Watch out, NBA, because Damian Lillard has blossomed into one of the most potent free throw shooters in the league. Through the Trail Blazers‘ first eight contests, Lillard is shooting a stellar 94 percent from the line on 8.4 attempts per game. Despite the small sample size, his work at the charity stripe is just the latest data point along a line of consistent progression for the former Weber State standout.
Leading the pack
Only seven players are currently averaging at least eight free throw attempts per game in the NBA. Pelicans star Anthony Davis leads the pack with 9.2 attempts per game, but he is only connecting on 71.7 percent of his shots. Lillard, who is shooting far more accurately, ranks No. 4 on the free throw attempted list.
Of all the seven players meeting the criteria, Lillard’s efficiency leads by a wide margin. In fact, he’s the only player in the group shooting over 90 percent. Devin Booker and Kevin Love serve as Lillard’s closest competition. Both players are shooting 81.8 percent from the free throw line to start the year.
Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Danilo Gallinari are further down the leaderboard for attempts per game, but all three are shooting above 90 percent from the free throw line. Gallinari’s amazing 97.9 free throw percentage is the only mark above Lillard.
Impacting the W/L Column
While Lillard’s excellent shooting looks good in the box score, it also has obvious benefits for the Blazers’ win total. Dating back to last year’s regular season, Portland has a record of 13-7 when Dame sinks at least 10 shots from the free throw line.
Lillard’s strong performance at the stripe reveals a new and interesting twist: Lillard has learned how to stay relevant during a rough shooting night. The Blazers have a 3-1 record in games when Lillard has shot under 50 percent from the field, partially because he has made a combined 33-35 from the free throw line.
Lillard’s rise to the top of the food chain is a product of consistent improvement throughout his seven-year career. After shooting just below 90 percent from the free throw line for consecutive seasons, he shot 91.6 percent in the 2017-18 regular season. Aside from his rookie-to-sophomore transition, Lillard’s largest jump in free throw attempts per game came after the conclusion of the 2014-15 season. He leaped from 4.9 attempts to 6.2 attempts per game in 2015-16.
Moving forward, Lillard’s proficiency at the free throw line paints a pretty picture for his long-term scoring arc. Chauncey Billups didn’t reach his scoring peak until he was 33 years old. Billups’ rise in points per game output was mirrored by his gains at the free throw line. In his first full season with the Nuggets, Billups connected on 91 percent of his career-high 7 free throw attempts per game.
Lillard’s bid to remain among the NBA’s most potent free throw shooters is tied to two factors: he will continue to exploit defenders based on his increasing experience, and referees are more likely to give veterans the benefit of the doubt on close calls.
For now, thanks to his work at the free throw line, expect Lillard to stay relevant even when his field goal percentage dips.
—Steve / @SteveDHoops / BEdgeSteve@gmail.com