Why Some Korean Basketball Players Love the Bank Shot

As the basketball player steps to the free-throw line, the crowd watches in hushed anticipation. With one sweeping motion, he bounces the ball off the backboard and through the net.

Wait, he banked it in? On purpose?

The fans erupt in celebration. The shot is no fluke — just another free throw, South Korean style.

The free throw is supposed to be an easy point after a foul: a direct, unguarded shot 15 feet from the backboard. But there’s an art to it. The ball, most players and fans would say, should leave the fingers gracefully, make a wide arc, avoid the rim — and “splash” straight into the net, as the N.B.A. sharpshooter Steph Curry called it.

With the help of analytics, other shots have evolved in pro basketball. But not the free throw, and over the past 30 years, its success rate in the N.B.A. has barely budged from around 77.

The shot’s stagnation stems from the mockery that awaits any variation to the “nothing but net” technique in the United States. Bank shots — bouncing the ball off the glass before it falls through the net — are derided as amateurish for anything but layups.

But a devoted group of players in the Korean Basketball League, or K.B.L., have embraced the unorthodox technique.

“When the camera pans to the crowd, no one’s laughing, no one’s chuckling at a player that used the backboard,” said Eric Fawcett, a basketball analyst based in Canada who consults with a U.S. college team. He said that he had recently noticed the trend of bizarre banked free throws while reviewing game footage. “There’s just confident applause from the home crowd.”

And research shows that the bank shot has clear advantages.

The technique has been a staple among South Korean basketball players for years. Experts say about half of the top 10 free-throw shooters regularly bank their free throws. Players who have exclusively banked them have pushed their free throw percentages into the 80s and 90s.

Curious to learn more about this phenomenon, Fawcett dug into the statistics and history of the technique. Sure enough, multiple players shot more than 80 percent over the course of their careers using the backboard on virtually every free throw.

Some, he said, even improved dramatically after switching to the bank shot, like Yoongi Ha, who jumped to 80 percent from 57.

How did this unorthodox style become so popular in South Korea? Experts point to a few pioneering players in the 1980s and ’90s.

“Legends like Kim Hyun-joon and Moon Kyung-eun popularized the bank shot for the first time,” said Won Seok-Yeun, a South Korean reporter who covers the K.B.L. Since then, the bank shot has been acknowledged by a growing number of amateurs and professionals nationwide as a valid way to improve free throw averages. “A lot of current players who are throwing bank shots are heavily influenced by them.”

Even some American players who did not reach the N.B.A. and went to the K.B.L., like Rod Benson and Dewan Hernandez, have learned the shot while playing in South Korea and increased their free throw percentage dramatically, Won added.

Jeon Seong-hyen, a guard with the Goyang Sono Skygunners, is a top shooter in the K.B.L. and banks his free throws. Since middle school, Jeon said, he has idolized Moon for his bank shots. Despite resistance from coaches over the years, he has stuck with the technique.

Jeon calls the technique his “signature move.” Now, he said, he never shoots free throws without hitting the backboard — and scores on nearly 90 percent of them.

“Psychologically, the bank shot is easier than the clean shot because I can see where I should aim,” he said. He can focus on the rectangle on the backboard instead of relying on muscle memory.

Effectiveness is what matters most on the court, Jeon added — not style points.

“The shooter can select a bank shot over a direct shot with as much as a 20 percent advantage,” according to a study by Lawrence Silverberg, a professor of engineering at North Carolina State University, and his colleagues, who used computer simulations to compare bank shots and direct shots.

By first bouncing the basketball off the backboard, a bank shot eliminates much of the ball’s momentum, allowing it to drop into the net with a softer, more controlled trajectory, Silverberg said. He found that this cushioning effect significantly reduced the margin of error.

Such slight improvement can make or break a game, Silverberg added. Shots from the free throw line often account for about 20 percent of a team’s total score. And “games are generally really close.”

But even with those advantages, the bank shot has not caught on beyond South Korea. Experts point to the sport’s deeply ingrained culture that prizes the perfect high-arcing swish. The “nothing but net” shot has been established as the perfect shot in basketball culture, aesthetically and technically.

“When you shoot a beautiful swish, that net does a little dance,” Silverberg said, “and you get that sound.” He added: “It is pretty.”

Coaches also tend to stick with traditional techniques; very few take the time to break old habits and teach the bank shot from scratch. Silverberg added that most basketball players start with trying direct shots because they do not have enough arm strength to bounce the ball off the backboard.

“This is really quite a unique thing going on in South Korea,” he said. “You don’t see that kind of change in sports too often.”

It is not the only underappreciated shooting technique in basketball. Another unorthodox method, the underhand free throw, was made famous over a half-century ago by N.B.A. Hall of Famer Rick Barry.

But neither the underhand nor the banked technique appears poised to gain broad traction.

Despite its higher statistical success, Jeon said, the bank shot isn’t easy to master. Each backboard has a unique elasticity, so players need to adjust their technique in each new court, he explained.

And Jeon is just fine with the bank shot remaining unconventional.

“I actually don’t want other people to follow,” he said. “I want to be the only one doing it.”