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What the First Shots by Future NBA Stars Predicted About Their Careers

Whether it was a 3-point miss, a free throw, a dunk, or a jumper, if you look hard enough, you’ll see what you want to see

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“How about that? The rookie, in his first game in the NBA, makes a steal and goes down and jacks up a 3.”

Matt Bullard said that. He was calling a game between the Rockets and Warriors in 2009 and he’d just watched Steph Curry, then a rookie, shoot a pull-up 3 off the dribble in transition. That was the first shot that Steph Curry took in the NBA, and that is both incredible and significant. Steph’s whole first minute in the NBA can be spun forward into an incredible and significant bit of foreshadowing.

After securing the ball from the tip-off, he initiated a pick-and-roll with Stephen Jackson, leading to a layup for Jackson. That means it took Steph, who’d arrived in the league with questions about whether he’d be able to effectively run an NBA offense, only 13 seconds to secure his first assist.

On his first defensive possession, the Rockets ran a play to get Steph alone on Trevor Ariza on the left side of the court. Ariza, 5 inches taller than Steph and also about 35 or so pounds heavier, caught the ball and began to back him down. Bullard declared, “There’s a mismatch,” anticipating that Ariza was going to pound Steph into submission. As Ariza began his dribble, however, Steph reached around him and stripped the ball away. That means it took Steph, who’d also arrived in the league with questions about his defensive abilities, only 28 seconds to secure his first steal.

The pull-up 3 happened immediately after that, and it ended up rimming out, but the tone was set, and his defiant march toward stardom had begun.

Two minutes later, Steph made his first NBA basket, and it was also in an exactly perfect Steph Curry way. He had the ball out at the top of key with Ariza guarding him. He called for a pick from Andris Biedrins (I miss the Andris Biedrins era very much), then snaked around it as soon as it was set, forcing Chuck Hayes onto him. Hayes, not wanting to get blown by, sagged back just enough for Curry to know he had him beat. He stunned Hayes with a bit of dribbling deception, then hopped over to his left to get off a pull-up jumper. The ball splashed through the net perfectly, never even once considering the possibility of doing anything other than being a gorgeous and vicious missile.

First baskets for NBA players are fun to look at.

NBA All-Star Rookies Photo by Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

Did you know that Russell Westbrook’s first basket came at the free throw line? It did. It happened during the second quarter of his first game. (He wasn’t a starter back then, which is weird to think about.) What’s even better is that in the three minutes before that moment, he got an assist, blocked a shot, committed an offensive foul, missed a shot, then drew a shooting foul. It was a bite-size preview of what his career would become: a very active, very putting-his-fingerprints-on-the-game, very You Either Hate This Or Love This kind of thing.

Kevin Durant’s first basket was also a free throw, though it was far less symbolic, which is kind of perfect for Kevin Durant, given that he is the least symbolic superstar in the league.

If we lean all the way in the other direction, Kobe, whose entire basketball existence has been wrapped in symbolism, also scored his first NBA point at the free throw line.

A few things worth pointing out about it:

  1. Sometimes it seems like Kobe gets remembered as this high school dynamo who showed up in the NBA and immediately disrupted everything the way that, say, LeBron James did. That wasn’t the case, though. To wit: Kobe played only six minutes in his first game, and he had zero points, one rebound, zero assists, and zero steals. LeBron, on the other hand, played 42 minutes in his first game and had 25 points, six rebounds, nine assists, and four steals. (And, to be clear, I don’t want it to seem like this somehow makes Kobe’s narrative any less impressive. In fact, it’s the opposite. Kobe never scored more than 24 points in a single game during his rookie year. Nine years later, he averaged over 35 points per game for the entire season. His whole basketball essence was built around proving people and ideas wrong. His first basket is emblematic of that, as it should be.)
  2. Kobe’s first point as a Laker came during his second game. It was on a free throw in Madison Square Garden, probably the most famous basketball arena in the world. It was his only point of the game. (He had one field goal attempt in that game.)
  3. Kobe’s final point as a Laker also came at the free throw line. It was during a home game at Staples Center, also a quintessential venue. It was his 60th point of the night. (He had 50 field goal attempts in that game.)
  4. There’s probably some kind of argument to be made about how Kobe’s first point happening on the road makes sense because he was very much an outsider at the start of his career.
  5. There’s also probably some kind of argument to be made about how Kobe’s final point happening at Staples makes sense because, by the end of his career, he was as iconic an NBA figure as Los Angeles had ever seen.
  6. There’s also probably some kind of argument to be made that the foul that he drew to earn that first trip to the free throw line was incredibly prescient in itself. (Kobe drove into the paint from the 3-point line. The ball was stripped as he went up. He grabbed it, pump-faked, then tried to shoot it over three Knicks players, drawing the foul.)

And since we just mentioned him briefly, a fun first shot to talk about is LeBron James’s.

His first official made basket in an NBA game was a 16-foot jumper, but his first unofficial basket was a giant dunk during his first preseason game in 2003. So if you’re a LeBron James naysayer, you can say that this combination of facts, duh, was the first instance of us seeing that LeBron does his most impressive, most awe-inspiring work when it doesn’t really matter. (“IF HE’S SO GREAT WHY WASN’T HIS FIRST NBA BASKET A SUPER DUNK LIKE IT WAS DURING HIS FIRST NBA PRESEASON GAME?! HE’S A CHOKER!”) And if you’re a LeBron James truthsayer you can say that this combination of facts, duh, makes for the first instance of us not appreciating how incredible and make-the-right-play LeBron James is. (“YOU’RE NOT WATCHING BASKETBALL THE RIGHT WAY BECAUSE YOU’RE ONLY CAUGHT UP IN THE FIREWORKS OF IT! YOU’RE A BUFFOON!”)

Carmelo Anthony’s first shot attempt came just 18 seconds into his first game because he’s Carmelo Anthony.* It was a miss (“CARMELO IS BAD!”), but then he got his rebound (“CARMELO IS GOOD!”), but then he turned it over (“I TOLD YOU CARMELO IS BAD!”).

*This is an easy joke to make because Carmelo has, for the entirety of his career, been seen as a gunner. A fun side fact, though, is that Dwyane Wade, drafted the same year as Carmelo and LeBron, got his first shot attempt up even faster. It took him only 12 seconds, and it was a one-on-one drive that Wade initiated from the half-court line and finished by trying a reverse, double-clutch layup.

Kristaps Porzingis, who was booed on draft night in 2015, made his first basket with little fanfare (it was a very pedestrian I’m Just Bigger Than You Are So I’m Going to Shoot It Over You side shot near the rim). Karl-Anthony Towns, the first overall pick in that same draft class and also the consensus best player available, made his first basket by dunking it and then trying to rip the rim off the backboard. (My favorite advanced stat about Karl-Anthony Towns is that he is the first no. 1 draft pick to film a series of commercials with a sasquatch.)

And since we’re kind of talking about dunks, let me tell you that Chris Webber’s first points in the NBA, as a Warrior in 1993, also came off a dunk. The Warriors had forced a turnover against the Rockets and so they were on a break and Latrell Sprewell bounce-passed it to Webber, who grabbed the ball, took two big steps, and thunderdunked it home. As he ran back up the court he smiled and let his tongue hang out of his mouth for a second and it was a very charming moment. (Blake Griffin’s first points in the NBA also came off a dunk, and honestly, his was far more impressive than Webber’s, but it’s just that Griffin is way less of a romantic historical figure in the league than Webber is, so I chose to talk about Webber here.)

And since we’ve now fallen backward in time, let me tell you that Michael Jordan’s first dunk was an absolute stunner. It was an alley-oop. (Vince Carter’s first dunk was also an alley-oop, FYI.) He came peeling off the back side of a play, Ennis Whatley saw him and threw the ball into the sky, and then, I mean, look:

That was his first dunk in the league. How stupid is that? Imagine you’re in the NBA and you think you’re good at jumping and then this new guy shows up and does this as his first dunk. Every single Bucks player in that screenshot has no idea how to react, which makes sense because neither did anybody else watching. One of the commentators watching said, “All right, I’ma tell you something: There’s not much you can say about this,” and that was it. Michael Jordan dunked the words out of the head of a guy whose entire job it is to say words.

Basketball is fun. Basketball is the best sport.