The NBA's new favorite move is less traveling, more time travel — and it's nearly impossible to stop

LUKA DONCIC HAD his defender at his mercy, a step behind his right hip, as he drove down the middle.

It was clutch time in the Dallas Mavericks’ season opener — with 2:20 remaining and the Mavs down two points — and San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson was trailing him coming off a high pick-and-roll. Doncic accelerated to stay a full step ahead of Johnson as Spurs center Zach Collins retreated in drop coverage, concerned that Doncic could throw a lob to rookie big man Dereck Lively II.

Instead, Doncic picked up his dribble, took his gather step and slowed his gait before planting his left foot.

And then he … paused.

Johnson, as Doncic predicted, leaped with hope of blocking the shot from behind. Johnson quickly realized his mistake, pulling his arms down before he even reached the peak of his jump, hoping to avoid bumping into the Mavs’ MVP candidate. It was too late.

Doncic patiently waited for a beat, a remarkable display of balance on one foot after slamming the brakes, and made sure Johnson brushed his right side before softly kissing the ball off the glass for a go-ahead and-1.

As the ball splashed through the net, Doncic’s momentum carried him toward the baseline. He strutted a few extra steps and proudly smirked toward the crowd at Frost Bank Center. He tapped his temple a couple of times with his right index finger in celebration of deceiving his defender with deceleration.

“You want me to tell all my secrets?” Doncic said with a sly grin when asked to explain the move after the first of the Mavs’ 50 wins this season. “I saw after my first step he was coming full speed at me, so the second one I just slowed down and stepped a little bit into his lane.

“Pretty smart, I’ll say.”

Doncic, the NBA’s scoring leader at 33.9 points per game, ranks as one of the league’s most effective finishers. He’s shooting 69.4% in the restricted area this season, almost 10 percentage points above the league average, despite throwing down only two dunks. Doncic possesses the dangerous combination of a deft touch and a knack for creating space in crowds. He often achieves the latter by simply slowing down on the final step or two of his drives.

“The decel” has quickly made its way into the toolboxes of the NBA’s premier scorers, particularly those who do much of their damage by attacking defenses off the dribble. Some superstars, such as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards, often trick defenders to create crevices around the basket by tapping the brakes at the end of 100 mph drives. Others, such as Doncic and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, frequently go from slow to slower to allow foes to fly by before an uncontested layup.

“They’re looking for that fastball, and then when you throw that changeup, they’re way out in front,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd told ESPN. “When you look at the decel for Luka or Joker, everyone’s anticipating to meet them at a certain point.

“But they have a different plan in mind.”

EDWARDS READILY ADMITS he stole the decel move from Luka. Just not that Luka.

“Honestly, I got that from Luka Garza, a big dude on our team,” Edwards recently told reporters, referring to the skilled but undersized center who was on a two-way deal for most of the past two seasons. The Timberwolves gave Garza, the 2021 national college player of the year, a standard contract in early April.

“In workouts, they were showing me a move, and he did it. I was like, OK, I’m going to try that. The first time I did it was versus the Knicks in preseason, and it worked.”

It actually worked twice during that Oct. 14 tuneup — on back-to-back possessions.

In the first instance, Edwards came off a Rudy Gobert screen on the left wing and attacked downhill with 7-footer Mitchell Robinson in drop coverage. Edwards picked up his dribble in the paint and executed a right-left Eurostep, going significantly slower on the second stride. Then he balanced on his left foot for a moment and quickly pump-faked to get Robinson to bite, drawing a foul.

On the next Timberwolves possession, Edwards executed a slightly different version of deceleration at the end of a fast break. New York center Jericho Sims sprinted down the floor in hopes of a chase-down block, but Edwards disrupted the springy big man’s timing by taking his two post-dribble steps at a pedestrian’s pace. Once again, he pulled a pump fake off one foot. Sims, realizing he was fooled as he left his feet, held his hands up high to avoid contact, but he bumped Edwards with his chest. And-1.

“Ever since then,” Edwards said, “I was like, I’m going to just slow-step every time, for sure.”

Garza, a prolific scorer in the G League who has played a total of only 754 NBA minutes, was amused that Edwards credited him for the move that has helped elevate the high-flying superstar’s game. Garza certainly doesn’t claim to have come up with the concept of using deceleration to throw a defender off balance, but he humbly claims the shot fake after the second step as “the wrinkle that I kind of added to it.”

It took one session with Timberwolves director of player development Joe Boylan and Garza for Edwards to get different varieties of the move down.

“You have a guy like that doing that move, it’s unstoppable,” Garza told ESPN. “He’ll go a hundred percent one time, then he’ll slow down. That’s when it becomes hard to guess what he’s going to do, especially with him. He sees so much traffic around the rim, it’s a really good move for him. Sometimes he can just switch it up [and] attack the rim and dunk.”

Curiously, Edwards has never consulted with teammate Kyle Anderson about adding the decel to his toolbox. Anderson, a 10-year veteran, is nicknamed “Slo Mo” because he’s adept at throwing defenders off balance with a plodding pace. Still, Anderson has been impressed by the way Edwards, one of the NBA’s most explosive finishers, has incorporated the changeup into his game.

“Guys like me, I’m not using a whole lot of force going downhill,” Anderson told ESPN. “I think the more impressive guys are Ant [and] Paul George, who are going downhill with so much speed and acceleration, then they’re able to hit their brakes — one, two and make a play from that. They’re pretty special.”

Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch said Edwards has improved from “slightly above average as a finisher to more of an elite level” after developing a post-dribble deceleration tool. Edwards shot 61.1% in the restricted area this season, up from 57.8% a season ago.

“He was a 100-mile-an-hour runaway freight train downhill, and now he’s worked hard on really being able to change speed and then have the body control,” Finch said. “He was always great at getting there, just converting wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but the game just slows down for those guys and then he’s able to speed up and slow down alongside of it.”

Edwards isn’t the only rising star in the Western Conference playoffs who has benefited greatly this season by developing the move. Oklahoma City’s Jalen Williams made it a focal point of his summer training after he was the Rookie of the Year runner-up a year ago.

Williams’ scoring average increased from 14.1 points per game to 19.1 this season, and a big chunk of that bump came on drives. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Williams’ scoring production off drives rose by 50% this season (5.2 points per game to 7.8) while also improving his efficiency (53.4% shooting this season, up from 51.8%).

“I think that’s something you actually have to work on,” Williams told ESPN. “I think the biggest thing physically is just understanding the steps. You want to understand what foot you’re doing it off of and why you’re doing it.”

Doncic, however, shrugs when asked how he developed his decelerative tactics. Jokic does the same. The moves just came naturally for them.

“The slower players like Luka, Jokic, myself, that’s kind of always been in our games,” Anderson said.

Gilgeous-Alexander, whose 1,233 points scored off drives during the regular season topped his 1,162 in 2022-23 as the most in Second Spectrum’s 11-year database, said he cultivated that creative aspect of his game while competing against older kids in Toronto.

“I was smaller, I was shorter and I was super skinny growing up playing basketball, so I had to just find ways to get around and get where I wanted to go,” Gilgeous-Alexander told ESPN. “It always depends on the defense, and then from there, it’s just read and react for me …

“Honestly, I don’t ever remember going into the gym and being like, ‘I want to work on my stop and start and my change of pace.'”

DONCIC, FOR ALL of his talent, was not gifted with the most apparent forms of extraordinary athleticism by NBA standards.

But Doncic popped in certain biomechanical tests when he visited P3’s Santa Barbara, California, facility as a 17-year-old. Specifically, Doncic’s “ability to generate force during that eccentric phase of the movement as he’s decelerating” rated better than more than 90% of the hundreds of NBA players who have tested at the facility, P3 director of biomechanics Eric Leidersdorf told ESPN.

In other words, Doncic is equipped with elite brakes, especially for a wide-framed, 6-foot-7 player.

Doncic’s closest biomechanical comparison at the time, according to Leidersdorf: James Harden, who was then at the peak of his offensive game for the Houston Rockets. Not coincidentally, the ability to decelerate and then quickly change direction are critical elements of the step-back 3, an offensive skill that Harden pioneered and Doncic prolifically wields.

It also allows Doncic to dominate as a driver despite primarily playing below the rim. He has finished among the NBA’s top three in scoring off drives in each of the past five seasons. He had the best field goal percentage on those possessions among the top 50 drive scorers in 2022-23 (62.7%) and again this season (61.6%). He excels at creating space with sudden shifts in pace, power and footwork that require phenomenal balance.

“Most athletes in the NBA are Ferrari engines, whereas this requires just some really advanced braking systems,” Leidersdorf said. “His ability to orient his hip in a way that he can decelerate and then change direction very subtly, but do so very, very rapidly is really impressive combined with the fact that he’s big. If he puts a shoulder into a defender, the defender’s probably moving further than he is.

“Those attributes together, I think, have proven to be really deadly for him. They’re a combination of movement skills that let him leverage his basketball skill set at a level that very few guys in the league can.”

Edwards’ brakes also tested near the top of P3’s charts. Then again, he essentially aced all of his biomechanical exams.

“Ant is kind of the rare breed who has world-class brakes and pairs that with just a world-class engine,” Leidersdorf said. “He is one-of-one in that sense, truly from the numbers that we’ve seen, for guys who both slam on the brakes really well and then can also just punch the gas and beat you.

“The ability to bring it from 60 to zero and then get back to 60, that turnaround is probably unlike anything we’ve ever really seen.”

NBA FANS MIGHT not know Zavier Simpson. The 27-year-old guard has spent most of his career grinding in the G League, with the exception of a few 10-day deals, including two with the Memphis Grizzlies at the end of this past regular season.

But Simpson is a cult hero of sorts due to his unconventional go-to move. He’s a 6-footer nicknamed “Captain Hook” because his signature shot is a sky hook, usually launched off the dribble. Three summers ago, Simpson worked to develop a counter-move. That’s how he ended up with what might be the funkiest decel move in pro basketball

Simpson takes his typical one-two step, baiting the defender into believing the sky hook is coming … and freezes. Simpson stands on one foot, like a patient pelican, and lets traffic pass by. Then he shoots the ball flat-footed.

“It’s definitely funny, man,” Simpson told ESPN. “Especially the people’s reaction afterwards. They don’t know if it was a travel or if it wasn’t a travel. Half the people think it’s a travel, looking at the refs; the other half looking at their coaches. That’s the best part of it.”

Simpson has successfully used his move in the G League and open gyms, saying he has passed out of it when the defense manages to recover. But he has never had his shot blocked when using it. Though, he never had the opportunity to display his most extreme version of hitting the brakes during the seven games he played for the Grizzlies.

The tactic is all about timing.

“It’s just looking at and reading your opponent to see what type of mood he’s in,” Simpson said. “See if he’s being thirsty, trying to be a hero guy and trying to block the hook shot.”

Deceleration is most often used as a scoring tactic against wannabe shot blockers, especially when defenders attempt to time a contest from a half-step behind.

“If I can see he’s hauling, trying to catch up to me, then I know that if I stop while he’s still sprinting, there’s no way he can [stay tight],” Gilgeous-Alexander said. It’s just physics. He can’t do it. Then if it’s the other way around, like if he’s expecting it, I can speed up.”

“A lot of times defenders, if they’re on your hip, feel like they’re beat,” Williams said. “Guys, usually when you beat them, are so amped up to try and block it. When you can get them rushing and kind of out of pace, to be able to stop gives you a lot of time to make your next move from there.”

Often, other moves that focus on changes of direction — such as a Eurostep — lead to a layup or floater. Sometimes, it’s a pass. Doncic and Jokic, especially, excel at drawing an extra step from a help defender after decelerating and tossing up a late lob or whipping a pass to an open shooter in the corner.

“Sometimes being slow and under control is an advantage,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “You see so many guys when they come into a draft, their greatest strength as a player is their quickness. And their greatest weakness as a player is their quickness, because they don’t have a means of controlling that.

“But Nikola keeps teams off balance. When you’re not athletic, you can change speeds. It allows him, as he’s driving and making plays — and far more important, making reads — to read everything that’s going on.”

In some instances, the point of slowing down is to draw contact. It’s one of the ways that Gilgeous-Alexander and Doncic, who ranked second and fourth in free throws attempted this season, respectively, get so many whistles.

It’s also a method physically stronger scorers use to create space. Jokic, in particular, benefits from the bumping around the basket.

“I just use my size, try to push a little bit,” the 6-foot-11, 284-pound Jokic told ESPN.

“I don’t need that much space, I just need a little bit of separation. So it’s something that I think I use since I’ve played basketball, because I have a really high release and I can make shots around the rim. You don’t need to jump that high, and if you have a little bit of touch around the rim, I think it’s a great move.

“It’s just momentum.”

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top