There's been some debate about whether Aaron Gordon is a small forward or a PF. He's mostly playing nominal SF in the summer league. Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but the reason I'm considering him a PF, aside from the fact that that's what he played in college, is that that at least gives him a fighting chance to be something. Given that nobody (at least nobody anyone's managed to discover) has ever posted a career NBA free throw percentage more than 16% better than his college FT percentage, it seems highly unlikely (not impossible, just mostly unprecedented) that Gordon (currently at .422) will pass .550-.570 or so. And the fact is that, while it's certainly possible (not ideal, but possible) to be an NBA big man with .550 free throw shooting and no jumper, it's historically been much tougher for wings to overcome that kind of weakness.
In the last 15 years, the following players have seasons with .550 FT shooting or worse while playing starting minutes and shooting 125+ free throws.
CENTERS AND POWER FORWARDS
- Andre Drummond 1 (1 under .500)
- DeAndre Jordan 4 (3 under .500)
- JJ Hickson 1
- Dwight Howard 3 (2 under .500)
- Blake Griffin 1
- Shaquille O'Neal 6 (3 under .500)
- Jamaal Magloire 2
- Kwame Brown 1
- Ben Wallace 9 (all 9 under .500)
- Bo Outlaw 1
- Antoine Walker 1
- Reggie Evans 1
SOMETIMES A "SMALL FORWARD", REALLY A POWER FORWARD
FULL-TIME WINGS AND POINT GUARDS
In fact, 3 of these 15 seasons saw no NBA starter shoot below .550. And aside from Smith and single-season performances from Rajon Rondo (whose FT percentage dipped to .597 in 2011-12),Andre Iguodala (whose .574 in 2012-13 was kind of baffling) and Baron Davis (whose .580 in 2001-02 was equally strange), no SF or guard in the last 15 years has dipped below .600 and still managed to hold down a starting job. All four of these players have career free throw percentages above .600, with Iguodala's and Davis' topping .700.
Davis' is the only case where you might chalk it up to learning: he shot .634 and .677 in his first two NBA seasons before unleashing the .580 in his third. A .631 free throw shooter in college, he went on to average .710 in his fourth NBA season and .711 for his pro career. Smith averaged over .700 for his first four NBA seasons before shooting .588 in '08-09, then sinking below .550 in 2012-13 and 2013-14. Rondo's been pretty much the same shooter his entire career, shooting .577 in college, .647 in his NBA rookie year and .621 for his career. And Iguodala's struggles appear to be a late-career thing; he shot .738 for his college career, over .700 in each of his first six NBA seasons (including one year at .820), and under .700 in each of the last four.
All of which is a matter of precedent. Gordon might be the only great SF/terrible FT shooter in the modern NBA. (It's worth pointing out that one popular Gordon comp, Bruce Bowen, shot .575 from the line for his career... Bowen isn't on the list because he only attempted enough free throws to make the list once, and he shot .609 that year.) Or he might be the first guy in the modern NBA to post an NBA free throw percentage 20+ points higher than his college free throw percentage. I'm not saying any of this to discount the possibility, just to point out that it hasn't happened to anyone else yet.
EDIT: I took this back to 1976-77, the first year after the NBA-ABA merger. In that time, your best (only?) example of a SF starting in the league with terrible free throws is Ken Norman. Ten-year career, usually started, 13.5 PPG, .567 career free throw shooting with numerous years under .550. I wouldn’t call him a great player, or even an especially good one, but he was a worthy NBA starter. Bizarrely, Norman was a .736 FT shooter in three years at the University of Illinois.
The second-best example I found was Danny Vranes. Debuted in 1981, career .570 FT shooting, started three years for the Sonics during a 7-year NBA career. He only had two seasons where he even attempted 150 free throws, and ended up at .550 exactly for one of them. (Two years later, he would attempt 127 FTs and shoot .528 on them.) It’s hard to say Vranes was an NBA starter-caliber player, even though he did start for three years. Like Norman, Vranes was a much better FT shooter in college — .715 in four years at Utah.
And that’s it for the entire post-ABA era… almost 40 years. Josh Smith, Norman, Vranes, that’s all. Even the latter two were almost 15% ahead of Gordon’s college FT shooting… if he stays at the 3, Gordon would have to make one of the biggest college-to-NBA FT improvements in history just to avoid being the worst FT-shooting small forward in modern basketball. And none of the three examples we have here started out as terrible free throw shooters and got better, by the way… all three of them started out mediocre to pretty good and got worse.