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Kenny Frease and the Free Throw Line

Kenny Frease first showed up on Xavier fans' radar as a nationally pursued 4-star recruit. When he landed with the Muskies, he became Xavier's first legit seven-footer in recent memory. His averages of 5 points and 4 rebounds in his first two years were something less than dynamic, and the big man often frustrated fans with stretches of play where his contributions fell somewhere between negligible and negative. He also showed flashes of serious potential, like tallying 13 and 8 against Virginia as a freshman or totaling 27 and 17 in back-to-back conference games last year.

After Jason Love's departure, Big Kenny has shown real signs of coming into his own this season. Western Michigan wanted no part of the big man in the season opener, and he has since (discounting the 0 and 0 he posted at Gonzaga) been consistently solid and sometimes spectacular for X. He pulled down 18 rebounds in a four-point victory over Wofford and had probably his best collegiate game against Wake, scoring 22 and grabbing 14 boards.

Why, Kenny? Why?
To get those 22 points, Frease shot 11-19 from the floor and 0-1 from the free throw line. The fact that he could shoot that many times and only get to the line once got me thinking about how often we see Kenny at the line, and the answer is not very often at all. In 12 games this year, he has attempted 22 free throws. In his last 10 games, he's been to the line 12 times. By comparison, Jamel McLean has been to the line 64 times in 11 games this year, including 60 times in the last 10. At Kenny's current .636 clip from the line, he would have picked up about 30 more points in the past 10 games (I know this is a gross over-simplification) if he were as good as getting to the line as McLean. This all begs the question: why doesn't Big Kenny get to shoot more free throws?

My first thought was that it had something to do with their respective approaches. For all McLean brings to the floor, finesse has never been his greatest asset. His game is mostly linear, and that line runs directly from him to the basket. Anyone in the way is likely to contact Jamel at least briefly, and contact creates fouls. Frease has post moves to either hand and has recently displayed effective shooting touch out to about ten feet. Frease often chooses "around" in lieu of "through" on his way to the bucket.

To test this theory, I brought up Jason Love's numbers from last year. He averaged 11.8 points and 8.7 boards (Kenny is getting 11.7 and 7.8 right now) and was XU's first option in the post. He also featured a more nuanced offensive game and could turn to either hand for a little drifting hook shot that eschewed contact. But, while Kenny averages fewer than two FT per game and barely over one since the IPFW game, Love got to the line more than four times each game.

Kenny's shooting percentage of .548 is essentially equal to Love's .552 of last year and moderately superior to McLean's .521. Despite this, Kenny gets only 1.22 points for every field goal attempted, compared to Love's 1.47 and McLean's 1.52. There are only three ways to get more points from each field goal attempt: make more of them, hit three-pointers, or get points at the free throw line. Assuming Kenny is trying his best to make every shot he takes, and also assuming that he's not going to spontaneously add ten feet to his shooting range, he is left needing more free throws to improve his offensive efficiency.

As I perused Love's stats, I noticed that he seemed to get an inordinate amount of offensive rebounds. In fact, more than 38% of his boards came at the offensive end last year. McLean posts a similar number, with 36% of his rebounds being of the offensive variety. It stands to reason that offensive rebounds would lead to more trips to the line, as the defense is in a scramble situation rather than set up and ready. For this to be a taken seriously as a contributing factor, it would have to be demonstrated that Kenny gets fewer of his rebounds at the offensive end. Sure enough, only 27% of his boards come on the attacking end.

And he yells.
I am not trying to advance the theory that Kenny's struggles in getting to the free throw line can be remedied by greater success in offensive rebounding. A lot of it has to do with his size. A broader or taller player is going to have the ball farther away from his defender at full extension, which will discourage swipes at the ball that might end up being called. A player with more finesse in his game is going to be able to avoid contact altogether, which will also lead to fewer fouls being called. Finally, a guy who is 7'0", 265 is just going to get less love from the officials than someone four inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter. This isn't bias but simple human nature; the more difficulty you face getting past the defender, the more likely you are to get the call.

Frease is something of a perfect storm of not getting fouls called. He's tall, thick through the shoulders and butt, and has a touch that belies his troglodyte appearance; these all contribute to his only getting to the line twice a game. Love had width and nuance but not height and got to the line four times a game. McLean is wiry, of low-average height for a big, and extremely direct with the ball in his hands; it's no surprise that he shoots more than six free throws per game. Kenny has taken a big developmental leap this year and is now a viable and reliable option on the post. If he can develop a slightly more direct game and grab a few more offensive boards - both of which should lead to more trips to the line - he'll be a dominant center for the school Reggie Miller once referred to as "Power Forward U."