Countdown to 2015–16: Kris Yanku, DI’s best free throw shooter, is ready to lead Northern Arizona

Yanku led the nation in made free throws (230) last season. (Photo courtesy of Northern Arizona Athletics).

Kris Yanku provides a straightforward explanation when he’s asked about the NCAA-leading 230 free throws he made as a Northern Arizona sophomore last season.

Every workout, between drills, I like to make five or 10 free throws in a row. Before the drill, you make a certain amount. After it, another certain amount. Doing that consistently builds the habit of making them. If you do it periodically, over the extent of a year, even when you’re getting tired in drills, you can make them in the game. You know you’ve already been through it.

That more-than-tidy sum of free throws were converted at an 80% clip. Yanku also averaged 13.8 points in ‘14–15, second-best on the Lumberjacks. He started 29 of 37 games, and emerged as a well-rounded point guard (5.1 assists, 4.5 rebounds) who helped lead NAU to 23 wins and an appearance in the CollegeInsider Tournament championship game, where they lost to Evansille.

It all wraps into the narrative of one of the most exciting forces in DI. In addition to four years of basketball, Yanku played volleyball as a junior and senior at Taft High, in Woodland Hills, Calif.

He had a lot of friends on volleyball team, and he was good friends with the coach. So, after averaging 23.4 points in his senior season for Taft hoops, he got right back onto the court. “Volleyball is plyometrics. I knew it would only help my game,” says Yanku. “It kept me explosive, and it took care of my plyo workouts.”

Yanku wouldn’t go so far as to say he mirrors certain players, but he did love watching Manu Ginobli in his prime, and he’s a huge Russell Westbrook fan. Vastly different, with a unifying theme — both love to get into the lane and create good things. More often than not, they’re converting from the line.

“I’m super aggressive, and I love to play hard. That’s probably the best thing about me,” says Yanku. “Getting into the lane is something I thrive off. Getting to the free throw line makes my game what it is.”

This was one of the things Jack Murphy, NAU’s head coach, wanted to address in 2013, his first full recruiting class in Flagstaff. “We wanted to get a bit bigger, and more athletic on the wing, and Kris was instrumental to that,” says Murphy. “He’s such a good ballhandler and creator. You can play him at the 1 or 2. He got into the paint whenever he wanted, and he kept his man out on the other end. We loved that about him.”

Loyalty was the chief reason Yanku chose Northern Arizona. In the summer before his senior year, Murphy and his coaching staff came to every one of his AAU games. Once he’d committed to NAU, they made a point of heading out to Taft to check up on him.

Flagstaff wasn’t too close, but it wasn’t too far from home, either. Says Yanku, “Flagstaff is a smaller town, but it’s a nice change from L.A. life, which is always busy. The winter is rough here, and it can get freezing cold, but it’s a beautiful place to live.”

NAU spaces the floor on offense. The Lumberjacks’ posts have range that extends to the perimeter, which extends the court and gives Yanku more driving range. “It’s important for him to get to the line when we’re not making shots,” says Murphy. “Kris bails us out when he gets free throws.”

“And,” says Murphy, citing that run in the CIT as evidence, “as the games get bigger, he rises.”

Yanku stayed on campus this summer, knowing that he will be counted upon to help lead a team in ‘15–16 that welcomes eight newcomers. He knows the faster they develop, the better the Lumberjacks will be.

Yanku at the line. (Courtesy of NAU Athletics)

That meant a daily grind of 500 to 700 makes on the Gun, then weightlifting with the strength coach. One of Yanku’s housemates is a team manager, so all he had to do was knock on a door to get a rebounder when he wanted a little extra practice. “It’s been about putting up shots, and getting that consistency,” says Yanku. “That’s the thing I want to address about this past season: field goal percentage, and cutting down turnovers.”

Yanku shot 33% from the field, and 29% from three. There were 3.1 turnovers, so in addition to the jump shot work, he’s been poring over film clips of his ballhandling. “Every year, the game keeps slowing down for you,” says Yanku. “That’s been happening so far, so things should come easier next year, and that should help.”

Says Murphy, “He understands the deficiencies in his game, and he wants to improve them. He’s improving his strengths, too. He’s an intelligent young man.”

Murphy wants to see improved maturity, an ability to control emotion. “With Kris being out point guard, and the pulse of our team, he has to keep it in check,” Murphy says. “He is so skilled, intelligent and athletic, so we’ve had multiple conversations, and we’ve put our guys through mental toughness drills.”

The same week that Murphy spoke to Alley Whoops, the team had hiked Humphreys Peak — elevation 12,637 feet. “If you can make it up there without complaining, you’re doing pretty good,” Murphy says with a chuckle.

All that work, all that preparation. Yanku is ready to rock ‘15–16.