“Watch the flop, watch the flop!” UC Santa Barbara coaches yell as Deishuan Booker handles the ball, reminding referees to watch Booker as he drives to the basket and pulls up for jump shots.
The coaches yelling made no difference as Booker scored 12 of his 25 total points from the free throw line. A night like this is regular for the Long Beach State senior point guard: words hurled from the opponent’s bench, fouls drawn by Booker and made free throws. The Gauchos fell victim to the Booker special — a clinic of paint touches and jumpers that drive defenses crazy as he displays the ability to draw contact and get to the line at a historic clip.
Nobody in all of NCAA Division I basketball has mastered the art as well as Booker, who leads the country in free throws made (238) attempting (261), while shooting them at 91 percent. Booker averages 7.5 free throws per game on the season and 10 in Big West conference play. This year, he broke the Big West record for most free throws made in a season, passing Leon Wood’s record of 211 in 1984. He is one of the toughest matchups any opponent has seen all season — but he hasn’t always been the best free throw shooter.
Growing up and playing AAU basketball in Las Vegas, Booker’s dad would occasionally call him “Shaq” because he would miss the front end of a one-and-one or simply miss one out of two free throws after getting fouled. He became more consistent at the line after making it a focus. In high school, it got to a point where Booker would draw so many fouls he was told to simply play through it.
“He was always told by the refs to play through the fouls being his skill set was better than his competition,” Booker’s mother, Yolanda Smith said. “This helped him not only get fouled, yet complete many and-one plays. Toward the end of his high school career, he was only allowed to play three quarters and was made to sit the fourth or just not score.”
When Booker went to junior college, he struggled once again. He shot a combined 76 percent in his two years at Gillette College and the College of Southern Idaho, not ideal for any player that doesn’t play center or forward.
“I felt as a point guard I can’t shoot 70 percent from the line,” Booker said. “That’s almost 60 percent, so I just wanted to get better. I would just shoot tons and tons of free throws.”
Despite shooting 85 percent last year in his first season at Long Beach, Booker still knew he could improve. He spent countless hours in the Pyramid and the Gold Mine over summer working on his craft. After shooting drills, he would end the workout with 15 free throws. According to associate head coach Myke Scholl, Booker told coaches he would get his percentage up over 90 percent this season. So far, he’s accomplished that and even exceeded expectations from the line.
“I didn’t know he’d be at this level,” Scholl said. “I’d be lying if I said I thought he’d lead the country in free throws attempted and made. But we definitely knew he had the ability.”
Besides his ability to draw fouls and hit free throws, Booker has a knack for contorting his body in all sorts of ways in order to make contested layups.
“He’s the best layup shooter I’ve ever coached, he’s like Tony Parker,” Scholl said. “If he can get an angle on the backboard, he can make the layup.”
After leading scorer Gabe Levin graduated last season, Long Beach needed Booker to step up as a primary scorer for the 49ers. From free throws to what Scholl says is “more four-point plays here than I think anybody I’ve had in five years combined,” the Las Vegas native stepped up to the challenge. After averaging 10.6 points and 4.6 assists per game last season, Booker has raised that to 18.8 points and 4.5 assists this year.
“He played a lot more like Lonzo Ball, we needed him to be a lot more aggressive,” Scholl said. “This year, with Gabe [Levin] leaving he really saw that he needed to step up offensively.”
While Booker has made the most notable improvement from the free throw line, he’s also gotten better at reading defenses and dealing with “hedges” and “blitzes” while using ball screens on offense. Bigger defenders have stopped switching onto him because he is one of the hardest guards to contain in the conference.
As he gets around the edge of defenders who hedge or blitz screens, Booker draws contact from players, using their hips to try and stay in front of him. This is what separates him from getting more foul calls than players who only draw fouls on drives to the basket.
“I don’t like getting fouled, obviously,” Booker said. “But if I’m going to the basket and I’m not really getting a lot of calls or clean looks then I would for sure try to get us a look at the line so we get something on the board.”
It takes more than just being a solid free-throw shooter to have the most makes and attempts in the nation. It’s an art, and Booker has found a way to channel his inner Picasso during his time at Long Beach.
“I am very proud that he never leaves free money on the table,” Smith said. “He spends countless hours perfecting his craft.”