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On the hop: Gardner's free throw style is unique, effective

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East Carolina's Jayden Gardner rises to shoot a foul shot during a game in Minges Coliseum on Jan. 5, 2019. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Jayden Gardner’s free throw routine begins pretty basic. He dribbles a few times, mixed in with a couple of spins of the basketball.

Then he goes off script.

One dribble to the far right is followed by Gardner’s body regrouping to the center, and he rises up to shoot as his feet leave the court upon the release of the ball and during his follow-through. The end of the routine in some ways resembles a youth recreational player not strong enough to shoot free throws without jumping, but instead it comes from a 6-foot-6, 245-pound freshman at East Carolina who has been one of the best players this season in the American Athletic Conference.

“It’s just comfortable and I like to get a good arc on the ball,” Gardner said of his slight hop. “It’s never short. I like that if I miss it, then it is always possible to get an offensive rebound.”

Gardner has done this since early in his standout career at Heritage High School.

It also works. He is 101-for-131 from the line as a rookie, ranking in the top 10 nationally in free throws made and attempted heading into today’s game at UCF. Seth LeDay is second on the Pirates (8-7, 1-2) in free throw makes with a 42-for-60 mark.

“He could shoot it with one leg, but as long as it goes in then we don’t care,” ECU senior guard Isaac Fleming said of Gardner.

Heritage coach Tilden Brill said Gardner was the school’s best player as soon as he stepped on campus for workouts as a rising freshman already 6-foot-3 and with a promising ability to score. But Gardner also initially struggled from the free throw line, which led to the change in his routine before his sophomore season.

Gardner and his coach worked after practices to figure out the best possible solution. Those sessions laid the foundation for Gardner to develop into a dependable free throw shooter via his unique style.

“I just remember him finishing short a lot on his free throw shot, because he was unbalanced,” Brill said. “I think free throw shooting is really mental and it’s really good to develop a routine. You can look at his routine now and see it is so much better than when he was at Heritage, even in this short amount of time.”

The key to finding the best routine was that Gardner needed to use his height, strength and soft shooting touch to be able to drop the ball just over the front of the rim.

His feet leaving the ground also put an importance on where his feet landed after releasing the ball. Stepping over the foul line results in a lane violation and the point not counting, even if the ball goes through the hoop.

“You know in high school there is always that one referee every four games that was so pressed about that,” Brill said. “He would get some violations and it was so frustrating, because he went to the line a lot. We tried to give him the freedom to do what works for him and not try to mess with it too much, because if you do, then you start to get into the whole mental aspect of it.”

Transitioning to college basketball presented its own challenges, beginning with some ribbing from teammates when they first saw Gardner shoot free throws.

Fleming said he was probably 10 years old when he stopped jumping at the foul line.

ECU’s players are now used to Gardner’s hop, but opponents often are caught off guard when he goes to the line. It can be an easy target for trash-talk.

Gardner, however, can usually offer the perfect rebuttal with simply a smile or a glance over to an engaging opponent.

“Yeah, but I have to wait until I make it,” he said.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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