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December 2, 2008

Devin Harris is a Historical Oddity

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 3:45 am

Letters, we get letters, we get sacks and sacks of letters. Letters! Will from Ames, Iowa (where Fred Hoiberg is Mayor for Life, as I understand the matter) writes in to ask about Devin Harris.

Devin Harris is presently averaging 11.8 FTA per game through 13 games this season (highlighted by 17 attempts against Phoenix and 24 against Detroit).  Last year, he averaged only 4.7 attempts a game.  What are the highest single season increases in FTA in league history?  Isn’t it historically unusual for a player to improve by 7 foul shots a game from one season to the next?

Good catch, Will. It certainly is. Let’s take a look back at the largest increases from one season to the next in league history.

Player            Year   FTA1   FTA2   Diff

Neil Johnston    52-53    2.4   11.3   +9.0
DEVIN HARRIS     08-09    4.7   11.8   +7.1
Jerry West       61-62    6.3   12.3   +6.1
John Block       67-68    1.5    7.6   +6.0
Kelly Tripucka   88-89    1.4    7.2   +5.8
Tony Campbell    89-90    1.3    6.9   +5.6

In fact, Harris’ leap has only been surpassed once in league history, and you have to go back more than 50 years to find that. However, this group isn’t really comparable to Harris with the possible exception of West. For the most part, these guys saw their FTAs go up because they played larger roles and more minutes, not because they did a better job of getting to the line.

A better way to look at the issue is using the percentage of player possessions that ended in trips to the free-throw line. From this perspective, Harris stands alone, having gone from 13.4 percent of his possessions being FTAs a year ago to 23.1 percent so far this season, a 9.7 percent increase. The highest regular rotation player (minimum 1,000 minutes both years) I could find was a former Nets player, Jason Collins. Between 2005-06 and 2006-07, Collins saw his FTA rate increase from 10.5 percent to 20.0 percent. He attempted 41 more free throws while slashing his field-goal attempts in similar minutes.

The other half of Will’s question is this: “Also, Harris currently ranks 1st in the league in FTM and is 4th in FTA.  Historically, how often do point guards rank highly in these categories, particularly the latter?”

I’m not sure ranking amongst the leaders is particularly unusual, especially since the rules re-interpretations limiting contact on the perimeter. Allen Iverson (sometimes a point guard) is annually amongst the league leaders in free-throw attempts, while Gilbert Arenas has also been in the top three.

What is unique is the pure frequency with which Harris has gotten to the free-throw line for a smaller player. Here are the all-time leaders in FTA/G amongst players 6-4 and shorter.

Player            Year   FTA/G

Jerry West       65-66    12.4
Jerry West       61-62    12.3
DEVIN HARRIS     08-09    11.8
Allen Iverson    05-06    11.5
World B. Free    79-80    11.2

The only other guys 6-4 or shorter to average even 10 free-throw attempts a game are Nate Archibald, Arenas, Paul Arizin and Dwyane Wade (who ranks lower than I would have expected). So Harris’ ability to get to the stripe so far has certainly been extraordinary, a key reason he’s been one of the league’s most valuable players in the early going.

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