Elite 101: Shot Creators

I feel like I can get any shot I want.

That’s not to sound cocky or conceited. It’s because I’ve played basketball basically every day of my life. So at some point, I’ve taken just about every shot there is. I’ve figured out the angles, almost like a pool shark. I know where to use the glass, which dribble I need and which spot I want to reach.

Because of that, I know I can get a clean look and get it up there.

There are basically five ways to score in the half court. Layups, mid-range, three-pointers, free throws — and then what I call “tough shots.” Tough shots come anywhere on the floor, under difficult circumstances. The ability to create that shot is a special skill in the NBA. These guys are shooters who, no matter the situation, no matter how they’re shooting up to that point in the game, no matter how little time is left on the clock, no matter how you defend them — they can get themselves a clean look and have the confidence to take the shot.

The first step is to create space. At the end of the day, it’s the reason for everything a shot creator does before shooting. That’s why I use my crossover. Some guys, like Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant, use footwork. Other guys find ways that seem wild and awkward at first. Nobody had seen Dirk’s one-legged shot before he introduced it. The Eurostep was “The Ginobili” when Manu first brought it to the league. Now guys like Dwyane Wade and James Harden do it, too.

The ultimate space creator was Kareem’s sky hook. That broke all the rules. You’re taught to shoot the ball with two hands and square your shoulders. He’s got half his body turned to the basket, the ball is out, he’s going off one leg going away from the basket, shooting with one hand.

It was the most unstoppable shot in history.

One of my big influences as a young player was Allen Iverson. All I wanted to do was the left-to-right crossover, because that’s the one he was doing most. But now, with film and YouTube, you need different versions of every move, because players and defenses figure out what you like and try to take it away. The great shot creators have a counter, and then a counter to the counter.

Here’s how it works for me: the first counter to the crossover is the fake crossover, where I do a little hang dribble and just keep going. The counter to that is the fake crossover pull-up. I can switch it over to the other hand, and that gives me another three looks. So now I’ve got six moves off of one starting point. Then it’s about the battle inside the battle. Take away my left-to-right? OK, I’ll come back right to left. That’ll keep defenders off-guard. Oh, they’re sitting on that? Let me get the right-to-left-behind-the-back. Took that away? Let me put the right-to-left-behind-the-back-behind-the-back together.

It can look like this:

Two crossovers between the legs, the hang dribble, pull it back. That gave me space. Then another quick crossover, and I was wide open below the elbow. Your mind never stops working to get those couple of inches that create the look you want. That’s all an elite shot creator needs.

No matter what the trends are in the NBA — teams going big, going small, getting more efficient with analytics — the ability for a player to create his own shot, then convert tough shots, will always be a weapon, particularly when you get to the playoffs. Opposing coaching staffs have watched days of film. They know what sets your team wants to run. They know which way players want to go.

For these guys, it doesn’t really matter what the film says.

So here’s my list of guys I’ve played against who are elite at creating their own shot at any time (keeping myself and all my Clippers teammates ineligible, in the interest of fairness). They all have the tools, but each guy uses them a little differently. These are the shots fans might look at and wonder about, because sometimes they look wild or reckless.

But remember, just because a shot is tough for Player A doesn’t mean it’s tough for Player B.


Kobe Bryant (Footwork)

I heard one time in a workout that he practiced a shot for an hour. The same shot. For one hour. And it wasn’t like a three-pointer, it was a little shot in the mid-range area. Do you know how tedious that is? Do you know how locked in you have to be to do one shot for an hour? To trick your mind that way? That’s unbelievable.

And basically, Kobe’s done that for every single shot in basketball. He’s thought about every different angle on the court. He’s mastered his arsenal to where he has two counters to everything. Sometimes three. With his footwork, he can get any shot he wants. Some people do it off the dribble, Kobe’s doing it with his feet. He’s doing it at closer range to the basket. He’s doing it with his back towards you. Then he’s fading away with that footwork. He’s stepping around you, or putting you in a position where you’re hopping in the air. It’s kind of like Olajuwon. He had the Dream Shake.

Well, Kobe does it as a guard.

One of my favorite Kobe moments came back when I was with the Bulls. Had to be ‘02 or ‘03. It was late in the game, and he was out by the three-point line with Eddie Robinson guarding him. He up-faked, took one dribble, then did this pirouette that was just sick before making the jumper. It was unbelievable.

Picture this — which is pretty incredible — only better.

Kevin Durant (Little Man Skills in a Seven-Footer) 

He has the footwork. He has the catch-and-shoot game, and can get to the free throw line. He has the post-up, he shoots the Dirk shot. He makes threes from way beyond the line. He has the handle, with the hang-dribble and the crossover. He has the pull up jumper. So he has all these things, and he’s stretched out to seven feet. That’s what makes him different. He covers so much space. He can do a crossover, or a double crossover, from the three-point line, and be at the basket in two dribbles.

And KD is a patient scorer now. He can pick and choose his spots, playing the long game, because he knows he has mastered every way to score the basketball. For guys bigger than he is, he takes them outside to drive around them and either get the foul or the space he needs. Smaller guys — he either posts them up or shoots right over the top.

Look here. Watch the handle to create space. He goes between the legs, and crosses over in front and behind the back. He changes speed and direction. Then look where his feet are when he picks up his dribble, and how much ground he covers going to the basket for the finish.

He’s impossible to guard. There’s just no way. He can create whatever he wants, and can make all the tough shots. It’s why he’s the best scorer in the world.

Steph Curry (Range and Release)

There have been other guys who can shoot, with a very fast release. Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Kyle Korver, Dell Curry, J.J. Redick. I can’t forget Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. But I think it’s safe to say Steph is the fastest I’ve ever seen at creating a shot for himself and getting it off from that distance, four or five feet behind the three-point line. That’s his game changer. It opens up everything else he can do.

With today’s rules in the NBA, if you can dribble and you can shoot, you can basically create anything you want. You’re unguardable. And if Steph was in a video game, his handle and shooting would both be 100. You would laugh using him on your team. And what’s even crazier, he can finish with either hand and off of either leg.

Range, handle and finish — that’s why he do things like this to create any shot he wants:

It’s truly unbelievable.

Steph Curry is as free as I’ve seen anybody on the basketball court in a long time. He’s playing like he’s in the backyard of his house growing up or in high school or at Davidson. He’s truly at peace. He has a flow with his teammates, with his coaching staff, with the fans.

He can literally do no wrong with the Warriors.

And from a psychological standpoint, it’s very frustrating for NBA players to get beat over and over by someone smaller. Most players captivate people with their athleticism or physical strength. Steph’s captivating with his skill set. It’s basically Steph saying, “I’m more skilled than you.” You got athletes bigger, stronger and faster, but that skill set is what’s separating him from everybody else. (I actually have somebody on my bonus list that’s even smaller than Steph, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.)

As the saying goes, skills pay the bills.

Carmelo Anthony (Size and Strength) 

For Melo, shot creation starts with strength. Melo physically hurts defenders when he’s on offense. It’s nothing intentional, he’s just stronger and more physical than 95 percent of the people playing at that position. Melo is a bull in a china shop. He can go inside and bully down in the post. And then, when you try to be more physical with him, he uses his handle and puts you in foul trouble.

Once that happens, you have to give him some space, and that’s when that buttery jumper comes out.

His jumper is so feathery. It’s such a soft shot for somebody who plays so strong. He’s like the modern day Bernard King when it comes to that. He can go inside, then outside. He’s quicker than you think. His footwork is really, really nice. If you put somebody big on him, he’s gonna go around them. He can handle that ball, too, and take on somebody small. So he can create any shot, and has the skill to convert the tough ones.

Here’s an example: Melo starts with the jab step to get the space to turn his body for the post up. Then he uses his size and strength to move the defender just a little, creating space for a soft turnaround jumper. That’s a tough shot, too, against good defense from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Dirk Nowitzki (Intelligence and Shooting)

It might surprise people to see Dirk on a list of shot creators, but it shouldn’t. He does it more with the pick and roll, with him setting the screen and forcing mismatches. At this point in his career, Dirk has seen every possible defensive coverage there is. So he can see what they’re doing, and knows how to get to the spot and matchup he wants. He’s creating his shots before he even gets the ball.

Once he has it, now he’s seven feet tall and can shoot anywhere on the court, like Durant.

There’s a quirkiness to Dirk’s game. It’s definitely unique. He relies on skills, not speed or athleticism. Dirk knows how to work angles and put you in bad positions where he can get shots. He has angles where it looks like he’s shooting from the hip or shooting with a double fadeaway. He’s seven feet, shooting off one leg and fading away, so you’ll never block the shot. He doesn’t even see you.

You can’t guard Dirk too closely, because he’ll work the angles, get you on his hip and get the space he needs to put the ball on the floor. He shoots 90 percent from the line, so you can’t foul him. And if you back off, we know that’s murder. You don’t even need to bother watching that shot come down.

Just turn and run the other way down the court while your coach yells at you.

Kyrie Irving (Layup Game and Handle) 

Kyrie’s handle is top notch, probably one of the best ever.

As a shot creator, that makes him so shifty, so elusive. And he always has a counter move. In the pick and roll especially, he likes to use the in-and-out dribble — when your hand stays on top of the ball, just kind of winding it up, like a DJ scratching a record back and forth. It could be a carry if you don’t keep your hand on top of the ball. But Kyrie’s so clever: he straddles that fine line where it gives him an advantage, but not so much that they call it.

Add all the crossovers, hang dribbles and everything else, and with that handle Kyrie may use four moves in a matter of seconds while you’re just frozen on the floor.

That’s when he’ll explode.

And when it comes to guards finishing at the rim, along with Derrick Rose (whose speed and athleticism are next level, almost like a skilled basketball player with world-class track ability), Kyrie’s layup game is probably the best in the league. What makes him unique is how well he can jump off either leg on either side of the basket. Most right handers on the right side of the basket try to jump off either the left leg or two feet. Kyrie jumps off the right leg with the right hand on the right side, which is unorthodox. He can do it the same way on the left.

You see all of it here, except the in-and-out dribble: the handle to find small creases into the paint, then the off-foot takeoff for the finish. Unbelievable.

His body control around the rim is incredible. Knowing angles, and putting the right english on the ball. He does these weird, wonderful things around the rim. At times, he plays like he’s two places at once, hovering in the air while trying to find a spot on the backboard to convert that layup. His body will be on the right side of the basket, but he’ll somehow put the ball in on the left side using a right hand. It’s almost like watching a modern day Rod Strickland. (Strickland is actually Kyrie’s godfather, so …)

Guarding Kyrie, it’s not about stopping him. It’s more, “How do I not get embarrassed when I try?”

James Harden (Change of Speed)

Harden is 6’5” and 220 lbs, which is really good size for a two-guard, so his strength is a big advantage. When you’re playing against him, you definitely know it. And he’s really athletic. Pair his strength with that momentum, that burst, heading to the basket, and it’s an explosive combination. Plus he’s a lefty, which is awkward to guard anyway.

But what makes Harden really different is how he uses pace. Most guys are playing fast all the time. If they change speeds, it’s from fast to slow. Harden’s a change-of-speed guy, but his is more slow-to-fast than fast-to-slow. He’s not in a hurry. It’s like a Paul Pierce pace, but from the shooting guard position, lulling you to sleep before he suddenly explodes. That’s when he uses the good footwork to get his step-back for that smooth jumper, or bursts into the Eurostep he likes. And once Harden gets that head of steam, he’s a foul magnet.

It’s almost like he’s playing with headphones on, because you can’t get him out of what he wants to do. He’s going at his own speed, his own rhythm, where he’s most comfortable. And since you don’t see the slow-to-fast thing often, it’s hard to get into a rhythm defending him.

Here’s a good example. It’s not just the handle that gets Ricky Rubio off balance, but that split-second change in speed. Then he goes right back to that smooth delivery.

Like I said before, there are five ways to score in this league — mid-range, layups, threes, free throws, and making tough shots. Harden can create all five. He really is someone who can score from pretty much anywhere on the court. It definitely takes a wall, a team defense, to combat his game.

Sometimes you can do all the best things, and it’s just going to come down to him making or missing the shot.


Isaiah Thomas

Basketball is a big man’s game.

Everybody’s bigger than Isaiah. Everybody can see over him. He’s going against defenders who are longer, taller and stronger, and he’s still averaging almost 21 points and seven assists on a playoff-contending team. To be that small with enough talent and will to leave your imprint on the game? I think that’s special.

Isaiah makes up for his size by using his strengths well. He’s very quick and explosive. That first step, he’s gone. He has the Steve Smith move down to a science, where he looks like he’s doing the half-spin, then blows by you and explodes to the hoop. He’s also stronger than he looks, so he can take contact at the rim, like Damon Stoudamire used to do. And as Isaiah told The Players’ Tribune himself, he’s got an amazing handle. He can work his way into the smallest spaces to get the shot off, and he has all the floaters. He’s even added the one-foot runner to his game. He can create, and almost every shot he takes in the paint is by definition a tough shot.

You see it all here. The upfake, the first step, the body control, and the ability to finish over serious length.

Isaiah should be an All-Star this year , which would make him one of the smallest to ever make the team. When you’re that small, you usually get weeded out of the NBA. Sometimes little guys stick around and a few may even have long careers, but they’re not able to do it at Isaiah’s level.

You have to be exceptional.