The rules of wheelchair basketball and the “standup” version of the sport are almost identical. The court is the same length, the free-throw line is the same distance from the basket, as is the three-point line. The only real difference in the wheelchair game, aside from the presence of high-tech equipment, is the ability to double dribble.
So it’s not much of a surprise that shooting stats in the two games are roughly similar, particularly on 2-point field goals.1 The men’s Olympic team 2-point percentage average at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games was 52.16 percent, while the Paralympic average was 47.86 percent. On the women’s side, the Paralympic athletes shot 2-point field goals at a 42.27 percent clip, while their able-bodied colleagues shot an average of 46.37 percent from inside the arc.
But there’s one glaring area where disabled athletes are far behind their able-bodied counterparts: free throws.
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To compare the two sports, I looked at the free throw rates on both the men’s and women’s side of the 2016 Rio Olympic and Paralympic games, beginning with the women’s teams. The wheelchair basketball athletes in this data set converted free throws at a rate 26.3 percentage points lower than the able-bodied athletes. They also shot 6.8 fewer free throws per game, on average, over the course of the tournament.
Free throw disparities remain for women …
Free throw attempts and attempts per game during the 2016 women’s Olympic and Paralympic basketball tournaments
|Team||FT Attempts||FT %||Team||FT Attempts||FT %|
Of the Paralympic women’s teams, just Germany attempted over 100 total free throws in the tournament, while the average Olympic team attempted 107.5. Only five Olympic teams (Japan, Belarus, Senegal, China and Brazil) shot fewer free throws than Germany, and they all played fewer games. The U.S. women’s Paralympic team, which won gold, was the only squad to shoot better than even one of the Olympic teams (China) — and only by 2.6 percentage points.
The equation on the men’s side is not much different. The wheelchair basketball teams shot, on average, 8.9 fewer free throws per game and made them at a rate 17.5 percentage points lower over the course of the tournament.
… and for men in wheelchair basketball
Free throw attempts and attempts per game during the 2016 men’s Olympic and Paralympic basketball tournaments
|Team||FT Attempts||FT %||Team||FT Attempts||FT %|
Able-bodied male athletes attempted 8.9 more free throws compared to the disabled ones, and only three Olympic teams (Lithuania, Nigeria and Venezuela) shot fewer free throws over the course of the tournament than Germany’s Paralympic total of 108. Germany achieved that mark with at least one more game played than those teams.
So why the discrepancy? Some of it is naturally related to the hardware involved. It is simply harder to get to the free throw line in a game of wheelchair basketball. As Canadian Paralympian Patrick Anderson puts it, “One-on-one basketball with the ball, breaking a guy down one-on-one and getting to the basket and drawing a foul that way, James Harden being the preeminent example in the NBA — it’s just not done a lot in wheelchair basketball. It’s hard to beat a guy off the dribble, in wheelchair basketball, because your hands are up to do a lot and chairs are wide and lateral movement is limited.”
This is most evident in the large difference between the number of free throws taken between the two competitions. In the men’s and women’s Olympic contests, teams averaged 18.9 free throws per game. On the Paralympic side, it was only 11.2. Add the fact that teams rarely get into the bonus, and you have a recipe for fewer shots being taken.
But regardless of the disparity in the number of attempts, wheelchair basketball athletes still make their free throws at much lower rates. Why?
There may be a physiological reason. A group of Brazilian researchers, comparing wheelchair basketball athletes with those they called conventional athletes in 2015, noticed a difference in muscle activations between the two groups. Although the athletes are activating the same muscles in their arms, to no one’s surprise, the legs are a different matter. In their words: “Studies contend that the person’s height and leg thrust can influence the execution of the shot. This gives the WB [wheelchair basketball] group a great disadvantage in free-throwing since they are down lower (sitting) and cannot use their legs for thrust. Therefore, it is likely that the WB group adopts distinct strategies to make this movement.”
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In practice, those strategies can include the placement of the shoulder as it rotates and extends, a small push or roll up to the line, or choosing a two-handed shot — closer to a set shot in standup basketball — over a more traditional shooting technique. Wheelchair basketball athletes are using their arms for every single sport-related movement. That amount of fatigue may contribute to the lower free-throw rates. Fewer shots and more tired arms equals less rhythm.
“It’s a bit like biathlon. … Your body’s humming, and then you’ve got to sort of quiet everything down,” he said. “And, for us, because so much of our exertion is upper body, that’s the part of us that’s sort of, like, shaken and fatigued.”
Doug Garner, the head men’s wheelchair basketball coach at the University of Texas at Arlington, agrees. “If I had to name one factor, I would say it would be the fatigue factor,” he said. Garner also pointed to the inherent physical and spatial differences in using a wheelchair as reasons underlying the low attempted and completion rates, along with a perceived reluctance of referees to call shooting fouls and the different shooting angle and angle of ball entry that come with shooting from a wheelchair.
There’s not a definitive solution to the free-throw shooting woes of Paralympic athletes. But the data seems to suggest that attempts to get athletes in rhythm and to the line more often would increase efficiency. Game-like free throws with high levels of fatigue may be difficult to simulate, but with their low conversion rates, Paralympic teams are leaving a lot of points on the court.