get to the charity stripe more often--in fact, our Bradford Doolittle and BlogABull.com's Matt Bernhardt both wrote virtually the same thing in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2010-11. However, the strength of Hollinger's argument and the forcefulness of his conclusion that a lack of free throws was holding Rose back from elite status brought more attention to Rose's inability to draw fouls.

Less than two months later, Rose has answered the criticism. As it turned out, Hollinger's piece went live almost exactly as Rose's season-long free throw rate was bottoming out. Since its nadir on December 15, Rose's ratio of free throw attempts per field goal attempt has been consistently trending upward. The comparison of Rose's numbers before and after Hollinger's column is striking.

Period            FTA/FGA
-------------------------
2008-09            .207
2009-10            .246
Through Dec. 9     .264
Since Dec. 10      .332

Rose has made a massive leap, surging all the way from well below the league average (.305 free throw attempts per field goal attempt) to far above it. The impact on his overall performance has been considerable. First, take a look at a comparison of Rose's stats before and after December 10.

Period    Win%    ORtg    2P%    3P%    FT%    TS%    Usg   Ast%    TO%
-----------------------------------------------------------------------
Before    .622   109.1   .477   .372   .774   .533   .324    9.7   .137
After     .682   110.5   .464   .360   .856   .545   .315   10.0   .133

Despite seeing his shooting decline both inside and outside the arc, Rose's shooting efficiency has improved entirely because of the free throw line--both his ability to get there and his accuracy on freebies. That's fueled the uptick in Rose's winning percentage. Still, this might not do justice to the importance of Rose's newfound ability to get to the free throw line. For that, let's add in a third set of statistics--what Rose's performance would look like over the last 30 games if we assumed that his free throw rate was identical to what it was prior to December 10.

Period    Win%    ORtg    2P%    3P%    FT%    TS%    Usg   Ast%    TO%
-----------------------------------------------------------------------
Before    .622   109.1   .477   .372   .774   .533   .324    9.7   .137
After     .682   110.5   .464   .360   .856   .545   .315   10.0   .133

FT adj.   .659   109.6   .464   .360   .856   .533   .308   10.0   .136

Based on his previous rate of free throw attempts, Rose would have shot 40 fewer freebies since December 10. Given he's been almost automatic at the line in that span, that translates into 34 fewer makes. 34 points is nothing to trivialize; it represents a bottom-line difference of about a win to Chicago's record and accounts for the majority of Rose's offensive improvement within the season as well as the entirety of his uptick in True Shooting Percentage.

What these numbers cannot speak to is the more interesting question: Why has Rose has been able to get to the free throw line more frequently over the last two months? One obvious theory is that this reflects an evolution in his style of play and more forays to the hoop. Hoopdata.com's shot-location numbers suggest this is not the case. In fact, the percentage of Rose's shot attempts that have come at the rim has declined from 27.7 percent to 26.7 percent since December 10. As he has grown more comfortable with his new jumper, Rose has progressively been attempting more three-pointers, which should lend itself to fewer shooting fouls.

An intriguing possibility is that Rose has in fact absorbed the critique of his game and is now seeking out contact on a more regular basis. While I doubt Rose loaded up Hollinger's column, I suspect that he knows he could help himself by getting to the free throw line more frequently. However, it is hard to find much evidence of this in Rose's game. Comparing clips of him from early in the season to now using Synergy Sports, the same pattern is evident: Rose goes for either the spectacular play (a more difficult shot fading away or off balance) or the easy one (passing out of the paint) rather than going through defenders to draw the foul.

That leaves one handy explanation for why Rose is attempting more free throws: a friendlier whistle. In the limited video I saw, Rose drew a couple of fouls in January and February that I don't think he would have gotten in November and December. As Rose has established himself as a superstar over the course of the season, it is not unreasonable to believe that he has earned the benefit of doubt at times from referees who might not have given him borderline calls before, especially since Rose is not a demonstrative player and does not tend to call attention to the contact he does draw. I am not certain that the way Rose's game is refereed accounts for the entire increase in his free throw rate the last two months, but I am convinced it has been a factor.

Whatever the explanation, I think Rose is likely to keep his rate of free throw attempts per field goal attempt above league average, which is great news for both him and the Bulls. By addressing three of his biggest weaknesses--defense rounds out the list--Rose has made a crucial leap forward during his third season, developing ahead of schedule into the kind of star that can anchor a championship team.

(UPDATE: See the BBP Unfiltered follow-up to this column.)

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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