For LeBron James, developing ‘unguardable shot’ was key in his evolution as a scorer
Bump. Bump. Spin. Swish.
LeBron James’ post-up game has an unmistakable, entirely predictable rhythm. So it seems incredible that after more than a decade, almost no one in the NBA has been able to stop it.
But the moves pace out like clockwork: James uses his 6-foot-9, 250-pound bulk to give his defender two bumps with his left hip. They expect it, James told Southern California News Group in an exclusive interview, which makes it all the more devastating when he spins back to his right to launch a fadeaway shot in their faces.
“There’s nothing you can do,” James told SCNG. “Most guys, especially when I’m in the post, they know they’re gonna get a little contact, they’re gonna take the first two hits. And then after that, I can escape. I can escape with that shot. It’s an unguardable shot.”
For a player who has averaged more than 27 points per game for his career, good for the fifth-highest average in NBA history, many coaches preface any perspective about James’ chase of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s hallowed career scoring record by saying James isn’t “a natural scorer.” It reflects how he first gained notoriety, as a pass-first forward in the mold of Magic Johnson who could punish teams at the rim with his otherworldly athleticism but was always looking for someone else’s open shot.
A reporter posed that thought to Lakers coach Darvin Ham recently, who snapped back playfully: “Who said that?”
“It’s funny, people say he’s not a scorer,” Ham retorted. “He’s an elite-level scorer, and hopefully that will sink in once he eclipses that record.”
The more nuanced truth is that both sentiments are accurate: James was not a born bucket-getter, but through years of effort and dedication molded himself into one.
Nothing exemplifies that like his post-up turnaround fadeaway jumper between about 15 from the hoop – a move Philadelphia coach and longtime LeBron foe Doc Rivers was quick to point out as James’ signature shot in his eyes.
“When he started getting his shot, and that’s what all the great ones eventually have to do,” Rivers said. “They have to figure out their shot and know how to get it in any situation.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s signature was the sky hook, a move almost no player has been able to use consistently before or since. But several elite scorers have used turnaround fadeaway jump shots before James. Kobe Bryant was perhaps the most effective modern practitioner of the move, his fluidity in his spin making it his own signature, and the shot is surely more closely associated with the Black Mamba than it is with James.
But there’s only one person who made James pursue it – the same person that inspired Bryant.
“I literally shoot fadeaway shots because of Michael Jordan, because I watched him my whole life shooting that fadeaway shot,” said James, who is now 36 points from breaking Abdul-Jabbar’s record. “My shot, it’s totally different, but it’s an unguardable shot. I can’t emulate it because we have different forms, different body types, things of that nature, but Michael Jordan for sure.”
While there is a similar form between Jordan and James, the style is completely opposite. Perhaps when coaches think of “natural scorers,” they think of Jordan: fluid, quick and with a feathery touch. James, by comparison, emphasizes his strength and power – rather than beating opponents with finesse, he bowls them over. A highlight reel of this specific shot shows him making them during the 2021-22 season over Nic Batum, R.J. Barrett, Kyle Anderson, Kyle Kuzma, John Collins, Grant Williams and Malcolm Brogdon … among many, many others.
Over the past decade, there is no person James has made more of these mid-range post-up shots over than Lakers (and former Cavaliers) assistant coach Phil Handy: It’s a staple of James’ pregame warm-up routine, and the right shoulder turnaround fadeaway is just one of the shots James can go to out of the post-up. Handy said the hip bumps get his defender off-balance and based on feeling their weight shift, James will either attack the rim, look for an open pass or spin out into the fadeaway, to the right or the left.
The one thing James and Jordan might have in common is an explosive leap. But where Jordan was famous for his vertical hangtime, James’ fadeaway explodes backward – he lands four or five feet away from his launch point, making it nearly impossible for his defender to close the distance.
“That’s an extremely tough shot, but for him, all he’s really looking for is separation,” Handy said. “And his strength allows him to control his fades. He’s gotten a lot better with his footwork. You see him when he gets on his back foot, he’s strong enough to keep lifting arc on his shot, which makes it extremely hard for people to block.”
James worked on this shot for many years, since his playground days, and developed it over time: “It kinda took a lot of summers,” he told SCNG.
But there is a specific point when James needed to develop as a back-to-the-basket player: His 2011 NBA Finals series against Dallas, when the Mavericks’ defense cowed him into the worst playoff series of his career. In that defeat, while playing for the Miami Heat, he averaged just 17.8 points and had sequences offensively when he looked stuck, passive or both.
The next year, James had more time to tool because of the NBA lockout. When he came back to work with Miami after the offseason, Udonis Haslem remembers a different player emerged.
“I just remember him coming back into training camp the next year, killing people with the same move,” Haslem told SCNG. “Nobody couldn’t stop it no matter what. I just remember him posting up, back down, back down, turnaround jumper over the right shoulder. Just things like that, of that nature that nobody could stop. You knew what was coming and you still couldn’t stop it.”
No one ever really has. The devastating part of the turnaround jumper is that it is set up by James’ ability to pass out of the post. Double coverage isn’t possible when he’s that deep because he’s so adept at passing.
In 2007 when he first reached the Finals with Cleveland, the San Antonio Spurs all but bullied him in a sweep, taking away teammates and forcing him to win by himself. At the time, James shot less than 32% from behind the 3-point line and was more of a face-up player, looking to go at the rim rather than fade away from it. But by 2013, James had expanded his repertoire, and the Spurs could no longer be content with their old stratagems. He killed them down the stretch of Game 7 in 2013 with midrange jump shots.
“I know when we used to play him, we just tried to stay in front of him and give him a lot of room,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “And if he shot it, we were happy. And then as years went by, we were much less happy while he started to learn how to knock that shot down and now he’s shooting threes. It’s been a process for him.”
The process shows in James’ shot diet, which has gradually spread behind the arc. Last season, he shot a career-high eight 3-point attempts per game, evolving with a game that demands more perimeter shooting. James is having a down season from long range, but he remains committed to practicing his deep shot and attempting them in games. Against the Clippers last month, he hit a career-high nine, and he was 6 for 12 in the loss in Boston last weekend.
James rarely acknowledges when he plucks pieces of other players’ games publicly. But Miami coach Erik Spoelstra would marvel at how “he’s like a computer” and could pick up moves in a short timeframe.
“(David Fizdale) and I used to always talk about that: He would see something and he would work on it for a day and then he would try it in a game and it would look like he had been working on that for a couple years,” he said. “That’s how quickly he could assimilate and apply something, some kind of skillset. But he never gets bored with that. You can even see it right now.”
He still is committed to the fadeaway, which isn’t as frequent or as high a percentage shot as it was during his Miami days, when he was maybe the most efficient mid-range shooter in the league. But it is a feared weapon, a problem with no defensive solution – a tough shot that leaves a defender only to shrug if James knocks it down over him. Ask the Toronto Raptors how they feel about seeing that shot go down.
That has taken a lot of hours. If James was never a “natural scorer,” he’s about to become the NBA’s most prolific scorer ever because of his dedication to becoming unguardable. With a different body type and game than his basketball idol, he’s made Jordan’s signature shot something he can go to in a pinch – or simply to prove a point.
Whatever natural scoring gifts James has were honed by tireless discipline and technique. In that way, the turnaround fadeaway might be a monument in and of itself.
“He’s ‘a pass-first guy’ but Bron, come on – 38,000 points?” Handy said with a skeptical expression. “He’s a bucket-getter. Don’t let that fool you.”