In basketball, what happens on the ground is as important as what takes place above it. When you think of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, you think of them in midair, not taking the steps to get there.
Basketball often gets compared to jazz because despite the voluminous playbooks, it appears that it’s happening off the cuff. Improvisation is the product of practice. The actions you see on the court are behaviors learned from countless hours of practice. Footwork makes a play come to life. A player may encounter a double-team, but unless his body can properly execute the move, he’ll be unable to react appropriately. "I’ve always worked on it, always worked on it since I was a kid," Bryant told The New York Times in 2009. "I just watched different players — Olajuwon, Michael, Charles [Barkley] — and just all kinds of footwork and just tried to emulate them." Having immaculate footwork is what sets the greats apart, whether it’s the midrange kings like MJ and Kobe, long-range bombers like Ray Allen and Reggie Miller, or the low-post giants like Kevin McHale or Tim Duncan.
As J.J. Redick told me, "Footwork is the foundation of everything you do on the court, so if you don’t have footwork you can’t play in the NBA. It’s the key to everything." All the players, coaches, and trainers I’ve spoken with share one common thread: Footwork can be the enhancer that turns "good" into "great." It can turn All-Stars into legends. We’ll look at some of the modern masters of the artform, starting with the Kobe clone up north.
DeMar DeRozan Did Not Wake Up Like This
The fingerprints of Jordan’s and Bryant’s games can be found all over the basketball-playing world; but their footprints, or rather their footwork, was particularly influential to Raptors All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who grew up in Compton, California, idolizing Kobe. "Watching Kobe’s masterful footwork, you take from the great one yourself, but you put your own step in it," DeRozan’s trainer, Chris Farr, told me this weekend over the phone. Farr is from Oakland and began training DeRozan prior to the 2009 NBA draft. They’ve been together ever since. "Chris just enhanced my ability to do what I’m capable of doing. He never held me back. He never told me I couldn’t do something. He always embraced the player I wanted to be," DeRozan told me at TD Garden on Friday. "He put me in a mind-set where I have a sickening work habit."
Farr has helped to upload Kobe’s masterful moves into DeRozan’s database during each summer that they’ve worked together. That’s led to this season, in which DeRozan is averaging a career-best 27.8 points per game and boasts a 48.1 effective field goal percentage on a team that’s tied for the greatest offensive rating in recorded NBA history. Like Kobe, DeRozan feasts from midrange, where he unleashes a plethora of moves built on jaw-dropping footwork. Kevin Durant said in November that DeRozan has "probably the best footwork I’ve seen in a long time."
The pump-fake-and-step-through is one of Kobe’s signature moves, and DeRozan excellently employs it when the defender overplays the midrange jumper. The move starts out looking like a step-back jumper, with DeRozan stopping on a dime and taking a wide step backward. But as the defender leaps to contest the shot, DeRozan pivots forward into a floater or layup. "You can’t do … those moves without the jumper. He has become a midrange killer," Farr said. "He only does those things because they’ve taken the other thing away. He doesn’t do them just to do them."
As DeRozan’s footwork has continued to evolve, so has his body. When DeRozan first entered the pros, he lacked the bulk to establish prime positioning. Now his body has fully matured and he’s "got a booty game now," according to Farr, which allows him to get to his high-percentage spot on the floor, like he does to Stephen Curry in the clip above. "It’s almost like a great running back bouncing off a tackle. It’s all in the footwork when he takes the hit and it doesn’t move him anymore," Farr said.
Farr says the key to getting DeRozan to this level was building muscle memory by repeating moves over and over again at game speed. DeRozan brings his cousin Shaun to their summer workouts, and Farr said Shaun helps by "putting some Compton hands on him" — fouling and roughing DeMar up. "The more physical they get, the better his footwork gets because they’re hitting him one way, and then he counters," Farr explained.
Full-speed, full-intensity workouts are no secret. They’re something coaches across all levels of the game preach to their students. But not everyone does them. That’s what sets DeRozan apart. "DeMar did not wake up like this. He works out at game speed, so by the time you get to the game it’s just a routine," Farr said. "Desperation will make you determined and he has that desperation in him."
Actually, We *Are* Talking ’Bout Practice
"Your ability to control your body, utilize different footwork patterns is a huge key to success," said Drew Hanlen, CEO of Pure Sweat Basketball and an NBA skills coach and consultant. "From an offensive standpoint, if you have the ability to utilize jabs, stop and start, and change speeds and directions, you’re really unguardable as you can eventually make the right decision: finish, shoot, or pass to an open teammate. I think footwork is up there with anything."
Even if you don’t know Hanlen’s name, you’ve probably seen one of his summer workout videos, like the one of Joel Embiid throwing down dunks. Embiid is just one of Hanlen’s many NBA clients, a list which includes Andrew Wiggins, Bradley Beal, and Zach LaVine. Hanlen has also worked with Jayson Tatum, a Duke freshman and a likely top-five pick in the loaded 2017 NBA draft. Tatum’s game is silky smooth, so he presents a perfect template for Hanlen to mold into the next midrange scoring machine. One of the moves Hanlen taught Tatum this summer was the half-spin.
Hanlen has three steps to teaching a new move: The first involves Hanlen showing how he moves his own feet; the second has the player walk through the move so he understands what to do; and the third is to "make them feel it," he said. The third is the most complicated step for players to pick up. Hanlen described it like this: "the feeling is understanding how to really sell stuff out, stop and start."
Tatum has unleashed the half-spin a few times this season, but acquiring the skill didn’t happen overnight. It’s not as simple as downloading an app or ordering a pizza for delivery. "We took a week and a half just on the half-spin," Hanlen said. "It was because the one thing he couldn’t get down was the feel. Once he got the pace and the feel down, it was over. If Coach K utilizes him in the midpost he’s literally not gonna be stopped."
The next step for Tatum and many players across the league, Hanlen said, is to add in moves that involve "awkward footwork patterns" that a defense isn’t accustomed to. This is the stage DeRozan has reached. It’s what allowed Kobe to still get buckets even in the twilight of his career. It’s why, at 36 years old, Jamal Crawford is still a problem for defenses. Crawford is not the same athlete he was when he was 26, but he’s still frustratingly shifty. "Defenses don’t know what to expect," Hanlen says. "The unpredictable footwork is what really creates separation and creates breakdowns in the NBA. The people that can do natural and unnatural acts of footwork are the ones who are able to create space and separation for themselves."
Giannis, and the Eurostep As Finishing Move
One of the more abrupt, devastating basketball moves is the Eurostep, which occurs when a player drives past a defender by stepping one way and then takes a long lateral step in the opposite direction before laying the ball up. Lithuanian guard Sarunas Marciulionis is credited as the NBA’s Eurostep pioneer, and Manu Ginobili popularized the move. Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and James Harden have helped make it a common part of the basketball player’s vocabulary, and now you see young players utilize it when they enter the NBA. Bigs are starting to drop it too. "People are so surprised when they see bigs doing the things [they’re] doing," DeRozan said, "but they shouldn’t be because the skill set guards have gives you more options."
Giannis Antetokounmpo has made the Eurostep his Mortal Kombat finishing move, taking it to new heights by adding a dunk as an exclamation point.
"Most of the time when you do that move, it’s hard to finish because you take those long strides and it can be hard to stay on balance," Antetokounmpo told me over the phone earlier this month. "I’ve been working so [that] after the Eurostep I can be able to go up strong." Antetokounmpo first started using the move when he was 15 or 16, once his legs got strong enough to allow him to change directions and then elevate. As a young NBA pro, he’s worked with Bucks assistant coach Sean Sweeney, who has incorporated lateral-movement workouts and trampoline drills, and taught post moves that Giannis said have helped improve his footwork and balance.
Still just 22 years old, Antetokounmpo said that the Eurostep feels completely natural. "Whenever I do that move, I don’t even think about it. Sometimes it looks like a Eurostep to people, but to me it’s just a layup," Antetokounmpo explained. "It’s simple. If the guy is in front of you, you go the other way. If he’s not in front of you, just go straight."
If Antetokounmpo develops into a perimeter threat, he could become one of the game’s most complete offensive weapons; he already hits 64.9 percent of his shots within eight feet and attempts 9.8 free throws per 100 possessions. I asked Giannis who he thinks has the best Eurostep in the NBA, and he listed Russell Westbrook, Harden, and Ginobili. Harden especially draws a ton of fouls using the move, both in transition and in the half court. The Beard feints and fakes to weave his way inside, where he draws a near-league-high 13.5 free throws per 100 possessions.
Dare to read YouTube comments on Harden’s videos and you’ll see stuff like this: "Travesty — this is not basketball. It’s dancing. A travel. " Harden’s on-court ballet might draw the ire of some fans, but one NBA video coordinator I spoke with recently made a good point: Harden and other established stars with excellent footwork are no different than legendary pitcher Greg Maddux. Throughout Maddux’s Hall of Fame career, he made a strong case that he was born with superhuman accuracy — this is a man who threw a 76-pitch complete game — so umpires gave him the benefit of the doubt on borderline strike calls.
The same can be said for Harden, whose herky-jerky footwork only helps his case in avoiding travel calls or getting whistles when there’s contact. Maybe there are instances when it actually was a travel — like a Maddux pitch that looked like it painted the corner but should’ve been a ball — but the player’s rep gave him wider room for error.
The Perks of Playing Soccer
As a young teenager growing up in France, Boris Diaw attended the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education (INSEP) at a time when the program didn’t have enough people to play organized five-on-five. So instead of playing three-on-three, knockout, or some other game, the few French players did individual drills to work on their skills, Diaw told me over the phone. This is unusual for the typical American playing basketball, so I asked Diaw if this was the norm for young basketball players in France. "No, it was also unique in France!" Diaw said while letting out a deep laugh. "The way we played that year, it was different. But I think it helped me a lot."
At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, Diaw is one of the rounder players on the floor, but he’s also one of the most nimble. After establishing himself as an integral piece of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns and winning a title with the Spurs, Diaw is still dancing in the 14th season of his career. One common link between Diaw and former teammates Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Leandro Barbosa, and Grant Hill is his background playing soccer. Diaw said he used to talk with Nash about how soccer helped their bodies learn to move differently. "It wasn’t like Steve was faster or more powerful than everybody," Diaw says of Nash. "But his footwork was so precise that he could change direction on a dime, and make the defense go in one direction, then go in the other direction really quickly."
Nash’s footwork, creativity, ambidexterity, and craftiness turned him into the star he was. "Soccer taught me a lot of coordination and footwork, skills and vision," Nash told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2007. "… A lot of the skills are the same on the soccer field and the basketball court, so when I was allowed to actually use my hands, it almost felt unfair for me." Playing different sports is a lot like learning multiple instruments: learning piano can help build dexterity in your fingers even if your primary instrument is guitar, saxophone, or violin. "You use different micro-muscles when you play different sports, so the more variety of sports you play growing up, the more you’re gonna understand your body," Hanlen said. "The more you understand your body, the more you understand how to control it."
Hanlen said the players who grow up playing soccer tend to have better footwork, along with a more natural feel for stopping and starting, and changing directions and angles in a split second. This summer, Hanlen trained Embiid and Cheick Diallo, who are from Cameroon and Mali, respectively, and grew up playing soccer. Embiid’s basketball idol, Hakeem Olajuwon, played soccer growing up in Nigeria and has cited soccer as an influencer of his game. "The Dream Shake was actually one of my soccer moves which I translated to basketball," Olajuwon told NBA.com in 2006. Olajuwon’s Dream Shake was built on deception, baits, and the foot speed and balance adapted from soccer.
The special sauce of savvy low-post scorers isn’t just the ability to make a move with robotic precision, but to vary the pace and tempo of that move’s execution. Players don’t have metronomes; they set the beat. "A change of tempo is also very important in footwork so you’re not always going at same the speed," Diaw said. "Sometimes you need to be slow to have good footwork. Having good footwork going 100 miles per hour is something that’s really, really difficult." In music, phrasing can make one single note carry more emotion than a fast-paced riff, just as on the court a perfectly-paced counter move can lead to an open basket.
3-Pointers Start With the Feet
Ray Allen hit a seemingly endless number of clutch shots over his career, but there is one moment that stands above the rest: the miracle 3-pointer from Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals.
After you get past the "OMFG! HOLY SHIT!"–ness of the moment, your appreciation of the technical skill that it took to execute it only grows. With less than 10 seconds left in the potentially game-deciding possession, Allen somehow had the mental and physical awareness to backpedal into a corner, get his feet behind the line, and unleash the shot. Forget about the ball actually going in — just being in that position was an incredible feat. "It was like in a movie where everything just slows down and it feels like a blur," Allen has said of the play. "My body at that point took over and said, ‘Hey, we’ve done this before. Let’s just go to what we know.’"
Repetition builds habits, which makes game situations feel like you’ve been there before. According to Hanlen, shooters use three footwork variations before releasing their shots. The first is called the hop, which is what it sounds like: a literal "hop" as the player is receiving a pass that allows him to get his shot off quicker.
Notice how the pass makes its way to J.R. Smith — he’s already preparing for the shot by "hopping" into his shooting stance. This allows shooters to release quickly, making it especially valuable in situations in which a defender is closing hard to contest.
Then there’s the one-two step, which is more of the old-school shooting technique, since one foot is already planted at the time the ball is received, and then the other lunges forward before the player rises to shoot.
All shooters incorporate the one-two, but it’s especially prominent among big men. Here, Karl-Anthony Towns gets his feet set by moving his second foot as he receives the pass. This is a slower technique than the hop, but it has its place in the league.
The third variation is the one-step into the hop, which Hanlen said Allen used all of the time, especially when curling over his right shoulder. Here’s an example:
As Allen catches the ball, one of his feet hits the floor, and then he hops into his shot to balance as much as possible, spring up, and shoot. Allen made it look like he was Wes Montgomery playing the guitar. The slow-motion video shows the subtle details that allow Allen to unleash such a complex shot.
One of the best shooters in today’s NBA is J.J. Redick — not because he’s able to spot up and drain 3s, but because he can race through screens like Allen, contort his body, and then rise up to shoot. Redick ranks 13th all time in 3-point percentage among players that have attempted more than 1,000 3s, per Basketball Reference. But he doesn’t dwell in the corner and wave Dion Waiters Hands to call for the ball. Redick works for his shot.
Focus on all the little things that Redick uses to get separation: First, he nearly jukes Andrew Harrison out of his shoes by shimmying to his left before jolting back to his right. Then, he has the presence of mind and the hand-eye-feet coordination to catch the ball, glance down at the line to check his positioning, and gather with a short hop. Here’s a clip of him sprinting through a DeAndre Jordan down screen into a 3 at the top of the key:
As a right-handed shooter, Redick’s right foot would usually be in front of his left, but because of the angle of the action his feet are inverted. Being off-balance isn’t a death sentence for the elite shooters of the NBA, though. Hanlen calls the act of balancing in midair an "air-square." In the past, long before teams jacked up 3s at such a rapid rate, most players shot only when their feet were set and "square to the rim." Times have changed. Now, players are able to shoot 3s from unique, off-balance angles because they’re squaring midair, so at the point of their release, their hips and shoulders are aligned with the rim, allowing them to shoot their normal shots.
To get to this level as a shooter requires countless hours in the gym, as well as mental preparation. On Redick’s The Vertical Podcast, he and Kyle Korver discussed how they prepare for games, and dove into the importance of visualization. "When I’m doing these exercises, I’m thinking about the mechanics of it: the footwork, how I’m catching the ball, how I’m generating force to elevate, where my release point is, how the ball comes out of my hand," Redick said. Korver added that he likes looking at photos of himself or other players shooting to dissect their mechanics, or he’ll watch players from the other team shoot before games to see what works or doesn’t work for them.
Footwork is a technical skill acquired through many productive hours in the gym that train the body to seamlessly execute complex movements in a short interval of time. But it’s also beautiful in the same way a musician phrases a solo. The eternal drive and ambition to continue improving toward goals is ultimately the key to mastering any skill, not just basketball footwork or musicianship.
All statistics current through Monday morning.
This piece has been updated with an additional quote from J.J. Redick.