Jim Shaw wears two hats for Washington State’s basketball team: full-time assistant coach, part-time rehabilitation specialist.
Free-throw rehabilitation, that is.
Whenever the Cougars encounter struggles at the foul line, they can expect to spend a good amount of time working with Shaw. Last season, head coach Kyle Smith occasionally hinted at the “free-throw rehab” sessions his veteran assistant would put on when an individual, or group, began to regress at the line.
Shaw’s had quite the undertaking this week as the Cougars look to recover from one of their worst free-throw outings in years, and easily the worst of Smith’s 25-game tenure as WSU’s coach.
In an 86-82 double-overtime loss to Arizona on Saturday, the Cougars could have squeaked out their second Pac-12 Conference win by shooting a mere 65% from the free-throw line – 4% less than their season average of 68.9% that’s one of the worst in the Pac-12.
Instead, WSU went 19 of 37 (51.4%) from the foul line. Sophomore Noah Williams clanked 3 of 4 free throws inside the final minute of the first overtime period, allowing Arizona to send the game into a second OT and ultimately seal a four-point win at Beasley Coliseum.
Every WSU player who attempted a free throw also missed one. Other than Efe Abogidi, who finished 8 of 9, nobody made more than 50% from the foul line.
“Poor coach Shaw, he’s been just obsessed on it,” Smith said Tuesday during a virtual news conference. “I don’t know, there’s an hour limit we can work, so there’s an hour worth of free-throw shooting and pressure put on them. So hopefully, it doesn’t snowball into a big deal.”
Williams may be the best case study of how effective Shaw’s “free-throw rehab” can be, yet he’s also the one who may be getting the most 1-on-1 work as the Cougars (8-1, 1-1) prepare to face California on Thursday and Stanford on Saturday.
“Noah was shooting terrible at the beginning of (last season),” Smith said, “and by the end of the year, he was at 70%.”
As a freshman, Williams opened the year 8 of 16 from the line, but Shaw’s instruction helped him convert 49 of his final 63 to close the season at 72.2%.
The free-throw issues have resurfaced for Williams, who’s been sporadic this season, missing his first three of the year against Texas Southern, converting 21 of his next 24 and missing four more Saturday against Arizona.
“(Williams) said, ‘Last year it was like an alcohol/marijuana addiction,’ ” Smith said, sharing a recent conversation with his sophomore guard. “He said, ‘Now we’re in heroin territory.’ So we really have to get in there and go cold turkey. He’s pretty scrambled up about it.”
The road to free-throw recovery under Shaw is a four-step process. According to Smith, players have to make 25 free throws without missing two in a row. Then they have to make five consecutive free throws, followed by nine out of 10. Smith indicated there was a fourth stage to the “rehab” process, but couldn’t recall what it was.
“It takes some time, but he’s willing to hold them accountable. There’s no time limit on it,” he said.
In 2019-20, ex-WSU forward CJ Elleby, now with the Portland Trail Blazers, admitted to coaches he wasn’t driving to the basket out of fear he’d draw a foul. Elleby was a 66.1% foul shooter as a freshman, but after teaming up with Shaw, he bumped that number to 82.3% as a sophomore, and had the second-highest percentage of any Pac-12 player who attempted at least 130 free throws.
“One of coach Shaw’s gifts is he really connects with people and he’s really in your corner and he’s got time for everyone,” Smith said. “I said (to Elleby), ‘For us to score, you’ve got to do that.’ He started making free throws and I think the thing built.”
The Cougars have a ways to climb if they want to reach last year’s mark of 74.3% – second only in the Pac-12 to Oregon State. Fortunately, they have confidence in the man who’s been tabbed to fix the problem. Shaw has decades of experience as a college basketball coach and he has impressive credentials as a free throw shooter. High school basketball historians in the state of Washington may still be able to recite the state tournament record Shaw holds. Hint: it involves free throws.
Three players hold the single game tournament record for free throws made, with 19, although record books don’t specify who those players are. It’s possible, if not likely, Shaw is among that group because he set the record for free throws attempted with 25 – a feat achieved during a 1979 game against Liberty of Spangle, and matched seven years later by Tom White of Sunnyside Christian.
“I feel confident. The guy’s a miracle worker,” Smith said of Shaw. “He does a great job with them and we’ll get there.”
Even with four players missing because of recent COVID-19 developments, the Cougars gave the Wildcats all they could handle on Saturday night.
The most valuable of those four will be back in the fold for WSU this week against the Bay Area schools. Seven-foot center Volodymyr Markovetskyy, who started in each of the team’s final three nonconference games, has been taken out of COVID-19 protocol, Smith said Tuesday.
“He’s vital to our success,” Smith said.
It’s unclear if guard Ryan Rapp, forward DJ Rodman or center Brandton Chatfield will be available to play against Cal or Stanford.
New tipoffThe tipoff time for WSU’s game on Saturday against Stanford was changed to 2 p.m., the school announced Tuesday. Originally, the Cougars and Cardinal were scheduled to tip at 7:30 p.m. at Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz.
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