The Mad Ants didn't care for the radically different free-throw rules used in the G League this season, during which one shot could be worth one, two or three points.
But there's a caveat: The Mad Ants weren't very good from the free-throw line before their season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I wasn't a huge fan, due to us not being a very good free-shooting team percentage-wise,” Mad Ants coach Steve Gansey said. “I think I can speak for a lot of head coaches that when you're struggling scoring the ball – whether it's one, two, three possessions in a row – and then you get a shooting foul, you think, 'OK, this is going to put some points on the board.' And then you miss those free throws, or that free throw, that's tough.”
The Mad Ants made 71.7% of their free throws, 20th best out of 28 G League teams, a key component of Fort Wayne being 21-22.
It was a strange sight, since the Mad Ants are normally among the best free-throw shooting teams. They ranked second at 78.4% in 2018-19 and led the league at 80.4% in 2016-17.
The NBA uses the G League to try out experimental rules – free advancement of the ball up court, relaxed goaltending and extensive coach's challenges are past examples – and this was the first season in which the worth of one shot was determined by where the foul occurred. The rule didn't apply in the last 2 minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.
“The first couple games, it was hard to get used to it because you always knew that if you missed that first one, you still had a second free throw,” said Fort Wayne's Stephan Hicks, an 80.6% shooter from the line this season. “Now, you just have that one to make two or three points, so that was kind of tough. You have to be mentally focused on making those free throws because you only have one.”
In Gansey's opinion, the magnitude of every free throw was increased, meaning a good free-throw shooting team was helped even more than usual and a bad free-throw shooting team was at even more of a disadvantage.
While lowly Erie (13-30) led the G League in free-throw shooting (77.8%), nine of the 12 teams that occupied first or second place in their divisions ranked in the top 15 from the line.
The intent of the free-throw experiment was, in part, to speed up games. According to the NBA, which stressed that several factors affect game lengths, G League games were about 3 minutes shorter this season.
Gansey normally uses the time during free throws to manage substitutions, and talk to players and referees, so he felt understandably rushed.
“I like talking to the point guard. 'Hey man, this is what we're going to run the next play.' It goes by quick,” Gansey said.
There were about 17 fewer free throws taken per G League game, and the overall shooting percentage dropped by about 2% to 72.5%, with Texas being the worst at 65.2%.
Any Fort Wayne player who missed a free throw worth three points owed Gansey some Chick-fil-A – only Daxter Miles Jr. had to pay out – and the significance of fouling an opposing player on a 3-point shot also was deemed poorer form than usual.
“It's a big change. I'd say it's a big difference,” the Mad Ants' Ben Moore said. “I'd say it puts a lot more pressure on that one free throw. But also, when you're rolling it's easy to catch a rhythm when you're hitting those free throws. You can knock them down pretty quick. I don't know if I'm the biggest fan because I don't know it speeds the game up that much, to me. When I'm in the games, it doesn't feel that much more sped up.”
Jobs at stake
The free-throw rules could have an impact on players' résumés, even from just one season of use, and affect future job prospects positively or negatively.
Over 21 games with the Mad Ants, Miles shot only 50.9% over 55 attempts from the line. Including 21 games with Northern Arizona, he made 55.8% of 104 free throws. While his scoring average elevated from 10.3 points last season to 14.7 as a second-year pro, his free-throw shooting dropped from 67.1% over 85 shots, so imagine what it might have meant for Miles' future if he'd had more free throws and made more of them.
“If he makes his free throws more, and locks in, now he's averaging maybe 17 and a half points,” Gansey said. “That could maybe get him a big job overseas. You've got to look at it in a lot of different aspects.”
Gansey would demand Miles shoot an extra 200 free throws periodically, and once told him to make 500 before an impending game, but we don't know if Miles will get an opportunity to up his average this season.
The Mad Ants were one game out of the Eastern Conference's sixth and final playoff spot with seven games remaining.
“If we were an 85%, even an 80%, free-throw shooting team, I'd tell you, 'Oh, I loved (the rule).' But it really depends on your team and individuals and a free-throw percentage,” Gansey said.