James Harden and Luka Doncic have perfected the art of the step-back jumper, making defenses across the league look helpless over and over again. They’re not the ones who invented the step-back jumper. Nor are they the first to perfect an unguardable shot.
Manu Ginobili brought the Euro over from Argentina. Kareem won six championships using the sky-hook. Hakeem was putting defenders to sleep with his iconic Dream shake.
But none of these shots are even close to as popular as the ever-evolving step-back jumper.
In 2019, the move screams Harden or Doncic, but they’re simply redefining a shot that has been used for decades.
So who really started the step-back jumper craze? Who is responsible for driving 4th grade travel basketball coaches crazy?
The truth is, the first time we saw anything like today’s “legal travel” was in the 80’s, and there are a multitude of big names who have a case for bringing the unstoppable shot to the party.
First up, Larry Bird. He entered the league in 1979 with an immediate offensive impact, using his 6’9 frame to get off his lethal jumper. The step-back was definitely in Bird’s repertoire. Just look at this move on Dominique Wilkins.
But Bird wasn’t reliant on the move. He was more fond of the fadeaway, simply leaning back and shooting over them, no explosive step required.
Bird isn’t really taking that important step that step-back specialists rely on. It’s more of a you can’t touch this, I’m going to shoot over you shot.
So while he might have used the shot, it wasn’t his specialty. Eventually the move would find its way to Michael Jordan, but it went through one more iteration in the 80s before his Airness.
Kiki Vandeweghe. The son of a former NBA player and 1952’s Miss America entered the league in 1980. Because he was only 6’8”, he was not tall enough to contend with the behemoths of the 80’s, or fast enough to consistently get around them.
His strength was his footwork, so he used it to get a more open look while shooting jumpers. Vandewegh used his front foot to propel himself backwards, creating separation between himself and the defender.
Legendary coach Pete Newell dubbed this “The Kiki Move”, but today it is better known as the step-back.
That being said, I’m in favor of reverting back to calling it the Kiki instead of the stepback.
Just imagine an announcer being forced to end his call with “and Harden hits The Kiki.” Drop a comment if you’re with me. It’s obviously not the thing of beauty that this next guy perfected, but he was one of the first, so credit to Kiki.
Michael Jordan. We can’t make a mini-doc about revolutionizing the step-back without bringing up black jesus, now can we?
While he might not have been the first to use the move, Jordan was the one who perfected it. The once gimmicky shot became an art form.
Jordan used it often on the way to 6 championships. Just tell me this isn’t a thing of beauty.
For a boy that was born in Philly just six years before Jordan was drafted, the shot was enthralling. In the upcoming years, he would do the best MJ imitation we’ll likely ever see.
Kobe Bryant. Now, before anyone starts hyperventilating at the GOAT conversation, this is solely a focus on how close someone has come to shadowing Jordan’s moves.
And Kobe was the best we’ve ever seen. As in, he literally wanted to be Michael Jordan in every way. The moves, the attitude, the look. Everything but quitting basketball to be get cream puff minor league baseball contract.
Bryant relied on the jumper throughout his career, oftentimes increasing the degree of difficulty by having 2 or 3 defenders draped all over him. At his peak, this was no problem for the Mamba. Anything less than three guys on him probably meant the ball was going up from an impossible angle after the picture-perfect move.
While Kobe did the best Jordan imitation, this next guy blazed his own path and created one of the most unstoppable shots in NBA history.
Dirk Nowitzki. The step back was designed to help players get some separation for their jumper, usually by shorter guys. So what happens when a 7-footer masters the move?
A Hall Of Fame career and a shiny championship ring happens.
Dirk modified the older move slightly. He still leaned back and launched the shot, but it was off one foot, with the other slightly bent.
It was a weird, second cousin of the original step back, but it was just as deadly as its relative, if not more.
It frustrated opponents to no end. It was untouchable. He played 21 seasons, and the only record of that shot being blocked on the Internet consists of a one and a half minute long video of three guys blocking it. Three. Ever.
Dirk’s iteration received the biggest compliment of all, when it was copied by one of the greatest to ever play…Kevin Durant.
Dirk’s one-footer will likely be remembered as fondly as the skyhook, the Dream shake, and the Karate Kid’s Crane Kick.
The next man to really rely on his step back is easily the most controversial, and the most hairy. Buckle up for The Beard.
James Harden. Yes, it’s very, very close to a travel. It is almost never called. And its has been one of the most deadly shots in the league for 5 years now.
James Harden has rejuvenated the step back, and surprisingly, made it one of the most efficient shots in the game.
Last season, Harden scored an average of 1.09 points per possession on the step-back three. To put that in perspective, the Golden State Warriors averaged 1.1 points per possession last season. Harden almost matched their efficiency shooting the most difficult shot in the game.
Harden gets a lot of flak for his “zero step” that many think should be counted as the first step en route to a travel. But if the refs aren’t calling it, Harden would be a fool not to keep using it.
Basically, we went from step-back jumper to one-footer, to zero-step-backs or something. Math, and evolution, it’s a hard combo.