The shot has been a struggle for him his entire career.
He’s missed it in practices and in games. He missed it in middle school, high school and now in college. It’s only 15 feet, but, for some reason, making it is harder than putting back an offensive rebound for a score in traffic or boxing out a defender inside for the 6-foot-9-inch forward from Lowell, Mass.
Senior Alex Oriakhi might be able to out-rebound opponents, score in the paint and play close-out defense, but up until this season, he has struggled with his free throw shot. Since he transferred from the University of Connecticut after his junior year, his offensive numbers have improved and for the first time in his career, the coaching staff sees him as a scoring threat.
“When you have a big guy that can shoot free throws like that, you're going to keep feeding him because a positive's going to happen out of it,” coach Frank Haith said.
It wasn’t until recently that the team's confidence in Oriakhi’s shot from the charity stripe began to improve. While addressing the media on Monday, Haith affectionately referred to Oriakhi as a “loony toon” and said the transfer is the nicest guy on the team despite his tough demeanor on the court. Oriakhi took Haith’s jokes in stride and said he was happy to be playing somewhere he isn't just seen as a rebounder or key defender.
“He’s just always said to talk as if you have more confidence,” Oriakhi said. “He says I’m a better player than I give myself credit for.”
At Missouri, he’s the big man inside the paint and because of that, he’s shooting more free throws and doing something he hasn’t done for most of his career. He’s making them.
Oriakhi has already made more free throws than he did last season, while improving his free throw shooting percentage by nearly 20 percent.
“I’ve always told myself that I have a pretty nice touch so I have to be a pretty good free throw shooter especially if I’m going to get fouled a lot,” he said. “Since the summer, every time I get free time I just make 100 free throws or after practice I get a little work out and make 50 free throws.”
After improving during his sophomore year as a shooter, Oriakhi’s numbers regressed as a junior playing behind UConn star Andre Drummond. Despite being a starter on UConn’s national championship team in 2011, he left the school last year after it was announced the team had received a postseason ban for not meeting NCAA academic standards.
“When your coaching staff gives you confidence, it does make a difference in a player,” he said.
Oriakhi’s also been historically unlucky from behind the line, in particular during a free throw attempt in a game against West Virginia that made headlines nationwide during the spring of 2011. In a shot that lives on in YouTube infamy, one of his free throws bounced off the rim and instead of falling away from the basket or going in, got stuck between the rim and the backboard.
Looking back on the shot almost two years later, Oriakhi laughs at the struggles he’s had behind the line. The shot takes him back to how it felt to build his confidence back from the bottom up after making little over half his free throw shots during his first season at UConn.
“During my freshman year, my confidence was really low,” he said. “Every time I got fouled I already had a defeated mind. I told myself ‘Man, I’m going to miss anyway,’ and that’s exactly what happened. I’d never really been the free throw shooter I knew I could be, except for this year.”
This season, his final collegiate season, his free throw shooting and scoring have both improved, which Oriakhi said comes from being in a playing environment like Missouri’s. Every time he gets to the line, it’s just like shooting after practice or running drills during the summer, he said.
The mindset is the same as it has always been, but now, the result is different.
“I’m just relaxing and just shooting the ball,” Oriakhi said. “Thank God it’s going in.”