Pelicans’ Brian Roberts nears NBA free-throw crown

Associated Press photo by JONATHAN BACHMANPelicans guard Brian Roberts drives against Heat guard Mario Chalmers (15) and forward Udonis Haslem during the first half in New Orleans on March 22.
Associated Press photo by JONATHAN BACHMANPelicans guard Brian Roberts drives against Heat guard Mario Chalmers (15) and forward Udonis Haslem during the first half in New Orleans on March 22.

New Orleans Pelicans point guard Brian Roberts quietly has been closing in on quite an accomplishment as this season nears its end.

Roberts is on pace to win the NBA free-throw percentage title. Heading into Monday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Smoothie King Center, Roberts is shooting 94.8 percent, having made 109 of 115 free throws.

“It would be huge,” Roberts said of finishing the season as the NBA’s free-throw percentage champion. “I try not to think about it, but I do kind of know in the back of my mind.”

If he does finish with the best percentage among those who qualify, it likely will give the Pelicans (28-40) two major category champions: Anthony Davis leads the league in blocked shots at 2.85 per game. Roberts would be the franchise’s first player to win the free-throw crown since Peja Stojakovic (92.9) in 2008.

Roberts only popped up among the NBA leaders this past weekend. Before then, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the league’s official statistician, it was not certain he would have the minimum required number of free throws made — 125. Dallas power forward Dirk Nowitzki had been the official leader at 92.1 percent.

Heading into Thursday’s home game against Toronto, Roberts had made 99 free throws and needed to sink 26 in 15 games to qualify — or 1.6 per game. He shot 2-of-2 against the Raptors. Then came Friday’s game at Atlanta, in which he went a season-high 8-of-8. That put him on the leader board. He remains there even though he didn’t attempt a free throw in Saturday’s 105-95 win against the Miami Heat at the Smoothie King Center.

“For me, it just comes down to mentally clearing your mind and also just muscle memory,” said Roberts, who of course shoots free throws daily at practice. “That’s what you need to be a successful free-throw shooter, in my mind. That’s what I try to do every time I step to the line, to make sure I have those two things in intact.”

Roberts could finish with the fewest attempts by a free-throw champion in league history. Kyle Macy made 127 of 140 in 1985, and Stojakovic made 130 of 140.

With his few attempts, an injury, bad spell or simply not getting to the line could cost him the title. Atlanta’s Kyle Korver, who is 77-of-82, is at 93.9 percent. He needs 38 makes to qualify.

But Roberts continues to do his part to secure it. He has made his past 28 free throws since missing his first attempt against the Lakers in Los Angeles on March 4. He then made his next six, starting his streak.

“I remember it,” he said. “It came early in the second half (10:54 of the third), but I don’t know which one it was.”

Part of why he is on a streak and in position to close in on the title, Roberts said, is he has been able to keep the pressure off. “If you think about it every time you shot one, it would be pressure,” he said. “But I try not to even worry about it or think about it. Mostly, I’m focused on trying to win the game.”

There have been 35 games in which Roberts did not miss a free throw. But in 21 of those, he took just one or two shots. That has him contemplating tweaking his game. Shooting as well as he does, getting to the line more often would mean more points, so being more aggressive driving to the basket has crossed his mind.

But he is one of the best in the NBA at making floaters, the little flip shot he takes in the lane before high-jumping big men can get to him.

“That’s something I kind of want to do these last few games — try to figure out a way to get there more often, kind of attacking and drawing fouls,” said Roberts, who shot 90.9 percent last season, his first in the NBA, but had just 70 makes. “It’s kind of a give and take. I want to get my floater down, and at the same time I want to try to improve on drawing fouls.”