Right foot forward. Bounce at the knees, stop and blow out. Three dribbles, then set the elbow. Bend at the knees until the elbow touches the right knee, come back up and release.
One year, that pre-shot routine led to a 69.6 free-throw percentage. The next, a 71.4 mark.
For IU women’s basketball senior forward Aulani Sinclair, the free-throw mechanics have long been locked in. But as a junior last season, Sinclair shot 90.7 percent from the line, a nearly 20 percent increase from the year before.
The physical mechanics haven’t really changed since she came to IU, Sinclair said. Her mental approach, on the other hand, has and was the main contributor to her drastic improvement at the line.
“I’ve always stayed with the same routine, but the difference between last year to this year is I focus completely on what I’m doing,” Sinclair said. “When I’m up there, I don’t focus on anything else besides making the free-throw.”
Sinclair’s minutes also increased considerably between her sophomore and junior years. As a sophomore, Sinclair averaged 21.6 minutes per game and attempted just 35 free-throws. Last season, those numbers spiked to 31.4 and 75, respectively
“A big difference from last year is that I played more minutes, so I would be tired when I would get to the free-throw line,” she said. “So, I would have to tell myself to bend my knees more. That’s where that focus came in. A lot of it is bending your legs because when you’re tired, it’ll be short every time.”
To maintain her virtually automatic shot, Sinclair said when she does her own shooting drills, she shoots a string of free-throws in between sets of threes and midrange jumpers and has to make 10 free-throws in a row. If she misses, she starts again.
Sinclair said she has also learned to take her time shooting free-throws, even in practice. One thing that can get Sinclair is when she rushes her pre-shot routine, rather than taking the full 10 seconds allotted during a game.
“We do joke around that she does have a very long free-throw routine,” said Drew Stanich, manager of the women’s team. “So she almost has two. In practice, she’ll shoot a quicker one, then she’ll miss a few, and she’ll go back to her one where she goes the full 10 seconds.”
The 6-foot-1-inch forward’s improvement at the line represents, in a way, her increasing dedication to improving her overall game. Stanich has worked with Sinclair since her sophomore year and has acted as her personal rebounder during shooting drills.
Stanich said Sinclair put in extra work during the summer, including driving to Indianapolis three times a week to work with a personal trainer. Those training sessions were sandwiched between 7 a.m. team workouts and afternoon team scrimmages and were in addition to Sinclair’s personal shooting sessions.
On top of that, Stanich said, last year was a major building block to her success moving forward.
“I think she grew a lot in the summer,” Stanich said. “I think as ugly as last year was and how tough it was, she did have some pretty good games throughout the year. I think that just gives her confidence even through those struggles.
“The sky’s the limit, honestly, for what we could see — putting together her offseason work, confidence from last year and this final maturation process right now becoming a senior from a freshman.”
Sinclair said her next step is to work on driving the ball to complement her outside shooting abilities.
“This year I’m trying to work on my driving abilities and getting to the basket more because everyone knows that I’m a good shooter on the outside, so they pressure me,” Sinclair said. “I don’t know any school in the Big Ten that’s not, ‘Play up on Aulani, make her drive.’ So driving is definitely gonna have to be an important part of my role this year because I’ll have open shots, but I can also drive.”
Driving through the lane generally leads to more contact and, consequently, more trips to the line. Sinclair’s 75 free-throw attempts ranked third on the team last season, but she said she wants to get to the line even more this season.
“Not only does it represent that we’re in attack mode and going at the other team, but it also gets the other team in foul trouble,” Sinclair said. “So, if we can capitalize on easy, free shots, that’s the best way.”
Senior center Sasha Chaplin has played alongside Sinclair the past three seasons and said she sees the increased versatility in Sinclair’s game.
“I’ve watched her work out over the summertime, and she’s become a more prolific ‘get it to the inside’ scorer, and that balances out how people guard you,” Chaplin said. “She’s a bigger guard, so she gets to the basket pretty heavily and easily on shorter people, so they have to foul her. And at the free-throw line, she’s just a rhythmatic shooter.”
A 6-foot-4-inch center, Chaplin said she has developed a good chemistry with Sinclair, who plays both guard and forward.
“It’s amazing because playing with her during the summer and just being with her throughout her whole career, we kind of have that connection that — we kind of look at each other, and I’m like, ‘OK, she’s about to do this, and I need to be here,’” Chaplin said. “Just like our screen and rolls — we have that on pinpoint, so it’s a pretty good dynamic.”
Like Stanich, Chaplin said she was able to experience firsthand just how high of a work ethic Sinclair has, particularly during summer workouts.
“When it’s summertime, no one wants to get up at 7 a.m., 8 a.m. in the morning, but we all made sure we were all there, and Aulani was there just showing us energy,” Chaplin said. “She’s carried that over to right now during the season because we have early morning practice, and a lot of people don’t want to be up early in the morning.
“But she’s always in there with energy, energy, energy, making sure everyone’s up, and bringing them up to the tempo and getting us ready for practice.”
Sinclair uses that energy to hold younger players accountable and set the tone for practice and, come Nov. 9 at Vanderbilt, the season.
“Being a leader, I feel like more my freshman year and sophomore year I always had players like Jori Davis and Whitney Lindsay to look up to,” she said. “Last year and this year, especially, I’m now the player that has to show and demand the young players how to play so they know what’s expected, they know what that standard is.”