Kevin Martin improves the un-improvable.

Here at Red94, I have linked to and lauded the work of Ian Levy and his sleek, robustly informative blog Hickory High prior to this post, so I almost feel embarrassed to focus so strongly on an article that he posted more than a week ago; however, as always, my capacity for handling shame is unparalleled, allowing me to talk about this great observation of Levy’s. After March 20th’s Rockets victory over the Utah Jazz, Levy wrote a piece focusing on the brilliant free-throw shooting of one Kevin Martin. Those in the Rockets fold have been keenly aware of Martin’s ridiculous efficacy at the charity stripe for the last year, but maybe all of us in the Rockets know may not quite comprehend the depth of the performance Martin has put on from the line in the 2010-11 season. From Levy:

The other thing which seems to make Martin so unique is his pattern of development. To the consternation of basketball coaches, trainers and analysts, free throw shooting is a skill which tends to stay fairly static over time. Over the past ten seasons the league average FT% has never dropped below 75.2%, and never risen above 77.1%. Over the course of a player’s career their FT% tends to stay fairly similar as well.

Despite entering the league as a very good free throw shooter, Martin has seen his FT% rise substantially. He shot 81.7% his last season at Western Carolina but just 65.5% as an NBA rookie. Even if we dismiss his rookie season as a blip we still see steady improvement. He’s increased his FT% almost every season, and is shooting 89.0% from the stripe this year. Even more impressive is he’s done that while substantially increasing his number of attempts. As a rookie, Martin averaged 4.4 FTA/36. This season he’s averaging 9.6.

While the first part of Levy’s article gives a very thorough, thoughtful take on how good Martin’s free throw shooting has been in comparison to the NBA’s elite (quite frankly, he is among them in terms of free throw shooting), this idea that Martin has worked on a skill so easily taken for granted, a skill that he has already near-mastered, evokes as much hope for Martin and the Rockets’ future for me as much as any string of post-All-Star wins could. Martin seems, to Rockets fans, to not quite embody the vision of a Houston Rocket that has been so ably embodied by Chuck Hayes, Carl Landry and Shane Battier over the last few years, making his fit here so dependent on his nightly production.

Most of that incongruity with Martin and the vague notion of Rocket-ness has to do with Martin’s seeming non-effort (or at least utter incompetence) on the defensive end of the floor, yet the mind-numbing amount of work that this man has put into such a vital, unappreciated skill such as free throw shooting evokes a completely different image of Kevin Martin, that of a physically limited player who has turned his greatest skills into even better ones through diligence and patience. Martin actually echoes Luis Scola as an offensive stalwart who has decided to curb the negative effects of his, or their, defensive deficiencies by becoming much greater forces on the offensive end. In this, Martin actually becomes the ideal “Rocket”, a veritable bastion of hard work and overcompensation.

Even that new level of accessibility for Martin is not what most gives my spine a tingle here; instead, I like then idea that Kevin Martin improved a talent that supposedly cannot be improved beyond a certain level of development in an NBA career. This either means that Daryl Morey has picked the kinds of players that will continue to elevate their games long after most are expected to have plateaued, or that he has an eye for developing, older talents, those players who might be ready for a career renaissance long after their peers are comfortably filling their roles around the league. Either concept bodes well for the Rockets, its management and Martin’s future, as they should; who else expected any of them to keep getting better at this point?

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