In October 1997, the San Antonio Spurs convened for training camp. At the end of their first practice, head coach Gregg Popovich split his players into two teams for a scrimmage. One group was anchored by David Robinson, the Spurs’ All-Star center who had missed most of the previous season due to injuries. The other was led by Tim Duncan, a rookie whom the Spurs had drafted no. 1 overall that June. This would be the first time Duncan and Robinson would face off. It would also be one of the last.
“We really couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” Avery Johnson, the Spurs’ starting point guard at the time, said in a phone interview. “Tim dominated David, who I thought was a pretty good defender.” Johnson chuckled. “It got to the point where Pop had David spend the rest of training camp on Tim’s team.”
Duncan had been named the National College Player of the Year while at Wake Forest the previous season. Scouts considered him a premier prospect, and, since he’d played four years of college ball, believed he was NBA-ready. Still, no one expected him to be as polished as he was. He seemed to be everywhere on defense. He seemed to grab every rebound. He seemed to never miss. But it wasn’t just that the 21-year-old Duncan was dominating, and doing so against a recent league MVP. It’s that, to quote Johnson, “he was doing so with bank shots.”
Duncan had a precise combination of footwork and finesse, one that takes most players years to perfect. One possession, he’d catch the ball on the left block, spin baseline, and, with his body almost sideways, loft the ball with one hand over his right shoulder and off the glass. The next, he’d turn to face the hoop, jab his right foot to create space, and then fire a laser off the box that somehow would drop through the net. He preferred the left block, but could find the backboard from any spot on the court. He quickly earned the nickname “the Big Fundamental.” The bank shot wasn’t the only reason, but it would become the signature move of a singular NBA career.
“That was one of the first fundamental things I think everybody noticed about him,” Popovich said last week during a press conference over Zoom. “It was his first signature move that I think everybody realized that, you know, there’s probably something pretty special about this guy.”
On Thursday, nearly 24 years since that training camp, Duncan will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, putting a bow on one of the greatest careers in the history of professional sports. Fifteen All-Star games, 10 All-NBA first-team nods, five titles, three Finals Most Valuable Player awards, two MVP trophies—all while serving as the heart of a two-decade-long NBA dynasty.
“No Duncan, no championships,” Popovich said when asked to summarize Duncan’s career. To this day, he added, he and his coaches kick off team dinners by raising their glass to Duncan. “Thank you, Timmy,” they say.
There’s no simple way to summarize Duncan’s brilliance. Those who played with and against him, and coaches who worked with him and faced him, all highlight different strengths. Hall of Fame head coach Larry Brown said, “He just made the right play, every single time.” Al Horford said, “The way he was able to control the game defensively, I’ve just never seen anything like it.” Pau Gasol said, “The only thing that mattered to him was winning.”
But, eventually, they all point to the bank shot. For one, it was deadly. “You knew he was going to take it, but there was nothing you could do about it,” Horford said. “It was like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar’s] skyhook.’’ But it was more than just Duncan’s trademark shot—it represented everything that made him great.
“The shot reflected him,” said Lon Babby, Duncan’s former agent. “A fundamentally sound shot, one that not many people are interested in, one that’s not glamorous. It reflected so beautifully Tim’s demeanor and personality and respect for the game.”
When exactly Duncan developed the shot is a bit hazy. (Duncan declined an interview for this story through a Spurs spokesperson.) Marc Blucas, who was a senior at Wake Forest when Duncan enrolled in 1993 and remains a close friend, said that Duncan arrived on campus with the bank shot already in his arsenal and even deployed it during summer pickup runs. “He was doing that and, like, the Sikma reverse pivot off the glass, shit you never see.”
Dave Odom, the head coach of Duncan’s Wake Forest teams, tells a different story. “The one shot he came to school with was a somewhat soft but elementary jump hook over his left shoulder,” Odom said. In his telling, he and Duncan spent time during Duncan’s freshman season experimenting with ways for him to attack defenders over his right shoulder. The bank shot was one of their first attempts. Duncan started on the left block, with his back to the basket.
“I don’t know how many balls I threw him,” Odom said. “But it was never enough. It was always, ‘Throw me some more, Coach, throw me some more.’” Midway through his sophomore year, Odom said, Duncan began pivoting to face opponents. If defenders took away his right hand, or played him to drive, he’d ping the ball off the glass. “By his junior year,” Odom said, “it didn’t matter where he was on the court. He had it all down.”
In San Antonio, Duncan continued refining the bank shot. “My office was always close to the court during my 12 years in San Antonio,” former Sixers head coach and longtime Spurs assistant Brett Brown wrote in a text message. “I was in the practice facility at many different hours during this period. Often either early in the morning, or very late at night, you could hear somebody in the gym with the shooting gun.” Brown arrived in San Antonio in 2002. The next season, the first for which the NBA has data available on attempts off the glass (defined as bank jump shots and bank hook shots, but not layups), Duncan canned 70.3 percent of the 111 bank shots he attempted, a ridiculous rate. Between 2003 and 2016, he’d connect on bank shots 60.4 percent of the time.
“When I played against him, I thought it was a shot that he took because that’s what the defense was giving him,” said Michael Finley, who played for the Spurs from 2005 to 2010. “And then I came to San Antonio and the first time I saw him working on it, I figured it was just a one-day thing. But, no, he worked on that shot as much as any. Different angles, different post moves, off the dribble. When we did shooting drills as a team, Pop always implemented the bank shots as one of the spots where everybody had to shoot from.”
Duncan would often field the ball just outside the paint on the left side of the court, spin open, and size up his defender.
“The thing that stood out to me was his footwork,” said Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, who spent 17 seasons as a Spurs assistant.
“When people crowded him, he had the basic rocker step jab series that gave him his space to shoot,” Brett Brown wrote, referring to the jab steps Duncan could unleash from the face-up position.
“And if you try to take it away,” Gasol said, “he would rip it through the middle, where he was lethal, either with the right-handed drive or the hook shot over the left shoulder. So you’d kind of be hoping he’d go left, but you couldn’t open up too much because then he could also finish strong that way. So it was a variety of options, and he was surrounded by other Hall of Famers and was a willing passer.”
Duncan’s ruthlessness often left opponents feeling helpless. “Facing him was like death by a thousand cuts,” said Vin Baker, a former All-Star power forward and current Bucks assistant coach.
“It wasn’t like Shaq, where he’d put 40 on you and give you nightmares,” said Brian Scalabrine, a former New Jersey Nets reserve who fell to Duncan and the Spurs in the 2003 Finals. “It was different. He’d only score 25 but it would feel like 40. Anytime you’d go on a run, Pop would call for the ball to go to Tim in the post and they’d always get a bucket. It was just impossible to build any momentum against them.”
(Fun story: Duncan celebrated the 2003 title by taking his V10 Dodge pickup to an empty San Antonio parking lot, where he and Blucas did doughnuts until 4 a.m, with Duncan’s Finals MVP trophy strapped into the back seat. “We went until the car broke down,” Blucas said. “Tim was like, ‘Let’s go, we’ll get this tomorrow.’ I said, ‘We should get the trophy.’’’)
But if you got Duncan back on the other end, he was surprisingly cordial. “If you scored on him, he’d be like, ‘Good shot,’ or, ‘I didn’t expect you to make that,’” said David West, another former All-Star power forward. “It was weird.”
Duncan retired in 2016, after 18 NBA seasons of confounding opponents. According to research provided by the NBA, he took 1,934 bank shots over the final 13 years of his career (the league’s data dates back to 2003, and includes regular-season and playoff games). That’s the most of any player in that span. In fact, it’s nearly three times as many shots as Dwyane Wade, who is second on the list with 754.
This is where the comparisons to Kareem’s skyhook become more appropriate. With post play discouraged and 2-point jumpers frowned upon, the bank shot, like the skyhook, may be on a path toward extinction. According to the NBA’s data, in 2003-04, players hit 77 percent of their bank shots; last season, that mark fell to 55 percent.
“With today’s game, shooting bank shots from 3 is probably not going to be great,” Popovich said. “We live and die shooting 3s. And I don’t think anybody’s going to start practicing banking it from those distances. Maybe Steph [Curry] can do it. I don’t know that anybody else can.”
And even if some new bank artists do come along, it’s unlikely we will ever see a player perfect the shot to the level that Duncan did. “It takes an enormous amount of skills and touch and confidence to consistently take and make that shot,’’ Johnson said.
‘’It’s not a shot that most players are comfortable with,’’ Gasol said.
But Duncan was different from his peers. It’s one of the traits that made him so great. ‘’He was such a quiet assassin, but that shot was such an arrogant in-your-face statement,’’ Johnson said. ‘’And he banked it on everybody. No one was exempt.’’
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA reporter and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.