NBA refs want to crack down on some of the tricks scorers like Donovan Mitchell use to draw fouls

Leg kicks and arm hooks among points of emphasis for officials as the 2021-22 season starts

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) is called for personal foul as he collides with Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier (3), in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Charlotte Hornets at Vivint Arena, on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.

There were a lot of different names for what NBA players found success in doing in recent seasons.

“Crafty” was probably the nicest way of describing it. “Grift” might be the most accurate. A third term frequently used probably doesn’t belong in a family newspaper.

We’re talking, of course, about the non-basketball plays NBA players frequently resorted to in drawing to the free throw line. Get your guy in the air, no matter how far away? Launch yourself into him for two free throws. Your man is defending you with his arms out? Hook those arms close to you and pretend you got fouled. Because free throws are so efficient, doing nearly anything to get them is worthwhile from an offensive point of view.

It’s a topic the NBA’s competition committee finally addressed this year, instructing its referees to call the game differently to remove some of this blatant and unnatural foul-seeking. Tribune reporters were among those invited to a presentation from Monty McCutchen, the league’s Head of Referee Development and Training, on exactly what will be changing this year.

A number of plays involving the Jazz were highlighted, so, when possible, we’ll use those to explain. If there’s no video with the Jazz, we’ll use one involving a familiar Western Conference foe.

Launching into a defender

Our first play comes from Luka Doncic, one of the NBA’s most prolific foul-drawers. Here, he jumps into defender Andrew Wiggins — who is also jumping in the direction of Doncic! — in order to draw a foul. But because Doncic isn’t using a normal shooting motion, and there’s a lot of contact, Doncic should be called for an offensive foul this year.

But just because there’s contact doesn’t mean that it’s the fault of the offensive player. McCutchen used an example from Donovan Mitchell to demonstrate that.

Here, Mitchell pump fakes to get his defender in the air, just like Doncic did. But unlike Doncic, the NBA believes that Mitchell’s shot attempt was fair. In other words, rather than jumping towards the defender, Mitchell’s shot, before the contact, was relatively natural and had a chance to go in.

Note that that’s true even though Mitchell took a step over the 3-point line in the course of making the contact. Mitchell’s allowed to do that — and to shield his body against the contact coming his way. He just can’t jump into the defender in order to create the contact.

There are plays like this in which contact between the shooter and defender will be called a no-call, though. McCutchen used this play, involving Rudy Gobert closing out on shooter Julius Randle, as an example.

Why no foul? Essentially, Randle launched himself into Gobert, but didn’t end up moving him much. The contact wasn’t enough to be deemed severe or substantial. Either way, there’s no offensive foul on the play, and it’s very unlikely Randle would make this shot without the benefit of free-throws.

Abrupt changes of direction

It’s not just 3-point attempts that the league wants to change, though. Consider this play from Steph Curry, who jumps into trailing defender Dante DiVincenzo in order to get to the free throw line.

Now, though, this play would be an offensive foul, not the defensive foul called by referee Marc Davis. Because Curry launches his body into defender who is guarding legally, possession will go the other way.

Players will, however, be allowed to stop on the floor wherever they want, including in the backcourt. If a defender is running up behind a dribbler, and that dribbler stops, creating contact, it will still be a defensive foul. Abrupt stopping is fine. Abrupt moving into a defender? That’s an offensive foul.

Leg kicks

There are other ways players offensive players draw contact. Here, Phoenix guard Devin Booker kicks his leg up in an unnatural way, which means the defender, OKC’s Lu Dort, runs into him where he otherwise would have. The league wants this to be an offensive foul.

Just like with the other categories, there are some leg kicks that create contact that wouldn’t necessarily be called offensive fouls, just no-calls. It all depends on how much contact is created as a result of the kick: if it causes the defender to lose his balance or position, then it’s likely to be called an offensive foul, if not, it’ll be a no-call. Likewise, contact on the feet created by the defender after a natural drifting of the legs would likely be a defensive foul.

Arm hooks

Finally, there’s one last favorite move of the star players of the league: the arm hook. Here, McCutchen showed an example of a Mitchell drive that should have been an offensive foul.

You can see what he’s talking about: Mitchell intentionally puts his left arm between Dort’s arm and his body, then hooks his arm around it to create contact. Last year, this was called a no-call. This year, because Mitchell is moving Dort’s arm out of a legal defending position, the league wants officials to make this an offensive foul on Mitchell.

But just as this trick was used by Mitchell, it was also used against him, too. On this play, Paul George notices that Mitchell is touching his body, and so pulls up for three in an unnatural way, essentially hooking Mitchell’s arm to create contact.

This was called as three free throws for George last year, but the league wants it to be a no-call this year. Why? The defending player is allowed to touch an opponent if it doesn’t impact his speed, quickness, rhythm, or balance: in other words, Mitchell putting his hand on George’s hip is legal. When George raised his arm to create contact, it was to draw a foul, not for any other reason. It was an abnormal, non-basketball play by George, hence the no-call.

In my view, these are big changes. Free throws will probably be reduced as old tricks used to get to the line don’t work anymore, and that means quicker games. It also means more fun games: none of us tune into NBA games to watch free-throw contests, and forcing basketball players to cut the, uh, “grift” and just play basketball.