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Is Duke Back To Normal From The Free Throw Line?

In short: yes and no.

Elon v Duke
DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 18: Paolo Banchero #5 of the Duke Blue Devils concentrates at the free throw line against the Elon Phoenix in the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 18, 2021 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Analyzing Duke’s annual performances under Mike Krzyzewski prior to this season we noted the 2020-21 Blue Devils were markedly handicapped by a pronounced lack of point production at the foul line.

Strong, aggressive squads earning numerous trips to the free throw line and limiting opponents’ foul shooting opportunities long reflected Krzyzewski’s approach to the game. No one at a Duke practice relishes the coach’s reaction to making the seventh foul of a half in an intrasquad scrimmage, yielding a one-and-one opportunity to the opposing team.

But last year’s Devils were pedestrian and, frankly, forgettable for a variety of reasons, among them failing to do many big and little things often cited to explain the difference between victory and defeat.

One of those flaws in ’21 was the team’s inability to rack up points at the foul line – the 13.1 points Duke scored per game on free throws was the most parsimonious portion ever under Krzyzewski.

Coming off a covid-extended, late-year pause on the brink of immersive conference play, it’s instructive to gauge how ’22 Duke production has changed at the line compared to last season.

Not much so far.

Clearly this is an improved Duke squad, comparable to recent Top 10, Elite Eight units. Yet about a third of the way through the season Duke was getting 16 percent of its points via free throw, which would still be worst in Coach K’s 42 seasons other than 2021.

That point production belies the fact after a dozen games the ’22 squad is hitting at a .759 clip at the line, tied with the 2010 unit for fourth-best under Krzyzewski. The current team also is scoring at a handsome, ACC-best clip (85.25-point average).

This despite the fact the current group is garnering points at the foul line, and getting to the foul line, notably less often than predecessing Duke clubs.

One compensating virtue we’ll revisit later: the Devils have quietly but tellingly made 40 more free throws than opponents have attempted this season. That uncommon ratio reflects the sort of disciplined strength at both ends of the court cultivated by Krzyzewski.

Surely it would also help if the squad’s scoring leader, Paolo Banchero, was more consistently assertive earning his way to the foul line.

An .825 free throw shooter, Banchero attempted not quite five foul shots per game through 12 contests. On average that’s one fewer than, for instance, forwards AJ Barrett and Marvin Bagley III, fellow freshman standouts and Duke’s 2019 and 2018 scoring leaders, respectively.

When the multi-talented Banchero is on the prowl, as in the second half against Virginia Tech in the Blue Devils’ 2021-22 league opener, Duke is a better team in many respects. He didn’t get to the line in a close first half; he made 4 of 4 free throws in the second half as the Devils seized control.

Also of note: sustaining a robust playing rotation could further bolster Duke’s free throw efficiency, given that this season’s top two reserves and best 3-point shooters, Joey Baker and AJ Griffin, were a combined 26-27 at the line as the 2022 calendar year dawned.

LINE DANCING, REVISITED
How Duke Capitalizes On Free Throw Chances
(2022 Season Through Games of December 2021)
Year Games %PtsFT FT% FTM/G FTA/G
2022 12 16.03 .759 13.67 18.00
2021 24 13.10 .691 9.96 14.42
2020 31 19.59 .720 16.16 22.45
2019 38 17.53 .686 14.50 21.13
2018 37 18.00 .710 15.19 21.38
2017 37 21.46 .762 17.35 22.76
2016 36 21.44 .723 16.92 23.14
2015 39 19.73 .699 15.64 22.38
2014 35 20.80 .729 16.31 22.37
2013 36 21.17 .739 16.33 22.11
2012 34 23.06 .701 17.82 25.41