On Sunday night against the Utah Jazz, Kevin Martin of the Houston Rockets went 18 of 18 at the free throw line. The ESPN Stats and Info recap on Truehoop pointed out that it’s the 8th time in Martin’s career he’s attempted at least 15 free throws in a game, making all of them. It was also noted that this ties him for second all-time with Dolph Schayes, trailing only Oscar Robertson, who accomplished that feat 11 times.
Looking at a more modern sampling, since 1986-1987 we see Kobe Bryant has accomplished it 6 times and Magic Johnson 5 times. Three different players have done it 4 times, Three different players have done it 3 times. Again, Martin is firmly in front having accomplished it 8 times. He’s already cemented himself a place as one of the NBA’s all-time best free throw shooters. His career FT% of 86.3% ranks just 39th in NBA history. However, Martin posted that FT% on 7.9 FTA/36. The only other player among the NBA’s top 100 free throw shooters by percentage, who went to the line at a higher rate was the aforementioned Dolph Schayes. Including Martin, only 10 of those top 100 attempted more than 6.0 FTA/36, and only 6 topped 7.0 FTA/36.
Over the past 5 seasons only five players, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki, have made free throws than Martin. Even more impressive is that Martin made it onto this list by playing in the fewest games, 17 less than Dwyane Wade, and by playing the fewest minutes, 1,378 fewer minutes than Dwyane Wade. He’s in elite company in terms of both the quantity of his free throw attempts and the accuracy of his shooting.
The other thing which seems to make Martin so unique is his pattern of development. To the consternation of basketball coaches, trainers and analysts, free throw shooting is a skill which tends to stay fairly static over time. Over the past ten seasons the league average FT% has never dropped below 75.2%, and never risen above 77.1%. Over the course of a player’s career their FT% tends to stay fairly similar as well.
Despite entering the league as a very good free throw shooter, Martin has seen his FT% rise substantially. He shot 81.7% his last season at Western Carolina but just 65.5% as an NBA rookie. Even if we dismiss his rookie season as a blip we still see steady improvement. He’s increased his FT% almost every season, and is shooting 89.0% from the stripe this year. Even more impressive is he’s done that while substantially increasing his number of attempts. As a rookie, Martin averaged 4.4 FTA/36. This season he’s averaging 9.6.
To put his remarkable improvement into context I assembled a set of players for comparison. Using Basketball-Reference’s Play Index I found the 100 players who played the most minutes as 21 year old rookies, the same age Martin was when he entered the league. I found their average FT% and FTA/36. I then did the same thing for the 100 players who played the most minutes as 22 year old sophomores, etc. all the way up to 27 year old players in their seventh season. The table below shows their average improvement compared to that of Kevin Martin.
Here’s the same information in a confusing and visually unappealing graph:
The first thing that should jump out is that Martin both attempts and makes free throws at an elite level. The second thing you should notice is that Martin has continued to improve on this elite skill, and at a rate well above average. ESPN contributor David Thorpe is one of the people who has worked with and trained Martin. Thorpe has consistently praised Martin for his intelligence and work ethic. I’m sure some would like to see more of Martin’s effort devoted to similar improvement at the defensive end. Still, the uniqueness of a player not sitting on his laurels, and continuing to develop and refine a strength to an elite level, deserves recognition.