Summer work helps Hawkins' free throw shooting

December 16, 2003|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Shooting free throws last summer was not a glamorous way for Cliff Hawkins to spend his free time.

Working on his 3-point shot or offensive moves as he was going toward the basket certainly would have been more fun. However, Hawkins knew what he had to do to help not only himself, but also to make his final season at the University of Kentucky as successful as possible.

"I worked at my foul shooting all summer," said Hawkins, a senior point guard. "I just worked on my form and technique. I worked to make sure I shot the same way every time. I only made minor changes in my form, but just the work I put in has paid off."

He was only a 59 percent free throw shooter as a freshman and often was seen as a late-game liability because of his inability to make free throws. He improved to only 60.5 percent his sophomore season before making a substantial jump to 74.5 percent last season.


This season he's been even better. He's 17-for-20, an 85 percent mark, after going 4-for-6 at the line in Saturday's win over Michigan State.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said Hawkins didn't need drastic changes in his free throw technique. The coaching staff moved his feet closer together to improve his balance.

"We worked with his mechanics, but it was more about Cliff's willingness and discipline to do it over and over," Smith said. "There's not a lot of time in practice to work on that. He's done it on his own.

"If you make mechanical adjustments and practice the right technique, you get better. He worked on that a lot in individual workouts and it paid off for Cliff."

Assistant coach Dave Hobbs said Hawkins did not ignore his outside shooting and also spent time on his jump shot.

"The jump shot can be determined by when you took it, where you took it, whether you had a bigger defender on you, whether you were moving or had your feet set," Hobbs said. "On the free throw, that's all predetermined and comes down to form and mental toughness. You don't have a defender on you. It all becomes fundamentals and he's worked very hard on that.

"Sometimes he doesn't shoot as well as we would like from the field, and he usually needs to look at shot selection when that happens. But it's not from a lack of work and that work has led to a lot more confidence at the foul line."

Hobbs said that improved free throw shooting becomes huge in close games because Hawkins can dictate what happens offensively.

"It's very difficult to get any five-second call on him because he can get space between him and a defender," Hobbs said. "He doesn't have to pass to anyone else unless they bring a couple of guys to him to make him pass. He handles the ball so well and can change direction. It makes it very difficult to keep him from getting toward the basket. If you get by your guy, or even with him, a lot of times you are going to get bumped and fouled. When he does, now he's confident he'll make those shots and that's huge for us."

Hawkins has emerged as one of Kentucky's best performers with a game on the line. He had the final seven points in the win over UCLA. He had two assists, one steal, one basket and one free throw in the final five minutes against Michigan State.

"You don't have to be a great free throw shooter to be a team leader, but if you can be it certainly adds to it because you have the ball in your hands at the end of close games," Hobbs said. "The game lies in the balance every time you have the ball. Or every time the other team has the ball and you are pressuring the point. The better your point guard can shoot free throws, the easier it is for you to handle pressure and win."

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says statistics don't measure Hawkins' worth to the Wildcats, who are No. 1 in this week's ESPN/USA Today poll.

"He just brings it every game. He can shoot decent. He can penetrate. He's tenacious on defense and the pressure he puts on you is very good. His effort-related stats are very high," Izzo said.

Hobbs says Hawkins' emergence as a team leader was predictable. He's overcome earlier problems he had with asthma that limited his stamina and also has three-plus years of experience in Smith's system.

"A lot of leadership falls to the point guard. It's not always that way, but if you can get that, it is the best," Hobbs said. "He's the quarterback on the floor. He controls what happens.

"If you can have a guy with enough tenacity, leadership qualities and toughness to set the pace, it's a big plus and he's evolved into that. You could see it coming and it only made sense that it would happen. Leadership generally falls on seniors. I thought he would be physically and mentally capable of handling that. So far that appears to be the case and his improved free throw shooting is a big part of that."

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