Offense is at an all-time high in the WNBA this season, in part due to the elite level shooters across the league. Rookie duo Victoria Vivians and Kelsey Mitchell have entered the league ready to drain threes at a record pace, LaToya Sanders is threatening season records for shooting percentages, and Diana Taurasi continues to extend her dominance as the league’s all-time leader in three-point field goals.
In a season where scoring is up and the schedule is condensed, there is perhaps no better place to put points on the board than from the free throw line. The all-time leader in free throw percentage is Elena Delle Donne, who — though shooting a low (for her) 89.7% from the line this season — has had a streak of 59 consecutive free throws in her career and has made 93.5% of her career free throws. The leader this season (considering players who have made at least 25) is Taurasi, who has made 153 of 166 free throws, good for 92.2%.
In the history of the WNBA, there have been many other great free throw shooters, but no one has made a claim quite like one of the original players in the league, Eva Němcová.
Outside the W
Eva Němcová was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on December 3, 1972. Both of her parents were Olympic athletes; her father, Zdeněk Němec, competed in the discus throw in the 1960 Summer Olympics, and her mother, Jiřina Němcová, competed in the high jump in the 1956 Summer Olympics and in the discus throw in 1956, 1960, and 1964.
From a young age, Němcová began competing for Czechoslovakia in international play. In 1989, she competed in the European Championship for Cadettes (now the Under-16 Championships), helping lead Czechoslovakia to an undefeated record and championship over Romania with 14.3 PPG. In the following year, she averaged 8.8 PPG in the FIBA World Championship for Women en route to a 4-4 overall record and fourth-place finish.
She continued to compete for the National Team throughout the early 1990s, including competition at the 1992 Summer Olympics, where Czechoslovakia finished sixth. She put up a balanced effort, averaging 14.6 PPG, 3.2 RPG, and 1.2 APG.
After her time playing in the United States, Němcová continued to compete in the European Championships, leading Czechoslovakia to their first gold medal finish in 2005, putting up 11 PPG, 4.1 RPG, and 1.4 APG. She also had the game-winning basket in the 72-70 championship game win over Russia.
She also competed in France before her time in the United States and most recently won an Italian League Championship while playing for Stem Marine Parma, averaging 10.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, and 2.1 SPG.
Competing in the WNBA
Němcová was drafted fourth overall in the 1997 WNBA Draft by the Cleveland Rockers. Before her, Elena Baranova of Russia was allocated to the Utah Starzz, and in the Elite Draft, Isabelle Fijalkowski of France was also selected by the Rockers.
In the eight-team league that first year, the Rockers finished 15-13, which was fourth in the Eastern Conference but fifth overall. Unfortunately, only the top four teams advanced to the Playoffs in that first year, so the Rockers missed out. However, this was Němcová’s best statistical year, with 13.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2.4 APG, and 1.4 SPG on 33.7 MPG and 47.3% shooting from the field. Her effective field goal percentage of 53.6 was third-best in the league, and she finished the season with a 104 offensive rating. She led the league in three-point shooting, making 43.5% of her shots from beyond the arc. Němcová was named to the All-WNBA First Team in the first year of the league.
Led by Fijalkowski and guard Suzie McConell-Serio, the Rockers improved to 20-10 in 1998, good for first in the Eastern Conference and second only to the 27-3 Houston Comets, now in the Western Conference. Němcová put up similar numbers in her second season but even improved on her three-point shooting, up to 45.2% to lead the league again. Her efforts led to an All-WNBA Second Team selection. The Rockers were eliminated by the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA Semifinals 2-1 in their first Playoffs appearance.
In what would be her final full season in the WNBA, Němcová became the ninth player in the league to 1,000 points in 1999. Unfortunately, the Rockers failed to compete consistently, finishing 7-25 and ending Linda Hill-McDonald’s stint as head coach.
In the following two years, Dan Hughes took over as head coach and the Rockers returned to the Playoffs, including an Eastern Conference-best 22-10 finish in 2001, but Němcová only played in 22 games over these two seasons due to an ACL injury sustained on July 1, 2000.
Before her injury, though, Němcová set a mark that has yet to be broken. From June 14, 1999, to June 5, 2000, she made 66 consecutive free throws. Both Elena Delle Donne and DeWanna Bonner have come close, each with streaks of 59 free throws. In fact, in 1999 she made 62 of 63 free throws for a league-best 98.4% from the line. That mark is still second only to Becky Hammon’s 2014 season, when she made all 35 of her free throws.
Legacy in the W
Though her time was short in the WNBA, due to both its timing in her life and her injury in 2000, she left a legacy as one of the league’s first European players and one of the most efficient scorers in the league.
She did not have as many reps as the all-time leaders in free throw percentage, but her career mark of 89.7% from the free throw line is competitive with the career leaders (courtesy of Basketball Reference):
Her name shows up on a number of other career leader boards as well:
- Three-point FG%: 40.2 (#15)
- Minutes per game: 30.6 (#29)
- True shooting %: 55.2 (#33)
- Effective FG%: 50.3 (#41)
- Defensive rating: 96.4 (#44)
Beyond just the statistics, given the influx of European players in the WNBA over the past 20 years, perhaps her greatest influence was exposing more people stateside to the elite play of international players.