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Elena Delle Donne’s transformation into professional basketball’s most dependable foul shooter began with a bold suggestion from her first high school coach.
Steve Johnson urged the future WNBA MVP to scrap the shooting stroke that had carried her to national prominence and start from scratch on one with less wasted motion.
Day after day during the summer before Delle Donne entered eighth grade, Johnson worked with her to finetune the mechanics of her new free-throw stroke. They started two feet away from the basket and only moved backward after Delle Donne proved she was comfortable shooting how Johnson wanted from that distance.
Step one in Delle Donne’s new routine was to line up her right foot with the nail that marks the center of the free-throw line. She then would take three dribbles, make an L-shape with her shooting arm and bend her knees slightly. From there, it was just lift and flick, usually with a bit of an ankle pop at the end.
“All I tried to do is what I would do with anyone — make a free throw as simple as possible and make the mechanics very repeatable,” Johnson said. “I wanted her to be able to shoot the exact same way whether it was the opening minute of a game and she was fresh, or the last minute of double overtime and she was exhausted.”
Messing with a 14 year old’s shooting form is hardly radical under normal circumstances, but Delle Donne was no ordinary middle-school prospect. She was a bonafide basketball prodigy who signed her first autographs as a fifth grader, landed her first college scholarship offers as a seventh grader and was preparing to start for her high school’s varsity team as an eighth grader.
There were lots of coaches across Delaware who questioned Johnson’s decision to tinker with Delle Donne’s shot when she unveiled the new version. Even Delle Donne herself had some doubts after missing more free throws than she made during the transition period.
“When he first changed it, I was airballing shots, bricking shots, hardly making any,” Delle Donne told Yahoo Sports in 2016. “I was getting so mad at him, but he told me to believe in him. I started to improve and to get comfortable with it. Eventually, it just felt right.”
Using the same stroke Johnson taught her a decade and a half ago, Delle Donne has become as close to automatic from the free-throw line as any player in basketball history, regardless of gender. No current nor former WNBA or NBA player has a better career free-throw shooting percentage than Delle Donne’s 93.4, not Steph Curry (90.3), Steve Nash (90.4) or even Rick Barry (89.3).
The more pivotal the moment, the more consistent Delle Donne is at the foul line.
Michael Beuoy, creator of the sports data website Inpredictable, said Delle Donne is a career 94.3 percent foul shooter in what he defines as clutch situations during games. Delle Donne is shooting 96.3 percent from the foul line in 109 career playoff attempts, including 23-for-23 the past few weeks while spearheading the Washington Mystics’ run to their first conference title in franchise history.
When Atlanta made the mistake of intentionally fouling her twice in the final 12 seconds of Tuesday night’s decisive fifth game of the WNBA semifinals, Delle Donne made her opponent pay. She coolly knocked down all four free throws, sealing an 86-81 victory and sending Washington to Seattle for Friday night’s opening game of the WNBA Finals.
Ask Delle Donne the secret to her foul-shooting success, and she points to the simplicity of her motion. Free-throw shooting experts who have studied Delle Donne’s technique largely agree that her success is rooted in the compact nature of her stroke and her ability to repeat it over and over again.
“Elena Delle Donne has the same routine that never changes and she has very little motion with her shot,” said shooting coach Dave Hopla, who has worked with four NBA teams since 2006. “Eliminate motion, increase accuracy.”
“Her stroke is very precise, very clean, very little motion,” added Ed Palubinskas, a shooting coach who has worked with numerous NBA players, including Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard, Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee.
The ease in which Delle Donne repeats her motion stems from all the work she put in during high school perfecting Johnson’s technique.
Ball handling and outside shooting were longtime trainer John Noonan’s primary focuses as he sought to help Delle Donne develop perimeter skills to pair with her long, athletic 6-foot-5 frame, but he also made shooting free throws under duress a priority. Delle Donne would often have to sink a pair of free throws in between running sprints or knock down 10 in a row without touching the rim in order to secure a small reward.
“I liken it to an athlete that’s really well conditioned,” said Noonan, who has trained Delle Donne since second grade. “If you lifted, you ran and you did all the work, you get to that crucial part of the game and you believe that your training was better than the person you’re playing against. In Elena’s case, she knows when she steps to the line that she’s making that shot. I think it’s because she has put so much time in the gym knocking them down time after time after time, shot after shot after shot.”
Delle Donne set the girl’s national high school record for consecutive foul shots when she sank 80 in a row during her sophomore year. She became known as much for her prolific free-throw shooting during high school as her knack for leading fast breaks, knocking down step-back jump shots or scoring through double- and triple-teams.
“It got to the point where if she missed a free throw, you would hear a gasp in the stands,” said Fran Burbidge, Delle Donne’s coach for her junior and senior seasons at Ursuline Academy. “She didn’t miss too many times, but the couple times she did, you’d hear the stands collectively inhale in surprise.”
Little has changed for Delle Donne in college or the WNBA as she has continued to knock down free throws at an unprecedented rate. More than one quarter of the 3,247 points she has scored in six WNBA seasons have come at the free-throw line.
Delle Donne is unquestionably the best free-throw shooter in women’s basketball today. The WNBA basketball being an inch smaller in diameter than an NBA ball is a minor advantage for Delle Donne compared to male free-throw shooters, but the women’s ball is also livelier and less predictable when it hits the rim.
When Johnson watches Delle Donne shoot free throws with the Mystics, it brings him pride that she’s still using the technique he taught her. Delle Donne describes Johnson pushing her to revamp her free throw stroke as pivotal to her success at the foul line, but the retired math teacher and Delaware high school basketball coach prefers that all the credit goes to her.
“I don’t think what I taught her is anything magical,” Johnson said. “I trusted in her ability and she trusted in what I was trying to get her to do.”
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